Tag Archive: 7.5

Apr 25

Review: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Also on my recent drama kick, I listened to Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. This play won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so in trying to keep up with a bit of theatre, I stuck it on my list. I had kinda stalled out on listening to The Bone Season (which I’m still listening to because it’s good, it’s just a downer), so I picked this up to cleanse my palate.

Palate-cleansing is probably not the best use for this play. This 90 minute (really more like 98) play is meant to be performed in a single act, but really, the sauce is the third scene. Amir is an American-born, Muslim-raised lawyer who works for a high-powered law firm in New York. Emily is his artist wife who is obsessed with Islamic culture for her work. Amir is uncomfortable with this because he has avoided his religion for a long time due to the negative connotations it would have for his career. Amir’s nephew Abe shows up one day to ask him to be at the trial for an imam who is being tried for what Abe claims is a trumped-up charge. Amir goes to the trial due to Emily’s urging, but this ultimately has quite the negative effect on his career consequences.

Cut to scene 3: the dinner party. The most awkward dinner party ever. The kind where you just want to hide beneath the rug before the entree ever makes it out of the kitchen. The party combines Amir, the Muslim lawyer who is both ashamed and kinda proud of his Islamic roots, his white wife Emily who loves Islamic culture and art with Jory, a Jewish art collector for a museum displaying Emily’s work (that slept with Emily in London) and his African-American wife who works with Amir. Lubed well with alcohol, their conversation ranges over so many hot button issues, it can be hard to keep track at times. Suffice to say, the conflict of culture comes to a violent head, and nobody ends up with a happy ending.

The play works incredibly well, even if the pacing seems a little weird. The first two scenes pass incredibly quickly (about 15 minutes) whereas the dinner party lasts about 50 minutes. The final scene is more of a denouement where you see that everybody has received their just deserts, and that with race and ethnicity in America, the problems are intractable. Also, Asif Mandvi played Amir in the production that was captured for this recording, and he turns in a stellar performance.

I think that the reason Disgraced works as well as it does is that it forces you to consider everyone’s perspective, no matter how instinctively wrong that perspective may feel. Amir is ashamed of his Islamic heritage in the first two scenes, and so I ended up feeling like he needed to embrace and not shy away from his heritage. But in Scene 3, he learns that that’s the reason he’s not making partner at the law firm, and his dinner companions are shocked when he finds some of the attitudes coming from Arab extremists understandable and partially relatable. It puts into start relief the idea that when it comes to cultures outside of the mainstream of America, it seems that many want to be accepting, but only of the quirky, fun parts. When things start to get dark and hard, the other side needs to shut up and get in line. In Disgraced, Amir proves unable to do that, and he suffers the consequences.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 24

Review: Agnes of God by John Pielmeier

Agnes of God

So I haven’t reviewed anything for a month. Got busy with freelance work and the library, but that doesn’t mean that I stopped reading. I never stop reading. Or listening for that matter. And that’s how I finally got around to listening to a couple of plays that have been riding on my Audible account for a while. So while I was packing up PINES a few weeks ago, I listened to the 90 minute run of Agnes of God.

The story follows psychologist Dr. Livingstone who has been appointed by the courts to establish the mental state of Agnes, a nun living in a New York convent. However, Agnes is always accompanied to these sessions by her Mother Superior, an older nun who is protective of Agnes. Agnes presents two interesting problems that Livingstone must contend with: first, she has been accused of murdering her newborn baby by strangling it with the umbilical cord and then throwing it in the trashcan. Second, Agnes is remarkably naive. She has no idea what sex is, has never dated, never seen a TV show or a movie, and is in every way a modern innocent. As the play progresses, Livingstone becomes increasingly engrossed in the case, convinced that Agnes is innocent, but unable to accept the possibility without having another rational explanation for these actions.

Needless to say in a play that centers around the convergence of faith and psychological practice, rational explanations are hard to come by. Livingstone is convinced a priest knocked Agnes up, while Agnes claims it was an angel or God. No one is ever sure of anything, and in many ways, its like the story of Doubt, just covering a different subject matter.

