THE MILLI VANILLI CONDITION: Faking it, without much consequence, in the 21st century – #bookreview

 

 

The Milli Vanilli Condition

Essays on Culture in the New Millennium

Eduardo Espina

Arté Publico – paperback

 

“When we see Justin Bieber, we do not see a person. We see a haircut,” says Uruguayan poet and writer Eduardo Espina in this insightful and entertaining collection of 13 essays that delve into various aspects of pretending, faking, plagiarizing and even committing serial falsification of events, credentials or objects.

“The same [haircut] thing happens when we come across photographs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, two of the best paid and most famous soccer players in the world. Or the unmistakable image of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, whose haircut completely characterizes the isolated nation and its ideology, at least regarding its male population.”

With the right haircut, Espina contends, you can fake inclusion in, or affiliation with, a certain trend or movement in society and even get others to follow you.

The Milli Vanilli Condition gets its title from the infamous German pop duo that won a 1990 Grammy for “Best New Artist” and had it taken away a few months later after investigative reporter Charles Alan “Chuck” Phillips uncovered that the two singers merely had lip-synched their song. Other vocalists had recorded the lead tracks.

Eduardo Espina, author of numerous other books, now lives in College Station, Texas. With help from the book’s English translator, Travis Sorenson, Espina brings a refreshing South American and particularly Uruguayan perspective to his observations of modern-day life in the United States and elsewhere and the apparently fading consequences for pretending to be someone or something you are not.

Si Dunn

 

Advertisements

BLACK KARMA: A White Ginger Novel – Mystery and action in San Francisco’s Chinatown – #bookreview

 

Black Karma

A White Ginger Novel

Thatcher Robinson

(Seventh Street  – paperback, Kindle)

 

Life definitely is not easy for Bai Jiang, San Francisco’s best-known people-finder (souxun). As a beautiful, and single, female investigator, Bai gets hit on a lot, even by her ex-husband. People also try to hit her, shoot her, or otherwise kill her in some way.

Now she is being offered an arranged marriage that supposedly will give her a big stake in a 30-billion-dollar business–but might be a trap. Plus, she has been asked by a San Francisco police inspector to help track down someone allegedly involved in a botched drug deal that left a police officer dead. And Bai now has three teenage females living in her house–one is her daughter by her ex-husband; the other two are rescues: one from the sex trade and the other from a fearsome gang.

Meanwhile, someone has just tried to kill her investigative partner, Lee. And the person Bai is trying to locate may have some connections that go far beyond mere drug deals and murder.

This second novel in Thatcher Robinson’s new White Ginger series is full of twists, turns, complications, dangers and Chinatown atmosphere. And Bai Jiang is an appealing investigator: a Buddhist who is mostly fearless and definitely skilled with hidden knives, yet also vulnerable to romance, fashion and the plight of women who have been endangered and abused. Definitely recommended if you are looking for a new and unusual investigator to follow.

Si Dunn

 

 

The Valley – Estampas del valle: Now in bilingual paperback for the first time – #bookreview

The-Valley-350x550

The Valley / Estampas del valle

Rolando Hinojosa

(Arte Público Press – paperback)

The long-turbulent Texas-Mexico border is in the news once again. So this is a timely moment to introduce or reintroduce readers to the famed Klail City Death Trip Series, fifteen books written by Rolando Hinojosa. The series is in a mythical Texas county on America’s southern frontier, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The first book in that series, The Valley, introduces readers to life in Belken County, where Anglo Texans and Mexican Texans live side by side, and people die, or encounter death, on nearly every page. Their stories of everyday events, including love, weddings, births, friendships, affairs, discrimination and dying, are told mostly in short, well-written vignettes that cover the time period generally from World War I to 1970.

Arte Público Press recently has published the first bilingual, English-Spanish edition of The Valley, which initially appeared as Estampas del Valle in the early 1970s. And this is a noteworthy literary event for fans of both Hispanic literature and American literature in general.

Rolando Hinojosa’s fictional Belken County has been compared very favorably with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and with Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional city, Macondo, in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Klail City is just one of several fictional towns in that appear as settings in Hinojosa’s imaginary county.

