Sunday, March 25, 2012

An Improvised Life: A Memoir
by Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 201 pages.

Alan Arkin, if you believe his father, knew he was going to be an actor at the age of five, a fact which would seem to belie the title of his book: despite his claims, there's the distinct sense that his professional life went more or less according to plan. An award-winning actor and director, Arkin is best known today for playing old curmudgeons, such as in Little Miss Sunshine and The Change-Up (he also has a cameo in The Muppets). But he's appeared in over 80 films and has a theatrical track record that most actors would with envy. No doubt about it, Arkin's life doesn't truly seemed to have been improvised at all: he made a plan when he was five and stuck to it. Or at least that's how it seems in An Improvised Life, which skips over almost all of Arkin's personal struggles and focuses entirely on his philosophies on acting and a life in the arts. It's an enjoyable read if you're an artist; anyone else, I suspect, will find it (amazingly) lacks drama.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
Crown Publishers, 324 pages.

A book that should be coming soon to a TV screen near you, Priceless is a fearless memoir that is begging for adaptation - and authors Robert Wittman and John Shiffman have even provided writers with at least twelve episodes for the first season. The story of the founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, Priceless succeeds as both crime drama and personal memoir, with Wittman emerging as the classic hero driven by a need for personal redemption. It also serves as a passionate celebration of art and its place in human culture.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America's Youngest First Lady
by Annette Dunlap
Excelsior Editions, 2009. 195 pages.

More an extended encyclopedia entry then a comprehensive biography, Annette Dunlap's survey of the life of America's youngest first lady sketches the life of an intriguing figure without ever going too far below the surface. Frances "Frank" Cleveland is a barely remembered First Lady, overshadowed by the tragic glamor of Jacqueline Kennedy, the social activism of Eleanor Roosevelt and even the lunacy of Mary Todd Lincoln. But Frank married Cleveland in more ways then one and as his second term was considered a failure best forgotten, so too has Frank beenexiled from thought. Some historians have tried to rehabilitate Cleveland's reputation recently, so its not surprising that Frank would be resurrected as well. Dunlap herself clearly hopes to champion Frank but her polite narrative is far too brief to ever allow the reader a chance to form their own opinion.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tension City:
Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain
by Jim Lehrer
Random House, New York, 2011. pp 209.

Given that Jim Lehrer has had a front row seat to eleven U.S. presidential debates, you wouldn't be wrong to expect more from Tension City, a slim volume that works as an appetizer when it should have been a meal. The metaphor is apt since, like a good croquette, Tension City is easy to digest and possible to finish in a single sitting. As a man who had a worm's eye view of some significant political moments, Lehrer had the opportunity to supply some deft political analysis, both on the art of debating and the evolution of the televised debate from political confrontation to its current form as orchestrated entertainment. Instead, Lehrer seems content to supply anecdotes and only a few juicy facts as he gives us a whirlwind tour across fifty years of debating history.