The character relationships in this production were superb. Whenever I do the audio version of a play, I always very British (where you go to “listen” to a play). But really, this was very good, though I found the characters to be frustratingly, realistically flawed. The Mother Superior refuses to push Agnes for a real story or investigate who the father might have been (or the murder, for that matter). Instead, she relies on her faith and her desire to believe in miracles and goodness in the modern world. Livingstone lets her hatred of Catholicism cloud her judgment, and her over-investment in Agnes’s innocence blinds her to the fact that Agnes may in fact be guilty. And Agnes…poor Agnes. A life lived in fantasy made a break with reality all too easy, making it impossible for her to give straight, real answers to the horrific crime this story involves. And while these people are frustrating in their lack of perfection, that is what makes them so engaging.

This play may raise more questions than it ultimately answers, but that’s something I always like about theatre: it gives you an engrossing story that gives you something to talk about on the car ride home. If I wanted every question answered, I’d just watch network TV.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Feb 12

Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil In The Whit City

So, for the middle part of the 2000’s, I saw everyone reading this book. Not all at once, mind you, but a lot of people over a sustained period of time. This, mixed with his Larson’s similarly covered In the Garden of Beasts, was one of the most sustained in popularity nonfiction books of the last decade.

And I never read it.

Until now, that is. As part of my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014, I’m tackling 12 titles that have been on my to be read list for over a year. This one I actually had on the shelf, so I decided that I needed to finish one of them before January was over. Even though I just got around to reviewing it in the middle of February.

This book tells a double story in alternating chapters, united by time and place. The high class story is about the Chicago World’s Fair, a major exhibition that built the white city that amazed visitors from around the world. However, the story of how it came to be was anything but business as usual, and Larson deftly makes the story of buildings and travel, architects and exhibits, pomp and pageantry accessible and incredibly informative. Seriously, American history isn’t really my jam, but reading this, I kept rooting for the world’s fair, and it makes me a little sad that I was born over a century too late to have ever seen it. It’s one of the places that won the day for alternate current electricity. It’s where the Ferris wheel was invented. It’s where the snake charming song came from:

So yeah, it was a big deal. And against the backdrop of the Pullman strikes, the Chicago slaughterhouse days, and the birth of Chicago as a majorly important American center of culture as well as commerce, this story of a beautiful city rising from the marsh of Lake Michigan through grit, determination, and a little bit of luck could easily stand on its own.

but-wait-theres-more

In the alternate chapters, Larson explores the life of H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Throughout his life, Holmes was responsible for 9 confirmed deaths and perhaps up to 27-200 (he confessed to 27 and at times claimed the number was as high as 200). Through his charming demeanor and sociopathic analysis of society, he was able to ward off creditors, build a massive Chicago hotel that people referred to as the “castle” for almost no money, woo women, and carry out his crimes with impunity. Oh, and he had like four wives. Not only did he woo and kill a bunch of women and kids, he couldn’t seem to stop collecting them either.

Seriously though, this guy is such a creep. So when the detective from back east starts going after him with his super methodical and dogged style, you can see an archetype being born. And when he’s caught, and subsequently hung, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The best thing that can be said for any sort of split narrative piece is that when a chapter of one story ends, you wish it would go on longer…you just can’t bare to go back to the other story. But by the end of that next chapter, you wish that’s the story that would keep going. It’s a credit to Larson that he made this story engaging, immersing, narrative-driven, and hugely readable. Great job.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Dec 30

Review: This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova

This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova

It has been forever since I’ve had the chance to read a book in a single sitting, but I managed to knock out This Case Is Gonna Kill Me on Christmas Eve. Yay for early gift buying and wrapping!

This book is both urban fantasy (fantasy in the contemporary world) and a legal thriller. Linnet has just started her new job at a high power law firm. The law firm is run by vampires. Vampires, werewolves, and the Alfir (elves) have come out of the closet, so to speak, and have slowly started taking over Western society. But everybody just kind of accepts it, and everybody’s in an uneasy truce while they try to get rich or die trying.

