Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Sep 3, 2007

Alice Leccese Powers looks back at Alice McDermott’s The Night in this week’s “You Must Read This” on NPR. Powers considers the book an exploration into her own childhood on Long Island, and that the McDermott “claims Long Island her territory, just as surely as Faulkner’s was Mississippi.”


I read The Night in 1992, shortly before the movie version hit VHS. My friends and I loved C. Thomas Howell in those pants, and Juliette Lewis in that skirt, and we knew how Alice felt in her worship of their characters, Rick and Sheryl. We idolised them, too. At that time, alongside Where the Day Takes You, That Night was the movie we most wanted to inhabit. But our reaction to the film, and my reaction to the book, were markedly different to Powers’. Growing up in suburban Long Island was, quite literally, worlds away from rural Victoria. Us rural kids really didn’t have a romantic rebel to drool over, or a beautiful, misunderstood urchin to emulate. Neighbors didn’t interact, and folks generally stayed out of each others’ business. We went to school, we went home, and we waited to grow up.


No one was writing about our experiences—the sun-drenched Goulburn Valley was no one’s idea of fertile literary territory,  and so we adopted Sheryl and Rick as our own, and we talked about them, dissected their personalities, and stuck their pictures in frames—a far more intimate form of tribute that simply pinning their posters to the wall.


In our minds, the world was just like McDermott’s. We didn’t long for disaffected teens to get pregnant just so we could awe at them, but we wanted heroes, boys and girls who stood out, because no one stood out in our town. So, while Powers remembers That Night as representative of her experience, I remember it as opening my friends and I up to experiences we would otherwise never have known existed. Even though we didn’t see them, there were rebels out there, and our time would come. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 30, 2007

You have to wonder if the manuscript for The Uncommon Reader had been just sitting in Alan Bennett’s trunk gathering dust for years, its every attempt at publication rejected by publishers prior to the success of last year’s film The Queen, after which gently entertaining tales about the Queen Mother told from her point of view became much more salable. Whatever the case may be, Bennett’s novella is a charming little diversion that will leave Angolphiles sighing with pleasure and most everyone else grinning, if a touch underwhelmed.


Bennett’s conceit here is that one day the Queen (or she refers to herself in conversation, “One”) happens to be walking the corgis on the grounds when she comes across the palace bookmobile. Thinking it would be rude not to take a book, she checks out an Ivy-Compton Burnett title and heads on her way. This simple act leads to Her Majesty opening up whole new vistas in her heretofore-unreflective life. One book leads to another and soon she is devouring the printed word by the bushel, always with a stack on the nightstand and one or more in her purse. She even keeps one open in her lap while in the car, absent-mindedly waving to her subjects.


A wit of no little talent, Bennett has a good time with his little fancy of an idea, smartly wielding some trademark dry Anglo understatement: When the Queen tells her husband that there’s a bookmobile on the grounds, he responds, “Jolly good. Wonders never cease.” Although the author is wise not to dig too deeply into his subject (this is thin terrain), he gets good mileage out of observing the Queen’s developing tastes—she absolutely devours Proust, but while reading Henry James at teatime, lets out an irritated, “Oh do get on”—and watching how her growing obsession affects her abilities to act Queenly. As state functions become more and more tedious, she looks to literature for escape. Stuck next to the president of France, she asks him for his opinion on Jean Genet (hasn’t heard of him). Later, she survives a painfully boring trip to Canada only by a chance meeting with Alice Munro whom she got talking to and, “learning that she was a novelist and short-story writer, requested one of her books, which she greatly enjoyed.” Such are the perks of royalty.


Although it may be difficult to peruse The Uncommon Reader without imagining Helen Mirren voicing her lines (there are worse things), and won’t take you more than a couple hours to finish, Bennett’s sliver of a story is a perfectly enjoyable take on the joys and dangers of literature.


It just may not be worth $15.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Aug 25, 2007

It makes sense that, two years on, we’re seeing more and more books about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It’s time for reflection, to make sense of an event author James Lee Burke calls a “watershed in the history of political cynicism”. Burke’s own The Tin Roof Blowdown centres on an investigation into the shooting of black looters at the time of the storm. His is one of the few fictional Katrina stories coming out. Others, according to USA Today, include Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined, about an eccentric evacuee, and Anthony Dunbar’s Tubby Meets Katrina, about a prison escapee.


Read a short interview with James Lee Burke on his new book here.


