Archive for the 'Books' Category

‘Carry the Rock’ elegantly explores the troubled history and contentious present of Little Rock, Ark.

May 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 22, 2017

Jay Jennings’s 2010 nonfiction book, Carry the Rock, is an excellent look at a small city in the American Deep South. The writer skillfully uses the 2007 football season of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as a prism for examining the state capital’s fractured racial past.

Central — indeed, all of Little Rock — may be most famous for the contentious integration of the school in 1957, the anniversary of which was celebrated during the season Jennings tracked the Tigers football squad. Over the course of 230 expertly written pages, the author sketches the history of Little Rock from the time its eponymous riverside feature was first marked on a map (as le Petit Rocher) by a French explorer in 1722 up through recent years. Along the way, he introduces us to Central’s coaching staff, a few of the school’s notable players and alumni, and some of the current-day residents who shape the civic discourse of the city.

The man at the heart of Carry the Rock is Bernie Cox. Gruff, old-fashioned but soft-voiced, Cox had won seven state championships from the time he became Central’s head coach in 1975 until Jennings embedded with the squad. Cox developed a specific way of doing things over the years, and he demands the same consistency of his players:

Cox told the freshmen that when they went to the locker room that day, there would be a table and on the table would be a notebook and they were to print their names in the notebook, along with their student numbers — so if there were a dozen John Smiths in the school, there would be no mistaking which one it was — and the names of their parents or guardians. He never said “parent” without also saying “guardian” because he had learned over the years that many of his players didn’t grow up like he did, with a mother and father and siblings in the same home. Often the grandmother or grandfather would be the one in charge, or an uncle or aunt, especially when the mother or father was fifteen or sixteen when the player was born.

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An adolescent explores frontiers within and without in Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Girl in Landscape’

April 21, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 21, 2017

Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 novel Girl in Landscape is a coming-of-age tale set on an alien world.

The story unspools from the point of view of 13-year-old Pella Marsh. Her father, Clement Marsh, a New York politician, recently lost an election and is planning to move to an alien world with his wife, daughter and two young sons. Their preparations are interrupted when Caitlin, Pella’s mother, suddenly falls ill in a prologue set on a future Earth.

The old world is a dire place. Most humans (at least in New York) have retreated underground because the sun’s intense radiation has made the outdoors deadly. But the city’s infrastructure is failing, and morale seems to be terrible. Indeed, the deadly collapse of a subway tunnel combined with the specter of mass suicides — Raymond, the 10-year-old middle child, calls this “that lemming thing” — are two major reasons why Marsh’s party lost the election in a landslide.

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Fiascos and hilarity abound in ‘My Heart is an Idiot,’ Davy Rothbart’s collection of essays about life and love

March 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 22, 2017

Davy Rothbart, the Michigan-born writer and magazine editor, is like most people: Get some drink into him and he tends to develops the gift of gab. Also like most people, inebriation tends to lower Rothbart’s inhibitions and impair his judgments.

What sets Rothbart apart is his knack for getting into hilarious misadventures — often but not aways with a helpful nudge from spirits — and his ability to spin them into enjoyable stories. Happily for readers, he’s assembled some of his wackiest hijinks in My Heart is an Idiot, a 2012 collection of essays that documents some of his strangest exploits and describes some of the people he’s met during his various jaunts.

The book, which functions as a sort of haphazard memoir, begins with an amusing but largely ordinary childhood reminiscence. “Bigger and Deafer” details the mischief Rothbart and his brothers got into when Davy was inspired to mislead his deaf mother about the phone conversations for which they were serving as intermediaries. The best part about the story is the twists that take place on its final page.

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A lot of hard work went into developing the comedy career depicted in the Steve Martin memoir ‘Born Standing Up’

March 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 13, 2017

I missed almost all of Steve Martin’s entire career as a standup comedian while it was happening.

I wasn’t yet born when Martin first performed before paying audiences as a latter-day vaudevillian at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theater in 1963; the same was true when he struck out on his own as a Southern California comedian and TV writer three years later, before comedy clubs had even been invented. (Folk-music venues hosted many of his shows.)

I was far too young to watch TV when Martin started appearing irregularly on talk shows in the early ’70s. I was also too young to attend any of Martin’s performances when he became a touring comedian a few years after that, or to watch his early appearances on Saturday Night Live. (He’s served as SNL guest host 15 times, starting in 1976, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 stints.)

