Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ by Michael Wolff

FIRE AND FURY!

Michael Wolff’s political bombshell, “Fire and Fury,” is like a “Harry Potter” book event: mana for political junkies as well as a breakout book for a much wider audience. It has certainly proven to be an excellent go-to book on my nightstand these past couple of weeks. I felt it in my gut, from the start of the media campaign, that here was something that would hold up to a full reading. Wolff is not Carl Bernstein but he proves to be the right man in the right place and time. Some of the book’s juiciest bits that were placed under the media spotlight helped to distort the narrative. However, it’s not farfetched at all to find that Wolff has compiled something credible. Just don’t tell that to Sarah Huckabee since she swears the whole thing is a “fantasy,” not worthy of the American people.

January 17, 2018: Trump with communications director Hope Hicks and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

What I find most useful is that, by and large, Wolff has neatly organized and presented the machinations of all the oddball characters running amok: the mighty Steve Bannon; the royal duo, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, or Jarvanka; assorted misfits and minions such as Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer; and especially both Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, highly unqualified special assistants to the president. The important blocks of activity add up for the big picture: Jared Kushner’s highly suspicious dealings around the globe; the inept advice of Jarvanka to POTUS taking its toll; how all things Trump cannot help but inevitably fall like a house of cards. Time will tell just how much Wolff got right. It is in his best interest that the book holds up as it would make for a great movie. In his favor, he has a credible and lengthy acknowledgements list at the back of the book.

One day prior to FIRE AND FURY book release, Jan 4, 2018: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was flanked by two large television screens as President Donald Trump delivered a video message on stock market increases and economic gains.

This is much more than just about Trump sneaking a cheeseburger into bed or Steve Bannon’s pontificating. It is about a White House in crisis, even before it started, one stoking an international crisis. It is definitely about an accidental presidency, one that repeatedly abuses power, and is illegitimate. While that may sound too harsh for some hardcore Trump supporters, this book lays out the case for why the whole Trump phenomena is a shell game with players who shamelessly want to hang on to power. And it’s surprising how often Steve Bannon comes out sounding like the more sensible one in the bunch–but not for the reasons his supporters might think. The main reason he seems to have any sense is because he knew what a mistake it would be for Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey.

As Bannon explains it, it was Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner (he nicknamed them, “Jarvanka”) who pushed Trump into firing Comey. This Jarvanka push was triggered by the fact Kushner was part of Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling. And it just gets worse from there. Forget about Russian meddling for a moment. It’s all this Jarvanka meddling that’s pretty scary in and of itself. As the following excerpt demonstrates, despite the tabloid style to this book, Wolff puts together a narrative that most likely will be confirmed over and over again, especially by special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation:

“Most problematic of all, Hicks and Miller, along with everyone on the Jarvanka side, were now directly connected to actions involved in the Russian investigation or efforts to spin it, deflect it, or, indeed, cover it up. Miller and Hicks had drafted–or at least typed–Kushner’s version of the first letter written at Bedminster to fire Comey. Hicks had joined with Kushner and his wife to draft on Air Force One the Trump-directed press release about Don Jr. and Kushner’s meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.”

From left to right: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Hope Hicks, White House director of strategic communications; and Omarosa Manigault, director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, listen during a daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room, at the White House, on February 14, 2017. White House press secretary Sean Spicer discussed various topics, including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser. Hicks is now one of six past and current Trump administration aides whom Robert Mueller reportedly wants to question. ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

A key player in the Jarvanka faction is Hope Hicks who provides some good grist for this book. A former model and aspiring actress, Hicks finds herself in the improbable position of being an essential link between the press and the leader of the free world. Hicks regularly provides digestible pits of information to Trump. She was responsible, for instance, in giving Trump a recap on the famous piece in The New Yorker that first connected the dots on Michael Flynn and Russia–except she failed to mention Michael Flynn. Hicks has no qualms over sending out disparaging leaks to the press about anyone deemed a problem, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and members of Trumps legal team, Mark Corallo and Mark Kasowitz. It is no surprise that Robert Mueller is interested in questioning her.

