Book Reviews

Book Club on the Radio, v. 3

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Our #Radiobookclub group is doing another Book-Chat on the Radio.

The event is January 20, 2015 at 8 pm on Fairfax Public Access Radio.

We’re reading Dana Shavin’s The Body Tourist.

bodytourist

(cover courtesy of the author’s website, accessed 11 Jan 2015)

You can order the book directly from the publisher, Little Feather Books.

I won’t be there this time, not even as a long-distance call-in. But Jenn Lawrence of @Indiethursday and Jenn’s Bookshelves, Ellen Clair Lamb and Jill of One More Page Books will all be there to do a live-close reading, review the work as a piece of writing, and surely talk about the book’s observations on anorexia.

Listeners can call in (please do): (703)-560-8255 and maybe watch a few Tweets with the #radiobookclub hashtag.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

Review at Harvard University Press

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University of Virginia’s humanities/digital humanities scholar, Jerome McGann, produced a great book in his recently released

A New Republic Of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

9780674728691-lg

(image courtesy of Harvard University Press (accessed 18 June 2014))

Harvard University Press released this title in March, 2014 and my review of the title was published in Library Journal in April 2014. I just found out today my review is currently (as of 18 June 2014) at the top of Harvard University Press’ list of reviews promoting the book.

Click here to see the review and the title at Harvard Uni Press.

 

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

 

Book Club on the Radio, v. 2

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‘Tis official, were organizing the second edition of #radiobookclub – set for June 10, 2014 @ 8 PM EST.

Sponsored by the 21st Century Librarians at Metamedia Management (yours truly), the good folks at One More Page Books. Ellen Clair Lamb and Jenn Lawrence of #INDIETHURSDAY, we’re doing another book club on the radio. We spun the wheel and have chosen another good title. This one is very different from the Elmore Leonard we read before.

This time, we’re reading THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly.

 

Book of Lost Things

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll be going live on The Radio Hotline With Dennis Price at Radio Fairfax at 8 PM (EST) on June 10.

Please call in and talk to the panel about the book, or any other John Connolly title you like.

The number to call is (703)-560-8255 and the radio show can be streamed from the web here.

We look forward to hearing from you on the radio.

 

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

 

My Featured SHORT Review

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I learned recently that the blog connected with the Best American Poetry series, an anthology and promotional series that has been running for about 30 years, spotlighted my Library Journal review of Alan Ziegler’s SHORT, a collection of writing from all genres just recently published.

SHORT

(click on the image to see the spotlight, thanks)

Thank you Best American Poetry. It takes a collaborative effort to run the empire of literature. 🙂

BEstpoetry

(Click on the Best American Poetry image to be taken to information on the current incarnation of their anthology, thanks)

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

The Almost-Book Whole-Review of Mad as Hell

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“The Almost Book – A Review of Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies”*

Dave Itzkoff. Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.

Times Books.  NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2014. ISBN: 9780805095692

Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, writes for their Arts Beat Blog and contributes as a culture reporter, pulls together the topics he usually writes about and delivers an extremely pleasurable item in his new, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. He is not at all unfamiliar with popular formats such as film and television. The star, rather the protagonist of Itzkoff’s book, is the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the screenplay for Network (1976) and previously wrote for popular television programs in his day. Itzkoff uses this background to base his book as he starts in the past, sections the book from about 2 years before Network and ends it not too long afterwards…sort of…

madasHellCover9780805095692

If I could imagine a container or a shape I felt while reading for the text in this book, it would be a flat road. For example, it took a long while to gather actors to play some of the major roles. There were tensions and expectations around each one. Faye Dunaway, the talent that she is, was not without her troubled baggage before and after the film. Specifically, the character of Howard Beale, the “prophet” of the film who does all the screaming in the role and then eventually gets co-opted into the very system he wanted to undermine was played by Peter Finch who died the year after the film’s release at the young age of sixty. This character is polarizing in his anger and in his profanity.