Hinojosa has spent his entire–lengthy–writing career bringing new characters, situations and locations to the Death Trip Series. And his books have won numerous prestigious writing awards, including The National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 1976, the most prestigious prize in Latin American Fiction, Casa de las Américanas, for the best  Spanish American novel. He is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

Si Dunn

 

Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

Mitt Romney, Secret Keynesian? Read Paul Krugman’s ‘End This Depression Now!’ – #bookreview #in #economics #politics

End This Depression Now!
Paul Krugman
(Norton, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)

If you’d like to watch some ultra-right conservatives break out in hives, do a St. Vitus Dance or just spontaneously combust, ask them to read End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman.

Most of them won’t read it, of course. They will cast it aside or maybe even set it on fire. Their hearts and minds are firmly set in ideology and rhetoric concrete. No matter what Krugman says or writes, they will remain firmly convinced he is a spawn of the Devil or, at the very least, some kind of Communist-Socialist-Liberal-Radical Raider of the Lost Tax Cut.

Actually, Paul Krugman is one of America’s smartest economic smart guys, and he has some very good ideas about how to help America pick itself up–and stay standing–after getting knocked down, hard, and robbed of its wallet by the Great Recession and depression that followed.

I am an unabashed fan of Krugman, winner of a well-deserved Nobel Prize in economics. He makes clear and steady good sense in his New York Times columns, and he makes damned good sense throughout his new book.

“In the Great Depression,” he writes, “leaders had an excuse: nobody really understood what was happening or how to fix it. Today’s leaders don’t have that excuse. We have both the knowledge and the tools to end this suffering.”

We do, indeed, as he demonstrates convincingly in his book. But we also have seemingly intractable political polarization at the very time when our leaders should be gathered in the middle, rapidly hammering out compromises, and actually doing something to help the nation, not just their financial backers and parties.

Krugman lays out many solid strategies, most of them built around growth, not European-style fiscal austerity, particularly in a time of lingering high unemployment, stagnant or falling wages, and tepid consumer spending. And he looks toward the November election with at least a token effort to appear independent and bipartisan. He has, in fact, strongly criticized economic mistakes made by both sides.

If Obama wins, Krugman writes, “obviously it makes it easiest to imagine America doing what it takes to restore full employment. In effect, the Obama administration would get an opportunity at a do-over, taking strong steps it failed to take in 2009. Since Obama is unlikely to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, taking these strong steps would require making use of reconciliation, the procedure that Democrats used to pass health care reform and that Bush used to pass both of his tax cuts. So be it. If nervous advisors warn about the political fallout, Obama should remember the hard-learned lesson of his first term: the best economic strategy from a political point of view is the one that delivers tangible progress.”

On the other hand: “A Romney victory would naturally create a very different situation; if Romney adhered to Republican orthodoxy, he would of course reject any action along the lines I’ve advocated.”

But that’s not all. In Krugman’s view: “It’s not clear, however, whether Romney believes any of the things he is currently saying. His two chief economic advisors, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, are committed Republicans but also quite Keynesian in their views about macroeconomics. Indeed, early in the crisis, Mankiw argued for a sharp rise in the Fed’s inflation target, a proposal that was and is anathema to most of his party. His proposal caused the predictable uproar, and he went silent on the issue. But we can at least hope Romney’s inner circle holds views that are much more realistic than anything the candidate says in his speeches, and that once in office he would rip off his mask, revealing his true pragmatic/Keynesian nature.”

To which Krugman adds: “I know, I know, hoping that a politician is in fact a complete fraud who doesn’t believe any of the things he claims to believe is no way to run a great nation. And it’s certainly not reason to vote for that politician!”

The upcoming election is still just a distracting sideshow to what America needs now. We need jobs, spending, revenue, investments in education, and re-training for the long-term unemployed. And, yes, we need for a lot of Krugman-style clear-thinking and common sense to miraculously infect the brains of our economic and political leaders.

Get, read, and heed this book.

Si Dunn

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present – #bookreview #in #music

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present
Jean A. Boyd
(Texas Tech University Press, hardback, list price $65.00; paperback, list price $39.95)

Fans of 1930s and 1940s western swing will find plenty to enjoy in this entertaining book by Jean A. Boyd, a  Baylor University music history professor and native of Fort Worth, Texas.

She celebrates the distinctive music and its Texas roots and highlights several groups that, unlike Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, did not or have not made it into the national spotlight.

Yet these bands have picked, fiddled, strummed and sung their way to regional stardom in Texas and Oklahoma.

Her book likely will also appeal to musicologists and performers. She includes musical analysis and transcriptions of recorded performances, as well as histories and recollections.

Si Dunn 

#