I did have some friends who were very big fans of offbeat comedy, despite their tender ages, and I do remember them mimicking Martin’s best bits and showing me videocassettes of their favorite routines featuring him. So there was something vaguely familiar to me about seeing Martin appear in bunny ears in the cover photograph of Born Standing Up, his account of his childhood and the first two decades of his performing career. And thanks to catching snippets of SNL reruns and later Martin appearances on the show, I was certainly familiar with characters like his wild and crazy guy.

But even if I hadn’t been — even if I’d just known Martin from mid-career movies such as RoxanneDirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger — I think that I might have enjoyed the actor-author’s 2007 memoir.

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Madness at the turn of the millennium: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ chronicles a disaffected writer’s experiences in New York and abroad

February 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 6, 2017

New York City at the turn of the millennium, writer Salman Rushdie not unreasonably posited in his 2001 novel Fury, was full of motion and spectacle. The opening paragraph gets right to business:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a gold age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats. So many people were doing up their apartments that supplies of high-grade fixtures and fittings were at a premium. There were waiting lists for baths, doorknobs, imported hardwoods, antiqued fireplaces, bidets, marble slabs. In spite of the recent falls in the value of the Nasdaq index and the value of Amazon stock, the new technology had the city by the ears: the talk was still of start-ups, IPOs, interactivity, the unimaginable future that had just begun to begin. The future was a casino, and everyone was gambling, and everyone expected to win.

The opening is somewhat misleading, however. Although Fury immediately and vividly captures the frenzy that was New York circa 1998–2001, the novel is quite coy about revealing many of the details of the life of its protagonist. This is, of course, an intentional choice by Rushdie: Solanka has deliberately suppressed major episodes from his childhood, to the point where repressed trauma threatens to destroy his entire life. Moreover, the character suffers repeated blackouts, prompting him to wonder whether he may have committed a series of vicious fatal assaults on wealthy young women that command the full attention of the tabloids.

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Majoring in classics, minoring in murder? A handful of college students are united by dark secrets in Donna Tartt’s spell-binding 1992 debut, ‘The Secret History’

December 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2016

I first read The Secret History in the mid-1990s, a few years after its publication, and not long after I’d graduated from college. That makes it awfully tempting for me to compare and contrast myself with the narrator of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.

Richard Papen is a classics scholar — literally a student of the language and literature of ancient Greece; I barely have any proficiency in any language other than English, but I’ve always been a bookish sort. The only child of a miserly gas station proprietor and a receptionist, Papen was raised in a fictitious small Silicon Valley community called Plano, which he dismisses as having “little of interest, less of beauty”; I grew up outside New York City, and while I too (perhaps unfairly) dismissed my suburban community as being bland and uninteresting, I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan’s diverse, lively and culture-filled precincts. He readily, if sometimes clumsily, lies about his background in order to keep himself on par with his glamorous college acquaintances; I never had the nerve to attempt such deception.

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‘The Hunger Games,’ Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular 2008 novel, challenges the reader’s conception of love and reality

December 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 14, 2016

If hearing or seeing the words The Hunger Games doesn’t spark at least a flicker of recognition in your mind, then you probably were not literate, conscious and residing in the United States for most of the years 2008 through 2015.

That first year, of course, was when American TV writer and young-adult novelist Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, her tale of a teenager in a post-apocalyptic United States who is essentially drafted as a competitor in a televised life-and-death battle of adolescents from across what used to be known as North America. The book and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were enormously successful, selling 4.3 million copies in 2010, the year the finale was published.

Book sales grew exponentially, reaching nearly 28 million copies by 2012, when a movie adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence was released. Three film sequels appeared in late November of the following three years. (The last book, rather notoriously, was split into two films.)

I’ve watched and enjoyed the first two movies, and I toyed with the idea of reading the books, but I never acted on the impulse until I saw a copy of The Hunger Games sitting on the small shelf of free books at Joe Van Gogh’s Broad Street store in Durham.

I can now report that the Hunger Games book is a lot like what I expected. Like the movie, the book is briskly paced and enjoyable. Collins’s novel feels more nuanced than the film adaptation because some of the story’s emotional beats develop more organically here.

