Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thoughts on Michael Chabon and books into film

First, read my May 24 post on Michael Chabon and then read the comment that was left in response to that post.

A couple of thoughts on this . . . I can’t judge Michael Chabon or the movie. I don’t know if Michael did indeed “approve” the script or if he sold the movie rights and had no input at all on the script for the movie version of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Nor have I seen the movie, which has yet to be released. I am always skeptical of anyone who condemns a book or movie when they haven’t read it or seen it. You have no credibility. Seems to me that you can’t respond from an informed position unless you have read the book or, in this case, seen the movie.

I think there’s another issue here too. And that is that books and movies are vastly different art forms. Good books don’t always make good movies. Sometimes they do. Lots and lots of material in a book does have to be eliminated from a movie. An author has virtually an unlimited numbers of pages to develop a character or unfold a narrative. A movie director has only two or three hours to do the same. I’m always more interested in whether a movie is true to the spirit of the book.

I have not read Chabon’s Wonder Boys or seen the movie version. Now, I think I’ll do both just to see how one of Chabon’s books made the transition to the silver screen.

And, since we’re on this subject, let’s hear from the half dozen readers of this blog about 1) the books they think were made into great movies and, conversely, 2) the books-into-film that were absolutely terrible.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Literary notes from Washington, D.C.

Al Gore spoke to a capacity crowd of 1,500 at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University last night. Gore’s appearance was sponsored by Politics & Prose, Washington’s finest independent bookstore, in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Assault on Reason.

Gore proclaimed Washington Post writer Dana Milbank was the “smartest guy in the room.” Milbank reports that Gore “waxed esoteric” about the ancients, “waxed erudite” about the Enlightenment and “waxed informed” about the Information Age.

As for his new book, Gore said, “Were it possible to summarize this book in only 15 minutes, it wouldn’t be the book it is, but I’ll try.” Gore then spoke for 34 minutes.

Writer Michael Ondaatje received prominent play on the front page of the Post’s Style section. Ondaatje said his new book, Divisadero, which, according to the author, features “quite a radical form.”

Post reporter Bob Thompson said, “The new novel began when, as a visiting writer at Stanford, he fell in love with the rugged, rolling hills north of San Francisco. Imagining an ‘odd kind of family’ in that landscape, he says, ‘became the book.’ But Divisadero doesn’t stay in that California landscape, or with that family’s explosive history. A little more than halfway through, the action shifts entirely to France, carried forward by a new set of characters.”

Finally, this morning, the Post reports that First Lady Laura Bush joined actress Emma Roberts to promote summer reading. Roberts, the niece of actress Julia Roberts, stars in forthcoming film Nancy Drew. The two appeared at a Washington school. Bush spokesperson Sally McDonough said Mrs. Bush, a former librarian, “wanted to highlight the importance of summer reading, and brought the actress along to the school because of her work with a group called Drop Everything and Read.”

The two spent about 20 minutes reading from The Secret of the Old Clock, the first book in the Nancy Drew series. “Nancy Drew was a favorite book of mine when I was your age,” Bush told students at the Washington middle school. “So if you like reading about a girl detective, you might this summer go to your library and check out Nancy Drews. And if you’re a really, really fast reader, you could read all 57.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A new Penguin Lives appears; Shapiro on Julia Child

Books now read in ’07: 48
Title: Julia Child
Author: Laura Shapiro
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 5-29
Pages: 181

I had thought that Viking’s fine Penguin Lives series of brief biographies had ended in 2004. So, imagine my surprise last week when I stumbled upon the most recent entry – Julia Child by Laura Shapiro -- three years after the last biography appeared.

I have always loved this series. It has been an interesting blend of historical figures by notable authors in the perfect format – generally running to less than 200 pages, including the bibliography and reference on sources. It began in 1999 with Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, a book that set the standard for all that were to follow, including Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, Garry Wills on Saint Augustine, Edna O’Brien on James Joyce, Douglas Brinkley on Rosa Parks and Bobbie Ann Mason on Elvis.

