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Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

December 23, 2018

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Bob Valdez is the part-time town constable of a small western town in Arizona and rides shotgun (where the phrase came from) for the stagecoach company. He’s recruited by a Mr. Tanner, the wealthiest man in the area, to help deal with an Army deserter who’s holed up in a shack with a gun. He does, and ends up shooting the man down. But it turns out Valdez has been set up—this man was innocent. When Valdez demands payment to be made to the victim’s wife, he is beaten by Tanner’s men, tied to a cross and left in the desert for dead.

Leonard is known for his crime fiction like Get Shorty, but he got his start in the 1950s writing pulp westerns. This 1970 western revenge story bridges the two. As a Western, it owes more to the ultra-violent Sam Peckinpah westerns than the earlier John Ford movies. But it has the sharp, staccato sentences, the pithy dialogue, the sparse plot and morally ambiguous characters of crime noir. Bob Valdez has much in common with the stars of gritty crime dramas of the 70s, and you could read this novel as part of the pivot of the iconic American male hero from cowboy to detective. Leonard is making that transition as a writer like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood did as actors.

Valdez is Coming is an entertaining novel, though it sometimes reads as a parody of the hard-boiled genre. Or, to be fair, just Leonard being Leonard. But other than being the bridge from Western to detective fiction, the book also shows a pivot on race in Westerns. The man Valdez kills in the opening is a black man, and his wife a Native American. These are the two victims, and Valdez, our hero, is Mexican (he goes by “Bob” Valdez when he wears a starched collar, but “Roberto” when he “makes war.”). We’ve moved beyond the cowboys protecting innocent white settlers from the natives. Valdez is Coming may be a Western, but it reflects the social awakening of the 60s.

I read this book because it was mentioned in George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown. Worth the read, especially if you’re interested in the evolution of Elmore Leonard’s career.

The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

December 22, 2018

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Toward the end of this year, I started re-watching The Wire. I’d heard an interview with the author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire and was reminded of what an amazing show it is. It’s amazing not just because of David Simon, but because of some of the other top writers on the show—novelists like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos.

Pelecanos writes smart, gritty crime, most of it based in Washington, D.C. I read The Turnaround back in 2012 and thought it felt more like a TV show than a novel. This isn’t a criticism—more to say it was lean and tight, with little extraneous plot. This is fairly common for crime novels. Lehane’s The Drop, David Benioff’s The 25th Hour, Richard Price’s The Whites, pretty much all of Elmore Leonard’s works are crisp and to the point, which is why they’re easily and often adapted into films.

The Man Who Came Uptown fits in this tradition. The protagonist, Michael Hudson, is released from prison after the man he robbed, a drug dealer, decides not to testify. Once out, he’s recruited by a D.C.-based private investigator named Phil Ornazian. Ornazian helped “persuade” the drug dealer not to testify against Hudson, and now he figures Hudson owes him one. Which he’d like to cash in on by having Hudson help him in his side game—robbing drug dealers and pimps.

It’s a morally ambiguous world and like most good crime fiction, there’s at least a little bad in everyone. But this novel has a side game going as well—it’s partly about great books. Hudson, while in prison, was turned onto literature by the prison’s librarian. He found that reading fiction teleported him out of his cell, so he devoured it. Good stuff, like Steinbeck, Tim O’Brien, Elmore Leonard. Because of this, I read Leonard’s Valdez is Coming and pulled Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling off my shelf. I like books about books. Especially hidden in a really good crime novel.

Life Itself by Roger Ebert

December 21, 2018

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Roger Ebert was an Illinois boy through and through. He grew up in Urbana, attended the University of Illinois and gained fame as a film critic in Chicago. Much of the appeal of this book, for me, was the nostalgia. I spent four years at the University of Illinois, four more in Chicago. Much of my time in Urbana-Champaign was spent in film classes, so Ebert’s shadow loomed large. I used a thick volume of his film reviews as a frequent reference, and he would be spotted on campus at least annually at the film festival he founded.

So when he talks about Lincoln Hall and Gregory Hall, I know the look and smell of those places, and the feel of the seats of the film theater in the basement of the main library. I saw Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which Ebert wrote with Russ Meyer, at the Thunderbird Theater in Urbana. It’s a schlocky, campy b-movie that partly mimicked, partly mocked the exploitation films of the 60s. I remember wondering how a nerdy, serious film critic like Ebert could be responsible for such a trashy, insane (but fun) film. It seemed unlike him.

But there was a sort of rebel—a Midwestern rebel—under that doughy Midwestern exterior. Ebert was a stringent supporter of civil rights, social justice and free expression. He loved artists who pushed the boundaries.

