February 6, 2012

Book review: “How to Train Your Dragon” by Cressida Cowell

Okay, so I’m a 10-year-old boy at heart. I found the 2010 movie “How to Train Your Dragon,” starring Jay Baruchel as the hapless Hiccup, endlessly droll, inventive, touching and visually inviting. So I got myself a copy of the book upon which the film is based. Sort of. Kind of. Cressida Cowell’s 2004 book has the same title as the movie. It also features a hapless Hiccup who, in the course of an adventure, discovers his inner hero. Hiccup has a pet dragon whom he names Toothless. (But this Toothless, unlike his cinematic counterpart, is tiny, selfish and irritating.) The names and personalities of many of the secondary figures are the same — Hiccup’s father (Stoick the Vast), mentor (Gobber the Belch) and a couple of classmates (Snotlout and Fishlegs). Oh, and there’s also a big test that Hiccup and his friends have to face. But, basically, the movie tells a much different story of Hiccup as an odd kid who, nonetheless, has this inventive bent which he puts to good use in helping Toothless regain his power of flight and, ultimately, saving Hiccup’s village. That said, the book, in telling its own adventure, is fun, droll and inventive. […]
February 5, 2012

Book review: “Food in History” by Reay Tannahill

When Reay Tannahill began working on the book that became “Food in History,” she was entering virgin territory. No one before her had attempted to chronicle the relationship of humans and their food from before the dawn of history down to modern times. The result, published in 1973, was a surprise bestseller. Tannahill came back with a revised and expanded edition in 1988, and, despite many later books on the subject, “Food in History” continues to sell well. There is much to praise in the book — its erudition, its wit, its common sense, its utter lack of snobbishness, its lively writing. Tannahill does a bang-up job of taking the reader along on an adventure as she, using the findings of historians, sociologists and archeologists, describes the food of people across the globe and down the centuries. It’s an adventure because she is writing not so much about food, but about people. Why do people choose to eat what they eat? What did food mean socially? Politically? How much is too much? Not enough? Food as ostentation. Food and religion. Food in the city. The railroads and food. Tanahill mines hundreds of texts for zesty quotes and anecdotes, but it’s […]
January 22, 2012

Book review: “Memory Mambo” by Achy Obejas

I thoroughly enjoyed “Memory Mambo” when I read it in early 1997, shortly after it was published. Fifteen years later, I savored it even more. Achy Obejas is a friend, and we were co-workers at the Chicago Tribune when she published this book, her first novel. That personal connection added something to the pleasure of the book, but there’s no question: Even if I hadn’t known Obejas, I still would have relished reading and re-reading such a funny, dramatic, insightful story. “Memory Mambo” works on a great many levels simultaneously. The book gives a glimpse into the Cuban-American culture — its intersection with and friction with other Hispanic heritages, its grappling with the reality of exile, its wrestling with racial identity, its tasty cuisine, its insularity and strong family ties. The 24-year-old narrator, Juani Casas, is the second of her parents’ three children, but one of a host of sibling-like cousins whose lives intertwine in complex ways, particularly around the family-run laundromat on Milwaukee Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. The Cubans and other Hispanics are relatively new arrivals in the neighborhood, taking the place of Poles, many of whom — but not all — have moved out […]
January 16, 2012

Book review: “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History” by S. C. Gwynne

Let’s talk about book titles, and book covers, and book marketing. For all intents and purposes, S.C. Gwynne’s 2010 book “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the RISE and FALL of the COMANCHES, the Most POWERFUL INDIAN Tribe in American History,” appears to be a biography of Quanah Parker. For one thing, an image of Parker takes up more than half of the book cover, the part not covered by the title and the subtitle. That subtitle, by the way, is strange, with its odd mix of some, but not all, words in boldface and some, but not all, of those boldface words in all capital letters. “Quanah Parker” is the only boldface word that is not all caps, but, in a way, that gives more emphasis to the name. And, of course, it’s further emphasized by being the start of the subtitle. (By the way, here’s another odd thing about the title itself: Nowhere in the book does Gwynne or anyone he quotes refer to the Comanche dominance on the Plains as the Empire of the Summer Moon. And, from what I can tell, it’s not a term that’s ever been used anywhere else to refer to […]
January 3, 2012