And it all goes on, getting worse and worse. Just as one scandalous scene plays out, another rears its head to fill an endless news cycle. So, plenty of opportunity to deflect, distract, confuse, and alarm. It was just that strategy that led Trump to threaten to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It is a well-documented fact that Trump said this since we can clearly view it on numerous news feeds. Unlike some other comments and activities by Trump & Co., there is no hiding behind the trickery of the Trump White House in this case. Wolff does an admirable job of exposing this spin doctor trickery. Sorry, Sarah, this book is significant and so far removed from your claim that it is mere “fantasy.”

If you’ve seen any of the segments Wolff has done during his book tour, he makes a compelling case: after being embedded in the White House for most of 2017, an informative book results, one that makes sense out of the political crisis of our time. Now, I will be the first to admit that Wolff seems just a little bit out of his depth. It’s like a fisherman going out to make a catch and snagging Moby Dick. And I did see his appearance with Bill Maher where he suggests Trump is currently having an affair with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He doesn’t come right out and say that and only hints that he would only say as much if he had absolute proof. It’s that whiff of the salacious than can take away from an otherwise even-tempered book. Ultimately, it doesn’t take away much of anything.

“Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is a 336-page hardcover published by Henry Holt and Company. For more details, visit Henry Holt and Company right here. And you can get this book at Amazon by just clicking the image below:

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Filed under Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Journalism, politics, Russia, Russiagate

Review: ‘The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office’

King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.

Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.

It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.

THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri

In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.

In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:

“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.

Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”

No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.

Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.

How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.

“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, History, Political Cartoons, politics

Book Review: WHY COMICS? by Hillary Chute

WHY COMICS? by Hillary Chute

“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere,” by Hillary Chute, published by HarperCollins, is a highly informative, accessible, and delightful look at the evolution of comics, with the primary focus on American comics. As the title suggests, what used to be strictly an underground thing has now emerged virtually everywhere. Chute’s goal is to unpack that phenomenon. She goes about it with great enthusiasm and clearly makes a significant contribution to the ongoing writing about comics. This is a must-read for anyone interested in pop culture, comics, and art in general.

Zap Comix #1, 1968

Okay, so comics are everywhere. Who, for instance, are the characters gracing the cover to this book? Chute, a natural teacher, is so glad you asked. She will come right out and tell you who and then explain the interconnections. First of all, this is Maggie and Hopey, lead characters in what is understood by many to be the greatest ongoing comic of them all, “Love and Rockets,” by the Hernandez Brothers. Where did this comic come from? How does it fit in with other comics? Why is this comic significant? Ah, for that matter, you may shout out, “Why Comics?!” Chute is happy to answer all your questions and much more. Well, this comic is part of a second wave of underground comics in the ’80s. And this comic is a response to a lot of things, including a lack of diversity in mainstream comics. But, before that, there was the original wave of underground comics in the Sixties led by R. Crumb and his Zap Comix. And, as many a conversation on the comics convention floor on zines and mini-comics will attest, even today’s superhero comics genre all began as indie comics by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Page excerpt from Art Spiegelman’s MAUS

Chute’s search for patterns in the making of comics leads her to some of the most celebrated trailblazers, notably Art Spiegelman. Chute was the associate editor of “MetaMaus,” the definitive companion to Spiegelman’s “Maus,” and she has a great deal of insight to share. Chute guides the reader from Spiegelman, in his youth in San Francisco to his subsequent work in earnest. It was in 1972 that Justin Green, author of the first autobio comic, “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” invited Spiegelman to contribute to a comics anthology. The only stipulation was that the work had to feature anthropomorphic animal characters. And so began Spiegelman’s first steps toward the work in comics most people are aware of, “Maus.” Chute then follows Spiegelman’s progress as he reaches great heights of creativity. Here below, Chute describes how Spiegelman plays with the fluidity of time:

