Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review 2

There were a number of books in the past year that, for whatever reason, just didn’t hit the sweet spot for me. Some of these books were overhyped. Most weren’t reviewed for this blog---I can’t write about a book when I don’t have much enthusiasm for it one way or another. I didn’t finish the others (my tolerance for books that don’t work for me has gotten pretty low in recent years. I can read 200 to 300 pages, struggling to work against waning interest and boredom, before throwing my hands up in defeat). So why compile such a list in the first place? Since this is a review in the past year of reading it makes sense to look back on those experiences that didn’t work out as well as I thought they would. I enter a relationship with a book with great enthusiasm, finding in those first few pages an exciting chance to explore a new adventure. I don’t read expecting to be disappointed (though on those cases where books have been overhyped I might admit to being a bit suspicious). So I compile this list not to be a hater, but rather to note which books didn’t move me and why. But more than that, each book, whether loved or not, explains a little bit more about who I am as a person and as a reader.

One book that had gotten a lot of hype in the previous two years was Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I thought the premise was intriguing enough, but in the end I was underwhelmed by the effort. There were so many possibilities that Bender could have taken with that premise, but she instead settled on the tried-and-true route of far too many contemporary literary writers: suburban ennui. The subplot revolving around the narrator’s brother, Joseph, had far more potential and I wished Bender could have centered the novel around him since it was apparent that that was where her interest lay. As I wrote in my review, I did enjoy reading the novel, but its unfulfilled promise kept it from being a truly satisfying experience.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning A Visit from the Good Squad was another novel hyped within the past year that I read but did not review for the blog. Much has been written about its form and how it sought to push the envelope in novel structure. Since A Visit from the Goon Squad was a collection of interlinked short stories, I failed to see what was so revolutionary about it. One chapter, told entirely in Powerpoint, offered a glimpse of what Egan was attempting to accomplish, but overall I wasn’t as impressed as others.  I don’t begrudge Ms. Egan’s Pulitzer, but I do think that we have reached a point in the development of the novel that everyone is looking for anyone to push it forward and breathe new life into the form. As a reader and a writer, I am interested in the question of what new configurations can be got out of the novel, so I’m curious to see whether Egan will continue to explore that path with future efforts.

I’ve just started reading Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection of nonfiction works The Ecstasy of Influence, Nonfiction, etc., making this the second Lethem book I read this year (in by a squeaker). The first was his 2009 novel Chronic City. While I appreciated reading it for the most part, I didn't find it earthshattering either. Like Colson Whitehead (whose latest I partly review below), Michael Chabon, Kevin Brockmeier, Aimee Bender, George Saunders and other contemporary writers, Lethem is interested in (re)blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction. Part realist fiction, part fantasy/sci-fi, Chronic City takes place in an alternate universe otherwise known as Manhattan, where an escaped tiger and an international team of astronauts stranded in space, one of whom happens to be the girlfriend of the novel’s hero Chase Insteadman, a former child star who occasionally does voiceover work, become a part of the urban landscape. As intiguing as that premise might sound, in the end, the pieces didn’t gel. Perkus Tooth, a culture critic who intrigues Insteadman was introduced as a wildly eccentric free spirit whose profound statements on culture (particularly on Marlon Brando) was meant to leave everyone who comes in contact with him in awe, but instead he turned out to be a bore. I was often left wondering why Insteadman was willing to bend over backwards for such a nondescript man (Hari Kunzru's review offers a huge clue that I certainly did not pick up on while reading). The mystery concerning Insteadman’s supposed girlfriend and a mesmerizing chaldron didn’t have much impact either. Still, Chronic City held my interest, had some interesting turns, and was funny at parts.

I wanted very much to like Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel. I’m a fan of Whitehead’s works and have read practically everything he’s written (The Intuitionist will always be one of my favorite novels of the last fifteen years). And yet like the others on this list I was disappointed. I’ve been debating about whether this is a failure of the novel or a failure of my own expectations. Granted, when I heard that he had written a zombie novel, I went in expecting a genre novel with a literary bent. What I got instead was a literary novel that happened to be about zombies. While reading I was left with one question: does the desire to make genre fiction more literate overwhelm what makes genre fiction so attractive to readers in the first place: larger-than-life characters, plot, action? I’m not suggesting that genre fiction can’t be literary or vice versa, but I also wonder how much the readers’ expectations limit both literary and genre fiction for both readers and writers (or is this simply a failing of mine and not others?). These are interesting questions that deserve far more space than I am allowing here. Needless to say, as much as I wanted to enjoy Zone One (Colson's wry observations about pop culture notwithstanding), I did not, and wound up not finishing it. Perhaps one day I’ll pick it up again and read it without any literary preconceptions to get in the way. 

Isabel Allende’s novel Island Beneath the Sea, about love and political intrigue during the Haitian Revolution had, like the other novels, a lot of intiguing potential, but played like a Harlequin romance set against an historical backdrop.  In the past, Allende has written urgently of historical subjects, most particularly of her personal background growing up in Chile (Allende was related to the late Chilean president Salvador Allende). This latest effort seemed a bit of a trifle and lacked any sense of urgency, despite the important events shaping both the Carribbean and American landscapes.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, more than any on this list, had received the most fanfare when it was published in 2010. It’s still discussed and written about on blogs and print publications, often to appreciative, analytical reviews. Even the president weighed in by picking up an advance copy while on vacation last year. And yet it goes down as one of those novels I simply could not get through to the end. While it started off fine enough, I soon found it harder and harder to keep turning the pages as the novel got bogged down in the self-absorbed musings of its main characters. After a while, I stopped caring. It wasn’t so much that its main characters were unlikable. Unlikable characters are certainly not a deficit to any novel. Rather it was because they were both unlikable and boring. Novels about the upper middle-class who have everything they could ever possibly want, but are still miserable might have been revolutionary when John Cheever and Richard Yates started writing (or for that matter Gustave Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Henry James, etc., etc.), but why does this subject still earn critical praise now when very little new is wrenched  from it (or do I even need to ask?) It became apparent that the novel was more a hook on which Franzen could hang his musings about liberal politics and people who sell out their principles than an actual story in which characters became more than just archetypes to which readers can nod with hipster recognition. Unlikable or not, I needed to care what happened to these characters and I simply did not.

There were certainly plenty of other books that I read, both with relish and disinterest that I either did not review or did not have any particular bent toward. All in all, 2011 was a productive year for reading and I look forward to seeing what will turn up in my hands next year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Year in Review

Last year, I wanted to write a “year in reading” review for my new blog. I never got around to it and, since I had only started blogging a few months earlier, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to review anyway. Now that I’ve got a whole year under my belt, I thought I’d take the time out this final week of 2011 to look back on the books that impressed me, made me think, or didn’t have any impression on me at all (there were quite a few like that).

Sizing up the last twelve months is a pasttime at the end of year. It’s a way for people to review all their triumphs and failures, things done and things left to be done. Reading has been that way for me as well. There were plenty of books I wanted to read but didn’t for any number of reasons. But I’ve not only had a chance to read some pretty great books, I’ve also had the pleasure to review them for this blog and for other sites as well. This post will address the books that I enjoyed and would highly recommend.


I’ve read plenty of fiction books in the last year that were great to good to middling. The ones that stayed with me, sunk their teeth into my marrow and left their mark, have made this past reading year such a revelation. The book that lingers in my thoughts is Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Jones’ third novel creates an indelible collection of characters whose very heartbeats continue to thump subtly in my head. Told from the perspectives of two half-sisters whose father’s act of bigamy creates a tenuous but tense thread between them, Silver Sparrow addresses the compromises people make in the name of love with an uncompromising glare. What impressed me most about Ms. Jones’s story was how she refused to rely on any of the cliches or cheap stereotypes that such a story would provoke. These are not characters we are meant to despise or put in a simplistic box, but rather to embrace and understand even with their brittle flaws. 

