Tag Archives: 2010

California Revisited

TV Review: ‘Independent Lens’ – ‘At Berkeley’

Does At Berkeley capture the spirit of a great public university?

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At Berkeley

At Berkeley, an Independent Lens production, will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 13. This four-hour documentary takes a look at the Fall 2010 semester of the University of California at Berkeley – a tough period, during which this public educational facility faced a big, intimidating reduction in state support ($308 million during 2010 compared with $497 million in 2001), and increased fees for undergraduate and graduate students. The school was also facing a potential loss of 460 faculty positions.

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It is difficult to capture the spirit of a large university in a matter of hours, especially a school with more than 35,000 students. Frederick Wiseman’s film feels like a personal visit to the school, but the problem with At Berkeley is that it’s difficult to get past the first 35 to 40 minutes of the film. The documentary opens with students trying their best to appear erudite during a sociology class. Well, it may be a sociology class, but without narration (if the broadcast film is like the preview version I watched), the film’s start is rather formless and aimless.

Another issue is the that the talking heads: students, faculty, teaching assistants or administrators, are never identified, with no indication as to what department, meeting or class subject matter the viewer is watching. In some instances, we are shown the outside of a campus building, and we can only assume that the class or meeting being filmed was held there. It is also a problem that academic jargon is never defined. For example, it’s up to the viewer to realize that “G.S.I.” stands for Graduate Student Instructor.

And, although it is interesting to see the former Chancellor of the university (Robert Birgeneau) meet with what is presumably his advisory cabinet and senior administrators, the body language of the participants signal that they were not always euphoric about being present. Interestingly, Asians and Hispanics (with a couple of exceptions) seem to be notably absent from these high-level discussions.

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Near the end of the overly long film – for me, the four hours felt like twenty, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tells his students that leaders are very often denied “useful feedback.” That may also hold true for this film, which might have benefited from being first screened by focus groups, and by some substantial editing. Most of the segments, which seem connected without apparent rhyme or reason, are rough, overly long, virtually uncut video clips. Tightly edited, At Berkeley, would likely have been more engaging and enthralling.

The film does feature some rewarding success stories that involve the application of practical knowledge at this world class educational institution. One segment focuses on a machine that permits a man with spinal cord injuries to walk. Another features a student doing coding for a robot. But you must wade through many context-less segments to get to these treats.

People are likely to see different things when they view this documentary. Some will see a place where student demonstrations appear to threaten the educational mission. Others will see that these demonstrations resulted in an increase in minority and low-income student admissions. Some will see professors and lecturers (and sometimes students) pretentiously debating matters that have little relevance to taxpayers and working stiffs. Others will see a progressive place of learning in which 50 percent of undergrads participate in some form of meaningful research. In this, the film may accurately display the tension between a classic liberal arts education (“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”) and practical knowledge developed through strenuous and demanding research.

The citizens and taxpayers who support public educational institutions like U.C., Berkeley will find some evidence of their importance in a film like At Berkeley. Others may view this documentary and come to a conclusion unintended by the film’s makers: an elite institution, public or private, can foster elitist views and behaviors.

At Berkeley may simply be a Rorschach’s test. No two individuals will watch it and receive the same impression. This may transform the lack of structure and message content (and context) into a good thing.

Recommended for some, not for all.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by PBS.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/tv-review-independent-lens-at-berkeley/

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Confusion Has Its Cost

The History of Us: A Novel by Leah Stewart (Touchstone, $24.99, 384 pages)

Sometimes home is the hardest place to go.

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In 1993 Eloise Hempel, a newly-minted Harvard professor, gets the shock of a lifetime when her niece, Theo (short for Theodora), calls with news of a helicopter crash. The crash has killed Eloise’s sister Rachel and her husband who were on vacation. Left behind are three young children, Theo, Josh and Claire, who at the time were staying at their grandmother Francine’s house.

The house that forms the nucleus of the story is located in Cincinnati, Ohio on Clifton Avenue where it has sat since 1890. Actually, it’s really a mansion, a money pit of sorts. Francine inherited it and has lived there for some time; however, as with most responsibilities, she chooses to run from it after Rachel’s death and leaves Eloise to raise the three orphans. They are merely residents although the house has strong ties for them.

Eloise left behind her coveted professorship at Harvard and in its place she found a teaching position at a local college in Cincinnati. Her years have been taken up with raising the children and she has very little in the way of a life of her own. Time passes as Eloise’s two nieces and nephews grow to adulthood. Upon the 120th anniversary of the house, in 2010, Eloise hosts a celebration.

