Copyright 2013 Pacific Northwest Writers Association. All Rights Reserved
by Deborah Solomon
Solomon, who had previously written a biography of Jackson Pollock, now turns her attention 180 degrees to Norman Rockwell. Rockwell, who was obsessed with telling stories in his paintings, began his career in 1913, the same year as the New York Armory Show. For the rest of his life, he would be looked down on by the official art world (from Modernism to Abstract Expressionism to Postmodernism), whose work not only didn't tell stories, but also usually lacked any recognizable figures. Solomon makes the case that Rockwell, who most famously painted more than 300 covers for The Saturday Evening Post rich in Americana, was not dealing in kitsch or nostalgia. He was simply depicting life as it was. Even better, "he was able to use a commercial form to work out his private obsessions, to turn a formula into an expressive personal genre." The Doctor and the Doll (1929) is nothing if not Rockwell's practicing the chiaroscuro of the Dutch Masters he so admired, and Rosie the Riveter (1943) is his variation on Michelangelo's Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Along with Rockwell's marital woes and depression, the book covers the painter's technique and inspirations. Rockwell used a combination of live models and photographs (though he considered the latter to be "cheating"). When Life magazine, which relied on photographs, as opposed to the sort of illustrations Rockwell produced, came along, he stepped-up his game and created even more realistic paintings. He kept numerous costumes and props in his studio, and would go so far as to rent whatever he didn't have (and send an assistant out for trout for a fisherman scene) in his quest for greater and greater authenticity. Solomon identifies models, with sometimes surprising results. A prosperous real-estate agent appeared as a tramp in Hobo and Dog (1924), and the Rabbi at the center of The Golden Rule (1961) was the retired postmaster of Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Rockwell lived. The book devotes pages to the in-depth study of many of Rockwell's most famous pieces. Freedom of Speech (1943), "the defining image of American democracy in action," with its "swarthily handsome" everyman, depicts and ethnic American "who isn't afraid to think for himself or to stand alone" and yet in his roughness he is "both the promise of the town and a threat to its genteel homogeneity." This is a serious yet accessible biography of an artist whom many people don't take very seriously. Each chapter contains a handful of reproductions of Rockwell's works.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann
The authors of the outstanding narrative of the 2008 Presidential election, Game Change, return with another compelling tale, this time showcasing the cast and characters of the 2012 election. While 2012 might not seem at first glance to have as much of the emotional drama and candidates that quickly became household names (Sarah Palin for example), the Republican field had several people whose conduct will raise more than a few eyebrows. The election itself is the star with all of the machinations that go along with it. The authors have an amazing talent to get minute details in meetings and events chronicled. There is even a point where Obama gets furious for facts about a meeting leaking to the authors. The fly-on-the-wall feeling and crisp writing (though I would question some of the vocabulary choices) capture the theater of modern politics. I personally can't wait to read their next book four years from now.