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz is another great entry in the fiction category. This quiet, slower burner should read like genre fiction, a plunge into the shadowy back alleys of San Bernardino and Hollywood, a noirish take on reality and fantasy. Instead it is a quiet meditative look at dreams unfulfilled. What You See In the Dark, a tale of love, murder, and the cinema, continues to linger and have its sway over me. I had the real pleasure of interviewing author Muñoz for Creosote Journal, which was certainly a highlight of my blogging year.

While I gave Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel a mixed review, I admire her willingness to push the envelope in terms of novel structure and form. Less a novel than a series of interlocking tales, she uses various forms from short story to play to court transcriptions, comic strip panels, and others to bring to life a little known era in Asian American political history. But more than that, I Hotel is the story of California and of America. Whatever flaws the novel might have, they are more than made up for its tenacity.

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar is a fascinating look at Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of the fierce and uncompromising Araceli N. Ramirez, a housekeeper who is thrown headlong into the marital drama of her employers. Anyone who is from Los Angeles will recognize this love poem to that sprawling, diverse, and always-evolving city.


There are a few books of nonfiction that have had an impact on me this year. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is one such example. Aside from giving the rundown on how the definition of whiteness began in antiquities and continues to this day, what I remember and enjoy most about Painter’s work is that she is a born storyteller. Her ability to bring to life what could have been dry facts and research into fascinating stories about the history of Europe and America as seen through a racialized prism is superlative and thoroughly engaging.

Manning Marable’s long-awaited biography on the intriguing Malcolm X is another work of nonfiction that made waves this year. A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X uncovered a lot of ground that The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley could not. What emerges is a man of complexity, a work in political and social progress, but someone far more human and flawed than previous hagiographies. Marable, who passed away this year just as his tome was being published, had an engaging but unobtrusive writing style that allowed his subject to burn defiantly through the work itself.

Journalist Isabel Wilkerson covers the scope of 20th Century African American history through her retelling of the Great Migration, a period of social revolt as African Americans migrated out of the south between World War I and the 1970s to seek better opportunities in the north and west. The Warmth of Other Suns focuses on three individuals---Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster---who left their homes and families in the deep south and sought economic opportunities and social freedom in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. As personal and intimate a historical account as you'll ever read, Gladney, Starling, and Pershing Foster, by the end of the book, will have become like good, old friends.

Like Irvin Painter, Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD is also a born storyteller as revealed in his 2011 Pulitzer prizewinning account of the biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Considering that the 571 page book uncovers a lot of historical as well as medical and scientific ground, this skill proves quite adept at helping laypersons such as myself to understand the often complicated and very complex web that makes up cancerous genes and the medicine developed to combat them. The Emperor of All Maladies was eye opening. Months after I read it, I still recollect it whenever I chance upon an article about cancer or cancer research.

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A Wilding didn’t get the kind of fanfare that the previous nonfiction works had when they were published, and that is a disservice not only to the author Sarah Burns but most importantly to the subject itself, which, over twenty years later, deserves a historical review. Covering the story of the four young black and hispanic men who were unjustifiably charged and sentenced for the rape of a central park jogger in the late 1980s, Burns, like a good investigative journalist, covers all the grounds which led to the conviction and reveals how citizens of a city mired in racial politics and animosities willingly believed the men were guilty despite a shred of evidence linking them to the victim. The book’s ending, a bittersweet one with the eventual release and exoneration of the now grown men, continues to haunt. Will this happen again? Burns asks. Considering that the NYPD is now currently under investigation for its racial profiling practices, the answer should give everyone pause.  

Francisco Goldman’s tender memoir Say Her Name is like a sad song---it stays with you long after the last refrain. Haunting, elegiac, and beautiful, Goldman’s momento mori to his late wife, Aura Estrada, is like the memorial to her that he kept in his New York apartment: full of tiny, intimate details of the life they shared. While there were moments I questioned the appropriateness of Goldman's revelations, I was thoroughly touched and saddened by his loss, as though I knew these people and their grief was my own. Very few works of art touch me this way, and Say Her Name is but one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Forgotten Holiday Specials

Christmas is a week away and the networks have been airing their usual holiday chestnuts like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I couldn’t wait for these holiday specials to air on TV because then I knew Christmas really was on the way. I remember lying on the white shag rug in the living room with my younger brother, glued to the huge TV set while Charlie Brown and his friends broke into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to inaugurate the holiday season. Back in the day our TV set was actually a piece of furniture, a massive thing that also had a stereo (we'd play over and over again my Dad’s Christmas album, with its selections of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “A Christmas Song,” by Nat King Cole [is there any other version worth listening to?]). The stereo was in fact in mono, so the sound had a tinny quality to it, but even that tinniness added something unique to the experience. When we turned the volume up real loud, Charlie, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Snoopy and all the others sounded as if they were actually in my living room. With our white aluminum Christmas tree sparkling in the background (hey, it was the ‘70s!), it wasn’t hard to get into the Christmas spirit.

But while these four specials have become the pinnacle of all animated holiday specials, I also remember the less popular, but no less charming cartoons that seem to have fallen by the wayside since and are no longer aired on TV. Now, that might have something to do with changing styles and attitudes. It’s a given that Christmas specials, especially the older ones, have a treacly quality to them that make them out-of-fashion in today’s era of hipster cynicism. Whatever the reason, I miss some of these specials. The only way I can view any of them now is on Youtube, but that isn't quite the same. I’ve listed some of these specials for today's blog. It’s not a Top Ten list, so there is no particular order in their arrangement. They’re just a list of specials I remember (or in some cases even vaguely recall) from my childhood.

Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol

This holiday special originally aired in 1962, which makes it the first animated Christmas special for TV (take that, Charlie Brown!). And with its Broadway pedigree (lyricist and composer Jules Styne and Bob Merrill wrote the music), it boasts some of the most memorable songs. They used to play this on TV as regularly as they used to play It’s A Wonderful Life, back before NBC won exclusive rights to the movie. But unlike Frank Capra’s traditional holiday film, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol hasn’t aired on TV in decades, which is a shame. While not exactly the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic novella (it actually switches the chronology of The Ghost of Christmases’ Past and Present), it still hits all the right notes. While the animation is passable, the songs and voices are excellent.

Santa and the Three Bears

I vaguely recall watching this when I was a kid. But when I watched this a couple of years back online, parts of it came back to me like a pleasant, but vague memory of childhood's past. A sweet tale about a couple of bear cubs who discover Christmas, Santa and the Three Bears has a charm that is all but missing in most recent holiday specials. The two cubs are as cute as can be and Nana bear is voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, most known for voicing Wilma Flintstone.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas is a cute entry from the 1970s with Tom Smothers, Barbara Feldon and Artie Johnson doing voice duties. Ted E. Bear, an employee at a honey factory, had always believed there was such a thing as Christmas. But being a bear and living in Bear Town, he had no way of knowing since he and the other bears hibernate during the winter. Determined to find out if the rumors are true, Ted leaves for the city to find out about Christmas. Based on the children’s book by John Barrett, this animated holiday special is about as rare as the others on this list. I don’t think I’ve seen it aired on TV since the 1970s. There might be a good reason why not. After all, it is a bit dated (lots of references to astrology). However, as I wrote before, it is cute and the ending, when Ted finally finds out about what Christmas is really about, is a heart tugger.

A Christmas Carol

This 1969 special by Richard Williams is one of the few animated short films that attempts to faithfully adapt Dickens’ novella. What makes this special so distinctive is its impressionistic animation. Some of the scenes are gorgeously rendered, bringing to life a Dickensian style that is so suited to the tale. It also captures some of the more darker aspects of the story, such as the frightening visit from Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas future. Alistair Sim voices Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yogi Bear’s First Christmas

Yogi Bear and Boo Boo celebrate Christmas at Jellystone Park with an assortment of friends like Cindy Bear, Snaggletooth, and Huckleberry Hound. Hardly a classic, but this syndicated animated special played a lot on TV when I was young, so it hardly seems like Christmas without it.

