Wednesday, November 30, 2011
And So It Goes:
Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
By Charles Shields
Henry Holt, 513 pp., $30
* * * out of four
Having tackled the reclusive Harper Lee in Mockingbird, his first major biography, Charles Shields now takes on Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at age 84. The result is an engaging, surprising and empathetic page-turner that will make you want to reread Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Joseph Heller and J.D Salinger, Vonnegut was shaped as a man and as a writer by serving in World War II. Shields explores that experience but also probes Vonnegut's Midwestern roots. The descendant of once-wealthy German-Americans who built Indianapolis, Vonnegut grew up overshadowed by brilliant older brother Bernard, a top scientist. The upside was Vonnegut's exposure to science and machines, which inspired his fascination with how technology affects humans. Though he became the counterculture's Mark Twain, fame, money and his difficult second marriage — to Manhattan photographer Jill Krementz— left Vonnegut lonely and often alienated from friends and family. — Deirdre Donahue
By Alexandra Harris
Thames & Hudson, 170 pp., $24.95
* * *½ out of four
In her introduction to Virginia Woolf, young English scholar Alexandra Harris presents her lively little volume as a "first port of call for those new to" the formidable British novelist (To the Lighthouse). And she hopes to set off "fresh ideas" in those already passionate about Woolf. She accomplishes both in this wonderfully nimble book, which is easily accessible to newcomers and surprisingly enriching for the acolyte. Deftly weaving biography with astute readings of Woolf's fiction, Harris paints a perceptive portrait of the writer (who famously drowned herself in 1941 at age 59) as a romantic who embraced life. Exhibit A: Harris' convincing case for Woolf's underappreciated wit and humor as a novelist. Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You won't be after reading Harris's warm, charming study. — Jocelyn McClurg
Tolstoy: A Russian Life
By Rosamund Bartlett
Houghton Mifflin, 454 pp., $35
* * *½ out of four
Rosamund Bartlett, a British expert on Russia and Chekhov, distinguishes her biography of the great author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina with material unfrozen after the U.S.S.R.'s dissolution. Titanic Tolstoy (1828-1910) becomes, in her telling, human. The reckless aristocrat, gambler, hunter, womanizer and soldier grew to be a vegetarian and advocate for the poor and illiterate. He gave away money, property, even the copyright to his oeuvre, and adopted a Christian philosophy of non-violence that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Then he fled the Orthodox faith, which — in his final decade — excommunicated him. Bartlett dwells on his extravagant fathering of 13 children and details how he neglected them. This literary lion loved his land, she tells us, but loathed its government. Bartlett portrays Tolstoy, above all, as the epitome of Russia. — Jerelle Kraus
Charles Dickens: A Life
By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press, 527 pp., $36
* * * out of four
The life and works of Charles Dickens (1812-70) continues to fascinate other writers. Claire Tomalin, a British biographer of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Dickens' mistress, actress Nelly Ternan, does better on Dickens' complex life, filled with contradictions, than on his literary imagination, which created epic novels including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, delivered in monthly installments. As a reporter, then novelist, Dickens, who went to work at 12, "saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation — and sometimes sobs," Tomalin writes. Parts of her biography should provoke those same reactions in readers. — Bob Minzesheimer
Monday, November 28, 2011
No wonder he was cranky.
Spare a little sympathy for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, famous for his irascibility and bizarre, occasionally offensive remarks in public. "If you stay here too long you will become slitty eyed," he was once heard to remark to a British student in China.
PHOTOS: Prince Philip: A royal life
Yikes. But as Philip Eade's new biography details, the little Greek princeling had a calamitous early life, filled with drama and multiple tragedies. He lost his home, his name and identity, his family and many of his close relatives by the time he was a teenager. Then his wife became Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and he lost his job in the British navy, consigned from that point to play a supporting role, fathering her heirs, staying out of politics, organizing her palaces, and always walking a few paces behind her for the rest of his life.
