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Category: David Ulin

On Sunday: Luis J. Rodriguez's memory bank, and Dwight Eisenhower too

Luis J. Rodriguez talks about the process of memoir in the Los Angeles Times Arts & Books section
Luis J. Rodriguez has a vast and interesting resume: former gang-banger, literary icon of Chicano letters and now, as Times staff writer Reed Johnson notes in his interview with him, "distinguished-looking 57-year-old grandfather with a silvery goatee and a companionable paunch." But that's not all he has: He has memories, and they are the stuff of two books -- cautionary tales to a new generation of youths. Though his books often name names, he heaps the toughest criticism on himself for the life he lived before he knew a better life. His latest memoir, "It Calls You Back," was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the autobiography category. His story leads our coverage in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

At the other end of the spectrum is "Eisenhower In War and Peace," the massive biography of the key World War II general and two-term president by Jean Edward Smith. His book, writes reviewer Wendy Smith (no relation), is critical of Eisenhower as a war strategist but is also a "measured but fundamentally admiring account" of his long years of public service. In the end, our reviewer writes, "Eisenhower proved himself to be precisely the kind of leader America wanted and needed at the time."

Time is at the essence of Susan Carpenter's review of the hot new YA talent Lissa Price and her novel "Starters. Another foray into a dystopian world, this telling, by debut author Price, is about a genocide that kills everyone between the ages of 20 and 60, leaving only the very young and the very old. And the very old with means are able to rent the bodies of nubile teens and control them through a neurochip. You can imagine the consequences (or not). Carpenter calls this "dystopian sci-fi at its best."

"At its most challenging" may be the best words to describe the new novel by Hari Kunzru, "Gods Without Men," which our book critic David Ulin reviews this week. In this work involving several overlapping stories taking place across decades and centuries, the desert becomes a magnet for many hoping to piece together a fallen world. And the central dilemma of each is understanding what we can and cannot know.

More after the jump ...

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This Sunday: Mark Salzman, Geoff Dyer, Stephen Fry and more


Writer's block: It is the bane of anyone who makes a living putting words together. There you are, poised in front of a computer, and nothing comes and nothing comes and nothing comes. Mark Salzman felt that in the spring of 2009 when he was overdue to deliver a novel to his publisher. The project wasn’t going well: Then, with the sudden death of his sister, full-fledged panic set in. How he got through this ordeal and returned to work is the focus of David L. Ulin’s conversation with Salzman, who has published an e-book memoir on the subject.  Ulin's is the lead piece in our Sunday Arts & Books section.

Also Sunday is Geoff Dyer’s latest work, “Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room," reviewed by Chris Barton. In "Zona," Dyer attempts to summarize Andrei Tarkavsky’s 1979 film “Stalker” from its opening sequence to the end. The Russian art film is probably little known to American audiences and Barton writes “that undertaking an expansive, linear summation of a Russian art film, scene by scene by scene, flirts with madness.” But, Barton adds, “testifying to the greatness of an underappreciated work of art is the core purpose of criticism, and Dyer has delivered a loving example that is executed with as much care and craft as he finds in his subject.”

British humorist Stephen Fry, writes Times Theater Critic Charles McNulty, “would like you to know that he picks his nose and pees in the shower. He also can’t stand the sight of his naked body.” And that’s just for starters. His self-deprecating wit and humor enliven his new memoir of his school days and beyond when his pals were Hugh Laurie (“House”), Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane, among others. His book is "The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography."

Carolyn Kellogg calls Ellen Ullman’s novel “By Blood” “a literary inquiry into identity and legacy" that is "a gripping mystery — remarkable, considering that little more happens than a man eavesdrops on  a woman’s therapy sessions.”  Kellogg notes that “Ullman is a careful stylist” and that "the storytelling here is compelling and propulsive.”