Shapiro’s biography of Julia Child fits nicely into the 30-plus books in the series. She offers a nicely balanced account of Child’s contributions to American cooking. Shapiro notes that Julia did not introduce Americans to quiche, although that is how she was often introduced. “What Julia did do first,” writes Shapiro, “and single-handedly, was to make sophisticated home cooking count. She made it impossible to ignore. Publishers, food editors, television executives, the food industry -- everyone who believed that American women were pledged for all eternity to frozen chicken potpie had to rethink a great many assumptions in the wake of The French Chef.”

Shapiro resists the impulse to canonize Child. She notes that she was unduly supportive of the American food industry, including the practice of irradiating food; was deeply distrustful of the health-food movement and scorned the New American cooking launched by Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse in Berkley. She also notes, most fairly, that much of Child’s influence has waned since her death as American’s have embraced lighter fare and new influences

Julia Child’s greatest and most lasting influence are found in her boundless enthusiasm for cooking and for good food. “Her passion for food,” Shapiro concludes, “raced through her whole body.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 47
Title: The Ministry of Special Cases
Author: Nathan Englander
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 5-27
Pages: 339

"It took madness, he felt, for two conflicting realities to exist at once. For Lillian and Kaddish in Argentina, it also did not. Everything and its opposite. As in the case of a son that is both living and dead."

Horrific events are captured with singular beauty in Nathan Englander’s novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. It is Englander’s second book and his first novel. He made a spectacular debut in 1999 with his short-story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

The Ministry of Special Cases is a story of one family caught up in Argentina’s Dirty War. Between 1976 and 1983, in a systematic campaign to wipe out left-wing terrorism, the nation’s ruling military junta detained many of its citizens, who then disappeared.

Conservatively, 9,000 people disappeared during the junta’s reign of terror. Some estimates run as high as 30,000. Englander writes about three – Kaddish and Lillian Poznan and their son Pato.

Much of the power in Englander’s story derives from these three characters, who are ordinary in almost every respect (Kaddish does claim an unusual background and an even more peculiar profession). As Jews in Buenos Aires the Poznans are among a distinict minority, but this does not seem to be the reason they are targeted by the junta. Lillian and Kaddish work, while Pato goes to the university, attends concerts and hangs with his network of friends. The Poznans love one another, although Kaddish and Pato are caught up in the fierce, generational conflict that so often envelopes father and son.

And then Pato disappears and the fabric of the family is ripped apart.

Lillian insists Pato lives and will return home at any moment. Lillian's quest to find Pato leads her through an absurd labyrinthine government bureaucracy. Kaddish’s quest leads to find their son leads him to a fishing dock in Buenos Aires, an Air Force navigator and the truth. Kaddish comes to the realization that their son has died a horrible death shared by thousands of other innocent children.

Yet with no body who is say who is right -- Kaddish or Lillian. It is that uncertainity that is at the heart of the horror of The Ministry of Special Cases.

Englander has assembled a powerful and compelling narrative. The Ministry of Special Cases is a beautifully written elegy to the enormous loss encountered by the Argentineans during the Dirty War, and their courage in the face of inexplicable horror and unrelenting hopelessness.

Friday, May 25, 2007

I’m a little late on this particular post. Jim Crace, the inventive British novelist, appeared May 14 at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. Crace was there to promote his fine new book The Pesthouse.

During the Q&A session, I asked Crace about the epigraphs to his books and why he did what he does. What he does is, well, the epigraphs to his books are fake. He makes them up. What makes this especially amusing is that some critics haven’t realized the imaginary nature of the epigraphs. They’ve cited the epigraphs in their reviews of Crace’s novels.

Book critics aren’t the only one who have fallen for Crace’s trickery. A representative of the Oxford Companion to English Literature called Crace a few years ago to update his biographical information in the next edition of that book. As they talked, Crace asked if the book would have an entry for the Greco-Roman historian Pycletius. Well no, the man said, would Crace like to write that entry? Certainly, Crace said.