Reviewed by Jeff Ayers
by Steve Kaplan
What Robert McKee's Story is to drama, this book is to comedy. Anyone who is writing comedy, be it fiction, scripts, or even just a funny part in an otherwise straight tale, needs to read this book. Comedy remains largely subjective, but Kaplan articulates ideas in ways that will launch epiphany after epiphany for everyone. Now I see that what makes "Who's on First" so funny isn't that Costello doesn't get that the ballplayers have peculiar names, what makes it funny is that Abbot doesn't get that Costello doesn't get it. Kaplan concentrates on scripts, so the examples he uses are from the likes of Seinfeld, Something About Mary, and Groundhog Day. While drama is about who we hope we can be, comedy is about the flawed people we are. Specifically, for Kaplan comedy is about ordinary people struggling against the odds, but without the skills to win. If you have the skills, you're Bruce Willis; if not, you're Woody Allen. Yet, comedy gives characters the "permission to win"-to try to succeed at any cost. Once writers have given their characters that, they can stop trying to write "funny." We would never pretend to be handicapped or the widower of a supermodel, but George Costanza does all the time. He has the writers' permission to (try to) win. The biggest lesson that Hollywood has to learn from this book is to include less "funny" things and more character development. That way, since comedy comes from character, when comedic moments do come they will get bigger laughs because the audience will have a better understanding of why what just happened was funny.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
by Brian Jay Jones
In Jones' detailed and entertaining biography, the creator of the Muppets comes off as you always imagined him to be: a really nice guy who was also a visionary genius dedicated to stretching the boundaries of the various media in which he worked. Henson stumbled into puppetry in the late 1950s. His first television puppet programs were just a way of paying for college until he got a job in stage design. But others spotted his talents, and soon there was no way for him to stop. Henson's innovations set him apart from everyone else. With Sam and Friends, an early show featuring abstract puppets, he eliminated the visible puppet stage. He also more closely tailored his puppets and their performances to the new medium of television. He built Muppets out of foam rubber and cloth, giving them an unparalleled level of expression and character at a time when TV puppets like Howdy Doody had at best a hinged wooden flap for a mouth. For Sesame Street, he had elevated sets built so that puppeteers could work standing up rather than crouching, and he made sure that the Muppets interacted with the human actors as if they themselves were people. Henson became a major proponent of puppetry as an art. Throughout his professional career-even while doing a show in Las Vegas with Nancy Sinatra and appearing on Saturday Night Live-Henson would struggle to prove that puppets weren't just children's fare. The Muppet Show came about after numerous false starts and decades of the Muppets appearing on other people's programs. It took the British entertainment mogul Lord Lew Grade, who shared Henson's love of variety shows, to back Henson's vision of what could be achieved. The result was a show that at one point was the most-watched television program on the planet. It's this book's glimpses behind the scenes which are the most fascinating, from the R&D necessary to make a waterproof Miss Piggy to the philosophical underpinnings behind the ponderous The Dark Crystal. Luckily, we live in the era of YouTube, so that as you read, you'll able to see much of Henson's more obscure work. I'm partial to Rowlf the dog's Purina commercials.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
By Stephen King
On the second day of December in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground.
We all remember the Overlook Hotel where Jack Torrance slowly lost his mind to a site reared by evil, threatening the lives of his wife and young son Danny in The Shining. Danny, as you'll recall, was imbibed with a supernatural skill called the "shine" by a hotel handyman. Now that classic's scintillating sequel, Doctor Sleep, finds him all grown up and hiding out as a nursing home aide where the abilities that have turned him into an alcoholic provide solace for the dying and comfort for himself
Little does Dan know that his path, and fate, is about to collide with a kindred spirit in the form of a female version of himself as a child, Abra Stone, whose part of a kind of gypsy paranormal cult called the True Knot who take child abuse to a whole new level by literally feasting on the spiritual refuse of kids like Abra as the life is bled out of them. From that point, Dan embarks on a heroically redemptive quest in which by saving Abra he's actually saving himself. But that might well mean returning to the very site that has tortured his own soul and psyche after nearly costing him his life.
Doctor Sleep seems yanked from the same creative blitzkrieg that spawned The Dead Zone, Firestarter and his seminal The Stand. There's a rawness to the language and visceral emotiveness that makes King's latest a kind of throwback to basely simple storytelling that belies the undercurrent of contextual and emotional complexity. One of the finest sequels ever penned that's as close to a perfect book as I've ever read.
