Thursday, April 10, 2014

REVIEW: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

     The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the story of Theo Decker, a thirteen year old boy growing up in NYC, living on the lower end of a privileged life struggling with living with an alcoholic and despondent father first, then with his mother after his father abandoned them. Not a bad kid, but testing the limits. One of his tested limits got him suspended from school, a meeting scheduled with school staff and his mother.
     The morning of the meeting, after finding themselves with some time to kill and needing to get out of the rain, Theo and his mother go into an art museum. Art is one of her passions, and they tour the museum with her expert analysis of several pieces. Toward the end of their visit, Theo and his mom separate, just for a moment, and there is an explosion. Just like that, in an act of domestic terrorism, Theo is an orphan, forever changed by and connected to a dying man and his niece, taking with him a…secret, of sorts, that becomes the powerful but underlying source of comfort and pain, connecting him to the tragedy and his mother, throughout the book.

     What remains is a first person account of Theo’s life and constant struggles not only with the world around him, but in his own body and mind. He is tormented, blaming himself, abusing drugs and alcohol from an early age, living with three different ‘families’ before reaching adulthood and reaching stability, albeit fragile and nontraditional.

Author Donna Tartt
     The Goldfinch is filled with compelling characters. Theo’s mother, in her brief appearance, is a strong, solid, loving woman with varied successes and interests, doing her best to balance a disastrous marriage, career, her love of art, and parenting. The aristocratic Barbour Family, New York old money, who took him in immediately after his mother’s death, and who Theo learned loved him more than he realized, but in way he would never understand. Theo’s father, an unrealized actor, alcoholic, drug abuser, degenerate gambler. Boris, perhaps Theo’s only friend, who shared the death of a mother, the abuse of a father, drugs and alcohol, but was also so different, less burdened, courageous, and either a mastermind or a combination of dumb, lucky, and too na├»ve to know any better. And Hobie, an unquestioningly generous, big, soft Teddy Bear of a man who became Theo’s guardian despite having nearly no prior relationship with him, only a peripheral connection.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
     The Goldfinch is outside my normal genre, selected by my book club, but so intense that I felt compelled to review it. It is the third novel by Ms. Tartt, and is a beautifully and descriptively told story, addressing so many issues that one review can do none of them justice: the impact of terrorism, abuse, gambling, drugs, alcohol, PTSD, wealth, poverty, abandonment, love, despair, crime and right and wrong and the blurred lines in between. Art and antiques, their beauty and meaning, people’s love for both, strong enough to lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes kill. Ends justifying means, and so much more.
     The strengths of The Goldfinch, though, could also be considered its weakness. The book was over six hundred pages long. While much of it was essential, fast moving prose, or meaningful descriptions of emotions or beauty derived from art and artists, much was also lengthy, unnecessary and sometimes repetitive reflections of things already said or addressed. It was not meaningless, but tiresome, especially perhaps for a reader of generally more fast past crime fiction and thrillers.

     More than one book has been suggested as a modern replacement for, or addition to, The Catcher in the Rye for older high school or college literature classes, and perhaps The Goldfinch should be one of them. Students would likely relate to at least one of the many struggles of Theo Decker and his friend Boris, and adults to the many flawed characters in the book, if not to Theo and Boris themselves.  

Tartt, Donna. The GoldfinchLittle, Brown and Company, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-316-24867-9

The Goldfinch was purchased by The Thirty Year Itch. No compensation was provided for this review. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014


      Kidnapped for Christ is the first feature film directed by Kate S. Logan. And it was an accident. Kind of.
     While in college at Biola University, Ms. Logan was working on a film project at a Christian school for troubled American youth. The school, Escuela Caribe, was located in the Dominican Republic. She learned of it while there on a mission trip. She thought the visit to the school would give her an opportunity to film "a story about redemption." Instead, she witnessed hard labor, forced exercise until children were coughing up blood, humiliation, kids locked in rooms for hours, and physical abuse.
     While Ms. Logan had access to several kids at Escuela Caribe, the documentary was mostly about David, a seventeen year old boy from Colorado. Despite having good grades, good friends, and many scholarship opportunities awaiting him after his senior year of high school, he was awoken one night, taken from his bed by three men, and eventually ended up in the Dominican Republic. Why? He came out to his parents as gay.
Director Kate Logan
     David had an opportunity to share a lot with Ms. Logan while at the school. He recognized he had little
choice about being there, but when he turned eighteen and was not allowed to leave, others got involved. Family friends from Colorado were devastated about David's situation. They held regular meetings planning how to get him home, culminating in a trip by two adults to Escuela Caribe. But despite David being eighteen, he was not allowed to leave the school. Even the US Embassy offered little help in securing David's release.
     Meanwhile, Ms. Logan was receiving threatening letters from lawyers: if you make and release a film about Escuala Caribe, we'll sue you. She didn't finish the film. At least not then.
     A few years later, David agreed to talk. He had been threatened, coerced, and was frightened. Ms. Logan started her film making again, following David to a meeting of  a group called Survivors of Institutional Abuse. There were too many stories like David's, at schools for troubled teens all around the world, even within the United States. And no laws to stop or even regulate them.

