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Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A review of Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan.

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Heart and Soul

One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers (Gallery; $26.00; 272 pages)

Spunky, vivacious and charming are words that easily describe Stephanie Powers, the actress best known for her role in the television series Hart to Hart.   Yes, her character on the series also matches up with these adjectives.   Don’t be fooled by appearances or roles, for when it comes to intellect and curiosity, Ms. Powers leads the Hollywood pack.   Her memoir, One from the Hart, is filled with fully developed recollections of a life lived all over the globe.

Although Powers’ formal education concluded with her graduation from Hollywood High School, readers will be treated to the best in grammar and word selection.   Powers set out to make up for a lack of college education by committing to reading through the literature list for students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   With that goal accomplished, she has maintained a lifelong course in learning.   Her curiosity and willingness to expand as a person has resulted in a remarkable memoir that is well-developed and engagingly narrated.   This reviewer felt as though she had been included in the circle of friends that Powers has grown over the last several decades.

Yes, Powers is talented musically and as an actress.   Yes, she is remarkably beautiful.   Underneath this Hollywood veneer beats a heart that truly loves people and animals.   Her actions speak for themselves for she is the driving force behind the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya.   Given her enthusiasm for education, it is no surprise that Powers founded the organization to honor the efforts of her long-time love William Holden.

This engaging book includes photographs from Powers’ private collection that serve to document the remarkable events in her life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Note:  Hollywood High School, the home of The Pharaohs, also produced two notable actors who would come to be known to the world as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

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A review of One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers.

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The Show Must Go On

Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen (Algonquin; $14.95; 448 pages)

Following a tragic accident, where Jacob Jankowski finds that not only has he lost both of his parents, but everything he owns, he is forced to immediately recreate his life.   Jacob walks out of his Ivy League veterinary medical exams and while wandering aimlessly decides to hop a train, a decision that alters his future.   The train, it turns out, belongs to the Benzini Brothers, a second-rate traveling circus act.   At the ripe young age of twenty-one, Jacob becomes the circus vet, an undesirable position working for a relentless boss.

To make matters worse, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a star performer and the wife of an abusive paranoid schizophrenic, who is in charge of training the animals that Jacob cares for.

Told from the perspective of a ninety-something Jacob, now living in a nursing home, Gruen spares no details as she depicts the story of life with the circus.   Through descriptions of the grimy, disgusting living conditions, the filthy abused animals that eat unspeakable food, and the corrupt coworkers, we wait with bated breath to read what dangerous, life-threatening situation Jacob will be privy to next.

Sara Gruen has done her research and truly brings each circus act alive as you, the audience, watch Jacob’s life in the circus unfold.   The ending is surreal but quite lovely.   I look forward to seeing the film, which will be released this month.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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All Good Things

Paul Newman: A Life by Lawrence J. Quirk (Taylor Made; $16.95; 360 pages)

“Sometimes God makes perfect people, and Paul Newman was one of them.”   Sally Field

“This country is better for his being in it.”   Robert Redford

I may have met Paul Newman twice, although it is far from certain.   According to family legend, I was one of the children in the park at night in Stockton, California watching as the filming of Cool Hand Luke took place in front of the Catholic church.   This was the scene in which a very drunk Luke chops off the heads of parking meters.   Whether I was actually present or not, I do not know.   What I am certain of is that years later I met Newman, for a few seconds, as he walked around the spectator grounds of the Long Beach Grand Prix.   It seems that he had just won a celebrity race and he was celebrating.   With the assistance of two younger men, he was offering plastic tumblers of fine wine – or red party cups filled with beer – to everyone he encountered.   It took only a couple of seconds to see that this was a man in love with life and living.   The joy in his blue eyes was one-of-a-kind.

Perhaps it’s precisely because Newman showed us the sparkle of joy in simple living that he had such an impact on so many.   As I purchased a Newman’s Own product yesterday, the grocery clerk told me, “I can’t believe that he’s gone.”   It’s a feeling and sentiment shared by many.

Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography is one of two with the same title; this is the superior one.   It’s the better account because Quirk is a movie expert and he does a fine job of explaining why Newman went into acting, and of reviewing the highs and lows of the actor’s career.   This Paul Newman was not perfect, he was human, but a very lucky one.   As Quirk relates, Newman – who was certain in his belief that he would  never win an Oscar – rose to the very top of his profession.   And so, “his greatest dream came true.”

