A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Stegner in Saudi Arabia



This review recently appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and the Houston Chronicle. (After the review appeared, the Washington Post reported that the Stegner family has claimed that Stegner never wanted the book to be published.)

DISCOVERY! The Search for Arabian Oil
By Wallace Stegner
Selwa Press, 320 pp., $24.95

For Wallace Stegner’s admirers, learning that he once accepted a commission to write a book for an oil company may come as a shock. The involvement with the likes of Texaco, Exxon, Mobil and Chevron seems a strange move for a man who later joined the board of directors of the Sierra Club. Stegner gained a reputation for integrity when he turned down an award from the National Endowment for the Arts to protest the politicization of the NEA. So this breach of the walls between art and commerce is as startling as if Philip Roth or Norman Mailer had agreed to flack for Halliburton.

To be fair, when Stegner was commissioned in 1955 by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to write a history of the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, he hadn’t yet made a name for himself. He was teaching creative writing in the program he founded at Stanford University, but the Pulitzer Prize for “Angle of Repose” was 17 years in the future. “It was a time when his books were not selling well and he needed extra money,” comments journalist Thomas W. Lippman in his introduction to “Discovery!” And the project must have had a gut-level appeal to Stegner, a chronicler of new beginnings; in his book he calls it “purely and simply the story of a frontier.”

But Stegner’s narrative of the work of the pioneering American geologists and wildcatters who came to Saudi Arabia in 1933 is riddled with the author’s ambivalence, which is one reason why Aramco decided to shelve the completed manuscript. It was dusted off in 1967 and published in the company’s in-house magazine, with some expurgation of Stegner’s ambivalences. In 1971, a year before Stegner’s Pulitzer, a paperback version was published in Lebanon, with limited distribution. Now, the first American edition of “Discovery!” has been issued by Selwa Press, a small house whose publisher, Tim Barger, is the son of Thomas C. Barger, the late CEO and president of Aramco.

Even when Stegner wrote it in the mid-1950s, it was clear that, as he says on the final pages of his book, “the American involvement in Middle Eastern economic, cultural, and political life … would grow deeper, more complicated, and more sobering. Not inconceivably, this thing they all thought of as ‘progress’ and ‘development’ would blow them all up, and their world with it.” We hardly need to be reminded that Osama bin Laden and the great majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis to recognize that if this was a chilling prophecy in 1955, it has only become more so with the passage of time.

But despite any uneasiness Stegner may have felt about the future, “Discovery!” is a celebration of American ingenuity and willingness to explore the unknown, or as he put it, “a demonstration not only of American skills but also of American culture.” There is a kind of innocence in Stegner’s praise of “fantastic American energy and adaptability.” He does acknowledge those who “see Aramco and its sister corporations as a sinister force embroiling us, for dirty dollars, in the power struggles of the Middle East.” But he concludes that “American oil development in the Middle East has been, all things considered, responsible and fair.”

Obviously, the American oil explorers had a great appeal to an author who later chronicled the struggles of a frontier mining engineer in “Angle of Repose.” He lauds the “tinkerers and gadgeteers” who used every means available to civilize the harsh and alien landscape, who “installed showers fed by gravity from the roof, modernized the mud-brick privy with a combination of lime and Flit guns, and, with a hundred yards of fabric screening that some foresighted individual had ordered, screened off their building from the ever-present swarms of flies.” They even devoted time to making distilled water palatable, mixing “it with well water until the flavor and saline content suited them. They had as many formulas for drinking water as Americans at home have for martinis.”

Their practicality served the Americans well in an unforgiving environment where the July heat “pours in a great engulfing tide, down from the brassy sky and up from the blinding rock and sand, and breathes like a steam boiler through every wind that moves.” In the desert, “the ring of the horizon boiled and floated with mirages. Around its edge, dunes and runty palmettos were stretched and warped until they looked like cliffs or forested headlands. Camels and their riders came over the rim as tall as towers.”

