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Flight from Babylon: Iraq, Iran, Israel, America
Flight from Babylon: Iraq, Iran, Israel, America
by Heskel M. Haddad
Edition: Hardcover
37 used & new from $6.33

3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings—great history, so-so main character, May 8, 2014
For this biography’s historical content, it deserves five stars. I found it an excellent history, and I learned an incredible amount from reading it—about Jews living in Arabic countries in the 1930s and 1940s, about the horrors of antisemitism, about Zionism at the time, and about the formation of the state of Israel. Although I knew some things about these subjects matter, I must admit that I (as an American-born half-Jew who’s never been to Israel) have been rather ignorant. I appreciate this history lesson, which for me has been far more interesting to read embedded in a biography than in a sterile textbook. I also read the book with what I hope is an eye toward acknowledging that he may have been skewing some things about the Jewish-Muslim/Arab situation because he was so psychologically traumatized from his personal childhood and young adult experiences of being brutalized by Arabs. I felt at times he steered into overt anti-Arab racism (or whatever you call it), and while I could understand where it came from, I didn’t like it.

This brings up what I felt was the book’s main weakness: the main character. Often I found him borderline unlikable, and it was not primarily his moments of racism. I felt he trumpeted his own accomplishments to the point that I found myself at best thinking “enough!” and at worst questioning whether he really was the hero-savior that he purported himself to be. This, combined with his rather dry storytelling, made it difficult for me to read more than a few pages of the book at a time. I kept, however, returning in order to drink up the history. Granted, the book ended when he was only like 21, so in some ways I can forgive his big ego, his hardly kind treatment of his troubled girlfriend, and his at-times blind devotion to his parents. He was just a kid, after all, even if he was thrust into many adult roles early on.

But all that said, in some ways I did like the main character, and found myself rooting for him. I wanted him to succeed, but I hoped he would have become more humble along the way—and also more altruistic. I admit to have hoped he would do something more special in his life than just become a seemingly anonymous ophthalmologist in my own hometown of New York City. I googled him and that was all I could find.

The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
by Raymond Chandler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.48
301 used & new from $0.52

5 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The story held no tension for me, March 4, 2011
On its own, this may have been an excellent book, but I just finished reading a whole series of short stories by Raymond Chandler, and one of those had a significant amount of overlapping material with "The Big Sleep." Some of the lines were almost virtually identical. I felt like I was just reading the long version of that short story, and as such, this novel held no tension for me. It just felt pointless. So I quickly gave up.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 7, 2011 8:54 AM PDT

DVD ~ Sonny Bono
Price: $5.97
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0 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Divine was good, much of the rest was dull, March 4, 2011
This review is from: Hairspray (DVD)
Okay, it wasn't all dull, but most of it was. Some of the storyline was good, especially the part with the character played by Ricki Lake being being seen for her dancing talent, but overall it fell flat. There was a lack of tension in the story, and somehow the characters, many of whom just came across as caricatures, lacked enough depth for me to care about them one way or another. Also, I hoped this would be a better John Waters film than his others, but instead I found there was too much stupid comic stuff in there, which detracted from what could otherwise have been a better movie. This said, I still like Divine, in both of his roles. I actually watched the film to see him in action, and he produced. To me he made the film. (I saw the John Travolta version and Travolta doesn't hold a candle to Divine.)

One other thing I realized while watching this, and it is just an interpretation so take it or leave it: I felt the whole racial tension and integration versus segregation theme throughout the movie was really not about race at all, but instead a disguised plea for acceptance of alternate sexual orientations. Marginalized black people (and I think marginalized fat people) really represented gay people, which I felt John Waters couldn't, because of anti-gay prejudice (this was filmed in the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s), say directly. I sensed this about halfway through the film, and I became convinced of it the more I watched.

Also, as an aside, I felt a lot of the sexuality stuff from the film was vulgar -- and unnecessary. To me this also detracted from the film.

I've also read that John Waters originally wanted to cast Divine in the role of Tracy Turnblad, but couldn't because he wouldn't have garnered a PG-13 rating with his leading lady, a 40-year-old man in drag, getting sexual in dark alleys with male actors representing 16-year-old boys. (Incidentally, from what I just read of Divine's biography by Bernard Jay, that was exactly what Divine was into in real life.)

So instead he gave the part to Ricki Lake, age 19. Good call.