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This Sunday: Van Vechten's Renaissance, Watergate, Szymborska and more

Carl-van-vechtenHe was a critic, a novelist, a photographer and he counted among his confidants some of the most accomplished black literary figures of his day including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson. But Carl Van Vechten’s most notable role may have been the one he played as patron to the Harlem Renaissance. “Van Vechten,” writes Lynell George in her review of “Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance/A Portrait of Black & White” by Emily Bernard, “dedicated his life’s work to, as Hughes once put it, ‘all things Negro’ -- literature, theater, ragtime, jazz and blues -- nurturing art and alliances, but not without acrimony.” Bernard explores the question of whether his presence in this cultural movement was a gift or a curse: “[W]as he an insider or an intruder?” George’s review of this fascinating figure leads our Sunday book coverage.

Scott Martelle reviews Thomas Mallon’s new novel “Watergate,” (yes, that Watergate), and he frames the discussion by noting that to write history “the story needs only to be true” but to write a novel, “the story must be plausible -- an often more difficult thing to accomplish.” While many of us were alive and witnessed the broad outlines of the third-rate burglary that brought down a U.S. president, the novelist’s task here is to make it plausible. Does it work as fiction? 

The notion of truth and fiction are at the heart of David Ulin’s fascinating critic’s notebook on “The Lifespan of a Fact,” John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book -- a discussion between writer and fact-checker  -- on the issue of invention in the world of literary nonfiction. Central to the discussion is an essay that D’Agata wrote about the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, who jumped from the tower observation deck of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere hotel in 2002. The piece was commissioned by Harper’s, then rejected and picked up by the Believer after details in the piece could not be verified. And that’s the jumping-off point for the discussion.

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This Sunday: The smartest person in the room and 'Cuckoo's Nest'

Margaret Fuller

In her review of John Matteson's “The Lives of Margaret Fuller,” Laura Skandera Trombley poses an interesting question: “What must it have been like always to be the smartest person in the room without any of the privileges accorded to men?”

That's what Fuller continually had to contend with in a circle that included Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne and Horace Greeley. The newspaper editor and reformer Greeley hired her to become the New York Tribune’s first literary editor and then the paper’s first foreign correspondent. Emerson asked her to serve as editor of his transcendentalist journal the Dial. Less charitably, Poe considered her a “busybody” and an intellectual anomaly of her sex. Skandera Trombley, an eminent Twain scholar and president of Pitzer College, offers a long-overdue look at one of the more interesting intellectual figures of 19th century America.

It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

was first published.  And now it's back again in an anniversary, hard-cover edition with the original jacket art. Carolyn Kellogg knew the story of the book and the popularity of the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Randall Patrick McMurphy. But until now she hadn't read the book and wondered if it deserved all the hype it has received. You can find her verdict in this Sunday's coverage.

Times book critic David Ulin reviews Nathan Englander’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” noting that much of this work involves the “tension between the religious and the secular, between the American setting of much of this work and the more elusive textures of Jewish life.”  Englander shows his range and skill, tilting “toward the magical realist or, more precisely, toward the tradition of Jewish fable writing as embodied by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem.”

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This Sunday: Pico Iyer's Greene agenda and more


Pico Iyer and I share something in common and it isn’t writing chops. We share a fascination with Graham Greene.

GetAttachment-2.aspxYears ago, I collected as many of the nice Penguin paperback editions of Greene’s work that I could find.  I loved “The Quiet American,” "The End of the Affair" and “The Third Man” and many others. When I first traveled in Europe, I would stumble into English-language bookstores and my barometer on the quality of their selection was always based on their section of Greene's work. But I’m no expert on Greene and Iyer is -- as witnessed by his latest book “The Man Within My Head.” Our reviewer, Richard Rayner, is fascinated by both Greene and Iyer. In his lively review he notes that “The Man Within My Head” is “literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer’s readers have come to expect.” Rayner’s piece is as much a meditation on Greene as it is on Iyer’s book and it leads our coverage this Sunday.

Book critic David Ulin found a gem in “The Fat Years,’ the first novel by Chinese writer Chan Koonchung to be translated into English. (Michael S. Duke does the honors.) The novel takes place in 2013 after the next great global economic meltdown and China is left standing as the pillar of economic and social stability. The catch here, however, is that between the economic meltdown and China’s emergence as the bastion of prosperity, it has lost a month. Ulin writes that the book “is a cunning caricature of modern China with its friction between communism and consumerism.”