Crace wrote the biography for Pycletius and submitted it. To his delight the entry – entirely fictitious – was published. As the Politics & Prose website reports, “The work was retrieved by an ever-alert and astute P&P staff member, and the entry for Crace's fictional 'Pycletius' on page 827 was read by him to the amused and slightly shocked crowd. One never knows what one will learn when attending a Politics & Prose author talk.”

In a similar vein, Crace’s book Useless America went on sale at a year ago – even though Crace has never written it. His publishers have since issued a limited print run of Useless America. It’s a small book – largely because there’s no text at all. You can read more about it at The Guardian.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Michael Chabon -- a rock star among authors

Yesterday’s post, like many of today’s movies, clearly opened the way for a sequel. There was that enticing reference to Michael Chabon. Michael Chabon?! The guy that won a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and leveraged his fame into writing comic books. Yeah, that Michael Chabon.

Chabon returned home last night. A native of Columbia, Maryland, he appeared at Washington, D.C.’s venerable Sixth & I Synagogue, which is located at well 6th & I in D.C.’s Northwest quadrant. Chabon’s appearance, sponsored by Politics & Prose, one of my very favorite independent bookstores remember, was to promote his new book The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

No single individual should be as talented (remember that Pulitzer), good-looking, funny and deeply, but oh so matter-of-factly, intelligent as Chabon. We should dislike him. Instead, he received a greeting worthy of a rock star. He spoke to a packed house. I don't want to overstate the size of the audience, but there were hundreds of people there. At the conclusion of his speech-slash-reading the audience sang Happy Birthday to him (he’s young too, turning 44 today) and then mobbed the front of the synagogue as he stepped down to sign books. This was the sort of response D.C. crowds normally reserve for its political bright lights.

Chabon’s program last night was familiar to aficionados of author tours, yet different in significant, but subtle ways. He promised to talk about The Yiddish Policemen's Union, read briefly from it, engage in a Q&A and then sign books. He spoke from prepared remarks that were funny and provoking (and long). It was all about The Yiddish Policemen's Union and yet it wasn’t. The book was not mentioned until the end of his talk, which focused on a small guidebook to speaking Yiddish, Chabon’s loss and subsequent recovery of his Jewish identity and Chabon's loss and subsequent recovery of his appreciation for and determination to write genre fiction.

At its roots The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a detective novel. But, as you would expect from Chabon, it is a detective novel that explores important themes of nationalism and identity. (Yeah, that sets up another sequel, once I read the book.)

Chabon did get around to signing books. The crew from Politics & Prose lost control early as the author’s fans mobbed him, waving copies of Summerland, The Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I brought seven books. He signed them all. He also signed my copy of JSA All Stars 7. Hey, after his performance last night I was ready for him to sign my t-shirt. This author is a rock star.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's a book collector to do? Four author events -- all at the same time!

What’s a book collector to do?

Tuesday in Washington there were four book events I wanted to attend. All four were at the same time. As I don’t have a clone, I had to make some decisions on where to go and why?

The authors appearing on Tuesday were:

  • Michael Connelly, The Overlook
  • Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe
  • Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases
  • Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Greg Bear, numerous books

Although he is among my favorite authors, I eliminated Connelly. A signed copy of his new book will be arriving soon from Murder By The Book, the superb Houston independent bookstore that’s one of my favorites.

I also scratched Isaacson from the list although this would mark the fourth time he’s appeared in the Washington area and the fourth time I missed him. I think Isaacson, who lives in the area, will make another appearance or two here soon. Plus, it gives me time to nab a first edition of his biography on Benjamin Franklin to go with my first of Einstein.

That left the sci fi writers or Englander. I opted for Englander, but prepared for both events.

Englander was reading and signing at Politics & Prose, another independent bookstore and another that’s among my favorites. I choose Englander because 1) I loved his only previous book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a superb short story collection, 2) I’m 60 pages into his new book and loving it, and 3) I felt his new book was the most significant of the offerings Tuesday and, although I don’t focus on this, potentially the most valuable signed.

