Category Archives: Book Reviews

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

Book Review: ‘1956: The World in Revolt’ by Simon Hall

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

As a momentous year comes to a close, we look, inevitably, to the future. However, in order to help us on our way, we must also look to the past. If 2016 was the year of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, then sixty years ago was the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Suez Crisis, and, most significantly, the Hungarian Revolution. A vivid and highly accessible account of the year is provided by Simon Hall in his book, “1956: The World in Revolt,” recently published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books.

"1956: The World in Revolt" by Simon Hall

“1956: The World in Revolt” by Simon Hall

Hall’s book is very readable with a novel’s narrative flow. The interconnections Hall makes are quite impressive as he makes a case for brewing unrest across the globe in the pivotal year of 1956. The seeds of unrest are sown everywhere none the least of which is among the youth. Today, you hear the classic, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and it might come across as a soothing lullaby. Well, relatively speaking. In fact, there’s an undeniable power to it. And, in 1956, it had the power of a cultural sonic boom. There were teenagers dancing in the streets after viewing the rock ‘n’ roll movie featuring Bill Haley and his band. And, around the globe, the status quo was being confronted at all levels. Enough to give those in power plenty of pause.

Hall tackles 1956 in fairly chronological order. We begin with a young and untested Martin Luther King Jr. as he must confront the firebombing on his own home, with his wife and children still inside. Remarkably, no one was hurt from the blast. And thanks to King’s moving address to the crowds gathered, the rest of that cold January night remained calm.

Among the leading news stories that year, the focus was on Egypt, the Suez Canal Crisis, and Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The greatest undermining of Soviet expansion after World War II was the Hungarian Revolution.

And the end of 1956 would see one more significant sign of things to come: Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries proceeded upon their shaky but steadfast push against the Batista regime.

Simon Hall’s book is the first definitive account of the year 1956. Hall’s account presents 1956 as far more than an eventful year but as a source of much significant change that was still ahead. From Poland to South Africa, the call for freedom was loud and clear. Around the world the responses came from world leaders: Eisenhower in the US. Khrushchev in the USSR. Anthony Eden in what was left of the crumbling British Empire. The nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser spurred an Israeli-British-French attack that nearly brought in the Soviets–an attack that would ultimately fail. Hall captures it all in a riveting narrative always mindful of those not in power who were brave enough to shout the loudest.

“1956: The World in Revolt” is a 509-page hardcover, published by Pegasus Books. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Pegasus Books right here.

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Filed under 1950s, Book Reviews, Books, History, Pegasus Books

Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2016,’ Editor, Roz Chast; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

Reading "Best American Comics 2016" on the train.

Reading “Best American Comics 2016” on the train.

I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!

From "Stroppy" by Marc Bell

From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell

The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine's "Killing and Dying."

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”

Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.

Misfits band together in Chris Ware's "The Last Saturday."

Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”

Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry's "Syllabus."

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”

By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.

Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.

"Bike Fast" by Sophia Zdon

“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon

Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie" by Casanova Frankenstein

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein

One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.

Panel excerpt from "Fatherland" by Nina Bunjevac

Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac

An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.

From "Fashion Cats" by Alex Schubert

From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert

Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.

From "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.

"Don't Leave Me Alone" by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.

From "Blanket Portraits" by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”

The Best American Comics 2016

The Best American Comics 2016

“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Bill Kartalopoulos, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marc Bell, Roz Chast, The Best American Comics, The New Yorker

Book Review: ‘Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories’ by Dennis Etchison

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A femme fatale in a Dennis Etchison story is “twenty-nine going on forty, and pretty, too, but not really very.” She is the sort who would visit a Beverly Hills beauty salon. She is the sort who would have a C-note handy in her pocketbook.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories,” an e-book collection you can find through Bowery Books, is a great mix of classic short stories. The first two stories alone are priceless as you have the earliest published Etchison short story, 1966’s “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” followed by 1976’s “The Walking Man.” From these, I make my assertion on Etchison femme fatales.