“Spiegelman creates a physical connection between panels set in the past and panels set in the present, linking them, as in panels in which Art’s cigarette smoke is figured as the smoke coming out of an Auschwitz crematorium chimney directly below it on the page. But in others, he exploits the language of comics–the convention that each panel represents a distinct moment of time–to make two different time periods literally intertwine. We see this in the striking page in which Vladek, Art, and Françoise–herself a character in ‘Maus’–converse in the Catskills during a summer visit to Vladek’s bungalow. On their way to the supermarket in the car, Art changes the topic from his stepmother, Mala, to Auschwitz, asking his father about a prisoner revolt. The last panel of the page, in which Vladek describes its fallout, is its largest: as the family car weaves through dense rural roads, the legs of four Jewish girls hanged in Auschwitz after the revolt–witnessed firsthand by Vladek–suddenly appear dangling from the trees. The 1940s and the ’70s collapse, as Spiegelman shows, wordlessly, how the traumatic past lives on in the present.”

Page excerpt from Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS

Much in the same way that the 1951 landmark coming-of-age novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, became the template for aspiring young novelists, so too did “Maus” serve as a guide for cartoonists on the rise. Observe how Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” first published in 2000, follows a similar format and technique as Spiegelman’s landmark work. Certainly, Satrapi’s work is wonderfully original. That said, it does follow certain style and content choices first established by leading artists such as Spiegelman. Chute is not making this particular argument but she does lay out the characteristics of what has become accepted in a work by an independent cartoonist: the work is honest, personal, and usually autobiographical; the work is all done by hand, including the borders and lettering, with a less polished finish than mainstream comics; and the work is usually done by one person. In that sense, Satrapi is following in a tradition begun by such artists as Crumb and Spiegelman.

Panel excerpt from Chris Ware’s BUILDING STORIES

Another cartoonist who looms larger in Chute’s book is Chris Ware–and for good reason. The history of American comics is essentially Winsor McCay leading the start and Chris Ware leading the current state of affairs. And it is both of these cartoonists, and so many others in between, who seem to share Ware’s tragicomic point of view of being “well-appointed and feeling lonely.” Cartoonists are something of exotic birds to begin with–whether or not the public notices. But to really make one’s mark in comics, to resonate with critics and fans alike, is quite an achievement. One achieved by such cartoonists as Chris Ware, Charles Burns, and Gary Panter–all of whom would get their big breaks by appearing in Raw magazine, a comics anthology led by Art Spiegelman.

Gary Panter cover for Raw #2.1, 1989

Chute organzies her narrative within categories such as “Why Disaster?” and “Why Sex?” Each chapter category acts as an umbrella that covers a certain facet of comics. In the chapter, “Why Punk?” Chute describes the rise of two friends deeply involved with the punk movement: Matt Groening and Gary Panter, along with other relevant artists like Raymond Pettibon. As for Groening and Panter, they held to their punk ideals while also driven to succeed–“The Simpsons” for Groening; “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for Panter. Chute makes sure to point out that Bart Simpson–the cartoon character everyone thinks they know–is, in fact, a sly reference (right down to the jaggedy crewcut) to Panter’s underground hero, Jimbo, the antithesis of the mainstream. And, as Chute’s title declares, comics have gone from the underground to everywhere in more ways than one.

Matt Groening holds up Bart Simpson and Gary Panter’s Jimbo

“Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere” is a 464-page hardcover published by HarperCollins. For more details, visit HarperCollins right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Art Spiegelman, Book Reviews, Comics, graphic novels, Hillary Chute, Maus, mini-comics, pop culture, Underground Comics, Zines

Book Review: ‘Winter Warning’ by Jerome Charyn

Isaac Sidel, the president with a Glock. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Writers reach a point in their careers when they can spin gold from within just about any scenario. Jerome Charyn gives himself the perfect backdrop from which to play in his latest novel, “Winter Warning,” published by Pegasus Books. This is the White House. And, if you think Donald Trump is “disruptive,” then get a load of the Isaac Sidel administration: people get punched in the face and guns are fired into the ceiling on a slow day. Charyn makes the most of his opportunity to craft a climactic conclusion to his iconic Isaac Sidel mystery series. And, in the bargain, Charyn revels in speaking to the byzantine interconnections between American and Russian players.