Fat Albert’s Christmas Special

The Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a given in my household. At the time it was the one of a few animated TV shows that featured black characters doing regular things, like learning important life lessons and all that. So when this holiday-themed special aired in 1977, we were all over it. Sure, it has all the cliches: allusions to the birth of Jesus; Scrooge-like figure who needs to learn the meaning of Christmas, etc. Still, like Donnie Hathaway’s perennial classic “This Christmas,” Fat Albert’s Christmas Special was a nice alternative for those of us who wanted a little soul in our Christmas holiday specials.

Yes, Virginia, There is A Santa Claus

There are actually two versions of this classic tale: the original 1970s special and a remake done recently in CGI. I’ve never seen the CGI version and have no interest in doing so. My memories of the original are too strong. It’s not like the animation was great or anything. In fact, it was pretty subpar for 1970s standards (and that’s not really saying much since 1970s TV animation wasn't exactly a stellar period). Still there’s something real and heartfelt about this little special. Based on the real life story of Virginia O’Hanlon, a little girl in New York who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun to ask him if Santa Claus really existed, this special brought to heart the reply that O’Hanlon eventually received, one that has become a classic, true Christmas tale.

The Snow Queen

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Snow Queen is about two children, Gerta and Kay, who are separated one snowy evening by the evil Snow Queen. After infecting his heart with a sliver of cold, the Snow Queen whisks young Kay on her reindeer-driven sleigh to her castle of ice. Young Gerta travels far and wide and meets a cast of characters to rescue her friend from the evil queen. This classic animated tale is neither holiday-themed nor an American TV production, but was rather produced in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. Every year, the local stations in my area would play an English-dubbed version during the holidays. I became enchanted by this tale, but also with the gorgeous animation. It isn't played on TV anymore, as far I can tell, but it has developed a devoted following among fans who have either seen it on TV years ago or who have watched it since on VHS or DVD.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fontana and Levinson Team Up Again for New A&E Series

Last week, A&E announced a development deal with producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson to produce a new half-hour cop drama called The Box. According to Digital Spy, episodes of the series, if picked up, “will focus on a small ensemble of detectives and their interactions with a key suspect or witness.”

This is great news for fans of the 1990s series Homicide: Life on the Street, which was also produced by Fontana and Levinson. Anyone who’s seen that show knows that its greatest dramatic pinnacles occurred in the interrogation room, otherwise referred to as “the Box.” That show dealt with the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications that arose out of techniques detectives use in getting confessions from suspects.

1996-1997 Cast of Homicide: Life on the Street

Nobody on Homicide could get a more thrilling confession both in the box and on TV than Andre Braugher’s Det. Frank Pembleton, who bar none set the standard for TV cops in the years since the series debuted in 1993. To watch Braugher putting the squeeze on suspects in the interrogation room was a good half of what made this NBC drama so unbelievably great. Needless to say, I’m a fan, so I’ll be looking forward to Levinson and Fontana’s latest collaboration.

Monday, December 5, 2011

And in This Corner...

Literary bouts are pretty much par for the course in the world of literature and there have been some pretty good match-ups. Only recently there was the dust-up between Jonathan Lethem and James Wood, the literary critic whose mixed review of Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago inspired an essay that examined the role of critics and the expectations on both readers and writers alike (the essay, "The Disappointment Author," can be found in his latest collection of essays The Ecstacy of Influence).

Now jumping into the fray are two literary heavyweights Rita Dove and Helen Vendler. This latest ringside bout occurred after Vendler wrote a scathing review for The New York Review of Books of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetrywhich Dove edited. The former Poet Laureate replies in a letter to the editor. Without having read Ms. Vendler's review, I cannot say in detail what her objections were to the anthology, but Dove does lay out a pretty well-thought out response to the objections she raises about the review. But a more important point at which she levels her sharp scalpel (and which Lethem likewise addresses in his essay) is the role of the critic and the recognition of intent and expectation in literary works. This is an important question, especially in light of the current economic situation in an industry that is proving more indifferent to critics and book reviewers alike. Should the critic measure her analyses/reviews based on the writer's intent and whether the author successfully or unsuccessfully fulfilled those intentions? Or should the critic's expectations of what literature ought to achieve be the basis for determining whether a singular work reaches and/or transcends those expectations? And what ought writers and readers expect from a reviewer in determining which books are worth their time and effort?

As a reviewer on this blog, I find myself weighing more in the corner of intent---this is mostly due to the fact that I am a writer myself and am always preoccupied with my intentions in whatever I am working on. Whether I liked the work or not, I am most interested in whether or not the work achieved what it set out to achieve.

However anyone stands on this issue, I'm sure it will be a subject that writers, critics, and readers alike will be grappling with well into the next year. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter

The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. Bill Carter. New York: Viking. 2010.

Late night TV can be just as cutthroat as any in the entertainment business. This became apparent during the late night dust up of 2009 when Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno went toe-to-toe over the 11:35 spot on NBC.

Five years earlier, in an effort to keep O’Brien, who was being wooed by the Fox network, in its late night stable, NBC promised the comedy host The Tonight Show gig, thus guaranteeing that the then host, Jay Leno, would step down. NBC executive, Jeff Zucker, who had made this promise, had yet to inform Leno that he was being forced into retirement. When the deal reached headlines, everyone in the business and TV viewers alike assumed Leno was voluntarily retiring. Leno himself didn’t dissuade anyone from thinking otherwise, which certainly explains why many were mystified when, in 2009, Leno jumped back into television with a 10:00 pm version of his former show. Even O’Brien was taken aback when he learned that yet again he was going to follow Leno. NBC, in fact, had persuaded Leno to do the show when it learned that ABC was sniffing around him to host a talk show on its network, possibly starting opposite both The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman (Nightline would have been a likely casualty had this deal gone through). Desperate not to lose Leno as well as their dominance in late night, NBC lured Leno, the perennial blue collar workhorse, back in front of the camera, even though he and producer Debbie Vickers were unconvinced that they’d be able to make the show work in that timeslot (clearly they could not).

If this all sounds like madness, it’s only because it is: the madness of a once hip, now struggling network trying to hang onto two of its late night stars. Their attempt to have their proverbial cake and eat it too blew up in their faces. They wound up losing Conan O’Brien anyway, all in an attempt to avoid an earlier contretemps between Leno and Letterman in their bids for The Tonight Show after the legendary host Johnny Carson retired. How this soggy mess came to be is the topic of Bill Carter's 2010 publication The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. Carter wrote the bestselling The Late Shift, which likewise looked at the battle over who will ascend Carson to the late night throne. Carter does a good job in his latest book of showing that the battle over late night came down to more than just a matter of show business, but was also about the changing tides in both network and cultural trends. Whereas Leno was the safe comedian whose broad appeal spanned across the Midwestern markets, O’Brien was edgier, sillier, more about the essence of comedy than Leno who narrowed joketelling to a matter of quantification---the more jokes he could deliver during his monologue the better. It was also about technology. Leno routinely won large margins with the “over 49” crowd, while O’Brien hit the college age markets. This meant that O’Brien was keyed into all the trends that young people were engaged in---Twitter, Facebook---and knew how to put on a show that appealed to a crowd that was more likely to watch his greatest bits online than on television. This, unfortunately, didn’t always translate well ratings-wise. While O’Brien’s The Tonight Show regularly won this important demo, he was demolished by Letterman, who for the first time dominated in the late night ratings race. The older viewers who stayed through the local news for Leno, were now jumping ship for the Late Show. Leno’s entry into primetime television wasn’t making much waves, at least not the kind that make network executives happy. Before the year was out, network affiliates were screaming about lost crossover viewership and essentially twisted arms at NBC to make a final decision about Leno. Still determined not to lose both stars, Zucker suggested a move that would be the final break between O’Brien and NBC: move Leno back into the 11:35 spot for a half-hour and push The Tonight Show back to 12:05. O’Brien, more concerned with the maintaining the integrity of The Tonight Show institution, opted out of leaving the show altogether.