There was also a fourth reason. The bookstore where Niven, Pournelle and Bear were appearing was on my way home. Maybe, just maybe, I could pull off a rare double-double.

So, I slipped down to Politics & Prose. Listened to Englander’s reading and then nabbed his signature. I was second in line. From there, I headed home. The trip home took me past Reiter’s Scientific & Professional Books on K Street near the heart of D.C.’s lobbying district. I was unaware of the store until I saw this signing listed in The Washington Post’s Book World.

I rolled up in front of Reiter’s about 8:20 p.m. (Remember the event began at 7 p.m.) There was a parking spot in front of the store; incredible for D.C. I dashed in. The author’s were still there. Still signing.

I had three bags of books – 21 books; two for Bear (both Nebula Prize winners), about a half-dozen for Pournelle (who is a frequent co-author with Niven) and about 15 for Niven. I showed the bags to Niven and asked if was willing to sign them all or just a few. He gave me a skeptical look and then said he’d sign them all. And he did. Pournelle and Bear signed too.

It was a good day. Tonight: Michael Chabon. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 46
Title: Rereadings
Author: Anne Fadiman, editor
Genre: Books on Books
Date Completed: 5-21
Pages: 238

One of the delicious pleasures of reading is rereading a cherished book. As its title so aptly suggests, that’s the focus of Rereadings. Edited by Anne Fadiman, Rereadings is a collection of essays from The American Scholar. There’s Jamie James on Joseph Conrad, Diana Kappel Smith on Roger Tory Peterson and Phillip Lopate on Stendahl.

The essays are uniformly enjoyable even if you’re not familiar with the books or authors in question. Katherine Ashenburg writes about the Sue Barton Books by Helen Dore Boylston. I have been fairly indiscriminate (actually I prefer eclectic) in my reading, but I have never read the adventures of Sue Barton Neighborhood Nurse. Still, I can appreciate Ashenburg’s childhood enjoyment in the series and her return to them as an adult. I was rather fond of the Rick Brant science-adventure stories myself.

The result of Rereadings is two-fold: it prompts you to recall books you’ve reread and whether you found those books enjoyable or a disappointment and it also spurs you to consider other titles that demand rereading. I have returned through the years to Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It remains among my favorite books, although I was not introduced to it until I was in my 30s. I’ve also returned to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as well as numerous titles by Charles Dickens.

In the first two months of 2005 I did nothing but reread well-loved books including Slaughterhouse Five, Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler, The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr., The Wind in the Willows, Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Cannery Row and The Pickwick Papers. Styron’s books was the only one that disappointed me upon rereading.

Here’s Allegra Goodman near the end of her essay on Jane Austen:

“I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.”

Well said.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Hot Kid returns in Leonard's new novel

Books now read in ’07: 45
Title: Up In Honey’s Room
Author: Elmore Leonard
Genre: Thriller
Date Completed: 5-20
Pages: 292

The Hot Kid, federal marshal Carl Webster, is back in Elmore Leonard’s new book, Up In Honey’s Room. Webster, in Detroit in pursuit of two escaped German prisoners of war, stumbles on a German spy ring that includes a butcher who believes he is Heinrich Himmler’s twin brother.

I suspect Leonard enjoys writing about the Hot Kid more than most of his fans enjoy reading the books. They’re O.K., if not vintage Leonard; nobody uses dialogue to advance a plot like Elmore Leonard. But I’d prefer a more contemporary setting, which seems more appropriate for the cool, ironic tone of Leonard’s best work.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Memoir author, Terry Ryan, dies of cancer

Terry Ryan, author of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, died recently of cancer. I liked her memoir. It was warm and funny. Here's her obituary from The Washington Post.

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007; Page B06

Terry Ryan, 60, whose best-selling memoir "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" described how her mother raised 10 children by writing winning advertising jingles, died of cancer May 16 at her home in San Francisco.