Book review: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is fascinating. Thin, short and socially stunted, she is a victim of abuse, domestic and institutional. Yet, she is even more a survivor — one with extraordinary skills as a hacker, a fluid, computer-like intelligence and a steel will. Often, she is in control. She is the reason to read Stieg Larsson’s crime trilogy: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.” Alas, in the third book, “Hornets’ Nest” — an overfed 743 pages — she rarely appears. For literally hundreds of pages, people meet, people fight, people argue, people search, people scheme, people pontificate, people have sex, people have meals, people go for a run, people murder, people nab bad guys. But Lisbeth isn’t one of them. She’s stuck in a hospital bed, and then in a prison, and the nervous, exhilarating energy she has as she moves through the world is totally missing from the book. Even so, when she’s on the page, even when she can’t move a muscle without great pain, she captivates the reader. Of course, the reason Lisbeth is immobilized is that, as the book opens, she’s recuperating from a […]
December 23, 2011

Book review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” by Stieg Larsson

OK. This is more like it. The first book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy centering on Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was slow and often clumsily written. This second installment “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is much, much better. Let me add quickly that, like “Tattoo,” this books starts off very slowly. In fact, at page 130 or so, I was getting fed up with the many detailed lists of purchases that Salander was making. As if I needed to know that, on one shopping trip, she bought a mop, a vacuum cleaner and a giant package of toilet paper. But, then, on page 141, things started to happen. And kept right on happening to the very last page (unlike “Tattoo” which took about 100 pages to very slowly tie up loose ends). Not only was there a lot of action in the final nearly 500 pages of “Fire,” but two really interesting characters were introduced — one, a creepy bad guy, a blond giant with muscles upon muscles and an insensitivity to pain; the other, a personable good guy, Paolo Roberto, a former prize-fighter, who has humor, loyalty and good will, something that many of the […]
December 15, 2011

Book review: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson is a curiously lumbering thriller. It starts slowly and ends slowly. In between, the novel has more than its share of often bizarre twists and turns. Yet, the shock value of these is consistently undercut by Larsson’s wooden writing. (Or is it the clunky translation by Reg Keeland that’s responsible?) Still, as an entertainment, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” does entertain. It keeps the reader turning pages. There is a cinematic quality to the story. Lots of visuals. Lots of action. No wonder the book has already been made into two movies, one in Swedish and one in English that will come out in less than a week in the U.S. And that the novel’s two sequels have already been filmed in Swedish, and are certain to get an English language treatment as well. There’s also, at the heart of the book, the fascinating enigma of Lisbeth Salander — she of the dragon tattoo — an ill-adjusted, erotically charged and scarred gamin and world-class computer hacker. She’s a haunted victim and a dangerous adversary, compelling enough to carry this overweight, overlong book on her thin shoulders. And enough to carry […]
December 9, 2011

Book review: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans

There are many ways to approach “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create. But here, I’m afraid, I’m starting to sound like Agee. Let me try to be as clear as I can. I will write here mainly about Agee. The Evans photos are, like his text, majestic, mystical and at times maddening, but that’s another discussion. So too is the interplay between Agee’s words and the images by Evans. Neither exists without the other. Yet, here, I will write mainly about Agee. In the summer of 1936, Agee and Evans spent eight weeks traveling around the South, working on an assignment from Fortune magazine for a story about sharecroppers and tenant […]
November 29, 2011