As with the battle between Letterman and Leno over The Tonight Show nearly twenty years prior, bruised egos and hurt feelings went all around, but in the end show business (emphasis on business) won out. Leno returned to The Tonight Show, O’Brien wound up on TBS, and Zucker lost his job after the Comcast merger with NBC. But Carter ends this meticulously researched book with a far more intriguing question about the future of late night as well as television in general:

But (Jeff Gaspin, NBC executive) had also raised longer-term questions, including a most ominous one. He suggested that within five years NBC might not necessarily even be programming a Tonight Show, or anything else for that matter, in what the networks labeled the late-night day part. “While we have this heritage in the day part, you know, we also all used to be in daytime,” Gaspin said recalling the days when networks filled the daytime hours with soap operas, fewer and fewer of which were surviving. “We all used to be in Saturday morning programming,” he added, referring to the days when the networks made money on children’s cartoons. “The broadcast business is changing.”

In an age when online formats like YouTube and Hulu are gaining prominence, the future of network TV is up for grabs. How the networks (not to mention cable television) will deal with that remains to be seen. But if NBC’s handling of the Leno/O’Brien clash is any indication, odds are not very well.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK and the Mythic Imagination

November 22 is the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy and while it’s been nearly fifty years since that dreadful day, the historic moment still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth---the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers who lined up along Dealey Plaza to watch his motorcade go pass look on in horror. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the assassination would be recorded not by a newsman but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose film footage wouldn’t be released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event would balloon into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission's handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, a tale of time travel which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 release JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison's prosecution of the president's assassination. Television has also played its part, including a 1983 miniseries starring Martin Sheen and a recent cable version starring Greg Kinnear. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet over three years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms and experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but the Camelot image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy set forth after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we'd do well to separate the facts from the myth.

Monday, October 31, 2011

15 Horror Movies without the Gore

I’ve never been much into gory horror movies. They never scared me. I’ll take a nice horror story that delves deeply into the psyche of its characters and pulls out the darkness within any day. Therefore I’ve compiled a list of 15 horror movies I think are the best in piling on the creeps and chills while sparing the gory details. So in no discernible order, here is my list of some really great, creepy, chilling horror flicks.

1. The Innocents (1961)

Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is one of those horror films that succeeds in delivering the right gothic atmosphere for chills and thrills. Filmed in b&w and starring Deborah Kerr, The Innocents tells the story of a young governess whose two charges, Flora and Miles, may or may not be the victims of spectral manipulation. Like the novella, the movie is ambiguous about whether the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the children’s previous and long deceased caretakers, are real or whether it is all in Miss Giddens’ sexually repressed head. But that only makes film viewing all the more fun. Regardless, the film has a few shockingly frightful scenes, such as when Miss Giddens, in a game of hide-and-seek with the children, comes across the ghostly image of Peter Quint himself peering ominously at her through a window; or the film’s climax, when Miss Giddens forces a psychological exorcism on poor Miles that goes horribly wrong. A great film for horror fans who want a heavy dose of psychology with their chills.

2. The Haunting (1963)


Another b&w classic, The Haunting is, like The Innocents, an adaptation from a literary source, in this case Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House. Unlike most horror movies, The Haunting succeeds in delivering its frights by not revealing what is at the rotted core haunting the decrepit mansion. Sounds effects are put to great use as a small team of parapsychologists encounter a terrifyingly noisy haunting. At the heart of the story is the neurotic and unloved Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a woman whose desire to belong takes a shocking and fatal turn. Also starring Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, and directed by the legendary Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), The Haunting delves deeply into the psychology of horror and how the things we don’t see are often the things we ought to fear the most. Forget the 1999 remake and check this one out instead.

3. Carnival of Souls (1962)


Carnival of Souls is one of those low-rent movies that were produced in the 1960s and then quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the film was revived for modern audiences, that its quiet and simple pleasures were appreciated. Carnival of Souls, the brainchild of industrial filmmaker, Herk Hervey, is a truly spooky entry on this list, with its b&w cinematography, its naturalism, and yes even its cheap production. With an even spookier soundtrack, composed of music performed on a pipe organ, Carnival of Souls makes for the perfect midnight viewing. I won’t give too much of the plot away since much of it depends on the twist ending, but needless to say the movie, which stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a woman who is being stalked by an apparition, builds its creepy chills to a shocking conclusion.

4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby is by far one of the most paranoid films ever made. In fact, one can argue that it is as much a conspiracy movie as it is a horror movie. But then again, what can be more frightening than a conspiracy against you? As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you. That is the horror Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) encounters while she and her actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), await the birth of their first child. Unbeknownst to poor Rosemary, she is the victim of a worldwide conspiracy involving her neighbors (Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer) and her husband to steal her baby. Once Rosemary discovers the shocking truth, she tries to protect her unborn child, only to learn that the truth is far more shocking than she realized. With an ending that is enhanced by what it doesn’t show, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski, proves that real fear comes when no one, not even your own husband, can be trusted.

5. The Entity (1981)

Starring Barbara Hershey, The Entity is one of those movies that plays for keeps. While not gory, the film is graphic in its depiction of a woman who is sexually assaulted by things she cannot see. Hershey plays Carla Moran, a single mom struggling to hold her family together. One night, Carla is raped by an entity, which then continues to assault her in the most brutally horrifying way. Fearing for her sanity, she seeks psychiatric help, but loses hope in psychiatry when her therapist insists that she is creating a delusion to deal with childhood abuse and sexual repression. Carla knows her encounters are too real to be a figment of her imagination. After she meets a group of parapsychologists in a bookstore, she convinces them to investigate and capture the entity. Supposedly based on true events, the film’s ending, no doubt added for dramatic license, nonetheless begs credibility. No matter. The film is still powerful and frightening enough whether you believe it actually happened or not.

6. The Others (2001)

The Others doesn’t start off as a terribly scary movie. In fact, most of the film deals with a young mother trying to keep her family together while her husband is away at war. Yet the film is deeply atmospheric and slowly builds its creep factor as the family begins to realize that they are not alone. The shocking twist ending adds a satisfyingly unexpected touch. Starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, The Others takes the haunted house concept and completely turns it on its head as audiences are forced to question who is truly haunted. A remarkable film that is gothic, moody, atmospheric, and unsettling all at once.

7. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Devil’s Backbone is the story of a young boy who is sent to an orphanage in the countryside during the Spanish Civil War and is drawn into a murder mystery involving a now deceased orphan and a shady character working at the orphanage. While there is a ghost story at the heart of the mystery, the true horror of this quiet gem is the one involving the uglier aspects of human nature, whether that be the horrors of war, of greed and corruption, or of the inexplicable behavior of adults as seen through the eyes of a vulnerable child.

8. Night of the Living Dead (1968)


 Night of the Living Dead, the granddaddy of all gory movies, not to mention zombie pictures, shouldn’t really belong on this list. So why is it? Well, I like it. But more than that, this 1968 feature does an excellent job of balancing chills, thrills, and gore. Shot in b&w, George Romero’s first movie has an eerie, claustrophobic feel to it as a group of people are trapped in a farmhouse while hordes of zombies who want to make them their midnight snack try to break in. You get the feeling while watching that the entire world has been confined to these people and this farmhouse, adding to the movie’s sense of dread and paranoia. What gore there is in the movie (shots of zombies gorging on the entrails of their victims) is kept to a minimum, and what is shown instead are the power dynamics between the film’s lead, Ben (Duane Jones), and fellow stowaway Harry (Karl Hardman), a typical suburban dad, who, along with his wife and daughter and a young couple, has been holed up in the basement. Like all great horror movies, Night of the Living Dead is as much concerned with the ways humans attack and destroy one another as it is about marauding zombies. There lies its effectiveness. How different really are humans from monsters? the film asks. This is the real terror and one of the reasons why Night of the Living Dead is a classic.