This memoir covers his upbringing, his career as a reporter and film critic and occasional screenwriter, his life among celebrities, his lifelong love of film and quite a few other aspects of his life. He writes with the panache of an old journalist. He likes to tell stories and paint pictures, describe the bitter cold of Chicago streets and the changing seasons, the taste of the food and beer.

But Ebert is also funny, particularly at his own expense. He remembers, shortly after moving to Chicago and getting hired at the Chicago Sun-Times, commenting on a hockey game broadcast where the teams were scoring like crazy. One of the elder reporters gave him a funny look. “Where you from, kid?” Urbana. “You ever seen a hockey game?” No. “That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with cancer. It required the removal of his thyroid and salivary glands, later the removal of his jaw. He lost the ability to eat and speak. He talks about not looking in the mirror for a long time after the surgery, then the despair after several more surgeries failed to improve his appearance or return his speech.

He writes about how Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree helped revive his love of literature in those dark days after his surgeries. How he found solace in the main character, a lowlife alcoholic. Ebert didn’t want to be cheered up; Suttree was someone he could commiserate with, an acknowledgement of the ugliness of life. He found it comforting.

But he eventually grew to accept his new face. With his typical self-deprecating humor, he compares his looks to the phantom of the opera, then digresses about which film version he means, finally just saying he looks “on a timeline, 72% of the way between the way I used to look and that thing that jumps out of that guy’s intestines in Alien.”

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Ebert died in 2013, and the entire film universe celebrated his life. He doesn’t consider his own importance in this memoir, but it’s hard to understate it. He was the most famous film critic of all time.

I really enjoyed this book. Partly because of the writing, but more because there were so many things that felt familiar—places, films, books. And Ebert’s fortitude as he reinvented his career after his surgeries is inspiring. He comes to grips with his appearance and inability to speak, accepts that his life as a minor television star is over, and returns to his roots as a writer, this time a prolific blogger.

It seems only fitting to rate this book with the simple gesture Ebert made famous: thumbs up.

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Robin by David Itzkoff

December 18, 2018

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I never really took to the comedy style of Robin Williams. It always felt too much like a shtick to me, his rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness, stream-of-characters. He had a brilliant comic mind, but his stage act felt like something from another time and place, an anachronism, like an evolution of vaudeville.

After reading this touching, heart-warming and heart-wrenching biography, I listened to some of Robin’s live albums. And still, I could appreciate the routines, but didn’t find the laugh-until-it-hurts connection that millions of fans loved him for.

I instead loved the Robin Williams that appeared in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. The warm, friendly source of light that shone on others. In his best moments, this seemed to be what Robin was like in real life. When he wasn’t drugged up, wasn’t running a million miles a minute. A warm, caring, generous soul who wanted to be loved by others and often was, who brought light to the lives of others in small moments.

A friend of mine tells a story of getting a flat while riding his bike through San Francisco near the Presidio. As he was working to fix it, a gate opened and out came Robin Williams. He offered to help, this multi-millionaire megastar. Robin Williams, an avid cycler himself, helped my friend get a new tube on his bike. That’s the Robin Williams I think of.

This book is full of moments like that. Small moments of human connection and kindness. It also has the struggles—and Robin had many. Drugs, alcohol, depression, relationship issues. Like many comedians, his stage routine—so big, so over-the-top—was a counterbalance, a compensation for the other things he lacked, or felt he lacked, in his life. He brought laughs to so many people, but often lived in the dark loneliness of show business.

Itzkoff does a remarkable job of holding these contradictions in balance and telling a story that feels bigger than one man’s life can possibly be. I kept getting to parts where Robin would do another now-classic movie—or even a flop—and think, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” I have a particular fondness for his turn as Garp, but there was also Awakenings, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin. I liked the courage of One Hour Photo. Of course, Good Morning, Vietnam. And Mork before all of them.

The thing about someone like Robin Williams is that he achieved the classic American dream. He had the fame and fortune and success. His Wikipedia page notes that he has been called the funniest person of all time. That’s quite the superlative. But as this biography shows, that didn’t mean it all worked. It was a struggle for Robin, and he struggled nobly. He wrestled with demons most of his life. To see that struggle, it elevates him so much in my mind. Beyond a showbiz entertainer to a real joy-bringer. Not just a comedian of the highest order, but a person of the highest order, warts and all.

His is an uncomfortable story because you want it to be simpler. An uplifting story or a tragic one, about a good man or a jerk. But it’s so complicated. It doesn’t land easily, and you can sense it in those who were closest to him. It doesn’t sit right with any of them, and they all talk about the contradictions, the radiant genius, but if only… It makes you wonder if that’s the price one pays for that kind of genius.