So, anywho, Linnet also has a blap (that’s like a dollop, but applied more forcefully) of Stephanie Plum in the mix, so while bad things constantly happen to her, she manages to either helps save the day or she makes it out relatively unharmed. But seriously, this girl is a crisis magnet: werewolf attacks her boss in the office and she barely escapes, werewolf assassins kill attack her and an old guy in New Jersey, werewolf killers track her and her friends across country, cornering them in a strip club. Basically, if werewolves are around, you don’t want to be near Linnet. Because she’s a designated survivor, and the rest of us are just that many redshirts.

Despite that, though, the book is a lot of  fun to read. Linnet is a likable narrator, and I found myself wanting her to do well. Whether she’s wading through the estate case that forms the bulk of the novel or handling a messy divorce or trying to figure out a complicated love affair, I wanted the savvy yet a bit bumbling lawyer to win. And maybe that’s a little lazy on my part, but it was the holidays, and do you want a downer over Christmas?

No Latrice

I didn’t think so.

My only real concern with this book (besides the cover art, because really, that doesn’t even look like the character and it’s obviously just two stock images super-imposed, come on guys) is that there seems to be a lot of world out there for Bornikova to explore, and it feels like this novel only scratched the surface. She set up a complicated social structure for vampires that only came into play a few times, werewolves are presented as little more than alpha males with fur on speed, and the Alfir didn’t make an appearance as a group until the end of the book. And the second title came out this year, so I hope that she keeps it up and publishes a slew of them. But I guess I always compare books in this genre with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. And in comparison to a 13 book series, any single novel’s world is going to feel underdeveloped. Let me just put it this way: the dollop I got here was good, I just hope that it stays cute for a swallow and not just a taste.

If you like urban fantasy and/or legal thrillers, Bornikova might just be your new girl.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Sep 26

Review: Spook by Mary Roach

Spook Mary RoachOkay, so once upon a time, there was this really cool secondhand bookstore that I went to in Tallahassee’s Railroad Square.  That’s where I usually go rock climbing, but Dale and I went early one day and explored the galleries, restaurants, yarn stores, and this place. All the books.  Excellent selection.  Great prices.  So I promptly bought all of the books and didn’t read them.  But, I was looking for a shorter book to finish off my reading goal for the year (75 books down!), and I decided to pick up Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach.

I am a Mary Roach fan.  I have been a Mary Roach fan since my creative writing teacher in college gave me Stiff as an example of how nonfiction can be crazy informative and funny all at the same time.  And then I read Packing for Mars which almost cured me of ever wanting to go to space because the discomfort just might not be worth it.

Spook is a little different from Roach’s typical books.  Instead of looking at the human body, she’s looking at the soul and whether she can find any proof for the existence of the hereafter.  She goes an exhaustive hunt for evidence, from the history of weighing dying people to see if the departing soul led to weight loss to stories of reincarnation in India to modern medical experiments about near death experiences, Roach leaves no stone unturned in her investigation.  For anyone who wants a practical history of ghost hunting, mediums, hauntings, and electronic voice projection, Roach has you covered.

And let’s not forget:  this book is funny.  Like inappropriate chortle in the middle of church funny.  Dale looked over at me several times as I was reading in bed and just laughing and laughing.  And then I’d read him a section and he wouldn’t really laugh because it’s all about context, but trust me–it’s pretty damn funny.  Especially the chapter about going on a weekend retreat course in how to become a medium.  I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but now I want to go.  Because oh the stories you could tell after that.

So I don’t know why this book never came together for me.  It was funny.  And engaging. And the subject matter is up my alley. But I had the hardest time getting through it.  I’m going to blame myself.  I’m so crazy busy with Capstone writing and life living and new job finding that my focus can be a little at loose ends.  And it certainly hasn’t dissuaded me from pursuing the rest of Roach’s catalog.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Tl next time,

-JMF

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