Scott Martelle reviews “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty” by John M. Barry. Martelle writes that Williams “for those who don’t remember their colonial history, founded the European settlement that gave rise to Providence, R.I., in pursuit of the still-gestating idea that people should be able to worship God in individual freedom not as a dictum of government." It was, author Barry writes, “the first government in the world which broke church and state apart.” But Williams faced some long odds in selling his message of liberty and paid dearly for his concept. 

Long odds are also in evidence in Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel “The Odds,” which Carolyn Kellogg reviews. A marriage has hit the rocks, so the happy (not) couple head to Niagara Falls, where they spent their honeymoon, carrying with them a history of “insolvency, indecision and stupidity,” as well as a “desperate gambling plan” that, if successful, “will make everything right.”  Kellogg notes that “all of this could make for rather grim melodrama, but not in O’Nan’s hands.”

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Books this week: On Dear Leader and a capricious God

  Adam Johnson near the Pohyon Temple in North Korea.

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University and he describes himself as “probably the most un-Korean person in the world.” But that wasn’t the largest obstacle to Johnson in writing “The Orphan Master’s Son,” his new novel on that most closed of societies, North Korea, and the cult of personality around its now late -- but fully-alive in the book -- leader Kim Jong Il. Times staff writer Reed Johnson, no relation to the author, profiles Adam Johnson and his book, which is getting  lot  of attention, in a piece that starts on Sunday’s Arts & Books cover. He writes: “Possibly Johnson’s greatest challenge was trying to infiltrate the inner lives of characters in a country where self-censorship and blending in with the anonymous throng are essential for survival.” Adam Johnson, who will be at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday night, visited North Korea in 2007 to gain insight after spending years researching his novel, working from a handful of books by escaped dissidents. He also cited Times staff writer Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy:   Ordinary Lives in North Korea" as being particularly helpful “because she was always focused on the human dimension.”

Shalom Auslander also writes about the human dimension, but as David L. Ulin, our book critic, notes in a review of  his new novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” Auslander’s  great subject is “God’s capriciousness,” which can be challenging to frame.  Ulin notes that what Auslander brings to the task is "willfully outrageous, [he’s] a black humorist with an Old Testament moralist’s heart." This is Auslander’s first novel after the 2005 short story collection “Beware of God,” and his 2007 memoir “Foreskin’s Lament.”

As I was reading Scott Martelle’s review of “The Partnership:  Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb," I was lamenting the lost value of bipartisanship in dealing with some of the nation’s difficult issues. The book, by former New York Times staffer Philip Taubman, records the efforts of four officials — Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry — and Sidney Drell, a Stanford physicist and nuclear expert, to curb nuclear weapons around the world. Martelle calls it a “complex book about complex subjects” but note that “Taubman does a clean job of reducing the elements to layman’s terms.”  

In her review of “The Odditorium,” a collection of stories by Melissa Pritchard,  Carolyn Kellogg notes that the “literary landscape is jammed with short stories.” They are a “glut” on the market, Kellogg writes, but she also notes that few of the authors working that parcel of the literary landscape “rise above to be seen as truly excellent.” She notes that “at her best,  Melissa Pritchard belongs in that number.”

Kenneth Turan takes a little break from the film critic’s beat to reflect on P.D. James' latest, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” which couples the formidable talents of the 91-year-old James with the Jane Austen set for murder and mayhem at the ancestral estate of Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice” fame. Fans of James and Austen seem happy with the marriage: The book is  No. 3 on this week's L.A. Times best-seller list for fiction.

The subject of suicide is not easy in the young adult market, and surviving suicide perhaps even less so. But Susan Carpenter writes that Jennifer R. Hubbard’s new book for ages 14 and up,  “Try Not to Breathe,” is a compelling and compassionate look into the motivations and rationales of teen suicide and the aftermath when it fails.”