Ms. Ryan, a technical writer and poet who also penned the punch lines to a long-running cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote her book in grief after her mother's death in 1998. Evelyn Ryan, an Ohio housewife with an irrepressibly cheerful outlook and a husband who drank most of his paycheck, entered the contests in the 1950s to keep her family housed and fed. "Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time," Ms. Ryan said.

More than once, her mother's wordsmithing skills saved the family from homelessness. They were about to be evicted from a rental house when a winning Western Auto contest entry gave her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years.

A jingle in praise of frozen spinach won a 10-minute shopping spree at a local grocery. She won everything from toasters to dance shoes, cars to washing machines to trips to Switzerland. She sold the merchandise, because in addition to housing and food expenses, there were bills for emergency room visits, for clothing, for eyeglasses.

For every four entries Evelyn Ryan submitted, she won a prize, which was not a bad percentage, because she usually submitted multiple entries in each contest. She wrote in pencil, in longhand, in a notebook kept at the end of her always-occupied ironing board.

"She didn't have time to write a book. She didn't have time to write short stories, really. She had time to write 25-words-or-less entries," Ms. Ryan said.

Her last big win came in 1965, after her husband had taken a second mortgage on the house without telling her. Weeks before they would have lost the home due to a $4,000 debt, she won top prize in a Dr Pepper contest, collecting $3,440.64, a Ford Mustang, a trip to Switzerland and two watches. The contest era ended just as her 10 children grew up and left home.

After Evelyn Ryan's death, her daughter discovered drawers and trunks stuffed full of notebooks, 67 completed entry forms and dozens of award letters. Terry Ryan unpacked and sorted the material for the next four months.

The book was published in 2001 and became a sensation, getting four full minutes on the "Today" show. It made People magazine's book of the week list. Newspapers did long interviews, women's magazines ran gushing reviews and a movie starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson was made in 2005.

It was all very heady stuff for a shy, quiet technical writer who had previously published only poetry and book reviews. She was described as physically folding in on herself during interviews, until she took media training and "found her inner ham," her partner said.

Terry Ryan was born July 14, 1946, in Defiance, a middle child who was dubbed "Tuff" for her ability to make her way in the crowded household.

She graduated from Bowling Green University and moved to Chicago, where she was an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association. Before long, she wandered west to San Francisco, which she made her home.

In 1983, she met Pat Holt, then editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's Book Review, when Ms. Ryan and Sylvia Mollick pitched her the idea of running a one-panel cartoon, "T.O. Sylvester," in the publication.

"I called it the only original literary cartoon commissioned for a Sunday book section in the country," said Holt, her partner for 24 years. The humor was sly and sweet: "That's my problem," one cow said to another as they sat together reading the newspaper. "I'm lactose intolerant."

"She had this sense of humor you could tell she inherited from her mother that was so resilient and positive," Holt said. "She would say, 'Always start from where you are' and 'Don't dwell on fears of the past.' "

Survivors include five brothers and four sisters.

Tomorrow's secret leaves the reader asking is that all there is?

Books now read in ’07: 44
Title: Tomorrow
Author: Graham Swift
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 5-18
Pages: 248

Imagine that you had a secret. One that you had kept for 16 years. Now it is time for that secret to be shared and, naturally, you are worried about how those who hear it and are affected by it will respond.

That’s the premise of Graham Swift’s new novel Tomorrow. Lying awake in her bed, while her husband and two children sleep, Paula Hook recalls the past quarter century of her life – meeting her husband and their first night of love-making, the deaths of their parents, the flowering of their careers, their marital indiscretions and the birth of their twins.

The secret is slowly teased out and surely any reader must be forgiven if they struggle with both a sense of relief and disappointment – is that all there is? The secret, which will not be revealed here, seems neither earth-shattering nor disquieting. It does not seem possible that it could disrupt lives and, to that end, there is no actual disturbance only Paula’s fearful anticipation.

That brings us to the second reason for a reader’s potential disappointment. The book seems too narrow. It is played out in Paula’s solitary voice over a few hours time. Although she takes us on an extensive journey into the past, the novel feels restrictive, as if Swift needs to let some oxygen in, and does not allow the reader to develop an affinity with those characters most affected by the unveiling of the secret.