9. The Exorcist (1973)

Upon release, The Exorcist set box office records and also had audiences vomiting in the aisles. Modern audiences might find it implausible that a movie could cause such violent reactions, but The Exorcist, regarded as one of the scariest movies ever produced, earned its pedigree simply because nothing like it before had ever been committed to the screen. Director William Friedkin wasn't kidding around with this story, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, about a young, innocent girl who is possessed by the devil. Starring Ellen Burstyn and the young Linda Blair as Regan, The Exorcist builds upon its horror slowly as we watch Burstyn’s Chris and Regan live out their otherwise normal lives only to be violated by the intrusion of unspeakable evil. The film creates sheer terror through the convincing use of special effects, makeup, and especially sound effects (when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time on television, my mom told me not to look at the TV screen if I was too scared to watch it. But the sound effects were a lot scarier than what was actually on screen). Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller round out the cast as two priests enlisted to perform an exorcism to save Regan’s soul.

10. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

This recent take on demon possession is supposedly based on true events. Whether you believe in the devil or not, however, oughtn’t get in the way of enjoying this very effective horror flick. Laura Linney plays an attorney who is placed on retainer by the Catholic Church to defend a priest (Tom Wilkinson) who has been charged with the negligible death of a college student, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), during an exorcism. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, like Rosemary’s Baby, is a movie that reveals how flexible the horror genre can be. Taking demon possession and mixing it up in a courtroom drama, this movie is more concerned with the questions of belief, both in God and in the devil. Despite its philosophical and theological concerns, the film also works as a great horror movie without relying on cheap gore. Little moments, the ones that often occur in the corner of our eyes or in the back of our minds---a door supposedly closed now open; the smell of something burning; the little bumps in the night---add to this film’s creep factor. The flashback scenes of Emily Rose’s possession and exorcism are also scary as hell. This is one of those films that continue to play on your imagination long after the final credits have rolled across the screen.

11. Psycho (1960)

No list of horror movies can ever be complete without Psycho. Directed by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho is precisely one of those movies which proves that you can still deliver on the shock and thrills without an excess of gore. All the more important to remember considering that Psycho is the granddaddy of all slasher films. Starring Vivien Leigh and Anthony Perkins, Psycho tells the story of a frustrated and unhappy woman, Marion Crane (Leigh), who steals money from the real estate office where she works so that she can be with her lover, who is at present too broke to marry her. Marion takes off with the money to meet up with her lover, but is detoured when she stops at the Bates Motel, an out-of-the-way motel run by the skittishly neurotic and loney Norman Bates. The rest of the story revolves around what happens next at the Bates Motel. For those who have yet to see this classic, I won’t spoil it. Needless to say, Psycho, known famously for its shower sequence, set the standard for horror movies and also showed that real horror sometimes comes with a welcome sign and a smile.

12. The Shining (1980)

Based on the popular Stephen King novel, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, The Shining has a creepy, cold feeling to it. And I’m not just talking about the winter atmosphere. Rather, everything seems off in this flick. Nicholson’s line reading and facial expressions have a kind of dream-like effect to it, like he’s operating at a completely different speed than everyone else. And the relationship between his Jack Torrance and Duvall’s Wendy, as well as with his son, seem cold, distant, aloof. You sense that this family has seen horrors far more frightening than what they’ll experience at the Overlook Hotel. Kubrick’s directing style adds to the film’s dread. The lighting and camera angles, the use of silence interrupted by abrupt sounds (such as the scene of young Danny [Danny Lloyd] riding his Big Wheels through the hallways) all create an atmosphere that is slightly abnormal and off-balance. The real horror, of course, lies not with the ghosts that haunt the Overlook, though when they appear they’re as shocking and disturbing as in any ghost story. Rather the real horror lurks in the soul of a man who is slowly disintegrating into madness.

13. The Sixth Sense (1999)

While M. Night Shyamalan’s first film The Sixth Sense deals with ghosts, it isn’t really a horror movie in the traditional sense. Rather, the lead character, Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled young boy who is a conduit to the spiritual world, struggles to cope with his otherworldly capabilities while dealing with the even scarier problems of bullies, divorce, and alienation. Yet there are genuinely frightening scenes in this movie, especially when Cole is visited by ghosts who seek him out for help or companionship. The Sixth Sense, though, earned its way to the top of the box office with a twist ending involving Bruce Willis’s child psychologist who tries to help Cole wrestle with his emotional problems, unaware that he might have more to do with Cole’s psychological problems than he realizes. The film works still even without the twist as it delves effectively into the emotional lives of its characters.

14. Ringu (1998)

You can't find a scarier image than the one above. It's from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (aka The Ring) and it's the spookiest thing you'll ever see in film. Ringu involves a videotape that causes the gruesome death of anyone who watches it. A young reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) researches the tape following her niece’s death and is drawn into the mystery regarding the young girl who appears in it. After viewing the tape, she has exactly one week to find a way to avoid an equally gruesome fate. The movie is a race against time as Reiko not only tries to solve the mystery of the little girl’s death, but save her life and the lives of her loved ones as well. Creepy, atmospheric, and thoroughly original, Ringu is a marriage of traditional horror with modern technology.

15. Carrie (1976)

This second Stephen King-based adaptation is notable for the fact that the real horror starts in the last third of the film. Starring Sissy Spacek, Carrie is the story of an abused, loveless, and otherwise unremarkable girl who has the remarkable power of telekinesis. Much of the film deals with Carrie struggling to understand her powers while coping with being the punching bag for both her classmates and an overbearing mother. The film shows how group conformity and religious zealotry can be pretty scary too. Poor Carrie is so abused that when she finally gets her revenge, you can’t help but root for her. The movie ends with a twist that’s a real shocker and proves that director Brian de Palma knows how to bring the terror and suspense. Spacek’s performance is likewise notable for bringing to life a character who goes from a sad sack to a blossoming flower with enough potential that her final degradation is as heartbreaking as it is horrific.

Honorable Mentions

16. The Universal Horror Movies: these 1930's Universal horror movies, such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), the Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and others, are light on scares, but big on atmospherics. Still it’s a little hard to go through Halloween without settling down with one of these classic horror films.

17. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1991): Sure, Keanu Reeves’ performance nearly sinks this movie, but there’s always Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque excesses and, of course, Gary Oldman as the titular vampire.

18. The Lost Boys (1988): Joel Schumacher’s creepy and atmospheric movie is pretty funny too. It is also one of the great ‘80s vehicles starring Corey Feldman and the late Corey Haim.

19. The Lady in White (1988): not particularly scary, but it does have the nice, curl-up-in-a-blanket-and-pop-the-popcorn feel to it. A horror movie that’s gentle enough for the kids.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A City Wilding by Sarah Burns: A Review

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A City Wilding by Sarah Burns. New York: Aflfred A. Knopf. 2011. 240 pp. $25.95

In 1989, Trisha Meili, an employee at Salomon Brothers in Manhattan, went out for a late night jog through Central Park. In another area of the park, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., along with a loose-knit group of African American and Hispanic youths, were harassing bicyclists and joggers near a reservoir, activities that the media would later misappropriately refer to as “wilding.” Meili and the youths never crossed paths that night and yet their fates became inextricably tied together by an appalling act that would change their lives completely. In the weeks and months following that night, Meili would be dubbed by the local tabloids as “The Central Park Jogger,” the victim of a horrific rape and beating that fanned the flames in an already racially divided city. The young men were collectively referred to as “The Central Park Five,” who were charged and convicted for Meili’s attack. In 2002, DNA testing conclusively ruled out these young men as Meili’s attackers, but in 1989-1990, with DNA testing still in its infancy, their convictions rested solely on confessions that were coerced by overzealous Sex Crimes and homicide detectives and a prosecution’s office which had decided their guilt long before an investigation into the attacks even began. Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A City Wilding, cuts to the heart of what led to the convictions and how a city, already overburdened with crime, violence, and racism, and led by an exploitative and opportunistic news media, engaged in a modern day lynching.