Isaac Sidel, has gone from street cop to police commissioner, to mayor of New York City, to president of the United States. The timeline to the Charyn mystery series places the story in 1989 but, without a doubt, the narrative is every bit as relevant as if it were set in the present. Sidel is indeed a disruptive force. He is, by and large, an accidental president, a vice-presidnet thrust into the highest office after a political scandal. And Sidel is quite outspoken, beholden to neither major party. Where Trump leans to the right, Sidel leans to the left. Side’s liberal inclinations have more to do with a passion to help the oppressed than anything else. Given the chance as mayor, he released countless prisoners from Riker’s Island, victims of an unjust legal system. Our story heats up when Sidel’s more aggressive style attracts various rogue elements, including nefarious Swiss bankers and an erratic former Israeli prime minister.

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

Jerome Charyn is always a pleasure to read as you cannot help but get wrapped up in the story and find yourself rewarded at every turn. Here is a taste of a story with hints of the supernatural. In this excerpt, Sidel is questioning Pesh Olinov, a Russian operative, about a Russian criminal syndicate determined to make contact with him:

“And that greeting card is some kind of a threat?”

Olinov appraised the portrait of Isaac with an ice pick piercing his left eye.

“I don’t think so. They consider you a werewolf, like themselves. And that’s a mark of respect. Perhaps they would like to meet with you—the presidency means nothing to them. It’s not your power that interests the besprizornye. In their eyes you have none. Perhaps it is a real winter warning, and they are telling you to be more careful with your steps. The Secret Service cannot protect you with their magnetometers, my friend.”

Isaac Sidel is the president who packs a Glock. As much gritty crime story as political fable, “Winter Warning” takes the reader on a mesmerizing journey. This is the story of an American president who prefers to hide in an office he’s set up in the White House attic. That attic becomes home to a makeshift kitchen cabinet and a haven for various rogue elements. But Sidel, as always, is also a man of action. Charyn keeps this president on the run.

Charyn has a delicious way of hinting at what lies ahead and then, like a panther, hits his mark and pounces on his prey. The pace to this narrative is quick and steady allowing Charyn to conjure up elaborate scenes, deliver on his promise, and quickly sneak out the backway. Charyn is a master at creating a rhythmic pattern. We return throughout to an image of a man with a Glock, a man confronting werewolves, and the realization that he is a werewolf himself. This is not a horror story with werewolf tropes. These werewolves symbolize a certain dark and independent spirit. Sidel is indeed a werewolf. He knew it all along. He just needed an opportunity to prove it to others and confirm it to himself. With a target on his back, and nearly no one to trust, Sidel will need strength from any source he can find. This is a riveting mystery with a hard-boiled edge and worldly charm.

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Crime Fiction, Jerome Charyn, mystery, Novels, Pegasus Books

Review: RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

Russiagate and the Magnitsky Act have become inextricably linked in the news. We may even reach the point where the average person readily makes the connection. This is certainly the stuff of mainstream media now and that’s a good thing. One person who is definitely an authority on the subject is investor Bill Browder. If you were to read just one book on what is going on in Russia today, it is Browder’s “Red Notice.” The full title is “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” published by Simon & Schuster. Keep in mind, the devil is in the details–and these are some diabolical details.

For this story, the one person you will never forget, once you know his story, is Sergei Magnitsky. What happened to him is hardly a new story but a story that reverberates as more and more people become aware. You can think of it, in some sense, as similar to the story of Emmett Till. Once you know his story, you never forget it. See what I mean? In a nutshell, we are living through the complex aftermath of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky.

Bill Browder’s book is so well-paced that, by the time he reaches the details about Sergei Magnitsky, the reader is prepared with a sense of how high finance works (in this case, by the seat of one’s pants) and how Russia works (it can get very dark). What makes this book so readable is Browder’s keen understanding of human nature. He is often self-deprecating and strikes the right tone. If you are looking for an absorbing read, this is it. Browder tells you everything about how he stumbled upon investing in post-Soviet Russia. That alone, is fascinating. Browder did so well with his hedge fund that he became Russia’s biggest foreign investor. The new oligarch regime took notice. Putin took notice.