Book Review: “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

You’d never know from reading “Killing Lincoln” that Bill O’Reilly is a conservative political commentator. O’Reilly, the host of The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, doesn’t use this story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, to push any particular political agenda. The account that he and his co-author, Martin Dugard, have written doesn’t draw any parallels to modern-day America. Instead, their aim is to make “Killing Lincoln” a thriller, as O’Reilly says in a Note to Readers at the beginning of the book, and also “a no spin American story.” As I’ve said, there is no political spin to the book. But there is a story-telling spin. Like a series of writers over the past century, O’Reilly and Dugard have opted to make “Killing Lincoln” as sensational a story as possible — as opposed to trying to make it as accurate as possible. Historians who are striving for accuracy weigh multiple sources. They try, to the best of their ability, to determine which statements and accounts are likely to be truthful and which aren’t. For instance, eyewitness reports, by their nature, tend to be muddled to begin with. But those […]
November 19, 2011

Book review: “No Night Without Stars” by Andre Norton

Andre Norton’s “No Night Without Stars” landed in bookstores in 1975. That was 23 years after her book “Star Man’s Son,” better known as “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.,” appeared in print. In 2003, Baen Books put the two short novels together into an omnibus titled “Darkness and Dawn.” I give this bit of publishing history because I read “No Night Without Stars” from that omnibus and because “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.” was a seminal book in my reading life. Both novels deal with a ravaged American landscape hundreds of years after an atomic war. Indeed, “Daybreak,” published just seven years after Hiroshima, may have been the first science-fiction novel to mine this concept. (Many other writers have since taken up the subject in books and movies, such as “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and the Mad Max films.) In “Daybreak,” Fors is a mutant who, because of his silver hair and better eyesight, is viewed with fear by his clansmen. Overlooked yet again for full membership in his tribe, he flees his home village to search with his feline companion Lura for the lost city his father had been trying to find when he was slain in battle. I initially […]
November 16, 2011

Book review: “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

As “Tinkers” opens, George is dying. Paul Harding makes this clear with his first sentence: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” By the end of this short, intense, sharply observed novel, Harding’s vision is more evident. As Harding sees life, the characters in every novel are dying from the opening sentence. Ahab is dying. Sister Carrie. Madame Bovary. David Copperfield. Lolita. Olive Kitteridge. Rabbit. Augie March. And so, too, in every biography and memoir, every history. Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Cleopatra, Jane Addams, Elizabeth II, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Madonna, Goethe, Florence Nightingale — all of them, even as they live, are dying. Even as they lived. “Tinkers,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a novel about the intertwining of life and death. About the journey of life toward death. About their inseparability. Midway through the book, a young George is crouching in a storage shed while his father looks on, thinking: So there is my son, already fading. The thought frightened him. The thought frightened because as soon as it came to him, he knew that it was true. He understood suddenly that even though his son knelt in front of him, familiar, […]
November 10, 2011

Book review: “Clarence Darrow: Atttorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell

Finishing “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell, I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed by the book. No question, it’s a good solid effort. Farrell has done a yeoman’s job of tracking down, reading and incorporating the far-flung records of Darrow’s key trials, as well as much else in his life. (If you read the endnotes, you realize how sloppy other writers have been, including Darrow himself and Irving Stone, author of the 1941 “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.”) Perhaps Farrell’s book suffers a tad from all that research. On many occasions throughout the book, I had the wish that he had quoted less from Darrow’s courtroom speeches and his essays and his books. Darrow was nothing except his words and ideas, of course. Well, not nothing. There was his physical presence and his mannerisms, his body language, at which he was as adept as a great actor. Even more, there was his sly, cunning feel for human nature, his ability to read juries and play them like a musical instrument. The mannerisms, though, were there to frame his words, and his words were how he put to use that cunning feel for human nature. So, […]
October 29, 2011