     I have heard of several institutions like Escuela Caribe over the years. While I knew no details about them, I always thought of them as tough love boarding schools, a last resort for parents of incorigable children who were out of control, involved in criminal behavior, drug abuse, or were destructive to themselves or their families. I never thought one could be sent off for being gay. And I never would have thought of these schools as so demeaning and abusive as what was exposed in Kidnapped for Christ. Most of the filming that took place was with the full knowledge and in the presence of school staff. I hate to think about what happened when the cameras were not around.
“The afternoon that I arrived at Escuela Caribe, this scrawny 12-year-old was being ‘rebellious’… so they staged this boxing match in front of the students and the dean of the school basically beat the crap out of this boy, and the message of that was clear: either conform or be conformed.”  - Julia Scheeres, Author of Jesus Land, a memoir about her and her bother’s time at Escuela Caribe
“My parents thought they were sending me to a tough boarding school in the Caribbean run by Christians. I still have nightmares about Escuela Caribe about four times a week.” - Edgar Schoenwald Jr. former student at Escuela Caribe and additional editor on Kidnapped For Christ
“I believe every day [at Escuela Caribe] was a violation of my person … I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of my experience in the program.” - Lisa Brown, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“Out of the country = NO US LAWS ... and they take full advantage of it.” - Chris Kam, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“I remember being scared nearly every moment of every day.” - Bethany Leeuw (Beerhorst), Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
“I was abused under the illusion of 'God's love,' and refused the human dignity to disagree … These tales we tell are terrible & horrifying, but they are true.” - Joshua Sierk, Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
     Despite the title, the film did not put as much focus as I thought it would on the religious aspect of the school. It was a Christian school, but there was not as much proselytizing by school staff as I expected. Despite that, the cruelty the children were exposed to was enough to want to disassociate with any organization or faith that would proudly run an institution like Escuala Caribe. Ms. Logan herself, in her narration of the film, acknowledged that what she saw caused her to question her own faith. 
     But as much as I would like to have seen more of the religious justification of the abuse of these children, to demonstrate the dangers of such a strong influence religion has over some people and how it is used to justify atrocities by others, it would have taken away from the bigger picture about this school and the many like it. It is not about religion bashing; it is about the children being hurt in this kind of environment, and it doesn't matter if it is secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. 
     Ms. Logan went from being a documentarian to playing an active role in helping David. While this might violate the rules of making a documentary, I understand if she felt she had no choice.

     Kidnapped for Christ was not a big budget film. There were few charts, few diagrams, no special effects, no fancy filmography. But its message was strong, powerful, and well told. I hope it continues to be shown across the country, bringing attention to schools like Escuela Caribe, preventing parents from resorting to sending their children away to these places, forcing law makers to investigate the abuse and regulate them, and putting pressure on the schools to close their doors, or at least reevaluate their methods.

     It is a tragedy that so many children have suffered the way David and the other children at Escuela Caribe and so many other schools around the world have. But it will be worse if nothing is done, and the abuse continues, destroying the youth, hope, optimism from so many more children.

Kidnapped for Christ, 2014
The Film Collaborative
Directed by Kate S. Logan
Yada Zamora, Kate S. Logan, Paul A. Levin
Yada Zamora
Peter Borrud, Stash Slionski, Sam Allen, Joshua Csehak, Bradley Scott, Kate S. Logan
H. Dwight Raymond IV, Sean Yates

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Review: IVORY TOWER

     College was the best time of my life. Without question, the four years I spent at Eastern Michigan University (1992-1996) were something every young person should get to experience. Independence; but with help and guidance of older students, faculty, and staff. Learning; not just in class, but through student interactions, student organizations, and the non-classroom programming offered throughout the University. Meeting new people; people from so many different places, with so many different interests, but with the bond of sharing college years together. Making mistakes; lots of them, but in an environment that expects you to, and has ways to help correct them. All while encouraging new experiences, questioning what you're told, and stepping outside comfort zones. 
     EMU, compared to other schools, is probably nothing special, your run-of-the-mill state school. But to me and so many other graduates, it is something to be proud of. The institution and my experiences there played a bigger role in who I have become than arguably any other influence. 
     Sadly, young people today are less likely to have that experience. Rising education costs and poor job outlooks are preventing many from attending college, let alone going away from home.