Stegner’s word wizardry constantly enlivens the book. He not only avoids cliché, he even mocks it: Journalists visiting Saudi Arabia, he says, “gave the impression they would be tongue-tied if they could not make references to ‘Aladdin’s lamp’ ” or describe the transformation of the country with the phrase “camels to Cadillacs.” He anticipates the “New Journalism” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe by a decade, unabashedly entering the minds of the people he writes about. He describes what one of the oil company’s negotiators must have seen and heard standing on a balcony in Jiddah: “from the suq he heard the complaining snarl of a camel, and then for a moment in the stillness, the perhaps imaginary mutter of a whole city in prayers.” And more daringly, he is with the wife of one of the geologists in the instant before she is killed in the explosion of the boat they are taking to Bahrain: “Now, sitting aft with her husband, enjoying the whip of the breeze and shouting to make herself heard, she was planning things she would buy in Bahrain’s suqs.”

This novelistic flair raises “Discovery!” far above the level of corporate PR that Aramco must have wished for. What a contemporary reader might wish more of is insight into the country the Americans helped transform into a dominant power in the Middle East. King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud is treated as a kind of benevolent despot, and Stegner gives us only incidental references to the rigidly fundamentalist Wahhabism and the draconian severity of Sharia law. The subjugation of Saudi women is alluded to only in passing: “an occasional woman in sepulchral black, only the hint of eyes showing behind the mask’s square holes, the robed figure as nervous as a runaway child.”

“Discovery!” may not quite be the “lost classic” its publisher touts it as being. In the canon of Stegner’s work it’s a minor entry. But as a journey into the origins of a boiling crisis, it’s richly fascinating. And for the reader bewildered by the dangerous mutability of America’s role in the Middle East, it supplies a small but significant piece in a vast puzzle.

A Life in the Funny Pages


This review recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS: A Biography
By David Michaelis
Harper, 688 pp., $34.95


In a “Peanuts” strip reproduced in David Michaelis’ commanding new biography of Charles M. Schulz, Charlie Brown is demonstrating one of his dog’s tricks. When he gets the go-ahead, the dog erects his floppy ears into two black discs, widens his ink-dot eyes and spreads an inane smile across his muzzle.

“Frightening, isn’t it?” Charlie Brown says of Snoopy’s imitation of Mickey Mouse.

Frighteningly prophetic, too. When this particular strip appeared in 1955, “Peanuts” had been around for only five years, and appeared in only 100 newspapers. Snoopy was still trotting around on four legs, not yet perched atop his doghouse, dreaming of battles with the Red Baron in his Sopwith Camel. But for baby boomers, he would become the iconic rival to Disney’s mouse.

“By 1989,” Michaelis tells us, “annual revenues from Peanuts’ global worldwide merchandising empire topped $1 billion. … On every continent, Snoopy made Peanuts second only to Disney in the sale of merchandise: clothing (30 percent of sales), books (15 percent) toys and accessories (15 percent), greeting cards and other Peanuts items (40 percent). Schulz proudly told visitors, ‘He is the most recognized character in the world, much more so than Mickey Mouse.’ ”

As for Schulz, he was on Forbes magazine’s list of the nation’s highest-paid entertainers, a distinction he has maintained even after his death in February 2000. On the magazine’s roster of the top ten highest-earning dead celebrities, he keeps post-mortem company with Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Pretty good for a man whose father, a Minneapolis barber, “equated achievement with egotistical display” and inculcated in his son – in Charles Schulz’s own words -- “the fear of being ostentatious.” The German-Scandinavian Minnesota in which Schulz was raised, Michaelis says, was “a culture in which it was impertinent to express one’s uniqueness and talent … a tall-poppy culture that struck the heads off its brightest flowers.”

“Poetry,” wrote T.S. Eliot, meaning all of the arts, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” “Sparky” Schulz desperately wanted to escape from them, and he found a way to do it that made him rich and perhaps more famous than he had bargained for.

The irony here is that Schulz would always claim to have no personality, that he was, as Linus once said of Schulz’s self-doubting alter ego, “of all the Charlie Browns in the world, … the Charlie Browniest.” But for all his modesty and self-effacement, Schulz had a healthy, hungry, ambitious ego. As Michaelis notes, Schulz admitted at the height of his international celebrity, “I suppose I’m the worst kind of egotist, the kind who pretends to be humble.” Shyness and narcissism are two sides of the same coin.

