Thursday, September 30, 2010

What If . . . Jimmy Carter won his second term?

Book 86: Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer

What if . . . ?

I've always been a fan of that open-ended question, especially as it relates to my decades-long infatuation with Marvel Comics. What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four? What if the Fantastic Four had different powers? What if Doctor Doom had become a hero?

The possibilities are endless. Not simply as they relate to the Marvel Universe, but to the more mundane and superhero-free universe that we inhabit.

Consider, What if, in 1980, Jimmy Carter had won election to his second term as president? Ronald Reagan would never have been president. By the time, Reagan's next opportunity came around, in 1984, he Reagan would have been 72 and it seems reasonable to believe voters would have turned elsewhere.

If Reagan had not been President, George Bush would not have been Vice President and, again, it seems reasonable to believe that Bush would have never been elected President. If we did not have Bush I, we would not have had W.

And if we had not had W. . . . well, so it goes. America's political landscape would have been transformed.

But Carter did not win. As Julian Zelizer documents in his biography of Carter -- another fine entry in the American Presidents series -- the peanut farmer from Georgia ran afoul of a combination of his own shortcomings and a series of national and world events crippling to any political ambitions.

Some of Carter's shortcomings were born in his first campaign for President. He ran as the consummate Washington outsider alienating members of Congress, including members of his own party. Carter disliked legislative politics and the infighting and ass-kissing it entailed, again alienating members of his own party; members he would need to secure not only passage of his legislative programs, but to pull together the disparate segments of the Democratic Party in support of his campaign for re-election.

Carter had the misfortune to want to save the world -- notably in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East -- at a time that his own country was drowning in unemployment, high energy prices and the shock of the Iranian hostage crisis. He was never able to successfully cope with those domestic and foreign challenges, driving Independents and many traditional supporters of the Democratic Party into the arms of a nascent Conservative movement.

Zelizer provides a balanced appraisal of Carter as President. He notes, rightly, I think, that Carter was more successful on the world stage in the years following his presidency than he was during his ill-fated four-year term.

The general view of Carter is that he was a good man ill-suited and overwhelmed by the duties of the presidency. Zelizer corrects that view. Carter was an intelligent man and his presidency was largely successful in its first two years. "The president pushed for some of the most comprehensive energy programs that had ever been attempted and won support for a few of those policies, such as solar energy, that are today considered essential," Zelizer writes.

The institutionalization of human rights within American foreign policy and brokering a durable peace agreement between Israel and Egypt rank among his most significant and lasting accomplishments.

Ultimately, Carter was overwhelmed by his own shortcomings, the press of national and world events and a movement that's time had clearly come. Zelizer's analysis of Carter's one term as president opens the door to another question:

What if Jimmy Carter had never been elected president?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pooping in space and other topics you wanted to know about, but didn't want to ask

These two most recent books -- one a mystery, the other a work of non-fiction -- satisfy my number one criteria: they are entertaining reads.

Book 84: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Entertaining isn't something you necessarily expect, or look for, in a work of non-fiction, but that's an apt description of Mary Roach's treatise on man's efforts "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Roach writes in a effortless manner that equates to a dinner-time chat across the kitchen table with a knowledgeable friend, a friend who is seeking to entertain as well as to inform. Her sense of humor infuses the entire book and, again, brings an unexpected, but welcome quality to a work of non-fiction.

Another apt description of Packing for Mars is gross. Roach dishes out gross, but also engrossing information on all those things we've wondered about life in space, but never asked. She discourses on vomiting, farting, body odor and peeing while among the stars, but her most notable chapter is on pooping in zero gravity.

One might conclude (and I will) that Roach takes the line "to boldly go where no man has gone before" literally in this charmingly informative book.

Book 85: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Charm oozes from the work of Louise Penny. The Cruelest Month is her third novel to feature Inspector Gamache and the villagers of Three Pines.