Not Simply Divine
Not Simply Divine
by Bernard Jay
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.95
64 used & new from $0.01

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two main weaknesses mar an otherwise excellent memoir, March 4, 2011
This review is from: Not Simply Divine (Paperback)
This book, overall, was an excellent memoir about Divine, warts and all. Although other reviewers (I cheated and read some of the reviews) complain that the author is cruel or merciless toward his subject, I didn't feel that. I felt the author put forth effort to be fair and stated his point of view upfront: that he sometimes loved Divine but wasn't sure if he really liked him. I, however, personally felt the author's warmth toward Divine, and also felt the author's general respect for Divine as a person, and certainly respect for Divine as an actor and performer. Anyone who thinks this book belittles Divine's talent as an actor/performer is reading the book through a lens of his or her own projections or fantasies.

My impression of Divine after reading this book is that he was a gentle, sad, talented, loyal, desperately lonely, desperate-for-admiration, out-of-control person. I found his out-of-control sides difficult to read about, because they were so self-destructive and entrenched. And I felt the author mostly gave a well-rendered, realistic portrayal of these dark sides. To have denied them would have been silly. After all, Divine died at 375 pounds, with spending and eating and sex habits utterly out of control. (He did control the marijuana near the end.)

But I have two strong criticisms of the book, both equally serious to me:

1) The author's treatment of Divine's childhood was a distorted gloss-over. Bernard Jay clearly had no clue about what Divine went through in his home as a kid in relation to his parents, because if he had had a clue he wouldn't have written the idealized drivel he wrote here, all about Divine being a loved and adored child who just got spoiled too much and actually was himself the cause of his dysfunctional dynamics with his parents. This is an age-old tale of blaming the child and protecting the parents, and the author, for all his radicalness, fell right into that trap. (Incidentally, Divine seemed to believe this same denial-laden tale, almost surely because accepting the emotional reality of his childhood would have been too painful. It was interesting to me that in this regard Divine was really just a conventional person under all his wildness.) In reality Divine's parents were almost certainly extremely deficient, far beyond what this author was able to consider. People from loving, adoring homes -- even if they get bullied in school -- don't turn out as disturbed and confused as Divine. That's not human nature.

2) The author, though critical of Divine's insane spending habits, had no ability to see him for the sex rampant sex addict he was. Instead the author seemed to think that this was at worst a harmless, fun vice, and at best a positive quality. I see it quite differently, especially in the context of the years in which this book largely covered -- the 1980s. Divine used his power and prestige to have sex with endless numbers of men, and probably no small number of boys as well. This book does refer to him seducing lots of late-teenage boys, and one is only left to imagine what the book didn't mention, as so many of his club gigs were packed with younger teens. Meanwhile, this was the decade of the worst of the AIDS epidemic, when gay men were dropping like flies as a consequence of their sexual acting out. Half the gay male population of New York at that time, after all, either had HIV or AIDS. This book, written in 1992, only mentions AIDS twice, and then just in casual passing. I suspect, again, no lack of denial on the author's part, which I can only imagine fit hand-in-glove with Divine's denial.

But overall, I have a hunch that Divine would have approved of this memoir -- and liked the controversy surrounding it. Yes, the book divulges a lot of outrageous stuff about Divine's personal life, but ultimately Divine thrived on the public's outrage, so in a way this book may have captured some of his own performing spirit.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Modern Classics)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Modern Classics)
by Betty Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.41
174 used & new from $2.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Touching, Realistic, and At-Times Gripping, February 18, 2011
Overall the book is a worthwhile read, especially if you are interested in beautifully presented American history. The main character, Francie, born at the beginning of the twentieth century, shares the story of her Brooklyn childhood in vivid and realistic detail. You can just tell, from reading this work, that the main character bore more than a hefty overlap with the author. The book is just too emotionally connected and detailed to be anything else. This is a book that is strongly, perhaps almost entirely, character driven -- and the sympathetic nature of the main character is what makes the book so endearing. I admit, I was sad when it ended. I would have kept on reading this fictional girl's life story -- probably to her death. I had a grandmother born less than ten years after Francie, and although I spent a lot of time with my grandmother over the 35 years I knew her, I feel I knew Francie better. To me, this speaks volumes about the author's gift.

I did, however, have a few gripes. Allow me to list them.