But if this character is as important to the critical position in the film, and stands-in for the frustration felt by the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, why should there not be a better direction of the narrative in the book surrounding him? I think there should be. Instead, the book moves along in sections not obviously arranged for dramatic purposes. The stress Chayefsky and the producer closest to him, Howard Gottfried, felt as they sent the script around the globe and did not find anyone for a while should somehow be represented better in the book itself as a form. Yes it’s history. But history is writing and that should show. Instead, Itzkoff’s choice, or maybe the publisher, is to include a slew of sections with bolded text that transition from one to another with no regard to dramatic structure created via chapter breaks. If editing in film is used to create and manipulate drama, breaking a book into better chapter sections can be thought of as an analog.

Instead, while Chayefsky and Gottfried close in on their best picks to play important characters such as Howard Beale, Itzkoff engages in constant sublimation, for example, by opening that last section when Finch is picked to play Beale by simply opening with the words, “Since the Spring…” a full double-space away from the previous section which opened with the words, “On September 24, 1975…” on the picking of William Holden for another major part. The style of these “chapters” reads like a personal diary by someone with little stake in the outcome. The meaningful actor/director choices put together for a film that would go on to win several academy awards are all locked up in a vague title section called, “A Great Deal of Bullshit.” I assume these were words Chayefsky expressed about and through the process of finding each player for the film. But the words themselves do not have much meaning. It is a hard choice though – book titling. It might be interesting to do research into the trends and changes in book and chapter titles for which this little review could be a footnote. I only suggest that a book on such a dramatic persona as Chayefsky make his life’s central work of art find a style and structure that better represents that persona.

According to the book’s narrative, after Network won its awards, Peter Finch died and every other player in the film went onward to other dreams. Chayefsky set to work on a screenplay for another film I like called Altered States (1980). He wanted Sidney Lumet to direct this film, but Lumet had already made other commitments. As a result, Ken Russell, the artist (slightly avant-garde) director of such works as The Devils (1971) and the cult music-crossover film, Tommy (1975) starring Pete Townsend from the English band, The Who, took over the reins and experienced what everyone has who worked with Chayefsky on a film, the locking of bullhorns over control of what happens with a film after a screenwriter has agreed to sign his or her writing over to a crew making a film from it. Chayefsky disagreed with Russell on a number of points. He did not appreciate the set structure and the approach Russell used at all. But it was not in Russell’s contract to be directed by the screenwriter. Russell did not back down. Eventually Chayefsky left the set and never set foot on it again.

In fact, Altered States was the last film he wrote before he died in August 1981. But it is with this section that alters the state for Chayefsky in film that the direction and purpose for Itzkoff’s book truly comes together. During the work for Altered States, which Chayefsky was “selling” as a Jekyll and Hyde novel first, one man, Chayesfsky, gets a lucrative film deal for what would become Altered States, the other man, Chayefsky (note the very subtle difference in the two), gets kicked of the set of that same film and returns to his office in NYC and does not produce another thing for the rest of his life – a life that was to end before the next year was over. It is not clear which was the angry monster and which was the man who created the monster. Even though Itzkoff’s anecdotes are fun to read and historically accurate, they do not themselves direct one toward an emotional catharsis one should expect from a book that revolves around heavy expression, an “angry” driven writer and the film that would make him the most famous.

The section just after the ending of Paddy Chayefsky’s death, however, marks the real catharsis for the book. It is here where Itzkoff collects a series of stinging anecdotes about the state of media today and what it’s like to work in the movie business. He quotes director/actor Ben Affleck who says anyone can still get his or her movie made as long as one if committed enough to it all the way through. He references contemporary stars such as Kieth Olbermann and their statements that Network can be read as a vision for the future (now) in that drama and increasingly niche programming has trumped “hard news.” We won’t bring up the other aspect of this debate, that one between televised news programming and newspapers. The issue has become central to programming on cable, satellite and what is left of the networks – news was considered a public service surrounded by lighter advertisement-filled content such as shows and other dramatic works. These times have changed according to the book. Everything must conform to the bottom line. It is with this examination of the sell-out method of contemporary media that Paddy Chayefsky’s rage can still be directed. As a result, it is precisely here that Dave Itzkoff’’s book comes together as a whole object, a whole history.

Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, finds itself mostly unified at the end. It brings together the person Paddy Chayefsky and his most famous character into a more defined purpose.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

*A variant of this review has also been published at LibraryThing as part of Early Reviewers.

