Category Archives: Books

Book Review: ‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

‘In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song’ by Jerome Charyn

Editor’s Note: For those equally attracted to prose and to comics, Jerome Charyn has quite a significant connection with the comics medium. He has collaborated with some of the best artists in Europe. For instance, you’ll want to check out titles written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by Francois Boucq. A new title is in the works too. For additional posts, including those featuring comics, go right here.

Saul was the first king in the Bible but, as writer Jerome Charyn points out, he took a backseat to the celebrated David. It was David who gained all the glory and Saul who was left in the shadow. That’s not to say Saul wasn’t worthy. He simply wasn’t favored by God. It’s a tough place to be and a lot of people can relate to that. In his distinctive and vivid way, Charyn collects in his new book some of his best work on the theme of the underdog, the one deserving yet less embraced. In the new book, Charyn also provides a look back at a writer’s influences. In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

It matters little if you’re famous or unknown when it comes to being an underdog. New York mayor Ed Koch, for instance, shares a similar spot with Saul too. In one piece, Ellis: An Autobiography, the reader follows Charyn down the mean streets of the Bronx in the ’40s to an unfolding immigrant’s tale. The featured guest in this narrative is the famously accessible yet often maligned Ed Koch. In the process, it seems that everything is revealed all at once in a kaleidoscope of rich detailed observations. New York City, a city of ups and downs, had reached the brink in 1975 and was nearly bankrupt. Enter Ed Koch. He turned the Big Apple into a boomtown again. But the featured guest ultimately takes a backseat to his city since it’s New York City that’s the real star.

No one person, after all, is so much a star as part of something bigger. As Charyn makes clear in his enchanting writing, the glory is in the details. In another piece, Faces on the Wall, Charyn reflects on the power of film–and Hollywood in particular. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ran a tight ship but, in the end, the flickering screen held its own sway:

“The simplest screen was much bigger (and darker) than any of the movie moguls. The studios could tyrannize the content of a film, declare a land of happy endings, but they weren’t sitting with you in the dark. They could control Joan Crawford, but not the hysteria hidden behind those big eyes, or the ruby mouth that could almost suck you into the screen.”

Charyn takes pleasure in sharing the lesser known achievements. His admiration for such literary greats as Saul Bellow and Isaac Babel is infectious. But, with the same gusto, he champions less known writers like Samuel Ornitz and Anzia Yezierska. It is in doing so that he honors his offbeat choice for a hero, the much maligned and misunderstood King Saul.

In the Shadow of King Saul is a 272-page paperback, available as of August 28th, published by Bellevue Literary Press.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Jerome Charyn, New York City, Nonfiction, writers, writing

Book Review: ABRIDGED CLASSICS by John Atkinson

ABRIDGED CLASSICS by John Atkinson

We can all use a laugh and cartoonist John Atkinson has a unique way to provide that for you with his new book, “Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn’t.” This would make a great gift for Father’s Day or just about any occasion. Atkinson is known for his comic strip, “Wrong Hands,” where he distills things down to their hilarious essence. You have probably read his funnies in Time Magazine. Well, he takes no prisoners as he distills over a hundred works of literature down to a few mere words! Very funny stuff.

“The world of the one panel comics gag shares a lot in common with the world of stand-up comedy. Either the joke works or it doesn’t. Welcome to Wrong Hands, the world of John Atkinson, where jokes make impacts.” I said that as part of my introduction to an interview I did with John Atkinson five years ago. That was long before his gig with Time Magazine. I just happened to enjoy his ongoing work that all began, and continues to take place, on a blog at WordPress. I love that Atkinson keeps it all simple and real, down to maintaining his no frills free blog just like so many of us out here in the blogosphere.

There is a lot going on in Atkinson’s deceptively simple cartoons. There’s the joke, which can unpack in your mind on a deeper level. And there’s the pared-down art, free of ego-centric expressive lines. You end up with a very zen experience. Atkinson has a lot he wants to say in his work and the magic is in how he achieves the maximum impact with as little as possible. So, it makes total sense for Atkinson to tackle some of the most celebrated books–with hilarious results.