Give Penny credit, she is willing to embrace all the conventions of the cozy novel. In The Cruelest Month she goes so far as to summon all the murder suspects at the scene of the crime, a haunted house overlooking the village, for the grand denouement by Gamache. It's an ancient convention that Penny manages to make freshingly new.

All her strengths are on display: a genuine mystery to unravel, a brisk and riveting narrative and vividly drawn characters. One particularly nice aspect of The Cruelest Month is the conclusion of a shadow upon Gamache's career.

I have not dwelt on this plot line in talking about Penny's first two books, and I won't here either, expect to say Penny weaves the various threads together into a most satisfying conclusion.

It will be interesting to see where she takes this series in future novels. We have so much more we want to know about Gamache, the members of his team and the village of Three Pines.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Freedom and Super Sad True Love Story

Book 82: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Book 83:
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

There are many similarities to these two much-heralded books. Both are savage commentaries on the state of American society. Both authors employ love stories as the framing device in which to unroll their commentary.

And I didn’t like either book much.

Franzen’s Freedom has enjoyed all the accolades that the American media can generate: the author made the cover of Time magazine, Freedom was tabbed as the final Oprah Book Club selection (with all the concomitant prestige and increased sales) and The New York Times proclaims the book “a masterpiece of American fiction.”

Publicity for Shteyngart’s dystopian look at a dying America, set in the immediate future (“oh, let’s say next Tuesday,” proclaims the dust jacket), may be more muted, but is no less enthusiastic.

Yet in the face of this gale of critical acclamation, I have problems with these two novels? Damn, betcha.

Franzen's characters are neither fully formed nor appealing. Four characters share the stage -- Walter and Patty Berglund; their son, Joey; and Walter's college roommate, Richard Katz. (A fourth member of the Berglund family, a daughter, Jessica, is limited to a cameo role.)

For much of the novel they are mere cardboard cut-outs, vessels for Franzenian rants on a range of topics from the current generation’s penchant for wearing flip-flops everywhere to the ecological devastation of coal mining in West Virginia to the dangers of world over-population to the predations of house cats on the American songbird population.

We know from the Time magazine article that Franzen is a bird-watcher. Perhaps he should have limited his concerns to the world’s dwindling bird population. Because the trouble with the rant-a-page approach is that the reader does not where to place our limited supply of outrage. Should I be pissed about house cats on the prowl for songbirds? Environmental devastation in neighboring West Virginia? Or those damn flip-flops?

Franzen is clearly more interested in his extended rants on the state of America than in character development. Unfortunately, his characters are not only stock characters, but unappealing stock characters.

Joey is the prodigal son, who wants to make lots of money and be a member in good standing of the Republican Party. Ignored by her parents, Patty over-compensates with her own children. She's a stay-at-home-mom and that's clearly a poor career choice in Franzen's mind. Patty also desires Richard Katz more than her own husband. Katz is some sort of alt-rocker who can't handle success. And Walter . . . Walter is the rational, do-gooding liberal whose dirty little secret is that he has nothing but contempt for the people he's trying to help. He’s the intellectual who successfully overcame a impoverished background, including an underachieving alcoholic father, and now secretly wonders why others can't do the same.

Two themes run through the book. The first is that people aren't what they seem to be. They're neither as good nor as bad as we might believe them to be. Much of Patty's frustration with Walter, and their marriage, is that Walter believes she's better, nicer, than she knows she really is. Walter doesn't realize that Patty, like Jimmy Carter, has lust in her heart. Patty wants Walter to love her, not Walter’s idealized version of her.

The second theme has to do with freedom -- hence the title. Essentially, Franzen suggests, Americans have too much of it and don't know what to do with what we have. All that freedom has gone to waste.

A lot of reviews describe Freedom as darkly comedic. It is dark, but there's not a lot of humor here -- the satire is laid on too heavily and with too much certainty on the author's part that he knows what's best for us to be even slyly comedic. Comedy depends on the comedian laughing with us, not at us. Franzen, like Walter, doesn't seem to like people much.

Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (hereafter referred to as SSTLS) presents a more sophisticated and prescient satire than Franzen. (Less rant, more thought.) SSTLS recalls some of the early work of William Gibson.

Shteyngart, for example, takes the Blackberry prayer -- our modern tendency to dip the head forward, peering intently toward our lap as we feverishly connect via our increasingly sophisticated mobile phones -- to a logical and scary place where people are always connected to a tiny and ever-present “apparat.” Late in the novel when Americans suddenly find themselves severed from a connection to their “apparat” there are those who find suicide the only acceptable response.

In SSTLS, America is socially, culturally and financially bankrupt. The great American empire has given way to a third world country divided between the haves and have-nots and soon to be divided among the Chinese and the Middle East and other wealthy nations.

Lenny, the protagonist of SSTLS, works for a company that sells life extensions. In this brave new world no one has to die. Actually, no one who is a high net worth individual (HNWI) has to grow old and die. Lenny can’t afford the treatments that will keep him forever young, but does find his own fountain of youth when he falls in love with a Korean woman half his age.

And it’s this love story where Shteyngart goes astray. If his satire is sharper and richer than Franzen’s, his characters are just as wooden. Granted, they’re more appealing – Lenny’s a Jewish schmuck who loves his parents and clings to a collection of real honest-to-God books – but we still don’t care much.

Personally, I think Lenny is better off without his love interest, the boyish Eunice Park, whose betrayal is filled with self-interest. Trust Shteyngart to write an unconventional love story, but conventional love stories work because the reader is rooting for the lovers to get together or to get back together once they've been separated. The idea is that love, not self-interest, prevails.

Franzen and Shteyngart have written interesting books, which is to damn them both with faint praise. It’s the best I can do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

2010 National Book Festival

The 10th annual National Book Festival was today on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Bibliophiles were in line for author Ken Follett 3 hours before his signing was scheduled to begin.

Author Ken Franzen also attracted a line of fans hours before his scheduled appearance.

Jonathan Franzen signing a copy of Freedom, his newest book.

And a smile for a fan from Franzen.

My wife, Beth, waiting for Jonathan Franzen to appear. We were first in line for Franzen as well as Jane Smiley. It was a great day, with thousands on hand, despite the heat.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

RIP: David Thompson

David Thompson died unexpectedly this week. He was 38.

I had never met David, but I felt that I knew him. And I felt that he knew me.

David was the publicity manager of Murder by the Book in Houston. He was also married to store owner McKenna Jordan. Five years ago, David founded Busted Flush Press, a small publishing company issuing both original material and reprints of neglected mysteries and thrillers.

But he was something more than the publicity manager or the husband of the store's owner or a small-press publisher. Quite a bit more, in fact.

David loved books and the bookstore where he'd worked more than than two decades and he loved the customers who shopped at Murder by the Book. His wife, McKenna, said, "He really prided himself on customer service, on knowing his customers and knowing which books they would love."

And I know that's true because of the time and interest that David invested in me. I've been buying from Murder by the Book for the five or six years. In that time David began to know what I liked and he would make recommendations, recommendations that were almost always spot on. And when they weren't -- although it was certainly something he didn't needed to do -- David would apologize. He took it personally when a recommendation fell flat.

There weren't many times like that, however. David has an uncanny sense for the books and authors that appealed to me. No, I take that back. It wasn't uncanny. David simply cared enough to pay attention and to listen and to ask questions; all that in a relationship forged over email.

I have experienced a profound sense of sadness and loss since I learned of David's death. I'm going to miss him.

And there's not much more I can do expect tell McKenna and David's family and friends how deeply I regret his passing and pray for them to find courage and strength and some measure of comfort at a time when life seems so unfair.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On the inventiveness of Stross and Diaz

Book 80: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

Let's call it a guilty pleasure and be done with it. Charles Stross is among the more inventive writers working in the science fiction genre today. He's also among the most entertaining, deftly ranging from hard sci fi to space opera.