Library Journal Review of Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays

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My newest review has been published by Library Journal.

This one is on the writings of Erich Auerbach, romance philologist, literary critic and historian. The text was edited by James I. Porter with translations from the German by Jane O. Newman.

auerbach1206

(click on the image to see the 06 Dec 2013 review list please)

From the review: “Auerbach (1892–1957), German critic, literary historian, and romance philologist, promoted the idea of the national spirit in literature and ruffled some feathers by stating that all scholars in the arts and humanities are only writing history in their respective fields…”

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

I welcome comments on the book or the review here or at Twitter.

Paul Auster’s New Memory – a Review of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR

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Review of Paul Auster’s REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR (ARC)

NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2013. ISBN: 9780805098570

reportfromtheinterior cover

Thank you to Henry Holt and Company for the advance copy.

I am adding to my #library of book reviews.

May contain a few spoilers…oops…sorry. 🙂

If one grants Paul Auster the grace of living under the shadow of Umberto Eco – an older writer who has tackled the notion of producing an album of objects from the past – and the late W.G. Sebald – the died-too-young author of gold standards for performing archaeology on memory in fiction – then we can allow ourselves to truly enjoy Auster’s newest non-fiction, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR. This book comes on the heels of another biographical text, WINTER JOURNAL, also published by Henry Holt and Company in 2012. I make this point, not because Auster’s book is a negative experience, but because the style he employs plays in the same PoMo (post-modern) sandbox Eco and Sebald played so well.i

Auster structures his book into four sections, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, TIME CAPSULE and ALBUM – each designed to represent the past as it produced Auster’s writing habits and his overall ideology of the world. And even though this book, like the last one masquerades as a memoir, it is much more creative than that. Not that I am against biographical works of any kind, but Auster’s style has never allowed him to follow simple conventions. He is an artist and is really trying to get to something more obscure about the writing of one’s past. DISCLAIMER, when Auster writes of his past, one must understand he does not mean simply to “tell the truth” about his life over the years, though there is certainly much of that. He means to show that his past comes into being at the moment of its writing.

We know this because in the first section of the book, the one entitled, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, he speaks to himself then, in the past, in the second person, you, – he addresses himself. Yet, under normal conventions in writing, when authors use that address in their sentences, they are often addressing the reader. In this we come to understand that even though he is probably referring to himself as a 6-year old boy, the style works in the present tense. Rather, even as he is talking to “himself” with that address, the convention of you brings out the readerliness of his book. Yes, Auster is writing the words in his office on Brooklyn, but is also showing the reader that there is no story without the reader – even if it’s only him. Auster gets to have a slew of readers who have picked up the book from their local bookstore (hopefully) and he gets to objectify himself as a character in the book for them and himself because he is the one writing it. The REPORT…must have a reader to whom to deliver.

I mean, with that being so, the actual facts of the REPORT are beside the point even though they are arranged in a pleasurable and creative way for the reader. So when Auster constructs this section of the book, the most conventional “memoir/auto-biographical” section of the entire book, he writes of getting into trouble once because he hacked a tree in his yard with inspiration found in the mythology of George Washington’s “I do not mean to tell a lie” tale about chopping a cherry tree down. The actual reference to this tiny tale from America’s national mythology is meaningless as a tool to get to the truth because that story has become almost a cliché of youth and supposed honesty. But what is does accomplish, something that falls right in line with Auster’s genre play over the years, his play with writing and influence, is that childish point of contact between one form of art – that of national mythology and George Washington – and his writing of his own life – that of the REPORT…

The second section, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, besides revealing Auster’s claims for having developed a social conscience because of cinema (two films to be examined below as they relate to Auster’s reading of them), also acts as an illusion (another post-modern trick) to that most Truffautian of all French New Wave films, François Truffaut’s, The 400 Blows (1959), in a way that can only refer to influence, though productive on his way of thinking and art, is also a trauma. If you see the film, you will understand the reason I use the word trauma. I have come to believe the word, trauma, has been used too simply. It is often used with negative connotations – as if trauma is something which stops development or growth in a person’s mind and body. Even The Oxford English Dictionary defines, “trauma, n” as, “a wound or external bodily injury“ (as it relates to physical pathology) and “a psychic injury…caused by emotional shock” (as it relates to psychoanalysis and psychiatry). But what we fail to understand with this simplistic definition is one’s life is made of one event or another – each of which influences how that person decides to interact with every next moment in their lives. The result is of course said person’s whole life. Yet somehow, we believe we can pick apart one set of experiences as wholly negative while others are categorized as positive. One is called trauma while the other is called influence. It is too simple to subdivide one part of one’s life from another.