I highly recommend that you pick yourself up a copy. It’s a fun book that you’ll want to come back to. The little hardcover book has a nice look and feel to it. But, by all means, enjoy it on your phone too, especially since Atkinson’s format fits perfectly on any screen.

“Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn’t” is a 157-page full color hardcover, published by HarperCollins.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cartoons, Comics, Humor, John Atkinson

Book Review: ‘The Wild Inside’ by Jamey Bradbury

“The Wild Inside” by Jamey Bradbury

Jamey Bradbury’s “The Wild Inside” is a ferocious debut novel! It’s about the mysteries of young womanhood, Mother Nature, and just how far apart we humans are from animals. Our main character, Tracey Petrikoff, is sure she is not quite human and far more animal. Ms. Bradbury has had the great John Irving as a mentor and it shows. This is a novel by a hungry and driven writer.

Tracey Petrikoff is a monster of sorts–but not in any obvious way. Trace is the ultimate misfit teenager in this most unusual work. Bradbury has crafted a slow-burn thriller that invites the reader to join a family of dog breeders and racers in the backwoods of Alaska and, bit by bit, reveals touch after touch of strange. There is no doubt that Trace is strange. Bradbury does a masterful job of normalizing it. In a first-person narrative, the reader is charmed by, and at the mercy of, Trace’s version of events. In a matter-of-fact manner, Trace repeatedly shares with the reader her drinking the blood of animals. What could be more natural, right?

Blood is all too natural for Trace. She can’t be far from a “drink” for too long. Some things seem utterly unknowable by outsiders: like the heart of a young woman, and Mother Nature. Bradbury plays with how these two powerful forces are inextricably linked. Trace’s bond with nature, with the animal world, is total and complete. She must nurse from the blood of animals not only to feel alive but to remain alive. In one key scene, her need for blood is so great that, when she struggles to find some, she resorts to drinking her own menstrual blood. This cross between Judy Blume and Stephen King totally works within context.

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Bradbury provides a mesmerizing first-person narrative: very direct and urgent while completely down to earth. Bradbury keeps it all deceiving effortless and casual, doing away with any and all quotation marks. This has a funny way of further immersing the reader who follows along, for example, an observation by Trace that seamlessly dovetails to something her father is saying. A series of small moments steadily add up in this wonderfully structured novel. All the time, the reader is anticipating a big race–and the Iditarod is certainly no small event–but there are plenty of twists and turns, including a creepy and potentially dangerous stalker and an unlikely lover. What cannot help but keep the reader engaged is following the mind of Tracey Petrikoff, half-woman and half-animal, trapped for a time and waiting to be set free.

Bradbury mines the coming-of-age tropes with great success. In that special time of transition from childhood to adulthood, there is a lot of soul-searching and negotiating over what stays and what goes. What matters most in your life? And, by the way, did you realize it is your own life–and no one else’s but yours? Sometimes freedom is more important than anything else in the world–including the life you have always known just before everything changes.

“The Wild Inside,” by Jamey Bradbury is a 304-page hardcover, published by William Morrow, now available. For more details, visit William Morrow right here. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Horror, Young Adult

Interview: Jerome Charyn, Crime Fiction, and the American Presidency

Photo of Jerome Charyn by Klaus Schoenwiese

Jerome Charyn concludes his Isaac Sidel mystery series with the recently published “Winter Warning.” In this interview, we begin with discussing the crime fiction genre and quickly gravitate to the strange resemblance between Charyn’s President Sidel and our current American president. Both men are prone to go it alone in the extreme. Mr. Charyn has some choice words to share on his view of the current political landscape as well as the art that can emerge from troubled times

Henry Chamberlain: Would you share with us your thoughts on the American roots to crime fiction and how it was perhaps inevitable for you to make your own contribution to this genre?

