My sister Mary Beth does a great Wicked Witch of the West. For about half a century, she’s been cracking us up with “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too! Ah-hahaha!” It’s so funny because the green-faced witch from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz is so freaking scary. Forget Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and Lord Voldemort. When it comes to frightening the bejesus out of little kids, no one can approach Margaret Hamilton’s turn as the Wicked Witch. So, in 1995, when Gregory Maguire published Wicked, he was confronting a cultural touchstone deeply embedded in the psyches (and nightmares) of generations of moviegoers. And not just confronting it, but turning it on its head. Not the epitome of evil For him, the Wicked Witch, whom he named Elphaba, isn’t an old hag and the epitome of evil. Rather, she’s a sensitive person who, except for her odd coloration, is like any one of us, struggling along her road through life, misunderstood and misunderstanding herself in many ways, prone to failure (or, at least, only partial success), often unsure and unhappy, exquisitely vulnerable and prickly at the same time. She’s not a stand-in for Satan. She’s an Everyman and Everywoman. She is you and I.
For the past 45 years, Stephen King has been writing and writing and writing. He has published 50 novels and more than 100 short stories. He has 350 million books in print and is estimated to be worth about $400 million. He knows how to write a gripping best-selling novel. So why am I disappointed — more than a bit — with 11/22/63?
There is a thin concept behind Where They Stand by Robert W. Merry, an examination of the periodic rankings of U.S. presidents by groups of scholars and political observers. Enough of a concept, maybe, for a magazine story, but not for a book of 200-plus pages. Merry, a political journalist and columnist, believes there is much that these rankings tell us about the presidency and about what makes a successful tenure in the White House. He focuses on seven such lists compiled between 1948 and 2005 and on seemingly interesting wrinkles in those rankings. I say “seemingly” because my suspicion is that there is less substance to the exact placement of a particular president on a particular list than Merry supposes.
Here’s what I hate. I hate that it doesn’t matter if we see each other. There’s still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one. Alice is talking with her sister Carmen about a folksinger they know named Tom. He is fatuous and self-centered, and they don’t really like him. But, because of a car crash in 1983, they don’t have a choice. It was in rural Wisconsin, on the day that an already pregnant Carmen married Matt. It was sometime after midnight; everyone was worn out from a day of revelry. Crowding into the last car to leave were five of the guests — Nick (the brother of Carmen and Alice), his girlfriend Olivia, Tom, Alice and her new lover Maude (the sister of Matt). Nick and Olivia, who was driving, were high. As the car drove away, Carmen noticed that its headlights weren’t on. “Hey,” she shouted. “Your lights!” When the car disappeared from view, Matt said, “She’ll figure it out eventually.” A few minutes later, the car was flipped on its side, and a 10-year-old girl was dead. The linkages of life Carol Anshaw’s deeply felt, well-observed novel Carry the One, published early this year, is set mainly on the North Side of Chicago and spans a quarter century. Its subject: the linkages of life — some wispy, some jagged, some slippery, some “non-negotiable.”
I grew up with the idea that St. Therese of Lisieux was a somewhat insipid saint. There were images of her all over the place, and each tended to be some version of the middle section of the triptych above, a painting of St. Therese by her sister Celine, Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face. During her long life, Celine cranked out paintings, watercolors and drawings that attempted to capture the ideal image of her younger sister. As Father Francois notes in the 1962 book The Photo Album of St. Therese of Lisieux, this was the style of religious art at the time. In doing so, however, Celine hid Therese rather than revealed her. Photos of a saint Then, in 1997, during my long career as a Chicago Tribune reporter, I was out doing a story about interesting places throughout the suburbs and came across the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in Darien.
In the review I posted a few days ago, I mentioned that the best part of “Life,” the autobiography of Keith Richards, is his description in musical terms of the creation of many Rolling Stones songs. Even for a non-musician like me, these paragraphs were revealing. They have helped me listen to those Stones songs in a new way and enjoy them even more. I decided to write this sidebar to that review in order to focus on another service that Richards provided, albeit indirectly. Throughout the books, he mentions, to one extent or another, various musicians who influenced him and various Stones songs with which I was somewhat or totally unfamiliar. For instance, early on, Richards is talking about various singers and groups he liked when he was 15. One is Johnny Restivo who was known for his song “The Shape I’m In.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8eoZ9tMMyA Because the Band has a song of the same title, I tracked down Restivo’s tune, and it turns out that he’s a Buddy Holly sound-alike, and his song shares only the title with the Robbie Robertson tune. A pro Then there’s Wizz Jones,
Keith Richards’s autobiography “Life” is irritating, frustrating, disappointing and, at times, revealing. When I say “revealing,” I’m not talking about his tales of extensive drug use which, at a guess, take up probably a third of the book. What he was using when is of little interest to me. And I’m not talking about his attitudes towards women whom — no surprise — he often refers to as “bitches.” I’m talking about the real insights he gives the reader into the creation of many Rolling Stones songs, a detailed recounting of his contribution in terms of chord progressions, riffs and other musical elements to such songs at the core of rock ‘n’ roll as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Satisfaction.” “Imagining horns” Regarding that last tune, he writes:
A half century after its publication in 1961, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a complex document to read. I approached the Jane Jacobs masterpiece with a bit of guilt since I’d never previously read it, even though I’d spent a career as a newspaper reporter covering urban planning issues and am now writing a history of Chicago. But then an urban affairs expert I respect told me, “Oh, nobody reads the whole thing.”
“Cloud Atlas,” the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, is a daring book. And, more than three-quarters of the way through its pages, Mitchell includes a daring passage. One of his many (or is it few?) characters, Robert Frobisher, is writing a letter in 1931 to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith and describing “a sextet for overlapping soloists” that he is composing and that, the reader knows, will be called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. It is a work, he writes, for “piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” That final sentence is the daring part. You see, at this point, the reader can see the parallels between the Cloud Atlas Sextet and Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” novel. Like Frobisher’s musical composition, Mitchell has created a highly and unusually structured work. The novel is, in fact, six novellas, each of a different form and told in a different voice. There is (1) the sea journal of Adam Ewing, a rather stuffy, naïve 19th century American , (2) Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, a fellow Englishman, (3) a 1970s murder novel titled “Half Lives — The First Luisa Rey Mystery, (4) a memoir by an early 21st century vanity book publisher named Timothy Cavendish, (5) the transcript of an interrogation of Sonmi-451, a rebel in some future Korea, and (6) a long yarn told to family members by Zachary in an even more future Hawaii. The verdict? Each is about 90 pages long, but only Zachary’s is told in a single go. As with the Sextet, each of the other novellas in Mitchell’s book is interrupted — at a moment of high tension — by the next one so that, by the time Zachary is telling his tale, the reader is already carrying five truncated stories in his or her head. After Zachary’s story, the other novellas are completed, each in turn — Sonmi, then Cavendish, then Luisa, then Frobisher and finishing finally with Ewing. So, as Frobisher asks of his sextet, is Mitchell’s novel “revolutionary or gimmicky”?
Abramin and his two confederates are bandits. Although they’re not exactly Robin Hoods, they live by burglary, not by violence. Abramin and his wife Susanna have a beautiful baby son Dismas. But Dismas is a leper. When Dismas fusses, Abramin says, “Give him to me; I’m going to chant a little song for him that will make him dream of glory and bravery.” He sings, and the boy goes to sleep. These are some of the characters in the short play “The Flight into Egypt,” one of eight edifying theatricals (or “pious recreations,” as the Carmelites called them) that were written and produced by the young Therese of Lisieux.