Monday, July 25, 2011

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield
by Kenneth Ackerman
Carroll & Graf, 551 pages.

A book that should be required reading for anyone aspiring to a life in politics, Dark Horse is a surprisingly engaging historical epic that reads like a novel even as it delves into an under-appreciated turning point in 19th century Americana. Set in the stormy political years of 1880 - 1881, the book charts the rise of President James Garfield and sets about proving the thesis that his death by an assassin's bullet was as much a result of the era's political atmosphere as it was the assassin's own shattered ideals. If this idea sounds familiar, it should; it was the same one put forth this year after Jared Loughner's shooting spree in Arizona and it's just started again in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik's shootings in Norway: in both cases, a charged political atmosphere prompted disturbed people to take disturbing action. And this is just one of the eerie points of relevance between Dark Horse and the modern day: as we gear up for the 2012 Presidential election and the Republican National Convention, Mr. Ackerman's detailed portrayal of the 1880 convention - and the backroom deals that went along with it - will be of special interest.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Father of Frankenstein
by Christopher Baum. Plume, 276 pages.

Like author Peter Straub, I read most of this book in one sitting, a true compliment considering how restless one can get on a hot summer day. Reading this book so soon after Doctorow's Homer and Langley, I couldn't help but draw parallels, not because of the subject matter, but because both books create fictional versions of history that are true to the spirit of people involved if not the actual facts. Here, Mr. Baum's focus is the final days of James Whale, best remembered as the director of Frankenstien, who drowned himself in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1957. History is unapologetically subverted as Mr. Baum creates a tryptych of characters that are both wildly comical and deeply profound: Whale himself, his loyal maid Maria and Clayton Boone, an aimless yardman who shares Whale's final days.

The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions
by David Mamet. Vintage Press, 157 pages.

It is, I think, a glorious thing to read any essay by David Mamet, especially in a moment of disillusion. He has the ability to cut through the great chafe of life and, in a prose that is lean but never anorexic, reveal wisdom in all areas: art, lust, guns, even campaign buttons. I will probably forever remain undecided whether he is better served to be known for his plays and films or his essays: the former are more popular  and something has to be said for that. Then I read "The Cabin" for the twentieth time and I think "Hmmm...."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dancing with Master D: Notes on Life and Death
by Bert Keizer

One of the great pleasures of book sales is the fact that everything's cheap, which for some reason always seems more interesting then when everything's free. I'm never half as excited at the library as I am at a book sale, probably because the library expects their books back. But at the book sale, I can own something for life - and all for only a dollar. The cheap price often means I'm more willing to take a chance on something strange or unusual and is almost always how I've discovered some hidden gem, some author I might otherwise never have read. It's how I came to meet Graham Greene; and now it's how I had the supreme pleasure of reading Dancing with Mister D which, aside from it's terrible title, is a moving, funny and thought-provoking mediation on mortality, aging, medicine, assisted suicide and, most of all, the fact that doctors are just as uncomfortable with death as everyone else.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell. Simon & Schuster, 254 pages.

My literary crush on Sarah Vowell went from mild to obsessive after the introductory paragraphs of Assassination Vacation, in which Ms. Vowell manages to reference Stephen Sondheim (my favorite dramatist), Assassins (my favorite musical), 1776 (my favorite musical about the Declaration of Independence)  and more then a dozen references to obscure points of Americana, my favorite topic of conversation, especially when I want to either amaze people or bore them (usually I managed to do both). Given that Ms. Vowell is equally enamored with both American history and America's history of political murders, I suspect if we met at a cocktail party, we'd have a great deal of fun amazing / boring all the other guests. All of which is to say Assassination Vacation feels very much like it was written just for me. Thanks Sarah!