Jerome Charyn: I’ve always felt that all novels are crime novels and I just didn’t realize it. Of course, my brother was a homicide detective. And, once I’d read Dashiell Hammett, after having read Hemingway and Faulkner, I began to feel that Hammett had invented a new kind of language: a poetry of crime. To some degree, Hemingway also wrote crime stories. There’s one called “Fifty Grand.” I was overwhelmed by Hammett and not so much by Chandler. Chandler was recognizable in terms of his literary qualities. But Hammett was a true original. We had never had another writer like him, an actual Pinkerton, who described what it was like in that world, and the craziness of that world really mirrors the craziness of the world we’re living in now.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this series, “Berlin Station.”

No, I haven’t.

You should. It’s excellent. It’s about a CIA station in Berlin. And it has the same kind of madness that you would find in my own fiction. So I was very happy to watch it. I think after the discovery of Hammett, and particularly his novel, “Red Harvest,” I felt that this was a world that I had to enter as fast as I could. Also, I had read Ross McDonald but after a while, his novels became repetitive whereas it was Hammett who had invented a new kind of language for the 20th century. And, it seems to me, he has never received the recognition he deserves.

Jerome Charyn, a kid from the Bronx.

You have a terrific hook in “Winter Warning” with a renegade president. What some readers may not be aware of is that you had already laid down the groundwork for Sidel’s political rise to power in the two previous Sidel novels, “Citizen Sidel” and “Under the Eye of God.” With the latest novel, “Winter Warning,” you have Sidel as an accidental president. And you find yourself with the added bonus of the current president.

I wrote this before the election of Trump and, like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate that Trump would win.

Is it a bonus or is it more of a distraction in a way?

It’s certainly not a distraction as much as a mirror, a crazy funhouse mirror of what is actually going on in the world today. There are many resemblances between Trump and Sidel. Republicans and Democrats hate them both. They both have to maneuver on their own. They both have a kind of poetry. Isaac is tenuous. And Trump is not. There are certain similarities: the sense of the maverick, the person who goes his own way.

I imagine you followed current political trends while tapping into timeless qualities of the contemporary American presidency.

I was particularly fascinated with the presidency after writing a novel about Lincoln. And I also wrote a novel about Teddy Roosevelt just as he’s about to become an accidental president after McKinley dies. So, it was very much on my mind as to how the office shapes the man and the man shapes the office—because, in some way, the American presidency will never be the same after Trump. Never. It can never go back to what it was.

The Commander-in-Tweet

It is a very sobering thought. The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are being jostled with by Trump. With Obama, we had a good role model. With Trump, I think, we have some sort of throwback.

It’s not simply that he’s a throwback. We never realized before the powers that the president had. With the separation of powers, with the Supreme Court, with the Congress, there seemed to be some limits on his powers. But there are no limits. He does what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. He says what he wants. He retrieves what he says. He denies what he says.

And, also, we’ve never had a president who tweets. I mean, it is a kind of crazy poetry. One has to give him that particular credit. He stays up in the middle of the night and tweets his platform. We’ve never seen this. We don’t know how to deal with it. And, obviously, the Democrats, who should have won the election, are completely bewildered—and didn’t know what to do with him. And we still don’t know what to do with him.

I think there is a strange resemblance between “Winter Warning” and the current situation. As I said, I didn’t write it with Trump in mind.

East and West Berliners tear down a portion of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989.

It’s interesting how the timeline for the Sidel series puts us in 1989, or an alternate 1989, I should say. In some ways, that was a more quiet time but the world is always changing and we are right on the cusp of the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Yes, as the so-called Soviet Union implodes, separates into separate nations; it is the end of the Cold War but it’s the beginning of a different kind of war. To some degree the secret agents that were in place, on both sides, remained in place even after the end of the Soviet Union, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and so on. It’s very difficult to determine what is real and what is not real these days as we have a constant variation on the truth, or a constant multiplication of the truth. The truthful lie. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sidel isn’t like that. He’s a very moral person. But, remember, he’s killed his way to the top. He would never have gotten to where he is without his Glock.

I look at “Winter Warning” as a political thriller and a thinking person’s world-weary journey so, in that sense, Trump seems to me to be a distraction. He’s not in the equation to this novel and yet there is an undeniable connection.