I am attempted to say that because this is a book by Graham Swift it is still worth reading and many will find that so, but because there are so many new works of fiction currently available to the reader Tomorrow is best set aside for something new today.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 43
Title: Coriolanus
Author: Shakespeare
Genre: Drama
Date Completed: 5-13
Pages: 156

I recently saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Coriolanus at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Consequently, I set aside my other reading to peruse this Shakespearean tragedy for the first time.

It seems an apt tale for today (and I see in the play’s program notes that it is most commonly performed in times of social unrest) for it is the story of a proud and arrogant patrician who disdains the common people. All of these qualities combine to deny him high political office and result in his exile from Rome. The people are fickle; they fear Coriolanus because of his success in war, yet rely on that same success to keep them safe from Rome’s enemies.

After his exile, Coriolanus aligns with the Volscians and threatens to overthrow Rome. He is swayed to abandon this goal near the play’s conclusion by his mother, wife and child. But the decision to spare Rome is Coriolanus’ final undoing. He is slain by the Volscians.

Shakespeare always rewards the patient reader and Coriolanus is no exception. But I continue to believe that Shakespeare is best when watched rather than read. His work truly comes alive in the hands of a knowledgeable director and an able cast.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bradley's New American Story a roadmap to change

Books now read in ’07: 42
Title: The New American Story
Author: Bill Bradley
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 5-11
Pages: 343

Former NBA basketball player, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Bill Bradley has fashioned a game plan to revive America in The New American Story. Bradley examines our foreign policy, economy, dependence on foreign oil, the environment, pensions, health care and education. His conclusion: that bipartisan solutions are within reach if we only have the courage and the will to seek genuine consensus and change.

“For a reasonable amount of money we can make sure that every child in America has a great education, that all Americans have health insurance, and that all our workers have secure pensions. With a reorientation of our tax system we can do what we can to do on education, health, and pensions as well as reduce our dependence on foreign oil, clean up the environment, increase national savings, encourage employment, and allow Americans to keep more of each additional dollar they earn.”

Especially interesting are Bradley’s chapters on the Republican and Democratic parties. The chapter titles provide some sense of the content: Why Republicans Can’t and Why Democrats Don’t. Bradley takes both parties to task for their failures of omission and commission.

This is a thoughtful book that could well serve as a primer for change, a roadmap to solutions, not for a few, but for the many.

Monday, May 07, 2007

New book by Tolkien is a thing of wonder

Books now read in ’07: 41
Title: The Children of Húrin
Author: J.RR. Tolkien
Genre: Fantasy
Date Completed: 5-6
Pages: 259

A new book by J.R.R. Tolkien is a thing of wonder.

I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy more than 40 years ago as a high school freshman. Tolkien died more than 30 years ago in 1973. How is it then that we have this book?

Apparently, The Children of Húrin, a tale of the Elder Days, is among Tolkien’s earliest writings. The book was resurrected from his papers by his son, Christopher. Christopher, who also edited The Silmarillion, gives us the book with “a minimum of editorial presence.”

Readers of The Hobbit and the LOTR will find this new work both familiar and yet vastly different from those previous books. Familiar in that it inhabits the same world as LOTR – although it is set in a far earlier time. Hobbits are missing, but Elves, Dwarves and Orcs and a nasty dragon are here.

The difference – and I think it is the difference that lifts The Children of Húrin into something wondrous – is largely in the tone of this stately book. It is a somber book. The tale of Túrin and Niënor, is one of great and inescapable sorrow. The Children of Húrin is Shakespearean in the inevitability of the doom that stalks its characters. Doom that is only delayed that it may cast a broader net and that its tragedy may be all the greater.

As always, Tolkien is a master story teller. It is a wonder to have a new book by J.R.R. Tolkien, and wonderful.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 39
Title: The Naming of the Dead
Author: Ian Rankin
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 5-3
Pages: 452

On the eve of a G8 conference in Edinburgh a delegate falls to his death. Was it an accident? Did he commit suicide? Or was he pushed? This is one of only many mysteries confronting Inspector John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke in Ian Rankin’s newest thriller The Naming of the Dead.