1) At times some of the characters or scenarios came across as cheesy. For instance, when Sissy (Francie's aunt) kept naming her new husbands John, regardless of their real names, it quickly got old, especially when the author reminded us of the renaming about ten times. Although this book detail may have been based on a real character, and probably was, to me it failed to translate well into the novel.

2) There were some internal inconsistencies in the book, and that is a pet peeve of mine. For instance, on page 42 (first paragraph of chapter 5) the narrator tells about Sissy having given birth to ten children who all died shortly after birth. Then, on page 64-65 (a few pages into chapter 7), the narrator tells about Sissy's first child having been stillborn (as opposed to dying after birth), and the following three born dead as well. So which was it? Although you might consider me picky, a good editor wouldn't, and nor would a young mother who just lost her baby -- a stillbirth and a baby who lived an hour or two and then died are profoundly different things.

3) Too much idealization of Francie's rotten parents. Yes, there was some criticism of them, but almost all of it, even from the author's perspective, was couched in a parent-protecting attitude. I personally felt enraged when Francie's mother put Francie to work and sent the younger brother to high school -- while she herself popped out another baby by her loser, alcoholic non-father of a husband, who, incidentally, had just died. I get tired of narrators or authors who side too much with awful parents.

4) The author had a sort of proto-feminist attitude that too often (to tie it in with my last criticism) equated to siding with women who displayed awful or very disappointing behavior.

And one final point, not exactly a criticism: I was surprised the book never mentioned that the hardy "tree of heaven," upon which this book was based, and to which the main character was compared, actually has a horrible odor. If you crush one of its leaves in your hand you'll find this out quickly. The fact that this was never mentioned suggested to me that the author didn't know this tree as well as she might have let on. I used to love these trees for all the reasons the author did mention, until I actually smelled one. Hard to idealize them then.

But all this said, overall still a powerful book -- brought to life an important time and place in such a special way.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2011 3:48 PM PST

DVD ~ Bibi Andersson
31 used & new from $7.80

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, Weird, February 18, 2011
This review is from: Persona (DVD)
I can see why this movie is a classic. I chose to watch it because I found it on a list of some of the world's top movies. I can't say that I was disappointed, though I did find the story weird, and sometimes, to be honest, I couldn't figure out what was going on. But still, the psychological depth of the movie kept me riveted, and kept me wondering what was going to happen. And even if I was lost and confused at times, the tension remained so great throughout that I kept watching.

A few weaknesses, though, got under my skin.

Although the film was psychologically deep, I didn't feel the character of the actress totally added up, and I think the director intended this. But personally this troubled me. She was portrayed as both sane and insane at the same time in a way that I (as a therapist who worked with many people labeled with psychosis) didn't find believable.

The other thing that got to me was the sexual perversity. I felt it was a bit overdone -- and unnecessary. But again, maybe that's just my personal thing. Maybe it really was intrinsic to the movie.

April Morning
April Morning
by Howard Melvin Fast
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.19
294 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Brings history to life, a drop slow at points, February 18, 2011
As a Spartacus fan, I have, for twenty-five years, heard of April Morning, and finally got around to reading it. Overall it is an excellent book, with strengths far outweighing weaknesses. Ultimately it is of the same literary quality as Spartacus, though much shorter and geared for a younger audience. That didn't bother me, though. Personally I hope lots of young people read it.

So, strengths versus weaknesses:

Strengths: it brought history to vivid life, which is no small feat for a book published 50 years ago, and set 235 years ago. I can only imagine the research Fast did to be able to create such a living, moving picture. I really have a different feeling about the American Revolution after reading this book. Yes, I was taught all this history in school, but to read it here, in the beautiful way Fast presents it, made me regret that our teachers didn't scrap all the textbook crap which they fed us via psychic enema and instead just give us this worthy read.

Weaknesses: 1) It was a drop slow at points. Just a bit too much background, and at times it was unnecessary and detracted from the plot. 2) I got tired of the romance. I don't feel it added strongly to the book, and I felt the author put it in to keep younger audiences hooked. 3) At times I sensed that the author was portraying characters living in the year 1775 with the psychology of characters living in the mid-20th century. Sometimes their thoughts, questions, self-questions, and conversations just didn't leave me convinced that they were context-specific.

But that said, I don't feel any of these weaknesses hurt the book that much, and I still give the author credit for the feat he accomplished. He was better, by far, than all the history teachers I had put together!