Reviewed by Jon Land
by Sebastian Faulks
"Do you often find yourself surprised in the act of theft from country houses where your presence is unannounced," someone asks Bertie Wooster early in this charming and funny novel. "Not often," Bertie replies. "But it's not the first time." Indeed, it's been almost 40 years since P.G. Wodehouse (who died in 1975) published the last of his brilliant comic novels about young man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. Now, for the first time, the Wodehouse estate has authorized an official homage to the master. Wodehouse fans will not be disappointed. Faulks channels Wodehouse perfectly, juggling the late writer's familiar tropes and situations-engaged couples, false identities, and "turf accountants"-with a effortless aplomb. It's still that wonderful golden age of Britain, the 1920s, when the leisure class has nothing to do but get in and out of scrapes. Bertie and Jeeves are staying at a county manor in order to help Bertie's friend, "Woody" Beeching, whose engagement to Amelia Hackwood is on the rocks. But in a clever twist Bertie is in disguise as "Mr. Wilberforce," valet to "Lord Etringham"-Jeeves. To make matters worse (or better), the lovely Georgiana Meadowes, with whom Bertie is smitten, is also visiting . . . along with her fiancÃ©. Wodehouse fans know there will be pairings and partings, comings and goings, and various embarrassments and triumphs. But as Wodehouse himself showed in dozens of short stories and novels, it isn't the voyage, it's how you take it. Exactly what outlandish plot will Bertie attempt to bring a sundered couple together? Exactly what chaos will he cause when required to serve at the grand dining table? And most importantly, exactly how will Jeeves ingeniously resolve all at the end, bringing together elements that were there all along, yet we readers missed? Faulks pulls it off and gives us a volume that can proudly stand beside the originals.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
by Kim Newman
In Newman's Anno Dracula series, vampirism has spread throughout the Western world. Vampires are now an accepted part of our culture. What makes the AD universe so entertaining is that it's populated not just with actual historical figures but fictional ones as well. In previous volumes, set in Europe from Victorian times to the 1950s, characters have encountered Dr. Jekyll, Queen Victoria, secret agent Hamish Bond, and Marcello Mastroianni. Now, Newman tackles America in the 1980s. The more things have changed, the more they've remained the same, and half the fun of these books are the twists that Newman has applied. Dracula replaces Apocalypse Now as the film that Francis Ford Coppola shot in a backwards country (Romania instead of the Philippines) and that nearly ruined him. Martin Sheen is the vampire hunter Jonathan Harker and Marlon Brando is the Count. Robert Duval is Van Helsing, who, when sunlight strikes a group of vampires, remarks, "I love that smell . . . spontaneous combustion at daybreak. It smells like . . . salvation." The crew takes a liking to one of the locals, a young vampire named Ion. He becomes "John Popp" and escapes the oppressive Ceausecu regime. On his own in New York, Johnny becomes involved in the world of illegal drugs. Not crack, but "drac," powdered vampire blood that sells for a lot on the streets. Johnny parties at Studio 54, (where he finds he's absorbed the dancing skills of a boy he's just exsanginuated on the Brooklyn Bridge, Tony Manero). He embraces his ancestry and becomes Johnny Alucard when he moves to Hollywood to become a producer.
In the book's second half, Newman skewers Hollywood. Noting that Los Angeles is filled with the descendants of good-looking people who moved there to become actors, Alucard observes, "Excluding character actors and screenwriters, you could go months without running into anyone ugly." Johnny becomes involved in the Back to Transylvania movement, which is trying to create a vampire homeland, but which is part of other machinations as well. There's a pop/historical reference on almost every page, and Newman romps through film and television clichÃ©s. Here, the term for non-threatening vampires is "Granpa" (After the role played by Al Lewis on All in the Family; it was a big moment when Archie Bunker gave him permission to enter his house.) With cameos by everyone from Travis Bickle to a certain cheerleader vampire slayer, and a brief visit to the set of Debbie Does Dracula, this book will delight readers who like their pop culture as much as their vampires.
Reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale
By John Grisham
They found Seth Hubbard in the general area where he had promised to be, though not in the condition expected. He was at the end of a rope, six feet off the ground and twisting slightly in the wind.
Okay, I admit it. It's been awhile since I read a John Grisham book. But when I heard Sycamore Row was a sequel to his seminal initial effort A Time to Kill, I couldn't resist. Good thing, because Grisham's latest might be the finest effort ever, a smooth and sultry mix of legal thriller and study in Southern neo-gothic sensibility. To Kill a Mockingbird gone cutthroat commercial to wondrous results.