There also appears to be a serial killer loose who is targeting sexual predators. And then there’s the bombastic city councilman. Is he truly trying to muscle in on Rebus’ nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty.

It all comes together in satisfying brew. Rebus and Clarke’s efforts to unravel the various mysteries are foiled at every turn – by their own supervisors, by national security forces and by their own shortcomings. Siobhan, in particular, must cope with the consequences of her actions when her desire for revenge, after her mother is severely injured during a protest march, leads her into a dangerous liaison with Cafferty.

The Naming of the Dead is a thoroughly engrossing, thoroughly entertaining novel. But then it's hard to dislike a novel featuring a comic cameo by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Books now read in ’07: 40
Title: A Writer’s Life
Author: Gay Talese
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 5-4
Pages: 430

Nothing pains me more than to note that this 2006 endeavor by Gay Talese is a major disappointment. Talese mentions on more than one occasion that he owes his publisher a book. After reading A Writer’s Life I think he still does. It’s evident that Talese, an exceptionally slow writer, pulled together the threads of various material from his files and assembled it into a less than coherent whole.

He begins and ends with his interest in a Chinese soccer player. In between, there’s his obsession with John and Lorena Bobbit, a building in New York that housed dozens of unsuccessful restaurants and an interracial wedding in Selma, Alabama. Much of the material seems to have been rejected in its first iteration. The New Yorker, for example, declined to publish Talese’s lengthy piece on the Bobbits.

One can’t help but conclude most of this material should have remained in Talese’s files where it would have remained unpublished. Adding to the sting of disappointment is the book’s misleading title, A Writer’s Life, suggesting the book is about Talese and his muse. It’s not, except tangentially, but then it’s not about much of anything.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Rampersad explores depth of Ellison's anger, pride in new biography

“I am an invisible man.”
--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Initially, Arnold Rampersad rejected invitations from two publishers to write a biography of author Ralph Ellison. He even resisted blandishments from Ellison’s literary executor. “I thought he was not the subject for me,” Rampersad said, but he finally consented to the project after examining his calendar and discovering “the coming decade was free.”

It’s a line that draws appreciative laughter, but Rampersad is only partially joking. His last book, Jackie Robinson, a biography of the ground-breaking Dodger great, appeared 10 years ago. Now, exactly a decade later, Ralph Ellison is on the shelves and garnering plaudits for Rampersad, a Stanford professor, who has emerged as the foremost chronicler of notable African-Americans. In addition to biographies of Ellison and Robinson, he has written a two-volume biography of Langston Hughes. He also co-authored a book with tennis great Arthur Ashe.

His Ellison biography has been praised for being meticulously thorough, thoroughly readable and, above all, a balanced account of Ellison, whom Rampersad describes as the “most aloof, the most Olympian figure” in 20th Century literature. Ellison, said Rampersad, was “an extraordinarily complicated man.”

Rampersad spoke about his biography Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A distinguished man, his graying hair cropped close, he more closely resembles an investment banker than an author or an academic. Rampersad researched much of the Ellison biography at the Library of Congress, the repository of the Ellison archives, which contains more than 46,000 items in the manuscript section alone and much more in the way of photographs and rare books.

Rampersad was the only scholar granted access to the entire Ellison collection. Before agreeing to write the biography, Rampersad made it clear it would not be an “authorized” biography. He said, however, that he agreed Ellison’s widow could review his final manuscript, but would not have the authority to mandate changes.

As a biographer, Rampersad said, his task was to “push past the demeanor, the veneer of command,” that Ellison epitomized. He said he was driven by two questions: Why was there no second novel between the publication of Invisible Man in 1952 and Ellison’s death in 1994? This question consumes the second half of Rampersad’s book. The second question was vastly more provocative: Given his background, how did Ellison come to write a book as sophisticated and complex as Invisible Man?