The Alabama Press-Register, over the weekend, had a great piece on the new non-fiction Katrina-inspired books. The article’s main focus is Demaree Inglese’s No Ordinary Heroes: 8 Doctors, 30 Nurses, 7,000 Prisoners and a Category 5 Hurricane, which chronicles Inglese’s efforts to assist the hurt and the suffering with only the most basic of tools at the ready.


Heroism and survival against the odds become the great theme of Hurricane Katrina literature. Another book due at the end of the year is Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina by photographer Thomas Neff. Neff’s pictorial essays reveal the tenacity of NO residents determined to hold fort and weather the storm. Neff’s is another story that showcases the strength of everyday people.


Further reading on Hurricane Katrina:


* Story of a Storm: A Book About Hurricane Katrina by Reona Visser (Quail Ridge Press)

* Nice Try, Katrina! Trails of a Hurricane Katrina Evacuee by Kendra Marie Harris (Infinity Publishing)


* The Children Hurricane Katrina Left Behind: Schooling Context, Professional Preparation, and Community Politics by Sharon P. Robinson and M. Christopher Brown II (Peter Lang Publishing)


* The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley (Harper Perennial)


* Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne (Random House)


* The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan (Penguin)


* Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson (Basic Books)


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Was Vietnam like this? Every month, it seems, heavier and heavier tomes about the Iraq War are deposited on the nation’s bookshelves. Although they all have different wrinkles and unique takes on the subject, they can mostly be boiled down to a number of boldface observations, worthy of much discussion on the talk shows and blogs which have to pass for the common square these days:


1) How We Screwed Up
2) Who Screwed Up
3) We Need To Stop Screwing Up


By the time this is all over—a helpful piece of prognostication which has yet to show up in any of these tomes—the Iraq War could well end up being the most documented foreign-policy disaster in American history; and all of it being done while the fiasco was still going on.


Winning the Right Warby Philip H. GordonTimes BooksSeptember 2007, 224 pages, $24

Winning the Right War
by Philip H. Gordon
Times Books
September 2007, 224 pages, $24


Which brings me to yet another one of these books on the disaster, Philip H. Gordon’s Winning the Right War, which is worthy of your attention for a couple of reasons. First, Gordon doesn’t feel he needs to waste a lot of time on screwup nos. 1 and 2, rightly figuring that this is well-plowed territory at this stage. Second, he’s interested in finding a solution, not just pointing out how far we currently are from one. Gordon’s not much of an ideologue, being a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute who once served on the National Security Council and now teaches graduate classes in international studies at Johns Hopkins and pens learned prose on the world situation in his spare time. In short, he’s a wonk, but strangely for his species one who also seems interested in communicating with people who don’t live and die by the latest policy papers or declassified intelligence documents. His book is a briskly-written, short (160-odd pages, not including notes), pocket-sized manual for a foreign policy based not on bluster or ideology but in rationality and smart self-interest.


As is clear from the title, the main thrust of Winning the Right War is identifying where we went wrong and how to steer us back onto the right course. Or, as Gordon simply puts it, “The war on terror has not gone as planned because President Bush launched the wrong war.” The wrong war (meaning, for the most part, our interminable military adventure in Iraq) was launched, Gordon writes, because the threat was misunderstood at a fundamental level. When the president mischaracterizes the reasons behind the terrorist acts that launched the war in such a basic way by thinking it happened because “they hate our freedom,” it’s difficult to see how anything could proceed correctly afterward.


Gordon persuasively argues that that misunderstanding by both Bush and his neo-con enablers helps feed into their (incorrect, he thinks) belief that the struggle against terrorism is an epochal one with no greys to be seen. He quotes arch neo-con Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum from their book An End to All Evil—whose absurd title really says it all—saying that in the fight against terrorism there is not only “no middle ground” but only two choices for an end result: “victory or holocaust.” A better way of going about things just might be understanding that such juvenile oversimplifications will give us nothing but unending fear and disappointment. In strong, simple strokes, Gordon lays out the case for a long-term, Cold War-styled campaign against terrorism which utilizes every power at our disposal—economic, cultural, and diplomatic—to showcase America as a country to be admired instead of just feared, instead of our current approach of monolithic militarism. He also suggests, in not so many words, that some people need to just grow up: “Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, [terrorism] can be reduced and it can be contained, but it is unlikely ever to be totally eliminated.”


Gordon’s book is quite likely to be ignored by both sides in the debate, too gloomy for the pro-war folks (though, as we’ve recently heard, they don’t like to read anyway), and not nearly angry enough for the Get Out Now crowd. But that’s the problem with enourmous bloody clusterfucks like Vietnam and Iraq—people tend to get emotional.


Read the introduction to Winning the Right War here.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.