The books in two of his series -- the Laundry novels and the Merchant Princes -- make an unusual claim to inventiveness by re-inventing works created by others.

The Merchant Princes series recalls the work of Roger Zelazny. The Laundry novels tap directly into the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. There is magic in the world, but it's mathematically based and the rise of the personal computer -- among other things -- opens doorways into our world to things that go-bump-in-the-night and serves to hasten the end of the world.

It's the job of Stross hero (or anti-hero) Bob Howard to keep the gibbering, soul-eating horrors at bay. Howard does so again in The Fuller Memorandum, calling upon a horde of zombies to defeat a cult, the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, that's attempting to bring about the end of the world.

I know how it sounds, but the novels are hugely entertaining and after Guillermo del Toro bring's Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen, well, the Laundry novels are going to find a whole new audience.

Book 81: Drown by Junot Diaz

Talking about wildly inventive authors is the perfect time to segue to Junot Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Diaz explores much the same territory in the short stories in Drown that he later expanded into a novel with Oscar Wao. Shall we call these stories gems? Works for me. They're wonderful. It's impressive that someone has young as Diaz has such command of his craft.

Read these stories out of sequence. Start with the first story, Ysrael, but then jump to No Face and then simply absorb the astonishing fact of Diaz's powers of observation, his empathy and his penetrating insight into the lives of these struggling Dominicans.

Diaz is among the most authentic and commanding writers of his generation. I eagerly await his next book.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Tinkers, It's A Book, Bad Boy and more

Book 74: Tinkers by Paul Harding

It's unfortunate for Paul Harding that his first book, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunate because this is a deeply flawed book and the acclaim that Harding now enjoys is likely to obscure that fact.

Tinkers is one of those books where the writing -- or over-writing in this instance -- gets in the way of a terrific story. The writing is certain to have impressed the Pulitzer judges, but not a reader seeking a pure and uncluttered narrative.

It is difficult, at times, to understand what Harding is writing about or to reconcile the narrative voice with the characters he has fashioned and whose stories seems compelling if we could only get at it.

Book 75: Composed by Rosanne Cash

I've been a fan of Johnny Cash for as long as I can remember, but I never paid any attention to the recordings of his daughter Rosanne. Then a friend recommend The List, her superb album that's built around a list of songs her father said every singer-songwriter should know.

The List led me to Composed, the newly released memoir by Cash. The memoir is a pleasant surprise. It's as readable and compelling as her recordings.

One caution: Johnny Cash, musical icon, is here in these pages, but he is generally superseded by Johnny Cash, Rosanne's Daddy, and that's as it should be. Part of the reason this book succeeds is that it is Rosanne's story, not "Johnny Cash as I knew him."

Rosanne Cash will never enjoy the musical stature obtained by her father -- few will -- but her journey through life, and her efforts to define herself as an artist, make Composed something far better, more rich and rewarding, than the standard celebrity bio.

Book 76: Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters

I've long been an admirer of the long-running American Presidents Series by Times Books. This entry, by Charles Peters, is among the best.

Peters has a writing style that is inviting and he offers a incisive portrait of LBJ as a flawed man who is likely to rank in the second tier of Presidents. Below Lincoln, Washington and FDR, but alongside Jefferson, Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.

It's a fair assessment. Johnson could be petty and cruel. His insecurities helped mire this nation in an unnecessary war in Vietnam. Yet, as Peters notes, LBJ's legislative record is one only FDR can match. Peter's cites two examples and they will serve here as well: Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Johnson is the subject of fine, multi-book biographies by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek. If you're looking for something shorter, that nicely captures life and presidency of Johnson, this is the book.

Book 77: Bad Boy by Peter Robinson

A former neighbor, needing advice, comes looking for Chief Inspector Alan Banks. But Banks is on vacation, thus setting off a comedy of errors by the police that quickly turns deadly.

Banks' daughter Tracy and DI Annie Cabbot are caught up in the aftermath of a police operation gone wrong. Banks returns from his holiday to the states to find his daughter missing and Cabbot in the hospital fighting for her life.