Robin is a great portrait of a great man. I say that as someone who before would have shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yeah, I liked Good Will Hunting.” Robin Williams is an American saint. Not for his talents, but for his heart and his generosity. He could make thousands hurt with laughter or help fix a bike tire for a stranger.

I think his son, Cody, says it up well:

I always wish he had belonged to our family more than he did to the world. But that’s a selfish notion, I realize. Folks like him don’t just grow on trees. It was only fair for us to share. Everybody deserves to laugh so hard it hurts. And everybody deserves his fairy tales.

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

December 17, 2018

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Last year, my family and I moved into a house in a grove of redwoods near Santa Cruz. These magnificent hundred-foot giants surrounded the house on all sides, reminding us every time we looked out the window or stepped onto the deck just how small and young we are. But it is also an area that was heavily logged in the early part of the 20th Century, and around the house are a few tree trunks that are nearly twelve feet in diameter—trunks we estimated to be almost 2000 years old. Old growth redwoods until they were cut down, possibly to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The trunks still stand, more than a century later, as scars of human industry.

 

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Around 1900, a fungus was accidentally imported from Asia that caused a blight of the American chestnut. It took nearly 50 years, but by mid-century, the chestnut had been wiped out as a mature forest tree. At the beginning of The Overstory, we meet the Hoel family, who have a rare mature chestnut near their Midwestern family farmhouse. Nicholas Hoel has taken up the family art project of once a month photographing the house from a nearby hill. In doing so, the Hoels have created a kind of intergenerational time-lapse flipbook, with that lone chestnut marking the passage of time.

Nicholas is just one of nine main characters whose lives interlock in The Overstory. Another, a researcher named Patricia Westerford, has published a paper claiming that trees share energy through their roots and communicate via the chemicals they release (when I read this, I recognized it from a book a friend had given me as a gift: Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees). Another character is a Stanford computer programmer who, inspired by a tree on campus, creates a massively successful gaming platform. Another, a Viet Nam vet, takes up with a kind of eco-terrorist group inspired by Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (I was inspired to read that book because of this one).

It’s a long and complex cast in a book that, in reality, is about trees. The message isn’t subtle—we are destroying our world. Cutting down the old growth forests, polluting our air and our oceans. Each character’s narrative arc bends toward environmentalism, eventually intertwining. They are interesting characters, but they are at the service of the trees.

 

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This isn’t a hopeful novel. Even in the simulated world of the video game platform, humans run amok and overconsume. The only hopeful note is that nature will heal, long after we are gone—a notion that reminded of a book I read in 2007, The World Without Us. Which was a cathartic book, even if the implication was not good for humankind.

This is the thing with Powers—I find that his writing inspires me to make connections and dig deeper into topics. When I read his Orfeo in 2014, it was music. With The Overstory, I’ve been thinking a lot about trees, about our time on the planet and about our lasting impact. The occasional criticism of Powers is that his themes are too intellectual, his stories not imbued with enough humanity, I don’t mind so much. Here, it’s as if he’s heeding the advice of one of his characters: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” If I’m honest, it feels like this is either a story slightly over-burdened by an argument, or an argument dressed up as a story. Still, it’s masterfully written. It’s smart. It’s ambitious. It’s about trees. That’s a pretty good formula in my mind.

 

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

December 17, 2018

I read this book and wrote this review in 2007, before this blog. While writing the review for The Overstory by Richard Powers, I remembered this book and how much I liked it.

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What would happen if people disappeared? If we were just gone in an instant. What would happen to what we left behind, and how would nature cope with our absence? It’s a hypothetical question, obviously, but it’s the fascinating premise of this “thought experiment.”

The majority of the book is a tale of man-made objects falling apart, of nature healing and reclaiming the world, and of things returning to their natural state. Weisman examines a wide array of topics. He starts with our suburban homes, walking us through the process of them coming apart as windows crack and break and the roof begins to leak, allowing the elements to slowly break down the walls, the support structures, and eventually collapse the home, leaving little but the chimney a century later. This section, and much of the rest of the book, is an interesting look at how things are put together as much as how they come apart.

The next section deals with cities. Weisman examines New York in particular, walking us through the failing of the unmanned pumps that keep the subways and roadways dry. It doesn’t take long for the roads to become rivers and much of NYC to return to its natural, marshy state. With us gone, new animals migrate onto the island across the bridges (before they collapse) and animals that depend on us for survival—cockroaches, rats, house pets—die off. Eventually, without maintenance, the foundations corrode and the great sky-scrapers come down.

Weisman takes us around the world, examining the ancient forest preserves of Eastern Europe to see what the flora was like before, and eventually after us. He uses the Eastern African Rift Valley to explain the fauna of an untouched ecosystem. And he takes an interesting look at the natural history of the Americas, where we once had more animals weighing over a ton than Africa does today.

