Tag Archives: Berkeley

Get Your Danish On!

America the Anxious: How the Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 247 pages)

america the anxious

Happiness is so individualized and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – of circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences, and personality quirks – that anything averaged over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.

Is it possible for a British writer and documentary filmmaker to capture the underlying cause of what seems to be a pervasive sense of anxiety in the United States of America?  Ruth Whippman is transplanted to Berkeley, California when her husband takes a job across the pond.  She brings with her the typical negative/sarcastic attitude acquired in her homeland. (“Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point.”)

This slender gray volume appears to be a survey of what makes American anxious; however, it segues into a memoir of the author’s search for happiness in the Golden State.  Ms. Whipmann begins her residency with her husband and one toddler and adds another child along the way.  The local experiences she describes vary from playground interactions with other moms and kiddies to encounters with her apartment neighbors.

To her credit, Whippman travels to other regions of this anxious nation to gather a broader view of her topic.  The seemingly content and happy Mormons in Utah are the focus of her fieldwork.  She also delves into academia, parenting and workplace standards of contentment.

The accolades on the book jacket extolling the author’s wit and hilarious humor are relatively accurate, if exaggerated.  Although America the Anxious does have its share of laughs and comic relief, the quote above left this reviewer with a sense of being let down.  We may be portrayed as a nation of Nervous Nellies but not everyone is pursuing happiness with a negative result.

This may  have made for a fascinating inflight article.  As a book, it’s overly padded with one person’s viewpoints, anecdotes, and opinions. Therefore, it is recommended only for those with the preexisting view that the U.S. is a nation of sad, miserable people.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (William Morrow, $19.99, 221 pages)

little book of hygge

Right off, readers intent on quality of life improvement might recognize a physical similarity between The Little Book of Hygge and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo.  All three books measure slightly over 5″ x 7″ and their covers are coated in that smooth durable finish meant for ease in handling without wear and tear.  After all, if one is planning to absorb and implement the wisdom within its covers, a book must be portable and sturdy.

little book hygge all year around

The lovely illustrations generously sprinkled among the words of encouragement written by Meik Wiking are immediately recognizable as Scandinavian.  Just as Ms. Kondo’s cute and dainty illustrations are very much in keeping with the modern Japanese style of Hello Kitty.  While Ms. Kondo’s are neat and tidy primers on folding and storing one’s possessions, Mr. Wiking’s contain ample clues to the elements of Hygge that the Danes enjoy year round.  Clothing, candles, yummy recipes, fireplaces and, did I mention candles?

little book hygge definitionAuthor Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute located in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Readers may not be aware of the fact that Denmark is considered one of the happiest nations in the world.  (More than Disneyland?  – Ed.) Ample graphs and charts comparing Denmark to other nations establish this fact along with a more than sufficient amount of text explaining this phenomenon.

What secrets are lurking in this volume?  Well, maybe not exactly secrets so much as a comprehensive examination of the definition of Hygge that is parsed out into human, environmental and psychological elements.  These elements, when combined, can provide the comfort and even a sense of well being that each of us truly needs in the current world.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

 

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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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Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

The Next Best Thing: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, $26.99, 400 pages; AudioWorks Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $39,99)

Songs Without Words: A Novel by Ann Packer (Vintage, $14.95, 384 pages; Random House Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $34.95)

This review is a duet of sorts.   Both books were read in the audio format.   They explore what can happen when a young girl loses a parent or multiple parents.   Ironically, each begins on a separate coast of the U.S.; however, all the main characters end up in California, albeit Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, respectively.   As we’re often told in self-help books and philosophical literature, it’s not the incident that shapes us, but rather, the way we react to it.   Each of these tales packs a wallop of an incident.

In The Next Best Thing, we learn that young Ruthie Saunders endured the horror of an automobile crash that killed both her parents and maimed her for life.   Ruthie’s face is mangled on one side, as is her body.   She has the good fortune to be the granddaughter of a truly kind and loving woman who steps in and gives her a life filled with hope and understanding.