Busy week? If so, you may have missed Patt Morrison's fine review of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch;" Bob Drogin's take on Michael Hasting's provocative "The Operators:  The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" and Kerry Luft's review of  "The Obamas."  And mark your calendar for Feb. 7 to see which critic will receive the Hatchet Job of the Year Award." Carolyn Kellogg  fills us in on the contestants. For you Stephen King fans, think for a moment about King Lear and then take a look at David Ulin's Reading Life  piece on King.

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: Adam Johnson in North Korea near the Pohyon Temple. Credit: Adam Johnson



The Reading Life: Thinking about Stephen King


This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, I spent half an hour or so discussing Stephen King with my colleague David Lazarus on Patt Morrison's KPCC-FM radio show. The news peg, such as it was, involved the decision by the New York Times to include King's new novel, "11/22/63," on its list of the 10 best books of 2011. But the bigger question had to do with King's merit as a writer, which, almost 40 years after he began to publish, remains a source of conversation, if no longer quite debate.

For the record, I didn't think much of "11/22/63"; I found it meandering and unfocused -- not to mention far too long. And yet, I also believe that, like many a genre writer, King has gotten a bad rap for much of his career, written off because he appeals to a popular audience, when in fact his work exposes, with real acuity, a lot about who we are.

Think about it: Beyond the mechanics, of plot, of horror, what King offers are domestic interactions, slices of family and civic life. He uncovers our anxieties, our worries, our obsessions -- the inner darkness we all know. That's why, for me, some of his most moving works are the most naturalistic: "The Body," "Misery" or the recent novella "A Good Marriage," which anchors his 2010 collection "Full Dark, No Stars." There, King traces a particularly human bleakness, the bleakness of an empty soul.

This is the key to his writing, that when he's on, no one is better at prying open the ordinary reality of evil, the way our nightmares emerge from our daily experience, from our fears and our frustrations, our envy and our rage. It's true even when he's writing about the supernatural; as he observed when I profiled him for The Times in 1998, "Every monster, every horrific situation, every supernatural situation can be taken in a metaphoric way, if you have an interest in normal human life. Or even abnormal human life."

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This Sunday: James M. Cain minus the noir

James-m-cainAs we look forward to 2012 with all its hope, promise and presidential politics, it seemed a good idea to also look back to a simpler time in Southern California. Or at least that’s the goal in reprinting James M. Cain’s extensive essay “Paradise”: We've included an excerpt in our Sunday print edition of Calendar’s Arts & Books section and the full text of the piece is available online.

For those who think of Cain as a writer of three great noir novels set in California -- “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce” -- his life as a journalist should be something of a revelation. In the 1920s and early '30s, he wrote articles for H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury and was an editorial writer for Walter Lippman at the New York World. For a brief time, he was managing editor of the New Yorker working for the legendary Harold Ross. The job didn’t fit, however, and after nine months he left for Paramount Studios to be a screenwriter, even though eventually he wound up, again, as a freelancer writing numerous articles for magazines and newspapers.

Cain's essay “Paradise” was the cover story of The American Mercury’s March 1933 issue. Book critic David L. Ulin also offers an introduction to our coverage of “Paradise.” I hope you’ll give “Paradise” a look: Many of his observations of Southern California seem spot on today, while others may surprise you.

Also this week Ulin reviews Tom Zoellner’s effort to make sense of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in “A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America.” Ulin and Carolyn Kellogg offer some Faces to Watch in the book world next year, and Kellogg also weighs in with a review of “Karaoke Culture,” a compelling collection of essays by Dubravka Ugresic. In her Not Just For Kids column, Susan Carpenter looks at the YA title “Cinder,” an inventive retelling of the Cinderella story. And we have our weekly bestsellers list.

Happy new year to all and thanks for reading.

 --Jon Thurber, book editor

 Photo: James M. Cain in 1946.  Credit: Associated Press 

In Sunday books: On Patti Smith, Tolstoy and life in the marginalia


What's in a book? Ideas and language, of course, and, remarkably, Lynell George has been able to trace her mother's life in the marginalia she left in many of her books. As George notes in her essay, "A Life in the Marginalia," that starts on the cover of this Sunday's Arts & Books section, to open her mother's books was "to reveal all manner of ephemera -- from transit passes to cards to notes in her mother's elegant English teacher cursive -- and all marking chapters in a rich, full life. And, in a way, a gentle guidance." Just as her mother's books and love of reading were a gift to her, George's memoir reminds us of the gift of books in enhancing the fabric of a home.  