Quirk, with his expertise, does not fawn over Newman as an actor.   For example, in writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he opines that, “although Newman is very good in the film, he’s not quite as good as Redford…  (and) neither actor is exactly convincing as an old-time outlaw…”   Yet it’s this tough standard that makes Quirk’s sometime praise of Newman so valuable.   And he reminds us that Newman was not just an actor, he was a philanthropist whose Newman’s Own Foundation has never failed to raise and distribute less than $55 million a year for charities around the world.

If Paul Newman had just been terribly handsome, he would have been loved only by women.   But he could also be a man’s man, a guy’s guy:

“…he was essentially a likeable, friendly guy, especially with several beers in him, and he frequently bought the beer, (which) just made him even more appealing to his buddies…  (There were those who felt) extremely flattered by the attention of famous people, who feel proud and somehow legitimized that someone the whole world knows is taking an interest in them.”

“Newman has personality to spare; he loves practical jokes, having good times with his buddies, and lots of beer…”

Quirk notes that while Newman the actor usually starred in “macho fantasies,” as a director of movies like Rachel, Rachel he “showed a more sensitive side that he seemed determined in all other aspects of his life to keep hidden.”

Paul Newman was a fascinating man, something which Quirk affirms so well in this biography, and he was – Quirk never lets us forget – first and foremost an actor.   He was an Academy Award-winning actor, and loyal husband (“Newman was never really a skirt chaser…”).   He was a man who lived each day with gusto until he left us at 6:45 p.m. on September 26, 2008.   It was such a loss for this country, and for the world.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A copy of this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Isn’t It a Pity

13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Reagan Arthur Books; $23.99; 288 pages)

Initially this appears to be a beautifully presented novel based on the possessions of a woman who once lived in the early 1900s (experiencing both World Wars), in Paris.   The graphic reproductions of items owned by Louise Brunet, which came into the author’s possession as a young girl, are reproduced in a high-class manner.   Unfortunately, this story also contains some troubling characteristics which ruined the experience for this reader.

In the early 1980s, the author’s mother salvaged a small box of mementos formerly owned by Mrs. Brunet:  “This box is the sepulcher of Louise Brunet’s heart.   The story behind the objects is lost; the objects are now the story…  As I have carried this strange box through life and across the world, I have always intended to make a book out of it.   This book now exists; you hold it in your hands.”

It is a charming and promising premise – fleshing out an unknown life via the author’s imagination.   A great deal of the content involves the lives of French people, men and women, during World War I.   The read is initially quite engaging as we encounter an American historical researcher-professor, living in the present day, who comes across Mrs. Brunet’s possessions and begins – as he charts out the happenings of her life – to fall in love with her.   It will be an unrequited love except for the fact that through a miracle of time travel he comes to meet her face to face.   Having met Mrs. Brunet, the researcher is essentially freed to fall in love with a woman of his own time.

All of this has a Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveler’s Wife aspect to it, which seems wonderful on its face.   And yet, the Louise Brunet that the reader comes to identify with in the first half of the novel turns into a madwoman in its concluding portion.   This is a happily married woman – a woman who has never had a child – who engages in an affair with a married neighbor, knowing full well that it is wrong and that she takes the chance of getting pregnant; something that would destroy her marriage and world.

This female protagonist also engages in crimes and enjoys confessing her sins to a Catholic priest, to the point where she laughs hysterically after confessing her adultery.   It all seems strange and disjointed, as if the two halves of the novel do not fit together properly.   But this is not the biggest issue with the telling.

“She does not understand the power of that man’s body over her…  He is like a poison in her, all the more potent because she doesn’t want an antidote.   She welcomes this disease of desire.”

The major problem with 13 rue Therese is that the sex scenes are described in terms more than a bit reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rude, crude and shocking.   The polite language of an earlier time gives way to terms that appear to be deliberately intended to shock the once comfortable reader.   Perhaps this was done deliberately as an attempt to demonstrate the lack of control that overtakes Louise, a woman ready to destroy her life for a man she’s attracted to even while she does not understand that attraction.

In summary, 13 rue Therese is like one of those schizophrenic films (the movie version of Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind) that is quite pleasurable for the first hour, but hard to watch for the second.   This is a novel with great potential that simply self-destructs, and concludes in a rather mundane fashion.   It’s a pity.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This novel was released today.

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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