Michaelis has done a masterly job of assembling the often puzzling and even contradictory pieces of Schulz’s life into a convincing whole, at understanding the boy who was one of the smartest kids in school but almost flunked out, the quiet loner in high school who could be punishingly aggressive on the playing fields, the man who once faithfully gave a tenth of his income to an evangelical Christian church but later turned away from all organized religion.

Schulz’s first wife, Joyce, was the dominant partner in their marriage – she was the one who engineered their move to California, supervised the development of the property they bought in Sonoma County and created the elaborate Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa. Always fearful of travel and encounters with the world – Michaelis posits that he suffered from a kind of agoraphobia – Schulz retreated into his studio and settled into domesticity, adopting Joyce’s daughter from a brief previous marriage and fathering four children of his own. His comic strip was full of subtle insights into the world of childhood, and he created Snoopy, beloved of children around the world. But he was always uneasy around children, and his own recalled that their father never kissed or hugged them. “Somehow we knew he loved us,” one of them said. He also slyly caricatured Joyce as the termagant Lucy, and eventually he slipped away for an affair with a woman 23 years his junior, to whom he wrote, “Like Gatsby I am pursuing the green light.” The affair entered the strip as Snoopy’s dalliance with a “girl-beagle” with “soft paws.”

Michaelis, whose earlier books include a biography of the artist N.C. Wyeth, psychologizes without psychobabble – he recognizes that he’s writing a biography, not a case study. He’s certainly no prose stylist – his style is best described as “serviceable” – but even if he were, it would have been unwise to try to match the cleverness of the “Peanuts” strips that illuminate the points he has to make about Schulz’s life. The book contains 240 of them, and they have been brilliantly chosen. The task of culling the appropriate ones out of 50 years of daily cartoons must have been daunting.

The trouble with almost all biographies is that however much they tell us about the life and the career, they never tell us quite enough about the imagination, about the mysterious creative spark and process that in this case brought a world to life in the most minimalist of formats: a four-panel newspaper comic strip. We may wonder how Schulz developed such an elegant economy of image and word, how he brought forth the blanket-clutching philosopher Linus, or the Stein and Toklas of the funny pages, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, but the deepest sources of that inspiration lie hidden to Michaelis, and to us.

For some critics, the massive commercializing of “Peanuts” has tarnished Schulz’s achievement. Michaelis’ book may do a little to restore the lost radiance. In any case, it makes a strong argument that, like Charlie Brown, Charles Schulz deserves that highest of encomiums: a good man.

A Bumpy Life


This review recently appeared in the Washington Post Book World

DARK VICTORY: The Life of Bette Davis
By Ed Sikov
Henry Holt, 496 pp., $30


Reviewed by Charles Matthews

The moment she drawled “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair” in the 1932 film “Cabin in the Cotton,” Bette Davis became two things: a movie star and an icon of camp. She would remain both for the next 57 years of her life. And beyond.

When a star is so easily caricatured, as Davis was by everyone from cartoonists to drag queens, the task of the biographer is to locate the person behind the distortions. In his smart, witty new biography, Ed Sikov makes an effort to do that, and his conclusion is pretty much that with Davis, what we saw, exaggerations and all, is what was really there.

“Nervousness, hysteria and paranoia are defining features of Davis’s acting style,” Sikov observes. And the boundary between her art and her life was permeable. In a gratifyingly brief but persuasive bit of psychologizing, Sikov writes, “Davis’s torn nature suggests that she may have had a borderline personality, one that shifts between the commonly neurotic – anxiety, depression, emotional outbursts – and a baldly psychotic inability to perceive the point at which reality stops and paranoid fantasy takes over.”

But the real secret to her career and her life, Sikov suggests, is that “Bette Davis didn’t give a goddamn. She dares us to hate her, and we often do. Which is why we love her.” And he retorts to any readers who may quarrel that his biography doesn’t even make them like her, “After all the … struggling to get it right, I have to admit it: I don’t give a good goddamn either.”

That’s the spirit, and it makes “Dark Victory” a refreshingly unsentimental and unapologetic biography, one in which the inevitable bits of tittle-tattle – about Davis’s marriages (four) and affairs (uncounted, but including William Wyler and Howard Hughes) and family life (scathingly depicted in her daughter B.D. Hyman’s book “My Mother’s Keeper”) – don’t seem unduly sensationalized.