He isn’t in the equation except that he is also a kind of accidental president. And Sidel has to go his own way because he’s so isolated in the White House. I particularly like the two trips he makes – to Prague and to Riker’s Island, where he tries to settle a war between the inmates and the guards. New York is still very much in the narrative frame. And everyone around him seems to want to kill him! (laughs)

“I Am Abraham” by Jerome Charyn

There are some presidents who will always lend themselves well to fiction. Lincoln stands out.

Lincoln is quite fascinating. I did a great deal of research on him for my novel. He really grew in the office. He had the prejudices of his own time. The presidency made him great and he made the presidency great. It was a strange evolution. When he talks about the better angels of our nature, there’s real poetry in what he wanted to say. He was our resident poet in the White House. I was hoping that Obama would be the same kind of poet but, in the end, he wasn’t. His speeches didn’t hold up in the same way. We don’t have a Gettysburg Address, which is overwhelming. It’s a kind of tone poem. Everyone was expecting Lincoln to give an hour speech and he spoke for four or five minutes.

Lincoln haunts Isaac Sidel’s White House because, of course, he haunts my own head. We will never see another man like him. I don’t think so. Teddy Roosevelt, in his own way, did a lot of great things but he wasn’t anywhere as poignant as Lincoln.

Of course, I wanted Isaac to be poignant. On the other hand, after completing forty years of work, I didn’t want to have a musical climax or crescendo. It’s just the end. His life can go on. It was the end of a jagged symphony. It was the last twisted movement.

I didn’t want to sum things up. But, on the other hand, I wanted him to end as a sitting president, to go all the way up the American ladder of success. He went from a deputy chief inspector to chief inspector to first deputy commissioner to police commissioner to mayor to vice president, although he never served as vice president. I did think of having him in that job (vice president) but it would have seemed a bit artificial to me. I wanted him to dig right into the dirt.

“Hard Apple” concept art by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka

Without having to give anything away, will the upcoming animated series, “Hard Apple,” based upon the Sidel books, (art by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka) be able to cover all the books?

Well, we will start with “Blue Eyes.” It takes several months to do one episode of animation. I would like it to follow Isaac Sidel’s career. I wouldn’t work on all the books but perhaps six or seven and have Sidel end up all alone in the White House.

Trump on North Korea

Do you think that Trump will make as satisfying a fictional villain as, say, Nixon? Or will people have soured so much on Trump that it will somehow not work?

One never knows. We’re living in such a strange time that I wouldn’t even want to make any kind of prediction. It would be very interesting to write about him just as a phenomenon because that’s all that one can say. He’s a kind of hurricane passing through the entire world. And we don’t know quite what to do. We don’t know how to be prepared for it. And yet, there he is.

If one were to deal with him fictionally, well, you must have seen Saturday Night Live. That’s probably the best fictional representation of him, with Alec Baldwin. I don’t think you can get any better than that. So maybe humor and parody are the way to deal with Trump. Anyway, the relationship between fiction and reality is so tenuous that one can’t anticipate what future writers will do in terms of Trump or how he will be treated.

For example, when we used to think about World War II, we had certain novels like “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity” and then suddenly in the Sixties, we had “Catch-22,” which was a completely different take on the war and the madness of war. It took a long time to re-envision what the nature of war was like.

We would never have thought of war in that particular way. And when Heller tried to do a a sequel, it didn’t really work. The original was too much a product of its own time. In other words, it was the Vietnam War superimposed upon World War II and that’s what made it so interesting.

I think it will take a very long time before we can fictionalize the world as it is unfolding today.

Trump on Distorting Democracy

For someone who seems so unintellectual, Trump does play the most devious mind games. There is his strategy of lying where he flips the lie and makes the accuser appear to be the liar—it’s a Russian technique.

He’s very shrewd in his own way. While Hillary was preparing for her victory at the Javits Center, he was out campaigning on the very last night. He was a man who stood there alone. Whether he believed he was going to win or not, we have no way of knowing. It’s not that easy to figure him out. Certainly, I think the tweets are brilliant. And when he uses the term, “Rocket Man,” for example, he does have a kind of poetry.

