Sunday, January 29, 2006

50BC06#3: The Full Cupboard of Life

BOOK REVIEW: Alexander McCall Smith The Full Cupboard of Life (No. 5 in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series)
50 Book Challenge #3

One of the best parts of Alexander McCall Smith’s series is that each book improves in terms of character definition and advancing the plot. Book 5 integrates Precious Ramotswe with the other characters in a more realistic and intriguing way. The author hints at the distinctions we must draw between manipulation and persuasion (in the character of Mma Potokwane), fear and caution (with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s never-ending engagement to Mma Ramotswe), and speaking one’s mind and biting one’s tongue (aptly expressed in the character of Mma Makutsi.)
Fans of the series who may by this time be frustrated with a lack of resolution to certain issues, will be slightly pacified in this book. McCall Smith highlights some of the more minor, yet regular, characters, filing out the world of Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana. This book manages to be endearing without the sense of condescension that some complain about with the first book. By Book 3, the author seems to have pulled up his proverbial chair and can now dialogue comfortably with his characters. The Full Cupboard of Life continues this trend and promises to bring the story to an enriching and delightful end in the final two books of the series.

Posted here on 9/8/08, original post from 1/29/06

Sunday, January 15, 2006

50BC06 #2: Highbrow, Lowbrow

Review of Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.)

Academia often will mark anything dated ten to fifteen years prior to the present as “dated” simply by the mere fact that its conception took place more than a decade ago. Levine’s 1988 tome testifies that this attitude is shortsighted and moreover, erroneous. Levine has written a book that serves both as a history lesson as well as a hopeful plea to reconsider our cultural biases as constructs of our own doing. Levine does not simplify the situation by presenting a black and white portrait of the American development of high vs. low culture. Instead he offers a well-researched argument supporting a flux in cultural ideas wherein we travel through various redefinitions of culture, both high and low.

Investigating the societal milieu surrounding Shakespeare, opera and orchestral music in nineteenth-century America, Levine aptly demonstrates how we arrived at our current struggle to accommodate contrasting ideas about culture. Bravely decrying the rhetoric of extremists on both sides of the debate, Levine warns:
“In defining and redefining the contours of culture, we are not merely dealing with intellectual abstractions; we are dealing with lives and minds, we are dealing with people, and we owe them more than the hubris of narrow self-defense; we owe them no less than the adoption of an open search for and a careful understanding of what culture has been in our past and can become in our future.”

One need not be an expert in the arts to appreciate the severity of Levine’s message. The comprehension of “cultural hierarchy” is absolutely fundamental to understanding our societal existence. One can moreover applaud Levine for tackling the subject in a way that is accessible and easily comprehended by those not ensconced in academic dialogue. His writing is bold and charismatic, making this book a refreshing change from many academic missives which aim to keep the discourse within the walls of the ivory tower. Levine invites us outside those walls by presenting us with an uncracked mirror by which we can clearly see our own responsibilities and reactions to culture in America.

Actually posted here 9/8/08, original post 1/15/06.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

50BC06 #1: When the Emperor Was Divine

Book #1:
Julie Otsuka

To take shame and mold it into an artful looking glass takes a talent not shared by many writers. Julie Otsuka’s novel is a heartbreaking account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, related without the heavy-handedness that usually accompanies tales of such dire circumstance.
Otsuka assumes intelligence and social conscience in her readers, so much so that she feels at liberty to be subtly irreverent, never once beating one over the head with angst. If disgust could be elegant, that is how I would best describe Otsuka’s approach.
But her elegance in her writing does not take away from the grit—the reality of suffering. This suffering is summed up in a final “Confession” of the book’s hidden protagonist—albeit too quickly. The end almost seems a bit trite given the journey through which the reader has traversed with the other characters.
Aside from the abrupt final cadence, Emperor tells a story that is as much a tale of Everyman as it is a fitting remembrance of one of the most shocking embarrassments of American history.
(Actually posted 9/8/08, transfered from original post 1/8/06)