At one point, Sikov approvingly quotes Janet Malcolm: “Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.” By now, however, there are few secrets about Bette Davis that haven’t been dumped out and viewed. In addition to Hyman’s “sour, whiny book,” as Sikov calls it, there have been full-length biographies by Charles Higham, James Spada, Lawrence Quirk and Charlotte Chandler, not to mention Davis’s own three volumes of ghost-written memoirs. (The last are more interesting and revealing – if not factually more reliable – than most movie star reminiscences, because Davis didn’t care which Hollywood oxen she gored.) The best that Sikov can do is mediate among the various stories that have been told by and about Davis and choose which ones are most plausible. The author of two other biographies of Hollywood figures – Billy Wilder and Peter Sellers – Sikov demonstrates a healthy skepticism. He knows that, the more colorful and juicy the anecdote, the less likely it is to be true.

What Sikov also brings to his Davis biography is point of view: that of a gay man who acknowledges her iconic significance for many gays. He examines such touchstone films as “Dark Victory” and “Now, Voyager” for their influence on gay culture. Davis is the quintessential “drama queen” in these movies, and Sikov observes that “it’s the pent-up energy of concealment and its imminent breakdown that provide the gay regent with much of her authority.” She “became an icon for several generations of gay men, who learned … that they could, through wit and style and camp, rise above this oppressive, second-rate world and, inside at least, be the men they were meant to be.”

But Davis would never have been the star she became if her appeal had been only to closeted gay men. She triumphed in the era of the “women’s picture” – the Depression and war years, when movies were the great escape. And she thrived – eventually – in the tense symbiosis of the studio system. Warner Bros. treated her shabbily for a long time – in 1935, when she made “Dangerous,” for which she won her first Oscar, she was paid less than character actor Guy Kibbee. She rebelled, the studio sued, she lost. And in 1937 she was still being paid significantly less than other stars, such as Greta Garbo, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and even Sonja Henie. But eventually, her success at the box office brought Warners around.

It’s tempting to wonder what Davis might have achieved if she hadn’t been tethered to the studio. Her best film – “All About Eve,” the only one of Davis’s movies to win a best picture Oscar – was made after she left Warners. She made dozens of movies – the Internet Movie Database lists 121 titles, including some TV shows – and Sikov seems to have watched them all, giving keenly observant and loving accounts of as many of them as he can. She had, as he comments, a talent for overcoming “shallow scripts, artless directors … by pumping her characters harder, substituting adrenaline and tics for the substance she knew was missing from the material.”

Bette Davis is one of those stars it’s impossible to imagine Hollywood without. Sikov’s book is a valuable guide to an essential career.

Of Nukes and Neocons


This review recently appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and the Houston Chronicle

ARSENALS OF FOLLY: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf, 386 pp., $28.95

Richard Rhodes’ “Arsenals of Folly” is the continuation – if not the completion – of his saga of the nuclear age. It began in 1986 with “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” which won the Triple Crown of literary awards – Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award – and continued with “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” in 1995. As a contribution to our understanding of the latter half of the twentieth century, Rhodes’ achievement is on a par with Taylor Branch’s “America in the King Years” trilogy and Robert Caro’s monumental ongoing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Arsenals of Folly” begins with a horrifying event: the explosion of Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl in April 1986, which propelled Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev toward nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev, even though Rhodes acknowledges he was “no saint,” is in some sense the hero of the book. This will irk conservatives who believe that it was Ronald Reagan who, by challenging the Soviet Union with the largest peacetime military buildup in American history, caused the collapse of that so-called “evil empire” and thereby ended the arms race. Rhodes dismisses that argument, but his view of Reagan is sympathetic: He sees him as a man of good heart but confused mind, whose stubborn belief in the Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based nuclear-shield program nicknamed “star wars,” blocked his sincere desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

When Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Rhodes tells us, “the total world stockpile” of nuclear weapons was “about fifty thousand bombs and warheads with a combined explosive force of about 22,500 million tons of TNT equivalent (1.5 million Hiroshimas).” Rhodes sketches out the series of decisions over the preceding 40 years that created this terrible armory, and the conflicted and often conflicting personalities who made those decisions.

Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense for John F. Kennedy, took part in some of them, and played a key role in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, in which the world almost experienced a nuclear war. McNamara, Rhodes says, “has come to believe that nuclear weapons should be abolished,” and when asked why so many were built, told Rhodes, “Each individual decision along the way seemed rational at the time. … But the result was insane.”

Others were less repentant. A good many of them – such familiar names as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pipes and Richard Perle – stuck around to carry Cold War attitudes into the United States’ current engagements in the Middle East. According to George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, Perle, deputy secretary of defense under Reagan, argued that “The worst thing in the world would be to eliminate nuclear weapons.” And even as late as 1991, with the Soviet Union in collapse, Cheney, secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, resisted cuts in the nuclear arsenal, Rhodes reports, because “he distrusted arms negotiations and feared they would encourage reductions in the defense budget. He had already decided that there would be no peace dividend from the demise of the Soviet Union.”

But Rhodes concentrates on the two key players in the negotiations of the 1980s, Reagan and Gorbachev. Chernobyl was a major force driving Gorbachev to the negotiating table. Rhodes notes that the full effects of the reactor explosion have never come to light, that “despite the promises of glasnost, the number who died or were disabled has not been revealed.” But he provides a chilling metaphor for those effects: “When the leaves fell from the chestnut trees that are the glory of Kiev, proud on its high bluff above the Dnieper River, they had to be raked up, all three hundred thousand tons of them, baled and buried outside the city as low-level nuclear waste.”

Reagan’s interest in nuclear disarmament may have had a very different inspiration. In October 1983, at Camp David, Reagan screened an advance copy of the TV movie “The Day After,” about the effects of a nuclear war on a town in Kansas. In his diary, Reagan wrote that it “left me greatly depressed. … we have to do all we can … to see that there is never a nuclear war.” Rhodes comments that “Reagan was famously responsive to stories told on film.” He asserts that the movie dovetailed with Reagan’s fundamentalist belief that Armageddon was at hand. Chernobyl played its role here, too. The name, Reagan was told, means “wormwood” – which in Revelation is the name of a star that falls on the Earth, causing great destruction. Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, told Reagan biographer Lou Cannon that the president saw “himself as a romantic, heroic figure” with “the power of a hero to overcome even Armageddon.”

And so the two leaders of the world’s superpowers met, one of them inspired by the harsh reality of a nuclear explosion, the other by fiction, myth and prophecy, to end the arms race. A conclusion would be frustrated by Reagan’s stubborn resistance to dismantling “star wars” – and also by the resistance of his neoconservative advisers to diminishing American power. It was achieved finally by the economic and political forces that undermined the Soviet Union.

Rhodes, who lives in Half Moon Bay and is an affiliate of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, gives us a detailed and dramatic account of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. He also weaves this story into a devastating commentary on the perilous nature of the nuclear arms race, bringing home his conviction that “there has never been a realistic military justification for accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms. In the United States the pressures to do so, seldom acknowledged publicly, have been primarily political, bureaucratic, economic, and palliative.”

As the third book in a series, neatly forming a trilogy, “Arsenals of Folly” may have the look of a conclusion. But Rhodes notes that there are further stories to be told. The need of the United States to deal with “a crowd of nuclear-armed successor states” to the Soviet Union is “another story for another book,” he comments, as is the pressure for “nuclear abolition.” And at the end of this book he notes the deleterious effects of out-of-balance defense spending on the economy, on education, housing, health care and the infrastructure. When levees crumble in New Orleans and a bridge collapses in Minneapolis, we count once again the cost of the arms race.

How Jesse Unruh Kept Things Ticking


This review recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle

BIG DADDY: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics
By Bill Boyarsky
University of California Press, 262 pp., $29.95

If Jesse Unruh hadn’t existed, some novelist would have made him up. Even his name is fraught with symbolism: His first name is that of an infamous Western outlaw, while in German die Unruh is the balance wheel of a clock – the thing that steadies its tick. Unruh’s enemies saw him as the outlaw; his allies relied on him to keep the California legislature running like clockwork.