The merits of a long-running series with well-established characters are apparent in this gripping and delightful thriller. I can't say that Robinson's outdone himself with Bad Boy. I can say that he's done it again.

Book 78: It's a Book by Lane Smith

I like children's books and I especially like the work of author/illustrator Lane Smith.

For readers and book lovers, Smith's newest book is an absolute delight. It features a mouse, a jackass and a gorilla. Gorilla is reading a book and jackass simply can't understand how it works.

Can it text? Tweet? Wi-fi? Nope. Nada. And no.

The final page . . . well, it contains a line I'll be using for a long, long time.

Book 79: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

This is not, as I originally thought, a book about collecting baseball cards. It is a memoir with an interesting conceit. Wilker selects a single baseball card, writes about what he sees in that card or what it meant to him and what was going on in his life when he obtained the card.

Eddie Murray represents not merely promise, but promise realized. Ron Guidry, who pitched so well for the hated (by Wilker) New York Yankees, is the sum of the fears that runs through Wilker's adolescent life, and so on.

It works, mostly. Better than I had initially thought. Still, its an odd book. Not quite baseball, not fully memoir, but some odd blend of the two. Wilker drifts through life and his embrace of loserdom is so complete and unquestioning that his attitude becomes a drag on the book as it was on his life.

Yet the fact that we have this book and that Wilker marries in its final pages demonstrates that, like Eddie Murray, he has realized his early promise.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Robert Duvall, Angelina Jolie and Royal Books' Kevin Johnson on books into film

Robert Duvall.

That’s my answer to a question I’ve posed to myself: What single actor’s signature on books that have been made into films would I most covet?

Consider: Duvall played Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, Ned Pepper in True Grit, Major Frank Burns in MASH, Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Lt. Col. ‘Bull’ Meechum in The Great Santini, Max Mercy in The Natural, Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. He appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road and Crazy Heart.

Each of those films, in which Duvall appeared, and many more, I’m certain, were adapted from books.

I don’t collect books that have been made into films. But anyone who collects modern first editions -- as I do -- is certain to have some books from that category of collectibles on their shelves -- as I do. (Lonesome Dove, The Age of Innocence, Get Shorty, Gone Baby Gone, for example.)

But I wanted to know more about the topic, including whether my assessment of Duvall was reasonable. So I turned to Kevin Johnson. Kevin is the owner of Royal Books in Baltimore and a long-time cinephile. He’s capitalized on his knowledge of books and love of films by authoring two books: The Dark Page, Vol. 1, Books That Inspired American Film Noir 1940-1949 and The Dark Page, Vol. 2, Books That Inspired American Film Noir 1950-1965.

Kevin said that an actor’s signature on a book can add value, but there are a great many conditions to that statement.

“In my experience . . . a celebrity autograph is not as heavy hitting as an autograph by an author or an artist,” Kevin said.

An autograph by an actor isn’t a bad thing, but the signature of a director or screenwriter is better. That’s because the role of the director or screenwriter in the creative process is more analogous to the author’s role.

If you do secure the autograph of someone who has appeared in a film made from a book be certain it’s someone central to the film. “Get the main guy,” Kevin said.

Kevin also said that some actors have “literary credibility” than others. Compare Angelina Jolie, who has appeared principally in films made from graphic novels, to Duvall or Jeff Bridges or even Nick Nolte. “Sissy Spacek is a more literary actress than Michelle Pfeiffer,” he said.

According to Kevin, literary credibility arises by appearing in films that have artistic credibility or literary connections.

Artistic credibility can be difficult to achieve. Kevin notes that some great books result in mediocre films. He thinks it’s because “the pressure of turning a beloved novel, or a popular novel that everybody has read, into a great film is challenging. They feel compelled not to change things.”

The outcome is often different with an obscure book because there’s less pressure.