The Russian response to Browder was, first, to discredit him. And it would escalate from there, especially since Browder was more than happy to push back on being bullied. The Browder team went after the oligarchs and Russian government corruption like there was no tomorrow. That led to the exposing of an outlandish tax fraud scheme: a $230 million tax rebate reverting back to Putin and friends. It was one of Bill Browder’s attorneys, Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered this fraud. His reward was to be taken prisoner and, for all intents and purposes, handed down a death sentence. Magnitsky’s health steadily declined and, instead of getting medical attention, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. When he died from this treatment, the government denied any involvement. Instead, Magnitsky and Browder would be blamed for the corruption scandal.

But the level of corruption we are talking about is much bigger than any casual observer might hazard to guess. To that end, Browder and his team created videos that make it a lot easier to digest. There are some key government henchmen involved that, while making meager salaries, managed to live like royalty:

Seeking justice for Sergei Magnitsky led Bill Browder to Washington, D.C. on a mission to enact legislation that would punish the network of people involved with his death. In the process, we get quite an insightful look behind the scenes. In 2010, the Obama administration was determined to improve relations with Russia. The State Department did not look favorably upon anything to strain relations. That was the general tone–but there were detractors to the status quo like U.S. Senator from Maryland, Ben Cardin. It was Sen. Cardin who began work on creating a bill. Now, Browder still needed a heavy hitter in the Senate and he found that support with Sen. John McCain. A number of political twists and turns still lay ahead but it would ultimately lead to a law with some real teeth, a law that could eventually ensnare Putin–unless, of course, this law were somehow made to go away.

The Magnitsky Act is very straightforward. Originally, its intent was to place sanctions on Magnitsky’s killers and then it was broadened to cover all Russian human rights offenders: take away their assets in the U.S. as well as their visas to the U.S. Simple as that. The bill went through various hurdles and ultimately was signed into law by Pres. Obama in 2012. If you are still new to the Magnitsky Act, you will be hearing more and more about it. Keep in mind that Putin has done everything in his power to discredit both Sergei Magnitsky and Bill Browder. After all, put two and two together: if you follow the letter of the law, the Magnitsky Act would surely apply to Putin.

Shortly after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, Putin retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children. This becomes complicated as it also involves numerous children with special medical needs. As you may recall, and how could you not, Donald Trump’s son, Don Jr., met with a Russian lawyer who was essentially lobbying for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. The excuse Don Jr. uses is that they were actually talking about Russian adoption. But, if you understand the context, talking about Russian adoption equates to talking about the Magnitsky Act. Any scheme to repeal the Magnitsky Act is now dead, right? But these are very strange times we live in. That said, Browder’s book could not be more relevant.

RED NOTICE is a 416-page book available in hardcover, paperback, in audio, and e-book. For more details, visit Simon & Schuster right here. And for more information on Bill Browder, visit him right here. And, if you really want to dig deeper, visit the Russian Untouchables website right here.

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Filed under Bill Browder, Book Reviews, Books, Human Rights, Russia, Russiagate, Sergei Magnitsky, Simon & Schuster

Review: THE BATTLES OF TOLKIEN

THE BATTLES OF TOLKIEN

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic world includes not only elves and trolls but a whole civilization spanning some 37,000 years. Such a vast timeframe involves war and numerous battles. There have been atttempts to sort through these events but never before in a book filled with such a high level of artwork and commentary. Now, we have “The Battles of Tolkien,” by David David, published by Thunder Bay Press. It is both a beautiful and detailed book. It would make a wonder gift and certainly one to consider for Dad on Father’s Day.

The Battle of Unnumbered Tears

This collection of commentary, art, and maps will prove to be insightful and a delight to any Tolkien reader. Each battle has a map and various artist renditions. David Day’s commentary has a sense of authority and enthusiasm that will keep you reading on from battle to battle. By the end of the book, a Tolkien reader will have a greater understanding of the work and an invaluable keepsake.