Much of the book is concerned with our more damaging blights on nature. What will happen to our oil fields? Our nuclear power plants? Our nuclear waste? To the incredible amount of plastic bottles, rubber tires, and other non-biodegradable trash that we’ve put into the ecosystem?

Although some readers on Amazon have criticized this book for being yet another anti-human, pro-environment rant, it’s far from that. Certainly there is an overarching environmental message, but by removing humans from the equation, Weisman eliminates the human vs. environment debate altogether. We aren’t faced with tough sacrifices since we’re not around. To me, it’s more a book of very interesting trivia than preachy environmentalism. Still, people who refuse to believe that we owe anything to the earth or have a responsibility of stewardship may be offended by Weisman’s suggestion that only an intentional reduction in our global birthrate and a more environmentally friendly approach to production and consumption can save us from our collision course with the inevitable. Our current lifestyle is simply not sustainable. But the main point of this book is less to remind us of that and more to carry the hopeful message that the earth is a living system, and in time it will recover from whatever abuse we dish out, if given the chance.

 

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

December 16, 2018

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In 2016, my wife and I quit our jobs in the Bay Area and moved to Austin. A year later, a job pulled us back to the Bay Area, only to realize that life’s easier in Austin. So we moved back again. As I was driving across the country with the dog for the third time in a little more than two years, I listened to this love letter to the land of big, the land of contradictions, the land of Texas.

The first time I’d driven from California, I was stopped by the border patrol and my car was searched. The border patrol agent warned me that their drug dog smelled something, and if I had pot in my car—even a little—I should just give it up and not make them unpack everything. “Texas isn’t like California,” he said. The eight hours that followed, of barreling across the barren but beautiful west Texas, rolling through tiny towns that seemed right out of The Last Picture Show, marveling at the scale of the sky and the length of the horizon made me agree with him. Yes, I was headed toward a little blue dot in the center of that big red state, where the music, art, politics and tech bubble all felt like a mini-California, but Austin was only a small part of the picture.

When I tell people I moved here from California, I often get an exasperated sigh. There is an independence here that at times can border on protectionism. Even people who moved here as recently as a few years ago will tell you that it’s being ruined by people like me moving in, particularly from California. This, too, may be specific to Austin, where the traffic feels especially Californian these days, but Wright draws the connection as well, placing Texas and California as the two dominant forces in the future of the U.S., like giants engaged in a tug-of-war. But other than their politics, Texas and California are similar in many ways: large enough in land and economies to be formidable countries unto themselves, each with unique cultures and rituals, diverse populations and many complicated challenges and opportunities in the decades to come. Each is riddled with contradictions.

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A welcoming bumper sticker I saw a few weeks ago.

Here, Wright wades through those contradictions in Texas, celebrating what deserves to be celebrated, calling out the more problematic aspects of the state, and generally puzzling through the rest. In it, he touches on history, geography, politics, culture and cultures, natural resources and natural beauty, the economics and industry. Oil, guns, trucks, country music, wide open spaces, barbecue, beer, cattle, cowboys, football, religion, politics, snakes, hurricanes, small towns in decline and big cities ascending. It is all a part of the story.

Wright points out that many of the stereotypes of Texans are true, but most are more complicated. For example, everyone knows that Texans tend to have an individualistic spirit. It’s a common belief that Texas is the most likely state to secede from the Union. And while it’s true that one in four Texans would like to see their state make its own way, this stat holds nationwide, regardless of which state is being surveyed. Nonetheless, “Texas is at once the most super-American of states, and the most indigestible.” Texans serve their country in the armed forces and wave the American flag proudly, but also have a distaste and distrust for the federal government. Texas is the big oil state, but it’s also the largest producer of wind energy in the country.

Texas is the heart of what Wright calls AM politics—the blustery, loud-mouthed, conspiracy-theory-believin’ political quacks like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh, who helped give rise to the nihilistic Tea-Partyin’ wing of the GOP. But it also holds some old notions about what politics can be, where politicians from across the aisle not only work together but sometimes genuinely like each other. “Like many Texans, I harbor a fondness for the Bush family that has nothing to do with their politics. Numberless people in the state can testify to their kindness and decency.”

This is a smart book. It is a ramble. It feels like some of my trips across the state, when I’d get bored of the highway, pull off and take one of the roads that went in the general direction I wanted to go. It takes a little longer, but it’s worth it. There’s a lot to see. You can feel the stories. And if you’re on a road, eventually you’re going to get somewhere. Wright is a great storyteller. Must be the Texan in him.