Kevin cites The World According to Garp as a successful movie made from the popular book by John Irving. Yet, he notes, that the director chopped out more than half the book. Kevin said he didn’t actually read Irving’s novel until years after he saw the film. “I liked the book more,” he is quick to point out, “but the film version was still very memorable and compelling.”

Another good literary adaptation: No Country For Old Men, which was based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

Yet a book’s success, or an author’s popularity, is no guarantee of big-screen success. Kevin said the film version of McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses was mediocre. “Nobody remembers it,” he said. “It didn’t live up to the book.”

Other examples of mediocre film-based books, according to Kevin: Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson in the film version of Edna Ferber’s novel. “They tried to make a big, sprawling movie,” Kevin said, “and it didn’t quite work—not bad, but not great.” The two sound film adaptations of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – starring Alan Ladd in the 1940s and Robert Redford in the 1970s – both failed.

Lousy film adaptations clearly didn’t have an impact on the collectible value of Gatsby, but a great film can increase the value and collectability of a book. “It depends on how well-known the book is,” Kevin said. “Once the word is out . . . the first edition can become a very desirable thing.”

One example, he said, is the book Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike, which is the basis for the St
eve McQueen film Bullitt. Kevin said collectible copies of Mute Witness can be difficult to find because most of the print run found its way to libraries. In addition to being the source of a popular movie, the book has a great jacket design. Kevin said whenever he’s able to obtain a copy, he can always sell it quickly.

Jeff Bridges’ recent Oscar vehicle, Crazy Heart, significantly boosted the value of Thomas Cobb’s novel of the same name. The novel, said Kevin, “is not scarce, but it’s not common.” But it was, he said, completely forgotten until the movie was released.

Ultimately, Kevin said the value of a book made into a film always derives from market forces, supply and demand. Do people want the book? Kevin admits that “at times, it’s sort of a mystery to me.”

One example is the book Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia, which was the source of the 2003 Nicholas Cage movie of the same name. “I loved that movie, and I’ve tried to sell the first edition,” Kevin said, “but the book has just quietly gone away.”

On the flip side, Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, which inspired a 1999 film starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, is highly sought after. Kevin believes the interest in Fight Club extends beyond interest in the film. It appeals to people, he said, who are connected to the novel and film in a philosophical way. “It’s always sold well,” he said. “Interest has never flagged.”

People like to collect books that led to Oscar winners such best picture, best director and best actor.

As with any reader and film fan, Kevin has his favorite books he’d like to see made into film. He is championing The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a novel by Philip K. Dick. A number of Dick’s novels and stories have been made into film (Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall) and, Kevin said, Palmer Eldritch, “a wild, LSD-influenced sci fi novel” could be a great film in the hands of the right director.

He’s eager to see what Guillermo Del Toro, director of the wildly inventive Pan’s Labyrinth, does with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which now in development. If it’s well done, Kevin thinks, the film could introduce an entire new generation to Lovecraft’s work.

Finally, he’d like to see someone adapt the late Ross Macdonald’s Archer series to a visual medium. This was tried unsuccessfully, Kevin believes, with the Paul Newman films Harper and The Drowning Pool. Macdonald’s novels “are so literate and so visual and so much in tune with California,” Kevin said, that he believes they’d make great films. Or better yet, a cable series. Something, Kevin said, with the style and literate approach of AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men.

Anyone interested in building a collection of books made into films could gain a solid understanding of how to begin by visiting the Royal Books website. There’s the video mentioned earlier as well as the opportunity to buy The Dark Page (volumes one and two). Book catalogs, issued regularly by Royal Books, are invaluable research tool and as fun to leaf through as the Sears catalog once was at Christmas.

Kevin’s working on a third book. The book, which has the working title The Fractured Page, will examine film sources for crime films and dramas from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Kevin said that the period from 1970 to 1976 was particularly ripe for successful book adaptations. There was, for example, Serpico, The Godfather, Marathon Man, Point Blank and The Graduate – all successful films and all collectible books.

Kevin is also contemplating a fourth book on the film sources for screwball comedies.