She needed distractions, and she also felt guilty because she’d been the one insisting on the party which no one else wanted to have, and like anyone used to being thought of as the good one, the capable one, the responsible one, she preferred feeling over-whelmed and overworked to feeling guilty.

The party sets the stage for what becomes the revelation of the doubts, compensation for loss and confusion that Eloise and her charges have come to know as they occupy the house. Francine, who refused to be called grandma, fled to Florida right after the helicopter crash and in 2010 is very reluctant to give ownership of the house to Eloise. Each of the characters is trapped in a situation of their own devise.

Theo feels entitled, Claire is a self-absorbed ballerina, Josh is a frustrated musician and Eloise is really confused about what she wants from life. This book is more than a coming of age tale; it provides the reader with an expanded understanding of what makes a family and how relationships change.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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I’m Walking to New Orleans

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington: A Documentary (shown on PBS TV on January 3, 2013 and afterward)

Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it.   This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the historic Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.   The producers of this documentary would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.Mr. Cao profile

Mr. Cao, a once-politically Independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008.   His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”

Cao was a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constituents.   A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach).   It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned need not apply.   When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his chief political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake.   Throwing mud on Richmond seemed to contradict Cao’s labeling of himself as a man of “high integrity.”   Cao clearly worked extremely hard for his constituents after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and corporate and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.

Cao’s strategy was proven to be quite wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at almost twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond.   The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the hour-long film.

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This is an excellently produced documentary, and it’s fully engaging.   However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended.   Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties.   (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the Administration.)   The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s landmark Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides.   Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.

The lesson of Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constituents can be, and often is, fatal.

Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town.   It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital.   It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review DVD was provided by PBS.   Mr. Cao Goes to Washington premieres on PBS TV on January 3, 2013. 

My thanks to Daniel D. Holt of Master Po Editing Services HP for his assistance on this review.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Video (TV/Film) site:  http://blogcritics.org/video/tv-review-mr-cao-goes-to/ .

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The Best Book of 2010-2011

In 2009, this site selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   Last year, my selection for book of the year was American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.   This time I decided to do something different, which is to select the best book I read between January of 2010 and the end of December 2011.   It happens to be a book that I read prior to its release, and it was first published in hardbound form on April 6, 2010; re-released as a trade paper book on April 5, 2011.

My personal and subjective choice as the best book of 2010-2011 is Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott.   Here is my review.

Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Press, $15.00, 336 pages)

“I try to write the books I would love to come upon…”   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogeyman away by writing about people who are like her, except that  maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

“Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.”   Rumi

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of  her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…  Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a dead little animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…  Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A pre-publication review copy was received from the publisher.   “Powerful and painfully honest…  Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.”   The New York Times  

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Where Were You When I Needed You

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Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (Broadway Books, $16.00, 304 pages)

There are times when an author takes a perfectly interesting and creative plotline and pushes it just past the boundary of plausibility.   This is what occurs here with debut author Samantha Sotto.   She begins her novel with a great premise.   Shelley Gallus lost her husband Max three years earlier to a terrorist bomb set off in Madrid, Spain.   She’s just about to come to terms with her loss when a young man named Paolo shows up at her door.   He claims to be Max’s grandson, which comes as a shock to Shelley who did not know that Max was previously married nor that he was old enough to have a grandson.

Paolo informs Shelley that Max is still alive, operating a business in the Philippines and Paolo appears to have a photograph that substantiates this claim.   In the photo, Max is wearing jewelry that was given to him by Shelley.   Now, stop at this point and we have a fine story about a decent woman who may have been the victim of a sad hoax; a woman who is ready to go and find Max, alive or dead (If he’s alive, she might kill him).

Here, though, is where the problem arises…  Paolo proceeds to make the case that not only is Max alive, but he’s at least hundreds of years old.   It may be that Max was alive as a young man during the French Revolution, and at this point the story loses its credibility.

A knowledgeable reader might note that a similar plotline was used by Jane Mendelsohn in the novel American Music.   This is true, but Mendelsohn used her years of writing experience to craft a magical novel – one of the best of its type.   Even then, it was not an easy sell; for some, the setting of a tale in four different periods in time was a bit too much to properly absorb.   This reviewer found American Music to be especially brilliant, but then only the best at their craft make it appear to be easy.   (In Before Ever After, the overly complicated plotline comes off as simply tricky.)

Sotto does write in an entertaining and casual style and there are, no doubt, some readers who will find the story engaging enough to satisfy their financial and temporal investment in the book.   However, there are likely to be many who will find that this fictional journey asks a bit too much of the imagination – the literary equivalent of a bridge too far.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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