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Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: 'Watergate'

By Thomas Mallon
Historical literary fiction
February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-90708-0

How one perceives Thomas Mallon's latest work of historical fiction could well depend not so much on the merits of the work itself, but what one brings to it. Much of this novel may not make sense if one didn't live through 1972-73, when a third-rate burglary either took down a presidency or revealed a cancer on the honor of the nation.

For those of us who were amazed at the events and people of those times as they unfolded, Watergate (and Vietnam) remain definitive. For anyone to take on the whole scope of Watergate -- the burglars, the politicians, CRP (or CREEP, or Committe to Re-Elect the President), Woodward and Bernstein, Mrs. Nixon and the girls, and, at the dark center of it all, Richard Milhous Nixon, the drinking and cussing Quaker who carpet bombed Vietnam during peace talks -- how could all that fit into one novel? And be readable?

Mallon has found a way to make it work by focusing on several characters. But they are not all the usual ones. There is as much from the viewpoint of Alice Roosevelt Longworth as there is from both Nixons. Unexpectedly, the central character to the whole story, the one who can put all the pieces together, is Fred LaRue. Mallon says LaRue's life is the one most tampered with. The results are the stuff of which conjecture is used to make sense of events.

The same can be said for Rose Mary Woods and the infamous erasure of 18 1/2 minutes of Oval Office tapes. Mallon comes up with a way that it could have happened that fits perfectly with one way to look at Woods's character and also plays into the way so many people were ready to believe the worst of Nixon and his inner circle. This storyline also makes Woods a woman of her time, so there is trope of women's liberation and how some women who didn't believe in it limited themselves. Pat Nixon is treated with dignity and has an even sadder storyline than the tragedy of being married to Nixon.

The acts of both LaRue and Woods, and reactions to their acts, are used by Mallon to create not a tragedy, but a farce. This is how a presidency self-destructs? Are you kidding? Well, no. And that's why using Alice Roosevelt as a character also makes great sense. This woman of one liners who says late in the novel that someone should have seen that the great promise she had was wasted demonstrates both sides of the coin for both Nixon and his presidency. There is tawdry pettiness and there is the dark desire to not be overshadowed hanging over the characters of this novel and the real Watergate scandal as clearly as any storm cloud that blocks the sun.

Both Woods and LaRue are moved late in the book to read about themselves in books written by others in the scandal's aftermath. Both are crushed by what they read. Both see injustice done to them.

If the novel was adapted into a movie, it would have to pay homage to the TV program Mad Men. That's because the novel is practically an homage to the end of that era, and not just because of all the hard liquor and distaste expressed by so many characters about how the times are changing. The female characters are remarkable portraits of intelligent, ambitious and loving people trapped by their societal roles. Those who try to break the mold are either punished or, at the least, don't win.

This is where the farce Mallon has constructed shows its sturdy underpinnings in tragedy. What if Pat Nixon had had a chance to be happy? What if Rose Mary Woods had not been put down by an ad executive? What if Alice Roosevelt Longworth had forged a life with the man she really loved? How fulfilling would their lives have been? How might history have been different? And how might the men in their lives have messed it all up any way? That's only one way to look at not only Mallon's novel, but also the real people portrayed in it.

And that, regardless of where one stands on Watergate and its aftermath, makes this a novel worth reading, its characters worth caring about and its events worth pondering.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review; 'Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark'

PAULINE KAEL: A Life in the Dark                                                            
By Brian Kellow
October 2011
ISBN: 978-0670023127

Pauline Kael reveled in the notion that movies had a subtext and were more than entertainments. The years she wrote reviews in The New Yorker began during a golden age of moviemaking. She continued on through the era of blockbusters and the beginning of the dominance of CGI over other methods of storytelling.

And although she reveled in strong film storytelling that included nuance, she did not celebrate shades of grey in her own life. Biographer Brian Kellow shows, rather than merely tells, how her world view of pro and con shaped the major relationships in her life. Those included her daughter, her grandson, her boss William Shawn and her acolytes, the Paulettes. For the last group, if you didn't take her advice, you were cast out. For her daughter, it meant years of being the practical one who took care of mundane arrangements. For her grandson, who has since died, it mean pure love. And for Mr. Shawn, it meant constant poking and no support, although she certainly sought his recommendations whenever it could help her.

