By Richard Rayner
January 4, 2009
"Good Friday. I neither fast nor make any observations of this somber time. I roam from the post office to the church, unsober. The central altar is dark, but on the left the priest has improvised a Mary chapel where there is a blaze of candles and lilies and someone keeps the vigil. I find all this offensive; say my prayers. The day is brilliant for half an hour; clouds come up swiftly from the northwest and now the day is dark." Cheever's journals are tender, funny and sad -- above all, startling in their intimacy and luminosity. These pages offer sometimes painful insights into the writing life and into the mind of a man who understood that his own troubled soul was subject for comedy and not only complaint.
"A Mind Apart" edited by Mark S. Bauer (Oxford University Press)
"At last I thought my work was done, / and I could end my life. / But now my daughter has a son, / my son now has a wife," writes Kelly Ann Malone in her wistful poem about suicide, "Devices on Standby." "I'll get around to my demise / and give in to despair / when I can look into their eyes / and tell them I don't care." Mark Bauer, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has assembled a collection of poems about madness, melancholy and addiction. It's the reverse of a cozy read -- but still strives to affirm.
"The Redbreast" by Jo Nesbo (Harper)
Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian, is the latest Scandinavian crime writer to achieve eminence in the U.S., and "The Redbreast," moving in time from the end of World War II to the present day, is indeed a hugely impressive achievement -- ambitious in scope, and skilled in execution. Nesbo's detective, the splendidly named Harry Hole, is drunk and depressive -- so what's new? Where "The Redbreast" scores, though, is in its plotting -- the twists keep coming right to the end as Hole tracks the killer of disgraced soldiers who once collaborated with the Germans. The dark tone carries real weight.
"Slumdog Millionaire" by Vikas Swarup (Scribner)
"I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show," announces the narrator at the beginning of this excellent novel, originally published as "Q & A" and recently adapted by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy for the smashing movie. Vikas Swarup may feel pleased, indeed, by the success and fidelity of the translation. In the book, as in the film, the young hero is arrested and asked to account for how he -- an illiterate orphan -- was able to answer quiz show questions that led to him winning a jackpot. The writing's fast-paced, and like a fairy-tale, but grounded in the streets of Mumbai.
"Who Will Write Our History?" by Samuel D. Krassow (Vintage)
In 1940 a scholar named Emanuel Ringelbaum set up a history project in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, the aim being to record the experiences of those trapped in the Jewish ghetto. When the ghetto was emptied and razed in 1943, the thousands of documents by then assembled were hidden in tin boxes and milk cans and buried, to be discovered after the war. Sifting through this unique cache, historian Krassow weaves the story of Ringelbaum together with extracts. What's surprising, and extraordinarily moving here, is how the day-to-day concerns of people writing on the ground can be both keenly aware of -- and, at other times, almost willfully oblivious to -- the cruel and broad strokes of history. It's a rich and complicated study.
"Confessions" by Saint Augustine (Penguin)
Down the years historian Garry Wills has spent time translating more and more of Augustine's work, a central text both in the Christian church and the history of thought. Wills' direct and immediate renderings (all collected here in a new edition) bring one man's struggle for faith straight to the contemporary mind. "Such were the things I told myself, while such winds tossed my heart this-way-that-way and time went by. I kept putting off a turn to the Lord. Day after day I shunned a life in you, while I refused to shun the death in me. I was in love with a happy life, but feared to go where I could find it. I sought it by fleeing it."
"Bucolics" by Maurice Manning (Harcourt)
Consider the following: "[A]re you ever sorry Boss ever / Have a problem get / shamefaced stuff your hands / in your big boss pockets / it's never easy is it Boss never / Boss ever get a slow start ever / feel like you're at the end / of the line the end of your rope / have you ever had it up to here / wherever that is on you I know / it's high up to your neck Boss / the top of your head you must / be tall to take it all the way / you do taller than the top / of the moon Boss O I wonder / what you see when you look up." In these rolling, psalm-like poems, the young poet Maurice Manning addresses a putative Almighty -- questioning, praising, pleading. The effect is strange -- and wonderful.
"The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" by John Steinbeck (Penguin)
In this, the last book he wrote, and which he didn't complete, Steinbeck pays homage to the work that, when he was a child, at last made him fall in love with reading: Malory's "Morte D'Arthur." Steinbeck retells the Arthurian myths in a down-home way that's full of humor and a wide-eyed wonder. "And they swore never to fight in an unjust cause or to fight for personal gain. All the knights of the Round Table took this oath. And every year at the high feast of Pentecost they renewed the oath." Steinbeck knew how to make words sing on the page, and this is excellent to read aloud. We see all the adventure, and Arthur aging bitterly. Newly introduced by Christopher Paolini.
"The Star Machine" by Jeanine Basinger (Vintage)
Basinger, one of America's best film historians, turns her gifts of wit and compression to the subject of how the studios manufactured, maintained and discarded movie stars during Hollywood's golden age. " Lana Turner's real life is the tragic version of what people think of when they imagine the story of how a star is born. It's full of disaster, poverty and legend right from the beginning," Basinger writes of a performer who effortlessly generated publicity, too much publicity, culminating in Johnny Stompanato's murder by her daughter. Basinger brings astringency to some familiar tales, and she tells some unfamiliar ones too -- and she's persuasive on the mystery of why some careers last and others don't.
"Vanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood" edited by Graydon Carter (Penguin)
Down the years Vanity Fair has run a series of pieces about how certain iconic films got made. "Nobody pushed me into show business," John Travolta tells Sam Kashner for a story about "Saturday Night Fever." "I was aching for it." Wonderful line. The pitch of the writing, posed between outrageous gossip and diligently researched reportage, is perfect and nowhere better than in Peter Biskind's landmark study of "Reds." "It's like running down a street with a plate of consommé and trying not to spill any," says Warren Beatty on the dicey business of having an affair with the actress he's also directing -- in this case, Diane Keaton. Later, more seriously, Beatty says "Reds" was "a death rattle," both for the American left and for a certain type of film-making, a judgment that feels both less and more true now than it did three years ago, when the piece was written. Great stuff here, too, about "All About Eve," "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Graduate" and "Cleopatra."
Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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