Glaurung at the Battle of Sudden Flame

David Day is a poet and author who has published over 40 books of poetry, ecology, history, fantasy, mythology and fiction. David Day’s books, for both adults and children, have sold over 4 million copies worldwide and were translated into twenty languages. This work is unofficial and is not authorized by the Tolkien Estate or HarperCollins Publishers. Other Tolkien titles by David Day include “An Atlas of Tolkien,” “A Dictionary of Tolkien,” and “Heroes of Tolkien.”

The Elven City of Tirion

“The Battles of Tolkien” is a 256-page flexibound. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Thunder Bay Press right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Thunder Bay Press, War

Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘Day for Night’ by Stacey E. Bryan

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of art famous for displaying sharks in art galleries, once asked his 6-year-old son which he would prefer in his bed, a girl or a zombie. The boy instantly replied, “Zombie!” That is a crude and random example, I know. But perhaps it makes a bigger point about our collective fascination with the macabre, the unknown…and sometimes that is made most clear from a child’s point of view. That brings me to “Day For Night,” a new novel by Stacey E. Bryan. It has zombies of a sort. And it even has a shark! Like my example, there’s a fine-tuned crude and random vibe to this book.

This is very much a Los Angeles tale. Bryan indicates any pause as a “beat,” reminding us we’re in Tinseltown, full of daily theatrics and scripts coming out of everyone’s ears. We also get a lot of local flavor with characters living out in Brentwood, Culver City, and Marina Del Rey. There’s much talk about the well-hidden Toluca Lake. Everything seems to converge for a time at Sepulveda Boulevard. Plus numerous movie references not the least of which is Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” An old tattered poster for the film decorates the apartment laundry room our main character, Rae, finds herself in at the start of the book.

At first, we don’t know if Rae is caught in the throes of an anxiety attack but she readily declares she is experiencing the end of the world. Is she perhaps an aspiring actress? Yes, she is. But what she describes next leaves much room for further speculation. Rae witnesses her neighbor Annie levitate up above the tile floor. Annie blacks out just as Rae throws her yellow bra at the glowing force surrounding her friend. By the time that Annie wakes up, it’s too late to rationally explain to her that something most supernatural (thwarted alien abduction?) has just occurred. Annie completely missed it. Rae experienced the whole thing!

And so our story unfolds alternating between typical Angeleno angst and unexplained phenomena. It’s a wonderful balancing act that Bryan maintains. Basically, half the novel favors events more grounded in reality and then, as the weird stuff pushes its way to the foreground, you get a more mature version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rae is in her thirties and, like her counterparts has had time to become more hardened and jaded than Buffy. Rae is a tough cookie recovering from quite a lot of rough scrapes, especially the day a tiger shark got too close and chomped off some of Rae’s fingers.

Bryan is totally in command of her story and has fun teasing out moments for her main character, Rae. Funny internal monologues give way to sudden outbursts followed by the latest development in Rae’s bumpy journey. Along the way, she encounters romance ranging from comical to intense. Throughout, Rae discovers a tapestry of connections that sustain her and help her grow ranging from the mundane to the sublime.

“Day for Night,” a novel by Stacey E. Bryan

Bryan has mastered that same melding of the everyday with the supernatural that has appealed to legions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. The pithy exchanges between Bryan’s characters crackle with hard-won insight. It is insight mixed with harsh reality…and the movies. This is L.A., after all. It’s a mix of gumption that just might be enough to take on vampires and space aliens.

“Day for Night” is published by Vagabondage Press. You can find it on Amazon right here. And you can find Stacey at her website right here.

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Filed under Aliens, Book Reviews, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Horror, Los Angeles, Satire, Supernatural, Vampires

Book Review: ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ by Timothy Tyson

"The Blood of Emmett Till" by Timothy Tyson

“The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy Tyson

April 28, 1955
Emmett Till was tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them.

Facts are very stubborn things. You can try to avoid them or even provide alternates but they will come back, and with a vengeance. That is certainly the case with historian Timothy Tyson’s new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” published by Simon & Schuster.