Unruh’s is not only the familiar rags-to-riches tale, it’s that more fascinating thing, an impotence-to-power tale. From an impoverished childhood on the fringes of the Dust Bowl in Texas, where the Unruhs were “the lowest of the low in the community,” he rose to become, as Bill Boyarsky says in his new biography, “at the height of his power, the single most influential politician in California, first as an assemblyman, then as state assembly speaker, and finally as state treasurer.”

A pop quiz: Name the current speaker of the California assembly and the state treasurer. Only political junkies are likely to come up with the answers instantly. (For the rest of us, they’re Fabian Núñez and Bill Lockyer.) Most of us think of political power in terms of presidents, U.S. senators, governors. And one reason why Unruh’s name may not reverberate today, 20 years after his death, is that he held none of those titles.

But Boyarsky makes the case that, for a quarter of a century, Unruh played a central role in shaping the California that emerged as the nation’s setter of trends, both culturally and politically. Putting it simply, Unruh got his hands on the money, and while some of it may have lined his pockets, he also used it to promote a progressive agenda that transformed California, not only through direct accomplishments in such areas as civil rights and improvements in the state’s education system and infrastructure, but also through provoking the conservative backlash represented by such figures as Ronald Reagan and Howard Jarvis.

Boyarsky spent three decades as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and his book is filled with the kind of insights that only a seasoned observer of the ways of Sacramento could provide. He is also an unabashed admirer of Unruh, though he stays well this side of idolatry. And he is a shrewd analyst of the role his own profession plays in the political arena. “Unruh,” he writes, “would have been destroyed in the twenty-first-century world of mass communications, with its 24-hour news channels, instant Internet communications, obsession with celebrity, and contempt for privacy.”

The assembly to which Unruh was first elected in 1954 was a low-paid, part-time body. Unruh, who had a wife and four children to support, made $300 a month and a small per diem when the legislature was in session. Legislators were dependent on the largess provided by what Unruh called “the Third House, the lobbyists, who were always around willing to pick up a tab.” That the tab often included not only food and drink but also the company of women who were not the legislators’ wives went unreported.

“Editors and reporters did not see a link between public and private conduct,” Boyarsky says. “Everybody bought into the culture. Permitted their privacy, the lawmakers ran wild.” And “Big Daddy” Unruh – the nickname came from the larger-than-life character in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” though some have alleged more salacious origins – was the biggest daddy of them all, famously credited with the aphorism, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.”

Boyarsky records what he calls “Unruh’s duality, the brilliant, far-seeing political leader, on the one hand, and the undisciplined chief of a hard-drinking, card-playing, woman-chasing bunch of assemblymen, on the other.” He notoriously locked the assembly in the Capitol one night in 1963 to bring about the passage of a school finance bill. “As it turned out,” Boyarsky says, “the lockup made the Big Daddy title a pejorative, rather than a label of respect and affection, mixed with fear.” Another time, in what Boyarsky calls “a chilling revelation of the underside of journalism and politics,” Unruh successfully put pressure on the Ridder family to mitigate an unflattering portrait of him in a series by a San Jose Mercury News reporter.

But Boyarsky also lauds Unruh’s many achievements, calling him “one of the creators of twentieth-century California,” whose blend of populism, idealism and pragmatism is reflected in “just about every mile of water project, every freeway, every new university campus, every civil rights bill, every piece of legislation protecting consumers, women, and children” – all of which “was won by ferocious combat, deal by deal. … He accumulated power so he could make those deals and win those fights.”

Boyarsky recognizes what compelling material he has to work with: “His story is more like a novel than a humdrum political biography.” Unfortunately, he lacks the novelistic skills to tell the story with true dramatic flair, suspense and color. His political biography isn’t humdrum – it’s hard to imagine how a book about Unruh could be – but it also isn’t the compelling read it might have been. There’s not quite enough about Unruh’s early years in the assembly – we are told that he accumulated power but we don’t see him doing it. Such rival power-players as Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown could have been given more prominent roles in the narrative. And though Boyarsky now recognizes the “link between public and private conduct,” he gives us only a sketchy look at Unruh’s private side, especially where it concerns his family.