Book review: “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman

About midway through “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution” by Mark Roseman, I got to wondering how writers like Roseman do it. I mean, writers who spend a good chunk of their lives — or, for some, their entire careers — studying the Holocaust. It is, to my mind, a high calling, sifting through the orders, accounts, files, memoirs, photos, diaries, trial testimony and other documents to nail down the facts and wrestle with the important questions, such as: How could this have happened? What does the Holocaust say about human nature? To what extent was Hitler responsible? The German people? The anti-Semitism of the rest of the world? More than nuclear weapons, more than climate change, more than capitalism, terrorism or religious fundamentalism, the Holocaust is the central issue of humanity today. And probably for centuries to come. Human beings killed human beings in a conscious, factory-like, bureaucratically buttressed endeavor for no reason — for lack of a threat — except that the people were of a certain religion, culture and “race.” The killing of millions of Jews was the culmination of the murderous style of government that the Nazis used to grab and keep power, and kept […]
October 27, 2011

Book review: “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld, goblins live on — are beat up on, are exploited on, are starved on, die on — the edges. They stink. They steal chickens. They eat their young. And their religion is based on the reverent storage of earwax, fingernail clippings, toenail clippings, and snot. They are almost universally considered vermin and almost universally not considered human-like in the way that, on Discworld, trolls, dwarves, vampires and various other species are considered human-like. Or, at least, in the eyes of the law, are considered equal to humans. Goblins can be enslaved with impunity. And killed with impunity. If this sounds familiar in human history — and modern-day headlines — that’s Terry Pratchett’s point. (According to the International Labour Organization and other agencies, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before — anywhere from 12 million to 27 million.) In the newly published “Snuff,” the 39th novel in his Discworld series, Pratchett eloquently rages against racism and slavery. Which is to say that he ridicules those who mindlessly protect and exploit slavery; he skewers those who put on airs and look down their noses at those they identify as their inferiors; he explodes the myths and […]
October 23, 2011

Book review: “Frank Lloyd Wright” by Ada Louise Huxtable

Sometime, apparently in the mid-1890s, Daniel Burnham set up a meeting with Frank Lloyd Wright to present him with an extraordinary offer. At the time, Burnham was basking in acclaim as the manager of Chicago’s wildly successful 1893 World’s Fair. He was the head of one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms, and at the center of social and economic might. Indeed, in 1909, he would be the central figure in a group of power brokers drafting the Plan of Chicago, a pioneering breakthrough in urban design and vision. Wright was not yet 30, growing in fame as the designer of homes in what became known as the Prairie style. “Burnham offered to send Wright to Paris for the three-year course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, since Wright had no formal architecture education, and then to the American Academy in Rome for another two years,” writes Ada Louise Huxtable. “He would pay all expenses, and take care of Wright’s wife and children during that time. On Wright’s return, Burnham promised him a partnership in his firm. it was an amazing offer, carrying a guarantee of a prestigious career. “Wright refused.” It is easy, from reading Huxtable’s short but meaty […]
October 16, 2011

Book review: “Continent” by Jim Crace

There is a vague, marshy border between poetry and prose. Marshy, as in rich with life, rich with the intermingling of earth and water and sunlight, crawling things, buzzing, flitting, sounds moist and dry on the breeze. This is where you find Jim Crace’s 1986 book “Continent.” It’s at the boundary in another way. It is comprised of seven short stories that, together, form a elliptical novel. • Lowdo, a rural boy at the University, ambivalent about his father and his father’s herd of freemartins, half-male/half-female cows whose “milk” is eagerly sought as an aphrodisiac. • A mistakenly arrested “political” prisoner, his retarded sister and the soldier for whom she had an unswerving affection. • The teacher from the city who jogs and is challenged to a race by the local horseman hero. • An elderly daughter trying to tease out the meaning of her anthropologist father, her cold and clever mother and a long-ago native tribe where fertile females were in heat only once a year — and all at the same time. • A aged calligrapher who, at the end of his life, becomes the darling of art collectors in faraway America and draws the attention of government […]
October 11, 2011