There isn't much actual drama to Kael's life, and Kellow acknowledges this. He gives a great deal of space in his biography to quoting Kael's reviews. And this is fitting. Because the movies were her life. The scope and sweep of an era when movies came of age, when the blockbuster mentality took over and when movie critics had an influential voice in championing films, are the story of Kael's life.

The reviews themselves hold up well. The reviews provide a window into the passionate viewing experience of someone who took each film on its own merits even while upholding overall high standards that art be accomplished. Agreeing or disagreeing with a Kael review remains rewarding, for it engages the reader in reasoned decisions, based on reactions from the heart and the head, on whether the film delivered a rewarding viewing experience.

The value of this biography may not be in recounting the life of its subject, but rather in giving voice once again to its subject as she writes about what she loved most. The reviews quoted are both a history of that time in movie-making and a vibrant demonstration of honest reaction to a work of art that connects that work to its value in the viewer's life. Kellow shows how criticism can be enriching and, in doing that, pays honor to his subject.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: 'The Baker's Daughter'

By Sarah M. McCoy
Literary Fiction
January 2012
ISBN: 978-0307460189                                      

Families and dual storylines are getting to be rather common in popular and literary fiction these days. Both are important factors of an uncommonly good novel -- Sarah M. McCoy's The Baker's Daughter.

The novel is more than one story and, indeed, it's even possible to make the case that more than one character is the baker's daughter. There is the obvious one -- Elsie is the daughter of a baker in a small German town where everyone struggles to survive as the Nazis gain power and as the war drags on. There also is Elsie's daughter, Jane, who works alongside her mother in a small town German bakery in Texas. And then there is a daughter of Elsie's heart, Reba, who comes to the bakery for what she thinks will be a quick interview about holiday traditions. Instead, Jane and Elsie befriend a woman who has closed off her heart, even with love from family and a good man staring her in the face.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: 'Under the Mesquite'

By Guadalupe Garcia McCall
YA Novel in verse
September 2011                                                                         
Lee & Low Books
ISBN: 978-1600604293

Lupita is the oldest child in a growing family of Mexican-Americans who love each other very much. Even so, she feels her bond with her beloved mother is the closest of all. To prove this, she searches through her mother's purse to find a small, wizened brown thing. It is her umbilical cord. Her Mami saved it.

So begins Guadalupe Garcia McCall's debut book, a novel in free verse that describes Lupita's coming of age. The verses include the longing for Mexico even as their family puts down roots (and plants roses bushes amid which a stubborn mesquite thrives) in Texas, Lupita's discovery of drama class and poetry, and her mother's cancer.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: 'The Lost Saints of Tennessee'

By Amy Franklin-Willis
February 2012
Atlantic Monthly Press                                                                                                                              
ISBN: 978-0-8021-20005-2

Ezekiel is about as unhappy a man as can be. He hasn't adjusted well to his divorce, his hovering mother has lung cancer, the once promising young man has a dead-end job after dropping out of college and his dog is really old. Bad as all that is, Zeke's real problem is that his twin brother died 10 years ago. And no matter what his mother wants him to believe and no matter how much his sisters and ex-wife want him to talk, Zeke is having none of it.

Having reached his nadir, Zeke loads his dog and a Twain novel into his old pickup and heads toward Pigeon Forge to do in himself and Tucker the dog. He ends up at the refuge that is the home of his cousins in Virginia, the people who took him in years ago when he was a young college freshman and full of promise. They love him more than he does.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: 'No Mark Upon Her'

By Deborah Crombie                                                                                  
Crime fiction (British police procedural)
February 2012
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-199061-8

A seasoned world-class athlete decides to return to her sport. She will need time away from her demanding career, but she may just have the leverage she needs for that. However, Becca Meredith's Olympic potential as a rower will not be measured, nor will she need a sabbatical from her Metropolitan Police job. Instead, she is found dead on the Thames, separated from her scull.

Her murder rips open deceit upon deceit and more than one kind of betrayal when Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is assigned to investigate. It's a case Kincaid takes on reluctantly in the 14th book in Deborah Crombie's traditional British police procedural series. He not only has just married his partner, Gemma James, who also is a Scotland Yard detective, but their blended family has grown and at least one of them needs to be at home to help a scarred, scared three-year-old they adore. Gemma is just coming off her leave and Duncan is ready to be a househusband -- if this case and office politics at The Yard allow him to keep his word.