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy)
by Stieg Larsson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.05
1475 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, but a bit weak here and there, February 3, 2011
I still found the book gripping and read it in less than two days. I was hooked on the trilogy, so there was no way I was not going to finish it in order to "find out what happens." And in large part this book did not disappoint. Some parts stood out brilliantly, especially the trial at the end, with the evil Teleborian on the stand. I personally happen to be pretty strongly anti-psychiatry, so I found this part especially pleasing and tension-ridden. I've had all too many debates with arrogant, "evidence-based" psychiatrists to underestimate their cleverness, closed-mindedness, and subterfuge -- and these are psychiatrists who strive to be ethical, and are only hobbled by denial. The skewering of the evil Teleborian was nothing short of lovely.

This book, however, was the weakest of the trilogy. Its biggest flaw was that several times the plot just didn't quite add up to reality. I don't find myself further gripped by a novel when I feel I'm more clever than the author.

For instance, when the author placed Salander and Zalachenko on the same open-door, unlocked hospital floor after they'd both tried to murder each other: silly and unrealistic. Even a half-witted hospital or police staff would have prevented that. I understand, though, that the author did this to further the book's plot. But, oddly, keeping them on the same floor didn't even further the plot that much. C'mon, Stieg, get with it!

Also, I thought to myself several times (and in the previous book as well) that the "Section," as they were called, would realistically have murdered Zalachenko and Salander long ago. The fact that they waited so long to even consider doing so came across as ludicrous to me, especially given their obvious lack of ethics.

A few other weaknesses (sorry, I know I over-focus on the weaknesses):

1) This was the first book in the trilogy that I found myself skimming. Several times I skimmed the author's long background descriptions on Swedish political history and the history of various spy organizations. Editor, editor, wherefore are thou?

2) I also skimmed, and then utterly ignored, the book's chapter (or section) intros. They were pointless and added nothing to the book except proof of the author's grandiosity.

3) Rather weak ending. I understand the author wanted to tie up all loose ends, but I was hoping the book would somehow depart in a blaze of plot glory. Instead it just petered out.

4) There were several unanswered questions that I felt sure the author would address. For instance, in the second book the author dropped hints that there was something physiologically deficient about Niedermann -- his weak face, his utter lack of sexual interest. Was he somehow neutered? Occasional similar hints were dropped about Salander. The author never addressed these.

But, overall, this book, and the trilogy as a whole, was a gripping, captivating read, and all the more so if you have any interest in Sweden. I have no regrets about reading it. Kudos to the author. In spite of the minor flaws, I think the author is brilliant.

The Leopard: A Novel
The Leopard: A Novel
by Archibald Colquhoun
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
156 used & new from $1.82

3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some good insights, slow book, February 3, 2011
This review is from: The Leopard: A Novel (Paperback)
Published in 1958, this book has been hailed as a masterpiece of Italian literature. Perhaps it is just that, and I found it did have some rewarding points (good insights into the culture and history of Sicily, some flesh-and-blood characters, an occasional winning plot moment), but all in all I found it slow-going. At points it even dragged, leaving me bored. It might have helped if I'd had more knowledge of Italian history going into the book, but still, when I consider that "The Godfather" was written only a decade after this, and was simply a better story from almost every conceivable angle (more interesting, quicker paced, more accessible, better use of language, richer characters, a multifaceted storyline), I just can't feel "The Leopard" was fantastic literature.

And who ultimately decides what is great literature? Sometimes I think it is stuffy, arrogant old men in back rooms somewhere who are proud of their advanced university degrees and their dusty libraries in dead languages.

To me, I just prefer a tale spun by a master storyteller. And to me, this weren't it!

The Thief of Bagdad (The Criterion Collection)
The Thief of Bagdad (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Sabu
Offered by newbury_comics
Price: $26.79
24 used & new from $19.97

2 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cheesy, but stunning special effects for the time, February 3, 2011
To me, this movie's strength is its special effects, circa 1940: kudos to the filmmakers! I am a filmmaker and I work in Final Cut Pro, and frankly, even now, in 2011, I wouldn't know how to accomplish any of the things they pulled off 71 years ago. They really did a great job.

But. . .overall, with only a few exceptions, I found the story cheesy, the romance silly and wooden, the acting overdone, and many of the scenes repetitive to the point of dull. I could see how the film wowed people decades ago, but it didn't work as a modern film.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2013 4:42 PM PST

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