Ellison was raised in grinding poverty in Oklahoma. Although he attended Tuskegee University, he had a “weak” formal education, Rampersad said, and he was entrapped by a Communist aesthetic that colored his early writing. Ellison was also plagued by overweening family pride, frustration, denial, loss and rage. “His volcanic anger,” Rampersad said, “was in him to the end.”

Rampersad said Ellison’s pride – which grew out of his paternal grandfather’s achievements during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction, in which he had a position of authority over whites – led to Olympian standards. One reason there may have been no second book, Rampersad speculates, was that Ellison could not bring himself to write inferior stuff.

Ellison reached New York in 1936. He was befriended by Langston Hughes and, later, apprenticed himself, in a sense, to Richard Wright. Despite his friendships, Ellison expressed contempt for Hughes as a writer and a poet, Rampersad said, and he rejected the realism adopted by Wright in his writing. Instead, Ellison strove for “a mythic, symbolic way of writing,” Rampersad said. He embraced a kind of surrealism. Ellison saw his literary ancestors as Dostoyevsky, Twain, T.S. Eliot (attracted by the jazz-like improvisation of The Wasteland), Hemingway (although he had to come to terms with the fact that Hemingway did not write about race and that he wrote only disparagingly of blacks), Faulkner and James Joyce.

Rampersad said, Ellison’s ambition “was absolutely out of this world.”

But that ambition led Ellison to write his masterpiece, Invisible Man. Rampersad characterized Invisible Man not only as a novel of black culture and its interaction with white culture, but as “a universal story.” Ellison, he said, “wanted to create a kind of everyman.” Rampersad said that with the publication of Invisible Man Ellison joined such notable American authors as Saul Bellow, Twain, Melville and Whitman in using the first person to create a significant and lasting literary work.

Book notes

  • Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953. It beat out Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

  • Ellison opposed the idea of Black Power. He did not believe in racial separation. Rampersad said Ellison believed in America and in the idea that Blacks were part white and that whites were part Black.

  • Ellison became a figure of scorn by younger black writers who perceived him as an Uncle Tom.

  • Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad is published by Knopf. It is 657 pages.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tribune columnist mourns passing of newspaper book section

A lovely, provocative column by Kathleen Parker in the April 25 edition of the Chicago Tribune had this to say about readers:

“People who read books are different from other people. They’re smarter for one thing. They’re more sensual for another: They like to hold, touch and smell what they read. They like to carry the words around with them – tote them on vacation, take them on train rides and then, most heavenly of all, to bed.

“They’re also a dying breed.”

Parker goes on to note that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has eliminated its book editor position. “Whereas 10 years ago, there were 10 to 12 stand-alone book section in the country, today there are only five: Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, San Diego Union-Tribune and New York Times. Other large papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have folded book pages into other sections of the paper.”

The demise of newspaper book sections can be attributed, in part, to book publishers who have reduced advertising in print media. “Instead,” writes Parker, “they prefer to spend on front-table book placement in stores that cost as much as $1 per volume and reportedly delivered more bang for the buck.

“But where there are no ads, there are no book sections. Where there are no book sections, there are no reviews to send readers to the bookstore where, curiously, there are more books than ever – 50,000 published annually.”

Parker reports that total book reader is in decline. “Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of American adults who read any book dropped 7 percent, while literary reading (non-work-related reading of novels, short stories, poems or plays) dropped 14 percent.”

In cutting book sections, Sunday magazines and the comics, newspapers have cut away parts of their soul, Parker argues. “It may be arguable that the soul is not essential to a body’s functioning, but it’s critical to what makes us human and what once made newspapers vibrant repositories of a community’s values.

“The loss of yet another book editor and the homogenization (or possible loss) of another review section may not cause the Earth to shift on its axis, but it is symbolic of the devaluing of American letters. It is also symptomatic of a corporate culture that cares only about the bottom line and owes no allegiance to the immeasurable value of a community’s uniqueness or the profit of an educate populace.”