You were part of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in 1968 protesting against the Vietnam War. Do you think that today’s protests get the same kind of attention?

Well, it wasn’t exactly the way it sounds. What I did was help to educate people. I went door to door in California. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone about how they should feel about the war but just provide them with some history.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam because it was a more complicated matter, with opposition coming from within the government, but those details got glossed over.

Johnson himself knew that we could never win the war. And we lost the war the first time American soldiers appeared on the ground. It was a very sad epic. And when you think of what we were able to do in World War II and how we rebuilt Europe. We brought these countries back into the world. So, it was a very different kind of strategy, the way Americans used power. And now, I haven’t got the slightest idea. For example, I wouldn’t be able to write about the current situation. But I did write a novel about the Vietnam War and felt comfortable doing it.

There are two films about the current situation, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that really capture the craziness in the world. You have these young American soldiers, who haven’t traveled much, and then find themselves in a world where they can’t read the signs or the signals.

What I found most interesting about Vietnam was the lingo that Americans produced. The way that they combined colloquial French and a sort of Broadway slang, to create a whole new language for Vietnam was extraordinary. But the war itself was never winnable, no matter what we did.

Franklin D. Roosevelt fishes with Winston Churchill at the presidential retreat Shangri-La (later called Camp David) outside Washington in May 1943.

All of the characters in “Winter Warning” are colorful and interesting. One that stands out for me is Ariel Moss, the former prime minister of Israel. As a kid, I remember paying attention to the Camp David Peace Accords so I know that Moss is inspired by Menachem Begin.

I didn’t want to use the name. I wanted to invent a Begin-like character and evoke the sadness he went through after his wife died. Then there’s Camp David. And I had fun researching the presidential helicopter service, Marine One. I knew that Camp David and Marine One were going to create the thrust for the novel. I read whatever I could about Marine One and the squad of pilots and how each president leaves his own stamp on Camp David.

Franklin Roosevelt first used Camp David as a retreat. Lincoln had his own summer retreat. He’d go to the Old Soldiers’ Home and then ride back to the White House. After writing about Lincoln embodying that world, it was a little bit easier for me to see Sidel in that same house in Lincoln’s shadow. There’s also the way Truman described the White House as the “little white jail.” All of those takes are interesting.

“War Cries Over Avenue C” by Jerome Charyn

Could you name any of the French and Broadway combinations of lingo that emerged from Vietnam?

I wrote a novel called, “War Cries Over Avenue C.” For instance, for “city,” they would use the word, “ville.” I would have to go back and look at the novel. Once I’m out of a world, it’s not easy to go back. It is lingo like you see coming out from this war. You have that in “The Hurt Locker,” just think of the terms themselves. “Black Sites.” “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Like I said, I think “Berlin Station” is very powerful. I think some of the best writing is being done in episodic television. The movies now are for twelve-year-olds. But, in terms of HBO, Amazon, and Netflix, we’re getting exciting options. Think back to “The Wire.” Did you ever see that?

HBO’s “The Wire”

I have yet to see it.

You should. “The Wire” is one of the very best. There are others. “Deadwood” is another one. A lot coming out of the BBC, like “The Singing Detective.” That was probably one of the most creative things I’ve seen on television. It’s the writer-producer who creates the show. In that sense, you can have some very good things as well as bad.

New editions of Sidel books in Germany.

As I wrap up, I just want to say that I enjoyed “Winter Warning” very much and I am going back to read the other books. I am currently enjoying “Marilyn The Wild.”

The series, at the beginning, was very different. It evolved as I evolved as a writer. You never think that you’ll finish all twelve. I consider them three quartets. The only reason I was able to complete the Sidel books is because my editor/publisher at Liveright, Bob Weil, spent a long time on each draft. I’d be working on the Sidel books while he was working on Lincoln, or the book on Emily Dickinson. I had a strange surreal time between novels, trying to keep the distinct voices inside my head.

What I like best about the Sidel books is that you can read any title without knowing anything about the others. It will enrich the experience if you do read the others but each stands alone.

In Germany, they have been republishing each of the Sidel books with a photo of me on the cover that coincides with the time I wrote each book. It’s an interesting idea.