Also Sunday,  David Ulin checks in on Patti Smith's "Woolgathering," a collection of prose poems that Ulin says speaks volumes about the broad diversity that makes up the life of Smith as a rocker, mother, poet, artist.

You can also listen here to an excerpt of Smith reading from her award-winning memoir "Just Kids," which has just been released as an audio book: Pattismithexcerpt

Daniel Handler, known more familiarly to some as Lemony Snicket, is back with his YA-debut "Why We Broke Up," which Susan Carpenter describes as "a brief but intense teen relationship gone wrong." Carpenter says that few of these "tragic trajectories have been written about as poignantly" as in this book, which is illustrated by Maira Kalman.

Then there's Tolstoy. Yes, the life of the count is detailed in Rosamund Bartlett's "Tolstoy: A Russian Life." Reviewer Martin Rubin notes that Tolstoy was "a loner, a quintessential outsider and a generally awful and quarrelsome individual." So how was he able to "understand and evoke the glittering social whirl and intricacies of fashionable salons" that made up much of his fiction?

Shari Roan reviews Mary Johnson's "An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service and an Authentic Life," a memoir that will "fascinate not only Catholics but anyone who has wondered about the human capacity to vow lifelong celibacy, poverty and charity" and gives us a fascinating portrait of Mother Teresa. Online at The Siren's Call, Nick Owchar talks to novelist Richard Zimler about his recent visit to Poland to discuss the novel "The Warsaw Anagrams" with Polish audiences.

And, of course, we have our Best-Sellers lists of what's hot at Southern California stores.

Again, thanks for reading (and for listening).

-- Jon Thurber, book editor 

Photo: One of several books that were part of writer Lynell George's mother's collection. George's mother imprinted the book with a hand and footprint of her daughter when she was a baby. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times


The year in review and Mt. Everest too

George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on Mt. Everest in 1924.

So, not to be outdone by the actual calendar, we are getting a jump on the end of the year this Sunday with our review of 2011. In a notes-on-the-year-essay, our book critic, David L. Ulin, finds it heartening that a couple of brick-and-mortar book businesses are exploring some interesting strategies to thrive in a world captivated by the digital imperative. He also offers a thoughtful list of his 10 favorite books of the year. Murakami’s there, so is Lethem, but you may be  surprised by some of the others.

Our weekly book review coverage includes Richard Rayner’s review of the compelling "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest” by Wade Davis. World War I saw the obliteration “of almost an entire generation of young men,” Rayner writes, and a few of the hearty souls that survived decided to test their mettle against Everest, the great unconquered foe.  Those climbing expeditions in the early 1920s captivated Britain and much of Europe looking for a positive human experience to replace the fog of war. 

Deputy books editor Nick Owchar offers a  Q&A with Philippa Gregory on the challenges of writing history as history and history as fiction, in this case the English Wars of the Roses.  Wesley Bausmith looks at “Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff and Geismar” and finds that firm’s creations have “left some of the more lingering impressions of contemporary graphic design.”  Susan Carpenter is back this week with another trip into the world of YA books with “Planesrunner,” an adventure in parallel worlds from sci-fi novelist Ian McDonald. And we also have our weekly bestsellers list.Holiday-books-2011

Two shopping days are left before Hanukkah and six before Christmas, and you still don’t know what to buy for the book lovers in your family? Our handy holiday books and gift guide still offers some good options. Check it out.  

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens died Thursday of cancer at 62. It would be hard to name another voice in contemporary letters who made it such a firm practice to go his own way and often against the conventional grain. If you missed Elaine Woo's obituary of Hitchens, please take a look.  David L. Ulin checks in with a thoughtful appraisal of Hitchens' work. 

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine as they prepare to climb the peak of Mt. Everest in June 1924.    Credit: Associated Press


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