Still, this is a more than welcome picture of a time when politics mattered, when change could be not only wished for but accomplished, and when personal image and private behavior were judged less important than actual achievement. As Boyarsky puts it, Jesse Unruh “wasn’t just another drunk at the bar. What raised him above the barroom were his ideas and his vision of what California could be.”

The Tragedy of Iris Chang


This review recently appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

FINDING IRIS CHANG: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind
By Paula Kamen
Da Capo, 304 pp., $24

Three years ago, on the morning of November 9, Iris Chang’s body was found in her car. Sometime during the night or early morning she had left her husband asleep in their home in San Jose. She drove up Highway 17 and pulled off near the Bear Creek Road exit in Los Gatos. There, she took a gun (one of three she had recently purchased), placed the barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

Since then, the city of Nanjing has erected a life-size statue of her at the burial site of some of those who were tortured and murdered during the Japanese occupation of the city. Chang had written graphically about these horrors in her 1997 international bestseller, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” She had followed up that book with the well-received “The Chinese in America,” and had begun work on a book about the Bataan death march. Her career inspired a writer in the quarterly Chinese American Forum to compare her to Alexander the Great and Mozart – people who had achieved greatness and died in their 30s.

Not quite so hyperbolically, Paula Kamen writes, “This thirty-six-year-old woman was the most envied, and enviable, person I knew. … She had fame and fortune. … She was doing meaningful social justice work and giving formerly anonymous victims of some of the worst war atrocities of the twentieth century a strong voice. … She was beautiful. She was thin. … She adored her husband, and he adored her. And she openly expressed delight with her two-year-old son.”

Kamen had met Chang in 1987 when they were undergraduates in journalism at the University of Illinois. Their friendship overcame some tensions caused by Chang’s hard-driving ambition – she twice won coveted journalism internships that Kamen had also applied for. They corresponded often as their careers progressed. Kamen wrote two books about young women and feminism and the sexual revolution, and another book, “All in My Head,” about her battle with chronic headaches. But it was Chang who became a star. When Kamen lectured to writing classes, she urged students “to ‘Iris Chang’ it. She had become a verb to me. An action verb.”

The news of her death hit Kamen hard, especially because of the disturbing telephone conversation she had with Chang only a few days before her suicide. Chang told her that she had “been very, very sick for the past six months.” “People in high places,” she said, were not going to like what she had uncovered in researching the Bataan death march. “Frankly, Paula, I fear for my life.” She was also worried because, she said, “I’ve made serious mistakes with my son. I gave him autism with vaccines.”

Chang had always been tightly wound. A phone call from her, Kamen says, could last two or three hours. Once, while visiting her, Kamen had to escape to a motel “to truly rest and have a vacation.” And signs of her mental instability had been evident as early as 1999. A friend recalled that Chang was so anxious about the Y2K bug – the computer glitch that was supposed to wreak havoc on January 1, 2000 – that he spent “an hour and a half calming her down. … I found my conversations with Iris were exhausting me.”

During this last phone call, Kamen did her best to try to reassure her, but without success. “Before we finally hung up,” Kamen writes, “she said one last time: If anything happened to her, I had to let people know what she was like before this happened.” In trying to fulfill that task, Kamen has given us a book that’s part biography, part memoir, part literary detective story, and part treatise on mental illness. That “Finding Iris Chang” doesn’t fully achieve all of these aims isn’t surprising.

One problem with the book is structural: Kamen has followed a suggestion once given her by Chang, to outline a book as a series of questions to be answered. Thus each chapter in “Finding Iris Chang” is headed with a question, including: “What did they say happened to Iris?” “Who inspired her?” “What happened in California?” And: “Just because you’re paranoid, does that mean they still aren’t out to get you?” But this approach to telling Chang’s story leads to a lot of overlapping, backtracking and repetition. The sequence and development of Chang’s career – and of her mental disintegration – get blurred.

Which is not to say that “Finding Iris Chang” isn’t full of powerful insights into the problems of identifying and treating mental illnesses such as Chang’s bipolar disorder. Kamen discusses the problems peculiar to ambitious women like Chang – the animosities of the workplace and the stress caused by the conflict of career and family. A professor who studies Asian suicides suggests that cultural differences between Asian-Americans and European-Americans might have caused many to miss warning signs in Chang’s behavior. Another student of suicidal behavior examines the relationship between creativity and bipolar disorder. The book also establishes the great significance of Chang’s work, especially for her Chinese readers, and its exposure of the often overlooked tensions between China and Japan.