This he has done, quite splendidly, but Eade shows what a frustrating struggle it has been for a smart, robust, take-charge alpha male to tamp down his natural instincts and personality. Philip has a temper, can't bear fools and says so. He's as likely to scoff at clucking about the terrible things that happened to his family.
'You are where you are in life so get on with it' is his philosophy," Eade quotes an old friend saying of him. "He never let misfortune cloud his life."
But what a lot of misfortune. It goes some way in explaining why Philip sometimes seemed wrong for the part of royal consort. Much of this is not news to Brits; Philip, who just turned 90, has been married to their queen for 64 years, making him the oldest and longest-serving consort of a British sovereign in history. But this is the first Philip biography to focus on his first 32 years, before his wife was crowned.
Americans, however, may be confused by the maddening entanglements of Philip's extended European family and his ethnic and royal connections. Eade does an admirable job explaining all this.
Philip, though born (in 1921 on Corfu) a prince of the now-exiled Greek royal family, is not Greek; he was mostly Danish (the Greeks recruited his grandfather, a Danish prince, to be their king in the 19th century), with German and English thrown in. Like his wife, he is a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. He speaks no Greek, and though he was said to look "like a Greek god" when he was young, because he was so tall, blond and good-looking, in fact, he looked Danish. When he married Elizabeth in 1947, he renounced his Greek citizenship and Greek church and became British, Anglican and a royal duke.
When Philip was a baby, the Greeks got fed up with his family and ran them out of Greece. Subsequently, his mother, Alice, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an asylum for years. His father drifted away to a mistress in Monaco, where he drank and gambled his way to an early death. His four older sisters married Germans, some who later became Nazis (which was awkward even though Philip fought on the Allied side in WWII). One sister and her entire family later died in a horrific plane crash.
Shuttled around to various relatives and boarding schools in Germany and Britain, Philip grew into a tough young man mostly raised by his English royal relations and marinated in the British navy. He adopted the name of his maternal uncle, the endlessly ambitious Lord Louis Mountbatten (the original German name, Battenberg, was changed during WWI), who helped him get cozy with his distant cousins, the British royal family. Princess Elizabeth, five years his junior, met him when she was 13 and promptly fell in love. He did not but he came round.
Now, four children, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and thousands of public appearances later, Philip is as familiar a presence as the queen herself. If he is occasionally viewed with exasperation, he is also increasingly seen as crucial to her success. "He helped to make her what she's become," Eade quotes a diplomat saying. "We are extremely fortunate that he married her."
When the queen goes, the British no doubt will grieve deeply. This book suggests that when Philip goes, they may find themselves just as mournful.
Novelist Jodi Picoult's 18th book, 'Sing You Home,' is now out in paperback.Washington Square Press
Novelist Jodi Picoult's 18th book, 'Sing You Home,' is now out in paperback.Critic's Pick:Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (Washington Square Press, $16, reprint). USA TODAY's Jocelyn McClurg called this best-selling novel about a woman's fight for gay rights "an immensely entertaining melodrama."
Also recently released:
Decision Points by George W. Bush (Broadway, $18, non-fiction, reprint). The former president's memoir, in which he looks back at defining moments.
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (Random House, $15, fiction, reprint). A young Serbian doctor is the star of this National Book Award finalist.
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book) (Grand Central, $16.99, non-fiction, reprint). All the answers, in one handy volume.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Vintage, $16.95, non-fiction, reprint). A history of America's "Great Migration" of blacks from the South to the North.
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (Random House, $18, non-fiction, reprint). The third and concluding volume of Morris' Teddy Roosevelt biography.
Decoded by Jay-Z (Spiegel & Grau, $25, reprint, non-fiction). An expanded version of the rapper's best seller.
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, $14.99, fiction, reprint). Jackson Brodie is back on the case in Atkinson's mystery.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
James Garner's memoir is as easygoing and plain-spoken as his acting persona. The Norman, Okla., native, now 83, obviously wouldn't have it any other way.
From Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford on TV — his two signature roles — to The Great Escape's Hendley The Scrounger and The Americanization of Emily's Charlie Madison, the hustler on the big screen, Garner has personified what he describes as "the reluctant hero." He's cool and calm on the outside, but deep down he's a good-hearted maverick. When pushed, he will shove back. He's particularly wary of bullies and bigots, and proudly recalls attending the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, and to this day remains "a bleeding-heart liberal."
Garner recounts growing up fast and hard in Norman during the Depression. In fact, "he was abused, lonely and deprived," as his wife, Lois, succinctly puts it. No wonder Garner (born Bumgarner) escaped to Hollywood after serving in Korea — but not to become an actor. He was just looking for decent, honest work. He fell into acting serendipitously when he ran into fellow Oklahoman Paul Gregory, a producer and agent, who signed him.
Garner had the good fortune to work with Henry Fonda on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (where, as a silent judge, he learned the craft of listening). Later, when actor/director Charles Laughton took over the production, he told Garner that he needed to overcome his fear of being bad. It was a revelation.
But stardom came to Garner on the small screen when he appeared in Maverick from 1957-60. The hit series turned the Western upside down with irreverence. Garner played the con artist with a sense of humor and a code of honor, and the image stuck.
He then honed his persona on the big screen in two World War II dramas: The Great Escape (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964). Although the popular Escape is best known for Steve McQueen's famous motorcycle jump, the dramatic highlight is the tenderness displayed between Garner and Donald Pleasence.
Meanwhile, Emily deservedly remains Garner's favorite film, about a coward who ironically becomes a hero. Co-starring Julie Andrews, who also reached new dramatic heights, the brilliant but unsuccessful anti-war drama was scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky, who had a poetic flair for dialogue.
"Audiences have come around to it, and it's now a cult favorite and a minor classic," Garner says. "Unfortunately, it hasn't put war out of style."
And, unfortunately, Garner is a little too hard on himself about his best scene (a 12-page speech against sentimentalizing war).
However, The Rockford Files (1974-80) embodies everything that Garner represents. His iconoclastic and likable private eye survives every crisis thrown his way. But Garner's devotion to the successful Rockford was more than just an acting job: He also produced it with his own company. Fittingly, it's the highlight of this memoir as well as his career.
Bill Desowitz covers movies for indieWIRE and his blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is writing a book about the on-screen evolution of James Bond from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Early in Stephen King's new novel about a man going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, readers must suspend disbelief and buy into the concept of time travel. Some readers might have to suspend disbelief just to buy an 849-page book, but it's recommended in this case. King's latest epic is as fascinating as the premise sounds.
Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, learns from his friend Al Templeton, owner of Al's Fatburgers, that the burger joint's pantry is a time-travel portal. Step through it and be instantly transported to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 9, 1958.
Al had been using the portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices before deciding a nobler use is to change history for the better. But Al has cancer. With his dying wish, he enlists the reluctant Jake to save JFK, thus the book's title, 11/22/63.
Yes, 1958 is five years before Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. Part of the brilliance (and heft) of this compelling novel is that Jake has to live in the past for five years, eventually moving to the cozy town of Jodi, Texas, where he teaches high school and keeps tabs on Oswald. It's during those years that this historical fiction, so seamlessly blended with science fiction, transforms into an endearing love story when Jake falls for the pretty new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill.
While King is not the first to rewrite the Kennedy assassination via time travel, his storytelling is so persuasive and captivating that it makes originality seem overrated.
King makes the story all the more plausible by having fictional characters and real people in Dallas interact. And he accurately portrays retro details from the late '50s and early '60s. In a time when a gallon of gas costs 19 cents, Jake buys a '54 Ford Sunliner convertible, tunes to the Everly Brothers, and heads south toward Dallas, facing detours all the way.
But Jake's target never detours from Oswald.