For example, Auster talks about his having developed a social conscience because of two films: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The first film is about a man who starts shrinking due to exposure to radiation. Oh, and may I emphasize the fact that this non-fiction “memoir” has an entire section dedicated to analyzing two films? But this is creative because he finds yet another mode to subvert the genre of the “autobiography.” What makes this film account interesting is Auster has essentially translated the film back into prose and narrates the film from his point of view – the watcher. He discusses the high-drama of the film, its slight horror-effect, and its science-fictional content – all things that come back to his writing later. But this is a film. The use of science-sounding technical terms in the film adds to his suspension of disbelief while watching the film. Plus, he realizes, sort of after the fact, but also while watching it as a young kid, that the film is a form of dramatic manipulation. The story is made of the elements in it – something Auster has followed closely through his books. He knows the act of writing a book, of collecting information for it, of making decisions for its production is as important as a the “final” product. It is almost as if there is no final product.

The film is a culmination of words and images layered in celluloid, but the telling of the film is what makes the film real. Auster must either tell himself about the viewing experience or someone else. In this case, again, with the use of the second-person direct, he is directing his telling of the film to both parties. Auster also wants to perform for his readers the act of thinking through art – an act which of course invites his readers to think through his own writing. He might also be enacting a form of transparent writing style where is goes into the second film, “Fugitive…” so we might understand the more emotional human elements in his style. He hopes to tie a sense of justice to his own history of writing. He accomplishes this by exploring the routine of oppression and violence inflicted upon the main character, James Allen. He hopes to draw attention to imbalances of fairness in the world brought to light in art. There should be no doubt why Auster is called a “meta-writer.” His books are as much about writing and reading as they are “new” stories – an observation I make precisely because in the first sentence of this review, I mentioned Eco and Sebald – two authors who might also be considered “meta-writers.”

The third section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called TIME CAPSULE and features an examination of personal papers, letters sent to his first wife, the author and translator Lydia Davis. I know who is current wife is, Siri Hustvedt, who by the way has a new book coming out in March 2014 called, The Blazing World. But I did not know his ex-wife was/is the talented experimental author Lydia Davis. This section accomplishes its goals – that of opening a “case” of objects from the past to see how one you relate to them way later. In this case, there are letters that Lydia Davis has about which she inquires if Auster is interested. The context for being asked about these letters is the creation of another archive – Lydia Davis has decided to donate her letters and papers to a research university library. Auster himself will probably do the same thing himself later. This is a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE – three layers of objects of human expression. And, again, sneaky Auster, by writing that many authors give their papers to research libraries, he is again telling us that authors and their works are to be discussed, taken apart, filed, re-read and written about. Very meta indeed.

The fourth and final section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called ALBUM and contains stills, images, promotional pictures and other works of art Auster mentions through his book. I can’t show any of them here, but he includes images from each of the two films, pictures of Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson and photographs of news events and places he mentions travelling through in France. This section doubles as a personal archive put together for his readers to see. Eco already used a collection of images from the past in his book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004). In that book, however, Eco uses the images from the main character’s past (probably in part Eco’s own past) to force a recovery from amnesia upon the protagonist. Isn’t it interesting that Auster is also playing with images as representations in a post-modern “memory” book? Auster’s book is not a copy, but there is a precedent in international literature for Auster’s approach.

This book strikes this author as very much a Paul Auster book. It is not boring at all. I did not feel, however, I was reading “just another Paul Auster” book. But one does come to see he can uses some tricks over time – even if they are used in new ways relative to the “memoir/auto-biography” genre.

Other books mentioned or alluded to in this review:

blazingworld-199x300QueenLoana                                          vertigo.sebald

A version of this review is also viewable at LibraryThing.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

@jlibraryist