The slender but thorough book chronicles the events which led up to Meili’s attacks and the arrest and conviction of the five young men. Burns centers these events within the larger scope of New York during the 1980s---the crime and violence, largely located within the city’s econonomically deprived areas, whose prevalence was exploited by the local news media that helped further cement an image of a city spinning out of control. Though Burns makes the point that crime and violence was limited among the poor, she also reveals how a sensationalistic press helped establish in the minds of many white New Yorkers that crime was far more egregious than it actually was and linked the most horrific examples with the face of black males. Racial violence and police brutality had also added an extra layer of explosive tension in the city. The racially motivated murders of Michael Griffith and Willie Turk, both of whom were attacked by a mob of white youths after wandering into the Italian enclaves of Gravesend and Howard Beach; the police-related deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs, a sixty-six year old Bronx resident who was shot twice by riot police after lunging at them with a kitchen knife; and Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who mysteriously slipped into a coma and died while in custody; and the media cause célèbre Bernhard Goetz, who shot five black youths after they approached him for money were all indicative of a society that was disintegrating into a morass of rage and racial violence. This willingness to believe black men were guilty of crimes highlights Burns’ contention that “the media only amplified that the city’s most at-risk population was the source of all crime, that black and Latinos, especially male teenagers, were criminals---murderers, thieves, rapists, and arsonists.” By the time of Meili’s attack, racial biases and a blindside on the part of detectives and prosecutors in their failure to admit the flaws in their case made it all but certain that the Central Park Five would be charged with the attack, even with little to no evidence linking them to Meili.

Their arrests on that fateful night were merely coincidental since many were picked up for attacking and robbing male joggers and tandem bicyclists whose main route ran along the park reservoir. After Meili was found, badly beaten and near death, in another area of the park, investigators immediately zeroed in on the young men who had been arrested that night and were being held at the Central Park precinct. What happened next was incredulous. The lack of blood on the young men’s clothing, the inconsistent timeline of the attacks, and, most importantly, the confessions detectives coerced from them, which were so wildly inconsistent with each other and with even the most basic facts available---such as the clothing Meili was wearing that night and the actual vicinity of her attack---should have alerted the most seasoned investigators. Instead, the lack of evidence itself became evidence. Investigators, as Burns points out, had already decided on their guilt before evidence could even be collected. Detectives in the homicide (Meili’s condition was so bad that the doctors treating her didn’t think she’d survive the night) and Sex Crimes units were brought onto the case. Seasoned investigators take it as a given that once they think a potential suspect has been caught lying during an interview that the suspect is the “guilty party,” then move toward a tactic that employs “minimalization” and “maximalization” techniques, which is a technical way of describing the good cop/bad cop routine. Most criminal investigations often rest solely on confessions, therefore the reputations of “good police” is dependent on their ability to get confessions. However Burns reveals this is more myth than actuality. In fact, as she writes, that while detectives think “they are experts at separting truth from lies, [but] studies have shown that this is a false confidence.” Once an investigator thinks you’re guilty, all the denials, even the lack of evidence, most likely won’t sway him.

Individuals who have not had much experience with law enforcement or understand their rights as citizens will often be the most vulnerable to coercion. This is doubly so if the defendants are teens, which was the case for the Central Park Five. Out of the five who were eventually charged with the rape, Korey Wise was sixteen, old enough according to state law to be interrogated without an adult guardian (Wise was also mentally underdeveloped and had a hearing problem). However, adult guardians were hardly protective barriers for these young men, since many were as equally disadvantaged. The mother of Raymond Santana, Jr., whose family came from Puerto Rico, had a language barrier to overcome, a fact which his investigators exploited, while others had to come and go during the long duration of the interview due to work and other obligations or suffered from illness. The young men, who would later complain of being bullied and harassed by their investigators, eventually confessed to either being at the scene of the rape or accused the other teens of the actual crime, in exchange for being let go. Though investigators denied during the trial that they physically bullied the defendents or gave the young men the impression that they’d be let go if they confessed (which would have thrown the confessions and thus the case out of court if such an offer was explicitly stated), neither they nor the prosecutors could substantiate why it took hours to eke confessions from them since, as they claimed, the young men volunteered that information almost immediately. Burns explains both the interrogation techniques used by detectives and the tricks, just this side of legal, that they used to convince suspects to waive their Miranda rights with enough probing detail that it is hard to see how these teens could have stood a chance under the onslaught of skilled manipulation.

The book gets even more incredulous when the prosecution’s office, run under Linda Fairstein in the Sex Crimes unit, takes over. Elizabeth Lederer, the ADA who prosecuted, certainly gets the award for the most dogged prosecutor, especially since there were a number of times when red flag warnings were raised regarding the validity of the case. For instance, the confessions of the young men were so wildly inconsistent that Lederer had to plan her witness statements not only so some of the young men could avoid incriminating themselves on the witness stand but so that the inconsistencies wouldn’t be so blatantly obvious. And when the FBI lab conclusively ruled out the semen found on Meili’s sock did not belong to any of the charged, she still forged onward, claiming the lack of evidence was due to the fact that all five men simply did not ejaculate. Burns nails the prosecutor’s behavior: “Despite a prosecutor’s obligation to seek justice, it seems that at that moment, winning the case trumped investigating the evidence. The incriminating statements by these five teenagers were so convincing to the detectives and prosecutors that no one felt the need to question their conclusions, which had been so easy to jump to in the hours and days after the rape.” Their unwillingness to notice the cracks in their theory led them to overlook a far more obvious suspect, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist whose crime spree “took place near where Trisha Meili had been attacked, and who used strikingly similar methods.” Reyes, as it turns out, was Meili’s attacker, but this would not be known until twelve years later, when Reyes finally confessed to his involvement in that crime. By then, Reyes was already serving life for two other rapes and the murder of a young pregnant mother (there were many other attacks for which he was not convicted). Burns final conclusion on the behavior of the prosecutors and investigators is obvious: had they done their job thoroughly, Reyes might well have been caught and young lives spared from his reign of terror.

Racism, class, and fears of crime and violence certainly plagued the case from the start, but the media deserves as much of a drubbing for poisining the well. In this area Burns does not disappoint. She points out the precise language used by many of the newsprint engines to gin up the outrage. From the start, the local press and broadcast media painted the Central Park Five in terms that left no question as to their guilt, removing such journalistically, time-honored terms like “alleged” to describe the defendants’ roles in the crime. Burns correctly reveals how much of this language harkens back to a time when black men were routinely lynched for allegedly raping or having sexual relations with white women, reducing them to animalistic terms that denied their humanity. Words like “wilding” (a misused teen slang “for acting crazy” but in less than violent terms), “wild thing,” and “wolfpack” were routinely used in reference to the rape and beating. The teens themselves were described as “’bestial,’ ‘savage,’ ‘brutal,’ ‘bloodthirsty,’ ‘evil,’ and ‘mutant.’” Even the venerable New York Times, which had largely eschewed such language in its reporting, led with an editorial headline that read: “The Jogger and the Wolf Pack,” notably without the quotations marks around the most damning word. The media created an environment in which getting the facts was next to impossible. Once the trial commenced, both the press and the public were ginned for frontier justice, including arguing for a return of the death penalty in New York, nevermind the fact that the Supreme Court in the 1979 Coker v. Georgia decision, ruled that, in cases of rape, the death penalty was unconstitutional. Yet, as Burns also rightly points out, “[T]he tradition of death as a punishment for rape has historically been reserved for a particular affront: the rape of a white woman by a black man.”

