Monday, June 25, 2012

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Friday, June 22, 2012

How to Change the World by David Bornstein

While many a novel that’s promoted as “inspirational” turns out to be a bunch of hot air, it’s certainly not the case with How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, a collection of case studies compiled by author, journalist and philanthropist David Bornstein; a compelling, insightful and genuinely moving book that will definitely serve as a call to action for many a reader seeking incentive to act upon their idealistic notions.

The book opens with a forward that details the history of Ashoka, a global organization that sponsors and promotes social entrepreneurs, thereby promoting social justice worldwide. Since it was founded by Bill Drayton in India in 1980, Ashoka has expanded to over 60 countries, and served a wide variety of causes; ranging from providing solar energy to a village to Brazil to helping AIDS patients in South Africa to funding college educations for underprivileged students in the United States. Using examples such as Gandhi and Florence Nightingale, Bornstein uses this forward to identify common traits and practices of social entrepreneurs, their means of fulfilling their goals, and the lasting impressions they made not only in their chosen causes but on the minds of future generations of dedicated activists.

These remarkable true stories feature philanthropists not only from all around the world, but from all walks of life. Some pursue their charitable businesses as full-time professions, such as Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum; some acquire wealth and then pursue worthwhile causes, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; others go into it out of necessity, such as Erzsébet Szekeres, a single mother in communist Hungary who fought to provide a better life for her handicapped son. Yet they are all determined and admirable individuals united under Ashoka by the common goal of making a difference, and in that they are at once familiar and relatable.

According to Bornstein, the prospects of the field of social entreuprenuership are optimistic, as it has seen a drastic increase in the past twenty years, and will only continue to expand. Currently, over 250 colleges and universities—including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and NYU—offer courses in the subject. Indeed, the Acumen Fund, which supports aspiring social entrepreneurs, has received over one thousand applications within the past two years, as have many similar organizations.

If you’re a reader looking for inspiration, David Bornstein is certainly a writer worth following. He’s also the author of The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank; and his articles have appeared in publications such as Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. He has co-written To Our Credit, a PBS documentary about combating poverty, and has founded, a website dedicated to discovering new entrepreneurs, and encouraging many more.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Fantasy and sci-fi lovers alike ought to be happily acquainted with Philip Pullman, a master genre-bender who boldly takes readers on a kaleidoscopic magical odyssey, complete with talking animals and portals to other worlds. The Golden Compass—also known by its British title, Northern Lights—is a stunning work of creative vision, and as intellectually engaging as it is fun and exciting.

Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua inhabits a world in which human souls manifest themselves outside their bodies in the form of dæmons: shape-shifters who take on animal forms. She and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, grow up in Jordan College, raised by scholars, professors, and servants, until the arrival of her enigmatic uncle, Lord Asriel, an explorer who experiments in theology. Upon overhearing a secret meeting involving a quest for mysterious magic particles known as Dust, Lyra is given a golden compass-like device called an alethiometer—or a “truth teller” with prophetic powers—and introduced to the beautiful and mysterious Ms. Coulter, a scholar whose arrives at the college around the time children in the area begin to disappear. When Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing, she sets out to find him and is soon drawn into a dangerous and complicated scheme involving secret experiments that transcend time and space; a journey that takes her around the world on boats, zeppelins, hot air balloons, and the back of an armored bear.

Just as Pullman’s magical world draws comprehensively on a multitude of sources—mythology, theology, astronomy, magic, and politics—it also offers a diverse cast of characters. There are tribes of witches, including the witch queen Serafina Pekkala; a nomadic ethic group known as gyptians, whom Lyra travels with for a time; and talking armored bears known as panserbjørne; which includes the bear prince, Iorek Byrnison, who becomes Lyra’s trusted companion. The villainous ones in the assorted collection are the members of the General Oblation Board, known as the Gobblers, who kidnap children and perform experiments on them in the name of religion.

The compelling driving force of the narrative is Lyra, a willful, vivacious tomboy whose brazen disregard of authority serve her well on a journey that tests her courage and resolve; yet she’s also equal parts clever and compassionate. Fittingly, her talent for lying—which gets her out of many a life-threatening situation—eventually earns her the nickname Lyra Silvertongue, bestowed on her by Iorek Byrnison.