In the story's rush to the climactic ending, Jake frantically limps against the clock toward the inevitable moment when Oswald squeezes the trigger from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.
Readers will be reminded of the suspenseful tension of King's horror tales. But 11/22/63 is no nightmare. It is not typical Stephen King. It is extraordinary Stephen King.
Gregory Maguire's "The Wicked Years" series ends just as the journey of its source material began, with a motley crew traveling down the Yellow Brick Road.
It's not Dorothy in the lead this time around, however — although the girl from Kansas does fittingly play an important role in Out of Oz, the fourth and final volume of the fantasy series Maguire began with Wicked in 1995. The star of this final chapter is instead Rain, the granddaughter of the green-skinned, animal-loving outsider Elphaba.
Wizard of Oz fans know Elphaba, of course, as the Wicked Witch of the West. Yet things aren't exactly giddy anymore in Munchkinland 18 years after the "Matter of Dorothy," when a house was dropped on Elphaba's sister and Elphaba herself melted after Dorothy threw water on her. The Munchkins and others are engaged in a brewing civil war with the Emerald City and "Loyal Oz," led by the emperor — and Elphaba's brother — Shell Thropp.
The self-possessed but good-hearted Glinda — the other star of Wicked — and her staff in Munchkinland are invaded by military forces from Emerald City, and in the novel's overlong beginning sequence, she discovers little Rain can't read but seems to have a natural talent when it comes to a magical book of spells once owned by Elphaba.
The novel picks up when Rain joins with a nomadic group including a crass dwarf and Brrr, aka the Cowardly Lion. They head away from the impending war to find Rain's long-lost parents, and she finds her true power while making allies of the animal and human variety.
In four books, Maguire has expanded the mythology of Oz from L. Frank Baum's books and created a land that's just as rich as Middle-earth or Narnia, and balances the serious with the sublime, especially in its Harry Potter-esque phrases such as "Virus Skepticle's bentlebranch folly." His prose is inviting to new readers, and the author cleverly inserts nods to the 1939 Judy Garland movie and even The Wiz for those obsessed with flying monkeys and Munchkins.
While it meanders at times, Out of Oz is a satisfying finish to the "Wicked Years" saga.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
By Brooke Williams
489: Total number of weeks Gladwell's four books, including What the Dog Saw, have spent on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list.
6: Top rank reached on list (Blink on Jan. 27, 2005).
$80: Price of the new boxed set.
48: Gladwell's age.
3: Countries Gladwell has lived in. He was born in England to a British mathematician and Jamaican psychotherapist. They later moved to Canada. Today Gladwell lives in New York City.
10,000: In Outliers: The number of hours needed to gain mastery of something. For example, the time The Beatles spent playing in Hamburg, Germany. Gladwell's 10,000 hours: a decade spent at The Washington Post.
1996: Year Gladwell joined The New Yorker.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
Olivia, the bossy, headstrong yet charming pig with a passion for fashion and ballet, will have something new to rant about.
The 11th book in Ian Falconer's best-selling picture book series, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, will be released next fall (2012), publisher Simon & Schuster announced today.
Falconer, in an interview, didn't want to give away too much of the plot, but did say, "Olivia is not one of the fairy princesses."
In fact, he added, the book will feature a rant by Olivia "against the girly Barbie doll culture that so many young girls seem to be gravitating to these days."
Falconer, 52, is a theatrical set and costume designer who also draws covers for The New Yorker magazine. His first book, Olivia (2000), grew out of a Christmas gift that he drew three years earlier for his real-life niece, Olivia Crane.
Even at 3, Falconer told USA TODAY in a 2003 interview, "the real Olivia could argue, stonewall, bulldoze or filibuster her way through any inconvenience to achieve her goal. And always in the nicest way."
The real-life Olivia is now in college, he reports.
And Olivia, a pig who shows no signs of aging, "has evolved into a person who's even more complicated than my niece."