Although Ruthie braved numerous painful surgeries over the years and the unsympathetic stares of her classmates, she persevered.   Her scars and physical limitations are vivid and readily noticeable but her spirit is strong.   Together with her beloved grandma, Trudy, Ruthie travels from the East Coast to take on the daunting challenge of breaking into the Hollywood television writing scene.   She becomes a promising comedy writer in Hollywood and even has a boyfriend.   The story takes on a sense of urgency when Ruthie’s autobiographical sitcom script is given the green light and is produced as a television show.

For sixteen-year-old Sarabeth life had always been difficult.   Her mom had overwhelming difficulties with depression that overshadowed the family.   Luckily for Sarabeth, her best friend Liz – who lived across the street in upscale Palo Alto, California – had a loving and good-natured family that helped to balance her life.   This difficult yet somewhat stable life was destroyed when Sarabeth’s mom committed suicide.   In this case, Liz’ family took her in and provided a home when Sarabeth’s father fled to the East Coast.

Despite years of loving friendship from Liz, Sarabeth nearly wallows in self-pity and neediness despite her outward good looks.   Her choices in men run to ones who are married with children.   Her career is limited to small artsy projects and a meek existence in a somewhat-dilapidated cottage behind another house in Berkeley.   The real challenge comes when Liz’ daughter acts on her own suicidal impulses.   Liz is unable to grasp how her robotic take on life has failed her daughter.   The supportive friendship between Sarabeth and Liz falls apart.

Given the remarkable parallels, these two tales could not be more dissimilar.   Both of these authors are well-known and very successful; however, Jennifer Weiner demonstrates her ability to craft engaging, sympathetic, and dare I say,  spunky characters.   This reviewer’s attention was fully focused on Ruthie and her life while Sarabeth provoked a slight revulsion due to her clueless self-pity and lack of empathy.   Ann Packer chose to portray a pair of lifeless and clueless women whose plights evoked barely a stirring of compassion.   In fact, a song title for a review of this book could easily have been, Get Over It.

As always, the narrators contributed significantly by literally setting the tone for the listener.   Olivia Thirlby gave Ruthie in The Next Best Thing a youthful, optimistic and somewhat naive voice.   She drew this listener in and brought out feelings of caring and hope for Ruthie and Grandma Trudy.

Conversely, Cassandra Campbell’s pervasive monotone was heavy and lacked the necessary inflections that produce engagement in the listener.   To her credit, Campbell had a difficult assignment as she portrayed Sarabeth, Liz and her daughter.

The Next Best Thing is Highly Recommended, while Songs Without Words has a limited audience – folks who don’t mind devoting the time and money this difficult story requires.

Ruta Arellano

These audiobooks were purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Live Dead

The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Improvisation (edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector; McFarland, $35.00, 355 pages)

“Where I enjoyed the music, the audience was immersed in it; they were tuned to the slightest nuances coming from the stage.”   Cristian Amigo

The Grateful Dead in Concert is a non-essential but fun collection of essays about the Dead’s live improvisation, and other things related to the band in its heyday.   This reviewer sees it as non-essential because the notion of writing academic essays on the Dead’s intentionally sloppy musicianship is a little silly.   A comparable book would discuss the classical elements and phrases in the music of Bruce Springsteen.   And does anyone really need a list of the seven Requirements for Strategic Improvisation? 

But there’s some great writing in here, such as the article by Cristian Amigo that calls to mind Junot Diaz; Rebecca Adams’ essay on seeing the Dead play live for the first time; and Joan Millay’s wild and wooly tale of sharing drugs with the band members.   The latter will take Boomers back to the time when they read magazines like Cream, Ramparts, and the then-rebellious Rolling Stone.

This might make a nice gift for an egghead that’s been a closet Dead Head.   Just warn the recipient not to take it too seriously.   As musician Wynton Marsalis said about jazz, “Anyone can improvise, but any improvisation is not jazz.”   Writing about music is not music.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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