Etchison deliberately takes the same description for his 1966 female character (twenty-nine going on forty with a C-note in her purse) and attaches it to his 1976 female character. It’s a grand little inside joke since he is certainly not at a loss for words. Doing that adds another eerie layer of alienation. It’s a brilliant move, especially for a writer who enjoys playing with disconnection.

Having recently posted a review of a collection of work by George Clayton Johnson, it is fitting to follow up with a review of one of the great Johnson protégés, a masterful writer in his own right, Dennis Etchison. We can even begin with a comparison of work between Johnson and Etchison. Both wrote stories with the freeway as a looming background character. In Johnson’s short story, the freeway is much like one big car bowling alley. You simply let the cars be towed along by the grid. If you happen to lose your way and pull over, you are lost.

In Etchison’s story, also set in the future, the freeway is also a vast wasteland but one that results in carnage at a much higher rate. In fact, the system in place demands it. Welcome to the world of Dennis Etchison where the edges can be sharp but that does not take away from the storytelling craft at play. I became aware of Dennis Etchison through my friendship with writer George Clayton Johnson. It was in 2014, during our last conversation in person, that George went over some writers I needed to visit or revisit if I hadn’t. Robert Sheckley for my sense of humor. Theodore Sturgeon for my soul-searching questions. And Dennis Etchison for my dark side. I did just that. In fact, I’ve posted about Sheckley here and Sturgeon here. And, now, Mr. Etchison.

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

Nightmare logic is at play here in a big way. Do you remember any of your best nightmares? Wasn’t there some lyrical quality about them that got under your skin? Think of the placement of seemingly random things that you know, down in your bones, actually belong together. Here it is, special delivery just for you: a transmission from the deepest recesses of your subconscious. It’s as if someone, or something, is trying to pass on an urgent message that never gets through during the daylight hours. The pounding at the door. There’s a reason for it. Well, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Chalk that up to my writer sense becoming all tingly just now. The point is that here we have this writer, Dennis Etchison, who masterfully crafts stories with the special edge of a nightmare. Consider, “The Scar.” I swear, that is one long nightmare narrative. That’s it! I really think I struck on something. We follow these characters in mid-flight. They are literally fleeing and it looks like they do a lot of that. The background, the landscape, it’s all a blur. For all we know, it’s an post-apocalyptic setting–or it just feels like that for this man and woman on the run with a child. The man and woman are unfit for normal society, total nihilist trash. Then things get really violent. Everyone falls down. Our characters get up and start running again. Truly a nightmare masterpiece!

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is certainly a title that will get your attention. It’s a delicate balancing act going on here between the brash and the subtle. There’s a lot of groundwork involved. Consider the title story, we begin with a classic Etchison main character, a hardened Los Angeles native: jaded, wired, and angry. I’ve been devouring Etchison short stories to the point where I feel I have a good handle on his dark vision. His characters are usually doomed and susceptible to entering into delusions and false hope. This is noir, extra-dark. With a writer of the caliber of Etchison, this can be quite a ride. So, regarding the title story, you have one very angry dude making all the wrong choices. The last thing he needs is a partner in crime. Ultimately, this leads to deadly disaster–with a grace note of macabre humor.

"Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories" by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

I’ll leave you with one more. This one involves another sad sack Everyman. Our poor anti-hero is literally just padding about his apartment when he gets a call that will seal his doom. Poor soul, he even lets his message machine pick up so he can monitor the call. But, it’s no use, the pull of fate is too great. The call is so compelling. It’s the voice of a little girl in panic. She is pleading for help. She mentions some landmarks before the line cuts out. The man has no choice, really, but to rescue the little girl. Which is actually the last thing he should be doing.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is an excellent introduction to Dennis Etchison. There are numerous titles to choose from. I would definitely seek out more like “The Dark Country” and “Red Dreams.” You can find both of these titles at Crossroads Press. You really can’t go wrong with any Dennis Etchison title.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson, Horror, Nightmares, writers, writing