Book review: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” is a newspaperman’s memoir, which is to say it’s breezy, fact-filled and rather light on emotions. That makes sense, of course. For all his fame as a movie critic on TV, Ebert’s vocation, from his childhood, has been to be a newspaperman. As he explains in this book, Ebert ended up as a movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times on an editor’s whim. He’s filled that role very well, producing literate, thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews. And, in that job, he’s remained a newspaperman, rooted in the journalistic style of fast and facile writing — and then onto the next movie. “Life Itself” is an unusual effort for Ebert inasmuch as his other books have all been compilations of one sort or another — movies, mainly, but also recipes (“The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” [2010]) and walking routes (“The Perfect London Walk” with Daniel Curley [1986]). Even his one novel, “Behind the Phantom’s Mask,” was initially a newspaper serial. True, his long-form journalism, such as his Esquire pieces on Lee Marvin, were of a different sort. In these, Ebert often took the fly-on-the-wall approach, producing stories that […]
October 3, 2011

Book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In an often-reproduced photograph, Henrietta Lacks stands in a matching skirt and jacket, her hands at her hips, her hair complexly coiffed, a smile brightening her face. An attractive, lively African-American woman. “Henrietta had walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips,” writes Rebecca Skloot. “She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw thick hips, short, muscular legs, and hands rough from tobacco fields and kitchens. She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under then when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails. “Henrietta spent hours taking care of those nails, touching up chips and brushing on new coats of polish.” That was Henrietta in her late twenties. On October 4, 1951, just a month after turning 31, Henrietta died of a virulent cervical cancer that had spread throughout her body. Mary Kubicek was a lab technician who assisted at the autopsy of Henrietta’s body. “Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed,” writes Skloot. “She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs — anything to avoid looking into her lifeless […]
September 26, 2011

Book review: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

It took me a long time to finish Jim Crace’s “The Gift of Stone” because, although short, it is a very, very good novel. At 179 pages, “The Gift of Stones,” published in 1988, has the look of a quick read. Yet, over and over again, I found myself making my way through five, six, seven pages, and then setting the novel aside. It wasn’t that I couldn’t go further or didn’t want to go further. No, I wanted to stop to savor what I’d just read. And also because it seemed that, having gone through a particular scene or event, I would be disrespecting the novel by rushing on. I don’t normally feel that way while reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction. But, here, I had the sense that to rush on would taint what I was going to read as well as what I’d just read. “The Gift of Stones” is the story of a Stone Age community on the island now called England. The community mines and works flint into tools and other useful items, and then trades them for food, clothing and other necessities. Unknown to its self-satisfied residents, the community is standing at the […]
September 20, 2011

Book review: Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Brian Biegel, with Peter Thomas Fornatale

“Miracle Ball” is a thin book, just 231 pages. And it could have been thinner. Even so, it’s a sweet story, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through the worlds of family, baseball, fate, faith and gritty independence of spirit. Written by Brian Biegel, with the help of Peter Thomas Fornatale, it is the account of Biegel’s obsessive search for the baseball that Bobby Thomson hit over the left field fence in the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951 in the ninth inning of the deciding playoff game for the National League pennant. That home run with two men on base gave the New York Giants a stunning come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Walk-off home runs, broadcast ad nauseam on television, are old hat nowadays. But the Thomson blast came at the dawn of the TV age. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of fans across the country were watching the game and saw the dramatic reversal brought about by one swing of the third baseman’s bat. So it’s an iconic game — an iconic moment — for sports enthusiasts. Biegel got started on his search as a way of breaking out of a deep depression he was […]
September 19, 2011

Book review: Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton

More than 40 years after it was first published, Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” his diary of his 1969 season with two major league teams, remains eminently readable and entertaining. And still potent enough to make a baseball fan squirm. This version, published by Bouton himself in 2000, includes the original book, edited by Leonard Shecter, plus epilogues from 1981 (the “Ball Five” chapter), 1990 (“Ball Six”) and 2000 (“Ball Seven”). The 1981 epilogue is fun because Bouton reports on what happened to his teammates on the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros — many of whom were distinctive characters in “Ball Four” — since the book’s publication. Only four of the 70 or more players who were on the Seattle and Houston rosters during the 1969 season were still playing in 1981. It is also fun because Bouton tells what had happened to him, particularly how the book turned him into a pariah, denigrated by baseball authorities and many of the players. He acts surprised that a good number of his teammates were less than pleased with the book, but I’m not sure what he expected. Most of them didn’t know he was going to write about the season and […]
September 12, 2011