The main thing is that you want to keep working as a writer. I feel that we’re living in a time that is hostile to the writer. You have to have an inner resource to sustain yourself. Writing was something I always wanted to do from the time I finished high school. I never thought in terms of failure or success. I just thought in terms of how to sustain myself. I was very lucky, as my generation was the first that welcomed creative writers to teach at the universities. It had never been the case before. And then I stopped teaching and moved to Paris. And soon I began to teach there. I started a film department at the American University in Paris. As with anything, you also need a tremendous amount of luck.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Yes, luck and will power.

Well, you can have all the will power in the world but if you don’t have any kind of luck, then you defeat yourself. You need some kind of acknowledgement. The books I’ve written are there for people to read. Some of them may survive and some of them may not. One never knows.

Also, the graphic novels that I wrote are very important to me. I was the first American novelist in Europe to work with a French artist and then other French writers began doing it too. I grew up with comics, as you already know. We’ve talked about it.

You have so many portals that one can slip into. You have so many outlets for people to discover your work.

Well, if they take the time. The problem is you don’t have as much time to read anymore. Everything moves so quickly, but if you can take the time to read then you can take the time to discover.

When I went to college, reading was the central occupation of what we did as students. You didn’t do anything but read books. You were much better equipped to deal with the outside world having had these dialogues with writers, with having had Plato inside your head.

Today it’s more of a juggling act. A student’s attention is divided between reading and engaging with social media.

It is in social media where people do their discovering. And, going back to Trump, it’s with his tweets where he’s so brilliant. Maybe you need a child-like manner to do it. I don’t really know. But he has a sort of brilliance with his tweets that very few people have. (laughs)

It’s a very different world. And it has evolved very quickly. What place there will be for books, I don’t know. I don’t feel very optimistic about the future of books.

The art of rediscovering books: “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth

I feel there are a lot of dedicated readers. My daughter, at 21, prefers to read in print. I like both print and digital equally. There’s a healthy community of readers out there.

It’s not a question of a lack of readers. It’s about the lack of venues for these readers. For example, it’s so much more expensive to put out a print book. When I first started writing, if a publisher liked your work, he knew that you’d have a library sale of between 1,500 to 2000 copies so that you could easily sell four or five thousand copies. That would be enough to do a second book and a third book.

But now the library sales have disappeared; the book clubs have disappeared; and the paperback houses have disappeared so the avenues for income are not there. The only avenue you have left is the translation of a book into a film—and that may be more prominent that it was before. Or a television series. One or the other. And that may be what rescues fiction.

As long as I still get pleasure from books, I will write them. There are fewer book reviews, fewer publishing outlets, so it’s hard to reach the reader.

I think people are reading as much as ever but what they’re reading, I don’t know. Also, someone has to make predictions based upon book reviews. If you look back at the last fifty to sixty years, most of those predictions have been wrong.

What seems to be wonderful isn’t so wonderful. I’m not talking about myself. I am talking about how books can come out of obscurity. For example, “Call it Sleep,” by Henry Roth. It was published in the ‘30s and disappeared. Then it was republished in the ‘60s and it was a phenomenal hit. These things do happen but they happen much less frequently.

That’s the same case with “The Great Gatsby.”

That’s absolutely true. Fitzgerald died at a very early age. He was only 44. He was completely forgotten. It was only because of Edmund Wilson’s essays in The New Yorker that he was revived as a writer. In his own lifetime, Fitzgerald had disappeared into the void, his fame all eaten up.

It’s odd which writers are recycled, which writers come back to haunt us, and which writers speak to us in our own generation.

Thank you, Jerome.

Thank you, Henry

You can listen to the podcast conversation by clicking below:

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books. Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here.

2 Comments

Filed under American History, Books, Comics, Crime Fiction, Culture, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Trump, FDR, Fiction, graphic novels, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, mystery, politics, Thriller, writers, writing

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.

2 Comments

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.

2 Comments

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.

6 Comments

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.

Leave a comment

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

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.

Leave a comment

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.

2 Comments

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