     Ivory Tower is a film that discusses all this and more. Directed by Andrew Rossi, it tells the story of higher education in America. But the American model, starting with Harvard and perhaps culminating with the University of California system, is changing. Education seems not to be a priority anymore. In the film, experts referred to an "arms race" between institutions. The best food, best reputation, best recreation centers, nicest dorms. But not the best education, student experience, post-college job outlooks, or value. 
     According to Ivory Tower, the cost of college education has increased 1120% since 1978, more than double the increase in health care costs. These increases are the result of several things, including higher administrative costs (money spent on new administrative employees versus faculty is astonishingly disproportionate), state funding cuts, and the previously mentioned "arms race". Meanwhile, the student loan debt in the United States is $1.1 TRILLION, more than the credit card debt of the entire country. 

    When I graduated from EMU in 1996, tuition, including fees, was just about $100 per credit hour. Today, it is $308.90 per credit hour for in-state residents. When I was a new student in 1992, my financial aid was based on an $8,500 budget, which included tuition, room and board, text books, and transportation costs to and from school. Today, on their website, estimated tuition and room and board for the 2014-2015 year is $17,120, with no mention of books (probably another $1000) or transportation.  
     I don't mean to pick on my Alma mater, it's just what I'm most familiar with. But the story is the same all over the country at public and private schools. 
Cooper Union Tuition Protests
     Another extreme is Cooper Union, founded by Industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859. He was committed to providing free education for all, particularly the working class. He was successful in his mission, until 2013. Despite an endowment left by Mr. Cooper, including the land the Chrysler Building sits on, despite a protest by Cooper Union students that occupied the President's office for two months, the school decided to charge tuition starting in 2013. It seems a combination of bad hedge fund investments and borrowing over $100 million dollars to build a state of the art building weren't such good ideas after all. 
     Since it was the first time for tuition, one might think it would be modest? Not so much. Tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year was $39,600, not including $1,800 in student fees and $11,000 for housing, and unknown expenses for books and supplies. The total for 2013-2014 academic year: $52,400 + books and supplies. It should be mentioned that all enrolled Cooper Union students in 2013-2014 will get a scholarship that matches the cost of tuition, but students entering in the fall of 2014 will only get about half of that amount, about $20,000/year, making their total estimated expenses, excluding books and materials, a hefty $32,000/year. A far cry from Mr. Cooper's dream of free education for all. 

Director Andrew Rossi
     Ivory Tower explored online education. It seems to have caught on over the last decade, with online degrees available from myriad public, private, and for profit colleges and universities. But are they effective? Can student learn the same way online as they can in a classroom, face to face with educators and peers? The film highlighted one experiment that indicated an online experience could not, with a pass rate in remedial math classes of well under 60%. 
     Other alternatives highlighted include Uncollge, founded by Dale Stephens that suggests that college is not the only route to success. Similarly, The Thiel Foundation,which funded Mr. Stephens, started by Peter Thiel of PayPal and Facebook fame, paid a number of students $100,000 to drop out of college and take an alternative route. The results are not in. 
     Intentionally left out of the film were the many for-profit educational institutions that have sprouted over the last decade and what impact they have and will have in higher education.

     The message is clear: American higher education is changing. What is the prognosis? The film touched on that, too, but without clear answers. Perhaps a hybrid model, where lectures are viewed online and students meet in smaller groups for classroom and lab work. Perhaps a change in values where education is concerned, with bigger commitment from everyone to adequately fund institutions of higher learning, to return to making them affordable for all. Or perhaps more and more schools will close their doors, leaving higher education available only to those who can afford it, furthering the growing American plutocracy.  

     Something has to change, and I think that is what Mr. Rossi hoped to convey in Ivory Tower. While college educates, the college experience is about more than classes. It should focus on critical thinking skills, a liberal arts education, to help young people mold themselves into whom they want to be, to become responsible members of society. Without it, America will be worse off.

Ivory Tower
Directed by Andrew Rossi
Produced by Andrew Rossi, Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Coffman
Editing by Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Andrew Coffman

Viewed Ivory Tower at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film was followed by a panel interview, which included Mr. Rossi. 

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