Book review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In 2005, the British publishing house of Canongate began producing a series of short novels based on myths from Western and non-Western civilizations. “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood was among a batch of three works that were published simultaneously to inaugurate the series. It’s a thin-ish work, running to just 196 pages with a lot of white space. In it, Atwood retells the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope and of her 12 slave-servant girls. After massacring the 100 or so pesky suitors, Odysseus orders Telemachus to have the girls clean up the mess and then to take them outside and slaughter them. Instead, his son decides that such a death would be too clean, and, in T.E. Lawrence’s translation, “He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it round the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost; and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to […]
September 10, 2011

Book Review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by T. E. Lawrence

When my daughter saw me reading “The Odyssey,” she made a face. Back in high school, I think it was, she had to read it, and hated it. Truth be told, my attempts at reading the book and its predecessor “The Iliad” have pretty much come to naught. All that slogging through archaic language. And where’s the plot? Well, T. E. Lawrence — yes, that T.E. Lawrence — in that unsettled (for him) period after he played a major role in re-shaping the Middle East as “Lawrence of Arabia,” tried his hand at translation. Not just any translation, but “The Odyssey.” Despite his lack of expertise at Greek, despite his many other interests, avocations and, for want of a better word, hobbies. And the result written in prose is just wonderful. Oddly — or, perhaps, given Lawrence’s deeply squirrelly nature, not unexpected — Lawrence dismisses “The Odyssey” as something less than art. In a translator’s note, he writes, “Crafty, exquisite, homogeneous — whatever great art may be, there are not [the Odyssey’s] attributes. In this tale every big situation is burked and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and […]
September 8, 2011

Book review: The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger was born in 1924. He was 40 in 1964 when he published his best-known novel, “Little Big Man,” chronicling the early life of Jack Crabb, a white who, at the age of 10, was adopted by a band of Cheyenne and who, over the next quarter-century, ping-ponged back and forth between the white and Native American worlds. During this period, Jack, known to the Cheyenne as Little Big Man, was a friend of Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and was present (on the Indian side) for the Washita Massacre by troops led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and (on the soldier side) for the massacre of Custer and his troops at Little Big Horn. Jack, 111 at the time and in a nursing home, tells his story into the tape recorder of a dilettante historian who transcribes the tapes — he relates that Jack died soon after giving his oral history — and publishes the result. Highly popular, “Little Big Man” broke new ground by featuring historical figures as secondary characters in a literary novel — a fresh and piquant approach since adopted by many other writers. Thirty-five years later, in 1999, Berger published “The Return of […]
August 28, 2011

Book review: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

A half century after its publication, Thomas Berger’s novel “Little Big Man” is still a fine read, interesting and entertaining. But it doesn’t pack the wallop it did back in 1964 when it first hit bookstores. In writing “Little Big Man,” Berger broke new ground for a literary novel. His central character, Jack Crabb — born in a white family but raised from the age of 10 by Indians who call him Little big Man — interacts with various famous historical figures, including Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, and lives through various historical events, such as Custer’s Last Stand. Previous to this, a novel featuring historical figures would have had them at the center of the story. It would have been, essentially, a fictionalization of their lives. A literary novel, meanwhile, would have focused on characters who were the products of the author’s imagination, living a plot that he conceived. Berger mixed the two genres, creating a fresh, piquant work — indeed, it was a bestseller — offering a kind of sideways look at well-known people and events from the past. Unlike works of history or earlier historical fiction, it was leavened with humor and enlivened by […]