A writer like Pullman does not adhere to the confines of genre. Just as Lyra’s expedition transcends time and space, The Golden Compass defies easy categorization, and its audience is certainly not limited to children and young adults. This also applies to the book’s two sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Although historical figures are often ripe for fiction, doing justice to them often poses a challenge for many an author, thereby making historical fiction somewhat of a hit-or-miss genre. With Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, British author Stella Duffy sets out to chronicle the life of Theodora, the sixth-century actress and prostitute turned Byzantine Empress, and somehow manages to downgrade a remarkable life story into a cheap, plodding Harlequin novel.

This unabashedly bawdy novel begins with Theodora’s childhood as a destitute young actress and dancer, and chronicles the procession of her career to prostitute to governor’s concubine to, eventually, the wife of Emperor Justinian I. During this time she makes a name for herself as the biggest star of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, travels to Africa, has a spiritual awakening in the middle of the desert, and undertakes secret missions for the Orthodox Church. At times, throughout her ordeals, she must work her way through the various political and religious disputes throughout the Roman Empire, such as the rise of Chalcedonian Christianity, and the clashing of the two political parties: the Greens and the Blues.

Contrary to what the title would have readers believe, we are only granted a look inside her life as an actress and as a whore; not so much as an empress, as the novel comes to a screeching halt with her marriage to Justinian. The majority of the book—which is everything leading up to her marriage—is weighed down by a lack of direction and character development. In portraying several historical figures as one-dimensional cartoons whose actions are purely driven by exposition, Duffy has reduced Theodora—who was perhaps the most influential and powerful woman in the history of the Roman Empire—into a lifeless, generic tart.

Duffy’s writing style is long-winded and digressive, as she makes excessive use of run-on sentences as a means of prose construction. That, coupled with the fact that she seems to be making it up as she goes along, turns the novel into a rambling sequence of events with a contrived, tacked-on ending that leaves loose threads untied, and questions about Theodora’s life unanswered.

In short, this pulpy romance novel does not do justice to the intriguing historical figure that is Theodora. Those interested in her story may be better off seeking nonfiction works such as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon, or the more recent Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by King’s College London professor Judith Herrin.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

While I personally am not a fan of the self-indulgent memoir and more in favor of memoirists who balance personal divulgence with cohesive storytelling, indulgence can be forgiven in the hands of a self-deprecating, dryly humorous author like Chuck Klosterman. An author, essayist, and rock critic with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Klosterman makes Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story an honest, amusing and at times thought-provoking existential treatise on the rock stars whose fame only peaked once they kicked the bucket.

Upon being given an assignment to write an article for Spin magazine on society’s relationship with dead rock stars, Klosterman embarks on a three-week road trip that takes him everywhere from the big cities of New York and Minneapolis to the countryside of Montana and Mississippi, visiting the historic death sites of rock stars. During this time, Klosterman juggles relationships with three different women, does some recreational drugs—at some point snorting cocaine at the site of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island—and wonders whether he has Cotard’s syndrome, a rare mental disorder that deludes a person into believing they’re dead. Along the way he meets some colorful characters, such as Kurt Cobain devotees who maintain the belief that he was murdered, a drunken Uma Thurman lookalike who climbs on the roof of a building in heels, and a Cracker Barrel waitress who likes Franz Kafka.

Among Klosterman’s philosophical musings on the deaths of rock stars—whether by accident (Duane Allman) or suicide (Kurt Cobain), during a time of career success (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash) or fading popularity (Elvis Presley’s overdose)—are his commentaries on social hypocrisy; his meditations on what song he’d like to play while committing suicide; and an outlandish theory about Radiohead’s album Kid A unintentionally predicting the events of 9/11. Needless to say this guy is all over the place, and for every insight he offers, there’s twice as many ruminations on an unrelated topic.

While a lack of direction, as well as the absence of any conclusion, pervades the memoir, its saving grace is that Klosterman never pretends his narrative is anything more than it is. His unpretentious, self-deprecatory tone and willingness to admit his faults as a memoirist—and as a person—gives it a sort of charm, and makes him a relatable and entertaining narrator, with plenty of humor and wit to move the story along.

In short, don’t go looking for any profound insight on life, death, and rock’n’roll; just for a steady 256 pages of travel, philosophizing, and an endless sea of pop culture references. For those wanting more, Klosterman is also the author of the nonfiction book Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota; a collection of essays entitled Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man; to name a few.