Once again we're treated to the down home sensibility and tortured soul of Jake Brigance of Clanton, Mississippi. It's 1988 and not all that much time has passed since the racially tinged case immortalized in the prequel rocked a region steeped in its stubbornly traditional mindset. Once again, racial overtones loom but they don't dominate the tale this time out. Instead Jake takes up the case of the contested will of a local bigwig who hung himself. That leaves the book lacking in the drama so pervasive in the earlier effort, but wondrously rich in story and character, starting with drunken, disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks who guides the increasingly jaded Jake through the legal and social minefield in which he finds himself.
In that respect, Sycamore Row takes on an almost Dickensian feel. It's a very good legal thriller, but a much better novel. The at times blisteringly brilliant book hums with an energy that defies its laconic pacing perfectly suited for the sweat-soaked South. Even William Faulkner would be proud.
Reviewed by Jon Land
by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga
The first Walking Dead novel (now available in mass market paperback) is the back-story of the self-styled governor of Woodbury, a small community trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. It follows him and some companions (including his daughter, Penny) from shortly after the outbreak of the zombie virus through their early days at Woodbury. It's tied a bit more closely to the comic book, but, for the most part, also works within the slightly different continuity of the TV series.
Although accessible on its own, I would recommend the novel more to current fans of either comic book or TV show, not as an entry point for the curious reader. Certain elements of the plot will resonate more effectively for those already familiar with the details established in the other formats.
There is, by the nature of the world in which the story takes place, a certain familiarity to the plot as a small group of people tries to get by in the zombified world, meeting other desperate survivors as they go. It's up to the individual characters involved to engage the reader, and the novel delivers an interesting mix of people-and some great twists-as you learn just what drove the Governor to becoming the sociopath he is.
This is a grim novel, spelling out details that could only be suggested on the TV show. Although the writing is occasionally over the top, it's hard not to be given the nature of the story, which fans will find compelling and surprising.
Reviewed by Scott Pearson
by Graeme Simsion
Imagine a novel written by The Big Bang Theory's Dr. Sheldon Cooper, and you have The Rosie Project. Prof. Don Tillman is 39, a professor of genetics at an Australian university, and completely unaware that he has Asperger's syndrome. To him, everyone else wastes time and behaves irrationally. Still, he's interested in having a wife. He rejects the "traditional dating paradigm . . . on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences." Instead, he's going to find one through an extensive "evidence-based" questionnaire. This he calls the Wife Project. When he meets a pretty, young bartender named Rosie who is looking for her birth father, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to her quest. The Father Project, despite the fact that it yields "zero outcome", takes up more and more of his time. What are ordinarily societal negatives become Don's strengths once he's outside of his usual haunts. His obsessive attention to detail leads him to memorize The Bartender's Companion so that he and Rosie can attend a reunion of her mother's graduating class and scam DNA samples from the male attendees. His mixology skills make him the hit of the night. Alas, teaching himself to dance so that he can accompany a woman who scored well on the questionnaire to a party does not so well. Perhaps he shouldn't have practiced with a lab skeleton. The novel is laugh-out-loud funny, and I zipped through it in two days. It's getting harder and harder to write romantic comedies because today there are so few barriers for couples to overcome. Simsion may have tapped a new vein.
Reviewed by A.B. Mead
by William Nikkel
The television series Gunsmoke meets Wild Wild West meets The Walking Dead in Nikkel's lively romp. Sheriff John Cable realizes something is amiss in the town of Coyote Flats. When the Devil Wind comes, the residents lock their doors and hide. The sheriff knows he needs help, so he sends a telegram to his friend in San Francisco, Max Traver. Traver leaves for Coyote Flats the second he learns about what's going on in the town, and that everyone is in danger. When he arrives, he finds love, a ruthless man who will do anything to possess the entire town, and zombies. I will admit I'm not much of a zombie fan, but Nikkel adds that element in well, and the focus is more on the western elements with a dash of steampunk. The characters are compelling, and the storyline zips along to the climatic shootout. A fun book if you are in the mood for an unconventional reading experience.
Reviewed by Jeff Ayers