The word “tragic” has been trivialized by applying it to automobile accidents and natural disasters. In its classical sense, it refers to a man or woman of immense promise, undone by his or her own disjunction with the world. Iris Chang’s friends, family and physicians could not forestall her self-destruction. In Kamen’s account, she emerges as a genuinely tragic figure.

Chabon Hits the Road


This review recently appeared in the Dallas Morning News and the San Jose Mercury News

GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD
By Michael Chabon
Del Rey, 204 pp., $21.95


When you’ve written such terrific novels as “Wonder Boys,” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” you’re probably entitled to indulge yourself however you see fit. And Berkeley writer Michael Chabon has been doing just that, trying his hand at various genres – a fantasy for children (“Summerland”), the detective story (“The Final Solution”) and now the picaresque adventure novel.

“Gentlemen of the Road” is a sword-and-sandals tale with an exotic setting – the contentious no-man’s-land of southeastern Europe in the tenth century, a place where today a tendril of Russia and other former Soviet states bump up against Turkey and Iran between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Chabon’s protagonists are a pair of itinerant rogues, far from their widely separated homes: Zelikman, a lanky blond Frank from what’s now Bavaria, and Amram, a brawny black man from Abyssinia. Together, they find themselves caught up in the fortunes of a youth known as Filaq, who claims to be a prince of the Khazars whose father has been overthrown by a usurper.

It won’t take the reader as long as it takes Zelikman and Amram to figure out that Filaq isn’t exactly what he seems, but the reader has the advantage of having read Shakespeare’s tales of exiled youths wandering incognito in strange lands. For that matter, the reader has read other tales of ingenious underdogs struggling against enormous odds to achieve great if bloody victories, which is what the narrative drift of this small novel amounts to.

Chabon is on record as a staunch defender of genre fiction. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” after all, is a shrewd combinatory riff on two genres: alternative history and the hardboiled detective story. In fact, he delights in good genre fiction as a kind of nose-thumbing to the literary establishment. “I hate to see great works of literature ghettoized,” he told one interviewer, “whereas others that conform to the rules, conventions, and procedures of the genre we call literary fiction get accorded greater esteem and privilege. … To me, it's about pleasure, and the pleasure of reading, and I like to define pleasure broadly.”

Chabon can say this because whatever he’s writing – either “literary” or “genre” – gives us one central pleasure: that of seeing a master of prose at work. “Gentlemen of the Road” is no exception here, although the prose style here is parodistic, a deft adaptation of the rambling periodic style of some nineteenth-century teller of adventure tales – an H. Rider Haggard or a Charles Reade, perhaps – enlivened by Chabon’s own keen descriptive powers. And like a nineteenth-century adventure tale, it began as a newspaper serial, in the New York Times Magazine.

But the trouble with “Gentlemen of the Road” is that Chabon has tried to stuff an epic into a novella. A lot of essential back story – color, characterization, historical context – has been abbreviated or lopped off. For example, we learn that Zelikman, a widely traveled soldier of fortune, is apparently a virgin, but we are left to wonder why. The characters are, well, generic, even if Chabon gives them a special twist by making Zelikman and Amram Jewish – a fact consistent with the time and the locale of the novel.

The original title of the book, Chabon tells us in his afterword, was “Jews With Swords.” When he tried the title out on his friends, however, they laughed. “They saw their Uncle Manny, dirk between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits, dropping from the chandelier to knock together the heads of a couple of nefarious auditors.” The thing is, that might have made a more interesting novel than “Gentlemen of the Road.”

Foreword

So many blogs, so little time. Does the world need another one? Perhaps not, but I won't let that stop me.

Here you will find reviews -- published and unpublished -- mostly of books that I've been asked (or asked myself) to comment on for a variety of mostly newspapers over the years.

Which doesn't mean I won't occasionally dip into some other topics that I like to poke my nose into, such as movies and TV and politics.

Comments are welcomed. No, encouraged. So if you find yourself here, make yourself known.

Read on.