In 2007, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant, who was at the center of a tragedy that helped to propel the American Civil Rights Movement. It was on a hot summer night in 1955 that 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, bludgeoned, and lynched. All this fury came down upon this young African American for supposedly having flirted with a white woman. That woman was Carolyn Bryant. The interview, where Bryant recanted most of her testimony at the murder trial, was the first step towards the creation of this book, a book that helps us get a fuller picture as to what led to this pivotal moment in history.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

We may think we know what happened but Tyson brings in a rich tapestry that pieces together a more detailed story. The combination of his firsthand interview with Carolyn Bryant and his measured presentation guide the reader through the dynamics running throughout. With a level of sensitivity, Tyson gives us a balanced depiction as we see events from various perspectives. What comes through are real people and real facts. We get to know the young Emmett Till, a loyal baseball fan, partial to the Brooklyn Dodgers. And we get to know his killers, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, men full of pride and used to getting their way. We see what kind of world, with its limitations and dangers, that each existed in.

The quick takeaway fact in this book is that Carolyn Bryant confesses to historian Timothy Tyson that she made up the story of being manhandled and threatened by Emmett Till. That never happened. And that is the hook upon which to proceed. A history unfolds: we discover Emmett Till, a child full of life but who also suffered from a lisp and was gentle and vulnerable; and we discover the many layers of Southern culture to unravel. Tyson guides you along, provides side trips as needed, and has the real life goblins show themselves: the Citizens’ Councils, formed in response to school integration and the NAACP, responsible for keeping African Americans away from the polls at any cost; Sherriff H.C. Strider, who was responsible for suppressing evidence in the Till murder trial by hiding key witnesses.

Mamie Till

Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley (Nov 23, 1921 – Jan 6, 2003) was the mother of Emmett Till, whose murder mobilized the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955, at the age of 14, after being accused of acting inappropriately with a white woman. Photo: Mamie Till-Mobley (L) speaking to anti-lynching rally after acquittal of men accused of killing her son, Emmett Till. Photographer: Grey Villet for LIFE magazine.

It was the reputation that Timothy Tyson had built with 2005’s “Blood Done Sign My Name,” his own recollections of a murder similar to the Till case that inspired Carolyn Bryant to come forward. Tyson’s goal is to document and ferret out the truth as best as possible. That means bringing out the whole picture. Part of that picture is that Carolyn Bryant tells Tyson that she had a close African American friend when she was a child and her heart went out to Till’s mother.

It was the decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to bring her son’s body in Mississippi back to Chicago for an open-casket funeral that set in motion a global outcry. This was not lost on Carolyn Bryant. However, with the fear of having her husband go to prison for murdering Emmett Till and leaving her with two boys to raise alone, she took the stand and lied. Mamie did what she had to do. Carolyn did what she had to do.

Tyson presents the facts and continues along his way to provide context and insight. One key distinction he makes is that Emmett Till was not only murdered, he was lynched. With the 20th century charging its way through, some things from the past had to change, like large crowds gathered for a public hanging of an African American. By the 1950s, the process had been updated. The threat of killing an African American was still very much alive and, from time to time, a person could suddenly go missing and later on his body could turn up dumped in a river just like Emmett Till. The community would know who the killers were; that did not need to be a secret since there were no consequences for lynching someone. The deed was done and the message delivered.

White supremacy was not to be undermined.

That we still have a long journey ahead is clear. Tyson does not mince words about that. He offers hope too. As long as we have an understanding of the causes of racism, there is hope. As long as we remember Emmett Till, there is hope. Tyson would be the first person to encourage you to not only read his book but also read other books on Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement: “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson; “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” by Devery S. Anderson; and “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” by John Edgar Wideman, named a finalist for a 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award. It is Tyson’s book that belongs among these notable titles.

“The Blood of Emmett Till” is a 304-page hardcover, published by Simon & Schuster. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Simon & Schuster right here.

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Books, Emmett Till, Race, Race Relations, Racism

Book Review: ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936’ by Edward Sorel

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930's "Ladies Love Brutes."

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930’s “Ladies Love Brutes.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”

Edward meets Mary!

Edward meets Mary!

Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.

Edward finds Nancy!

Edward finds Nancy!

Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.

While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Biography, Book Reviews, Books, Edward Sorel, Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart, Illustration, Mary Astor, Noir, Old Hollywood, Silent Movies, W. W. Norton & Company