Defenders of the Central Park Five do not come off any better in Burns’ account. While many within the black community supported the five defendants, their behavior within and outside the courtroom hurt the cause more than it helped. Supporters routinely harassed and heckled ADA Lederer as she left the courtroom and, in one case, the mother of one of the defendants had an outburst in court which led to her permanent banishment throughout the duration of the rest of the trial. The Amsterdam News, a member of the local black press, was less interested in the investigating the case, which would have yielded important evidence that could have exonerated the young men, and was more determined to make political points about racism and the lack of services provided to poor young men of color. Their main argument was that the violent attacks supposedly committed by these young men was the direct result of the city’s neglect toward the poor. While there is truth in such an argument, it had little bearing on the Central Park Jogger rape, since none of the teens charged had actually committed the crime and, more or less, came from rather stable homes. Unfortunately, the teens’ legal counsel were either incapable or had their own political agendas or personal ambitions to adequately defend their clients. Far too many mistakes were made and little effort was done until the last moment to poke serious holes in the prosecution’s case. Sadly, Santana, Jr., Wise, McCray, Richardson, and Salaam were convicted and wound up serving their full terms before they were fully exonerated in 2002.

The Central Park Five is a gripping cautionary tale of justice gone wrong. And while the story ends on an upbeat note for the people involved, from the former defendants to the victim, Burns does not allow for any hope that this nightmarish account is all in the past. The lessons it tells disturbingly go unlearned. As she writes, “Though New York and the country have changed---in many ways for the better---since 1989, who is to say that a rush to judgment like this one could not happen again?” The rush to believe the atrocities supposedly committed by poor blacks in the Louisiana Superdome during Hurricane Katrina by politicians and the media alike suggests that these pernicious attitudes have not gone away. The Central Park Five is an important work that quietly sets the record straight. One can only hope that this time its lessons will finally be heeded, but one cannot help but think that in far less public cases such rushes to judgment are occurring every day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

 The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2010. pg 571.

I just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a biography that is that reads more like an epic novel. What struck me the most about the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is how much storytelling lies at the heart of science and medicine. As Mukherjee writes himself, “Medicine, I said, begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells it own story to explain disease.” And Mukherjee does a fantastic job of telling the story of cancer and the science and medicine arrayed to combat against it.

What I appreciated most about Mukherjee’s writing is its patience. He uncovers a lot of ground---from the antiquities to the present---and delves into the complex and scientific explanations of cancer cells, biological mutations, drugs, etc., but you never feel lost or confused. He has the sort of patience you would expect and hope from all oncologists. He knows his audience and that is always a good skill to have as a writer.

There are plenty of tense moments in the book and surprises---for instance how cancer cells actually grow and metastasize and the history of women’s health and the enormous role it plays in cancer research. There are a cast of characters in the war against cancer that sit indelibly on the mind, such as childhood leukemia researcher Dr. Sidney Farber and his civilian comrade, Mary Lasker, a New York socialite who helped make cancer research a top priority in the federal government; as well as the countless men and women across the world whose research pushed forward our understanding of one of the deadliest diseases in our lifetime.

Everybody has been touched by cancer. Either as a patient or a loved-one. I certainly lost my grandfather to cancer and my father has had his own victorious bout with it a few years ago. The more we understand this disease, then the more we’re able to find ways to treat and even possibly cure it. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about cancer to pick up The Emperor of All Maladies.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: A Review

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, A Novel in Words and Pictures, Brian Selznick. New York: Scholastic Press. 2007

Later this year, Martin Scorsese will release a new film called Hugo, based on the 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This would seem like an odd choice for a director like Scorsese, known for his gritty urban dramas, to direct a film based on a children’s story. But this particular story is actually more up the alley for a well beloved cineaste.

The novel, which takes place in Paris during the early 1930s, is about a young boy named Hugo Cabret, left orphaned after his father is killed in a fire at the museum where he works and is taken under the wing of a drunken uncle who is in charge of making sure that all the clocks in the train station are on time. When the uncle disappears, Hugo is left to fend for himself, caring for the clocks and stealing food from the local vendors. One day he decides to steal a toy mouse from a toy booth across the way from the apartment where he is holed up. He is caught by the toy vendor and forced to work at the booth, mending toys, as punishment. He soon becomes embroiled in the lives of Papa Georges, the man who runs the booth, and his goddaughter, Isabel, who later helps Hugo undercover a mystery concerning an automaton his father tried to fix. After discovering the automation among the ruins of the museum fire, Hugo lugs it home and tries to fix it, hoping to discover the message his father left him through a mechanization which allows it to write. When he realizes that a key dangling from Isabelle’s neck might actually be the key that will turn on the automaton, he steals it. What he and Isabelle discover after they turn on the automaton uncovers another mystery about Papa Georges. It turns out that he is actually Georges Méliès, the film director responsible for the film A Trip to the Moon, one of cinema’s earliest sci-fi/adventure movies.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
is a novel about the wonder and beauty of film, so it’s hard to see why Scorsese wouldn’t have been attracted to such a project. Interspersed throughout the novel are the author’s own pencil hand drawings, which lend it a sense of cinematic splendor. Too bad the writing itself couldn’t have matched the illustrations. Selznick has a rather flat and unengaging writing style that could have used more of the same magical renderings of his illustrations. I never got a sense of the magic and mystery in Hugo’s story from the writing itself, which is disappointing since the story is interesting. 

No doubt, when Hugo will be released later this year, Scorsese will bring some of his own cinematic magic to a children’s tale about the magic of film. The film stars Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley as Méliès, and Sacha Cohen Baron.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: Review

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books. 2011. ISBN: 978-1-56512-990-0

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” So begins Tayari Jones’ latest novel Silver Sparrow, which tells the story of Witherspoon’s two daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, and the complicated and messy dilemma James traps them in. This is a novel of love, secrecy, complicity, and deception, one in which the questions Jones raises are neither easily resolved nor answered.

The novel is told through two perspectives: Dana Yarboro, the daughter of James’ second wife and mistress, the one who is aware that she is a secret and must act accordingly; and Chaurisse Witherspoon, James’ daughter from his first wife, whose life of normality is complicated by the fact that she is unaware of her father’s secret life. The girls are bonded by blood, but that is cold comfort to either Dana or Chaurisse, who are both forced to determine their place in their father's life once the truth is revealed.

The fact that one sister is aware of her father’s deception, while the other does not creates a tension that makes the novel pop within each page. Dana, knowing she is a “secret” yearns for something or someone to legitimize her. She refers to her father by his first name and is constantly second-guessing his love for her. When her father refuses to send her to a Science Academy that Chaurisse will be attending (he warns Gwen and Dana to stay away from his "family"), Dana longs only that James will hug her and make it "better."

Looking up at him, I wanted a hug. That was the full extent of my ambition. I knew he wouldn't say that I could go ahead and go to the Saturday Academy, even if I promised not to bother Chaurisse. But I hoped he would hug me and tell me that he was sorry that I had to get second pick for everything and that he was sorry that my mother couldn't wear a fox-fur coat and that I couldn't tell anybody my daddy's real name. But he didn't say anythign and his neck wasn't twitching so I knew that he wasn't stuck. He just didn't have any sorrys to say.