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It was a dark and stormy week: Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ is a masterful, influential whodunnit

December 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 7, 2016

It is early August in 1939 or thereabouts. Ten men and women of varying ages and backgrounds have gathered on Soldier Island, an isolated point of land about a mile off the coast of Devon, England. They will soon discover that each person present is united by a grisly secret — and moreover that they’ve been assembled by someone with malevolent intent. As a storm closes in, cutting off the uneasy inhabitants, members are killed, one by one. With their numbers dwindling, and the bonds of trust among the party becoming ever more frayed, the survivors reach an even more unnerving realization: The killer is someone among them…

This, of course, is the plot of Agatha Christie’s classic 1939 murder mystery, available now as And Then There Were None but first published in the United States as Ten Little Indians. The title under which the book was originally published in Britain included a vicious racial slur that is rarely if ever used in polite company. Its name was taken from a post-Civil War minstrel song, the lyrics of which inform the plot of and were quoted in Christie’s book.

I had neither read this book nor seen any of the various TV or film adaptations of it until just this past week. (I am, I must confess, unfamiliar with all of Christie’s work.) I was visiting some friends in Virginia when the book happened to come up in conversation; I prevented my friends from naming the killer, announcing that I hadn’t actually read the book (and also disclosing the original title). They offered to loan me a paperback copy — a 2011 reprint that refers to “soldiers” rather than “Indians” or this notorious epithet — and here we are.

Some consider And Then There Were None, as I shall call it, to be Christie’s masterpiece; fans named it her most popular book in a poll conducted in 2015 to mark the 125th anniversary of the British writer’s birth. Having now read the book, it’s blindingly obvious that myriad works are descended from Christie’s tale.

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Stephen Goldin constructs an amiable but rather forgettable ‘Trek to Madworld’ in his 1979 original ‘Star Trek’ novel

December 3, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 3, 2016

I initially couldn’t remember how I acquired Bantam’s February 1998 reissue of Trek to Madworld, a 1979 Star Trek novel by Stephen Goldin. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that the book must have been mailed to me gratis by the publisher thanks to my stint as books columnist for the short-lived periodical Sci-Fi Invasion!

I certainly don’t remember reading the book, which is pleasantly mediocre, and which was one of a handful of original Star Trek novels that helped maintain the franchise’s popularity between the cancellation of Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering TV series in 1969 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

How did I obtain a copy of Trek to Madworld? Well, the story isn’t very interesting. Here it is:

I visited Ye Olde Family Homestead for Thanksgiving. A day or two before I was to return to North Carolina, I was sitting on the couch in the living room. There’s a free-standing bookcase on the south wall; the north wall is completely lined by built-in bookshelves. I happened to look south (that is, to my right) and for some reason noticed three Star Trek books on a lower shelf. I decided that I should read one of them; as to which got chosen, well, need I say any more?

The book opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise embarks on a routine mission: Ferrying legendary explorer Kostas Spyroukis and his daughter, Metika Spyroukis, back home to Epsilon Delta 4 from the conference world of Babel, where they had unsuccessfully petitioned the Council to admit their colony as a full member of the United Federation of Planets.

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Notes towards a taxonomy of the novels of John le Carré

October 18, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 18, 2016

The British author John le Carré has written 23 novels, according to Wikipedia, of which I’ve read about two-thirds. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of le Carré’s oeuvre, there would be two main “bubbles,” or categories: Those in which the protagonist is a professional spy and those in which she or he is not.

An example of the former would be all of the so-called George Smiley novels, of which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps best known: Smiley devotes his entire career to British intelligence. An example of the latter would be many of le Carré’s other books, such as two of my favorite novels by him: 1993’s The Night Manager, in which a hotel manager is drafted for an operation targeting illicit international arms dealers, and 2001’s The Constant Gardener, in which an ordinary British diplomat begins to uncover shady doings by a multinational company after the death of his unfaithful wife.

Several other le Carré books feature amateurs who dally in espionage. There’s The Russia House (1989), wherein a British publisher becomes a courier for a spy ring; The Little Drummer Girl (1983), in which a radical English actress is recruited to locate a Palestinian terrorist; and Our Kind of Traitor (2010), in which a professional London couple decides to help a Russian money launderer and his family defect to England.

And what, you may ask, of the overlapping between the two bubbles? This area is dedicated to two kinds of novels. One type has multiple leading characters, some of whom are professional spies and some of whom are not; the other, a leading character whose status is nebulous or transitional.

In The Tailor of Panama, there are two main characters: The eponymous tailor and the duplicitous British spy who recruits him. Obviously, this homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana belongs to the first type, as does A Most Wanted Man, with its multiple characters, some intelligence professionals and others (more or less) ordinary individuals. A Perfect Spy tracks its main character, Magnus Pym, from childhood through a key episode in his adulthood; this book, of course, belongs to the second type.

I’ll touch upon this le Carré taxonomy later this week…

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