Chaurisse has the “legitimacy” that Dana yearns for---a father who teaches her how to drive and involves her in the planning of a surprise party for her mother---but she is still lonely for a friend. Unlike Dana, a “silver girl” whose beauty she inherited from her mother, Chaurisse is overweight, is always on diets along with her mother, and works in her mother’s beauty shop. She is not one of the “silver girls,” but when Dana enters her life, she develops an intense interest in her that ratchets up the tension and tears apart her otherwise ordinary life. The two girls become friends, even wearing the same tube top when they go to a party in the boondocks outside of Atlanta. Chaurisse hopes to become of those "silver girls." "Silver girls liked to be friends with each other, keeping all their shine, which, in my opinion, was little bit selfish. Silverness was catching, but it could only be shared girl to girl, and this could only happen if both parties tried really hard." Dana's interest in Chaurisse however is complicated by the fact that she knows they are sisters and Chaurisse does not. And when the truth is revealed, what emerges is not greater understanding but more pain and anger at the deception and a territorial possession over who is more legitimate. "It wasn't like daughters are supposed to expect some sort of exclusive relationship from their fathers, but what he had with Dana was an infidelity."

Jones sets up the story that allows the reader to become both spectator and accomplice after the fact. The Dana we witness through Chaurisse’s perspective becomes different and we are forced to wonder whether the voice we had spent engaging in during the first half of the novel was real. Where Dana describes herself as cautiously curious of her father’s other life, she becomes brazen in Chaurisse’s perspective, showing up at the beauty shop where Chaurisse and her mother work, poking around in their kitchen, and stepping into her life even though she knows it will undermine her parents’ duplicity. The novel questions reality in the sense that we can never truly know what is real or whether what we know is in actuality the truth. Who is James? Is it possible to be two different people under two different circumstances? Who are Gwen and Laverne? The rift that James creates causes a schism in the lives of the people he loves, and when Dana purposefully breaks through that schism she creates more damage than either family is able to fully surmount.

Jones asks these questions within a framework of fascinating characters and situations that make the novel an engaging and absorbing read. She has a sharp and musical writing style that soars when she lets loose a sentence that stays with you like a lovely refrain. “He was so long and lanky he moved like something engineered to bend with the breeze.” Jones’ observations on the politics of wives and daughters, men and women, black and white defies stereotypes. After Chaurisse and Laverne learn of James’ deception, Laverne retreats into a steep depression, instead of, as Chaurisse wishes, responding in rage as a black woman might. “My mother’s crying sadness reminded me of white women in movies, the kind who are liable to faint if something happens that they can’t handle.” The fact that Laverne or any of the other characters refuse to succumb to the usual stereotypes makes the novel one with its surprises. The player who is responsible for all this mess is a short man with thick glasses and a stutter. How he manages to win Gwen (he impregnated Laverne at fourteen and married her in a shotgun wedding) is never fully explained, but nor does it need be. Jones fully invests you in her characters and their twisted and complicated machinations that you are immediately swept into their world. Silver Sparrow is a masterful novel about the price people pay when they deceive and the destruction it causes to the innocent lives who are caught in its web. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz: A Review

What You See in the DarkWhat You See in the Dark, the debut novel by Manuel Muñoz (Faith Healer of Olive Street), takes an unlikely subject, the making of an iconic Hollywood film classic, and wraps it around a story of murder, love, and obsession.

It's 1959, Bakersfield, California. A murder has taken place. A young woman, Teresa, is brutally beaten in the stairway outside her apartment. The perpetrator is her boyfriend, Dan. These particulars set the story in motion. While What You See in the Dark takes its cues from film noir, it is much more than that. It is a mediation on death. It is also about film, and the hold it has on our collective imagination to portray on the silver screen our deepest desires and fears.

What You See in the Dark is told through four voices: Teresa, a shoe sales clerk with ambitions of becoming a singer; Arlene Watson, Dan's mother, who is also a waitress and motel-owner biding her time in Bakersfield following her husband's abandonment; the Actress who comes to Bakersfield to shoot principal photography on the movie that will become Psycho, a movie that will not only launch itself into the nightmares of countless film goers, but also change everything we know about film; and one of Theresa's co-workers at the shoe store, who tries to bring some perspective into her senseless death.

The women have few interactions, if at all, but they are nonetheless affected by one another and the paths each take. Teresa Garza is a young, restless Mexican woman who begins a relationship with a migrant worker who teaches her to play guitar. Yet it is Dan Watson, one of Bakersfield's most desirable young men, who captures her heart. They begin a doomed relationship, both on the stage where he asks her to perform with him and in bed. After the murder, Dan runs away and the migrant worker is deported, but the affect that all three will have on Bakersfield stains the town, even long after the people who live there move on.

Arlene bears the burden of what her son has done. But she has carried a lot of bad memories through her life. She isn't thrilled about her son's relationship with Teresa or his crime, but she is as resigned to it as she is resigned to the fact that she is a waitress and the owner of a motel doomed by the construction of a new highway that will lead away what little customers she has left. She is mystified by the younger waitresses at the diner who are fascinated by the movie stars in Look and Life magazines, whose lives of glamor and excitement are only a stone's throw away in Los Angeles. But Arlene is as swept up by such excitement when the Actress arrives with her driver. Arlene recognizes her, but the Actress denies who she is, a fact which later upsets Arlene when the Actress and the Director show up at her motel. The exterior of that motel will become famously enshrined in their film.

While Teresa dreams of a better life and Arlene is resigned to the one she has, the Actress has the life that is the stuff of fantasy, and yet she is unsettled with insecurity and ambivalence. The Hollywood she has grown used to will soon fall by the wayside, a victim to the European style of auteur filmmaking that will push envelopes and liberate film from its rigid, censorious past. She is a part of that past, and knows that if her career is to survive she will have to change with the times. The Actress is like a lot of Americans during the 1960s, seeing the tides of change sweeping at its shores and aware that if she does not ride along its waves she will drown in the undertow.

Muñoz's story is both quiet and unsettling in the way it reveals how change comes to certain areas of the country---not like a flood but more like a trickle. It is the building of a new highway, creating opportunities even as it destroys others. It is how a movie whose graphic depiction of nudity and violence for its time becomes an unlikely trendsetter. It is the murder of a girl whose death signals the ending of one era and the start of another. Teresa's murder is never depicted. As the story moves forward, this absence intensifies the expectation. This is not a failing, but rather an indication of Muñoz's mastery of manipulation (not unlike the master of manipulation himself, Alfred Hitchcock). He allows the reader's imagination to take over, just as Hitchcock allows his audience's imagination to run wild when the second murder occurs in his lesser known film, Frenzy (Muñoz mentions this scene as a reference point in his novel). Muñoz makes the point, as Hitchcock might, that now that the curtains have been thrown back, and we are able to see death graphically on screen or on the pages, it is time to pull them back firmly in place. There is a time and place, but the imagination will ultimately hold sway, the way the eye will actually perceive the knife cutting flesh, even when we know it is all an illusion.

Muñoz ably juggles his numerous themes in an understated way. He creates a mood and tone that beautifully captures small town life in southern California. He also does a superb job of capturing the unique experience of watching a film, whether it is being shot or shown on a screen. This is his take on Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene in Psycho:

A silhouette in women's clothes, and a big butcher knife. Any knife will do in real life---a pocket blade in a street corner mugging, a sharpened screwdriver in a jail cell. But this was the movies and it had to be a butcher knife.

The knife came at her like a tiger's paw reaching through a cage, not able to strike, but the illusion was the same.

The silhouette was (or wasn't) a Las Vegas breast.

From overhead, it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.

More screaming.
Keep your face in the water. It will force you to shut your eyes.

We go to the movies because movies are meant to be safe. They allow us to experience our deepest fantasies without ridicule; to explore our fears without harm; to express our thoughts without censor. Psycho opened a way for filmmakers to push the envelope and make cinema more daring. Yet, as Muñoz's novel reveals, the way toward those changes often involves a bit of violence. Tightly written and sharply observed, What You See in the Dark is an auspicious debut of a very talented writer.