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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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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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Coming Up Next…

A review of Paul Newman: A Life (Updated Edition) by Lawrence J. Quirk.

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Obla Di Obla Da

This isn’t the movies.   Everything doesn’t turn out all tied up in a neat bow the way you want.

Luck never has anything to do with love, she said…  Luck has everything to do with everything, he told her.   Especially love.

From Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You

Somewhere between heartwarming and heart wrenching lies Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You.

In this book, Charlie loses his wife, April, in a car accident on a foggy night as she is leaving him for another man.   Unbeknownst to April until well into her journey, Sam, their only son, a fragile asthmatic, has snuck into the car and nearly dies in the accident as well.   The driver of the other vehicle, Isabelle, who is fleeing her unfaithful spouse, is free from fault but haunted by the tragedy, nonetheless.   The survivors and innocent bystanders’ attempts to make sense of these events and move on with their lives is the crux of the story.

Nothing completely works out for any of the characters, which is perhaps the point of the novel.   Isabelle, a trusting, warm, caring, and somewhat naive person, seems to land on her feet to a certain degree, though whether or not this will be true for Sam is left open to question.   What likely will be troubling to some readers is that Charlie, who, though imperfect, is mostly admirable and noble, meanders through the later stages of his life with little or no resolution to anything.

Leavitt’s treatment of Charlie’s plight toward the end of the book essentially drives home all of the major themes of restlessness and longing that pervade throughout it.   While the characters frustrate, the reader is drawn to them and prone to root for them.

Leavitt’s concise prose is provocative, dense with meaning, and packs a greater punch than those whose excessive detail loses itself in translation.   However, there are a few things that are problematic.   As a child, Sam is given independence to roam and make decisions more common to someone in their early teens, and events occasionally jump from one to the next without adequate explanation.   All of a sudden another character appears, or two characters meet, or a major time shift occurs, and the reader – without enough to go on – must suspend belief or grapple with the inconclusive “what-for’s” and “why’s” of the situation.   Perhaps most troubling is Leavitt’s over-reliance on constructing the characters’ major thoughts or points she wants the reader to ponder in the form of questions.   The writing itself is mostly powerful, which could lead one to deem this technique unnecessary, yet it is instead common.

Leavitt trickles the story out initially and creates strong scenes, engaging passages, and well-constructed dialogue, moving the reader to a satisfying inconclusive conclusion.   She does an admirable job of exploring the complexity of human relationships, and none of the minor issues noted above interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of this rich tale.

Recommended.

This “second look” preview-review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   (A review copy was provided by the publisher.)   Pictures of You: A Novel will be released by Algonquin Books on January 25, 2011.

“Magically written, heartbreakingly honest…”   Jodi Picoult

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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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Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

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Every Story Tells A Picture

When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From A Persuasive Man by Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen (Hachette Audio, Unabridged on 8 CDs; $29.98).

“I’ve never been afraid to fail.”   Jerry Weintraub

If you’re going to experience a book based on an “old man’s” stories of his life, you might as well hear them in the voice of the man himself, Jerry Weintraub.   Weintraub, now 72, has worked with the biggest of the big in the music and movie businesses.   Yes, everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan – who wrote the introductory poem – and Led Zeppelin in music; Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Gene Hackman (with whom he attended acting school) in film.

Weintraub was also the Zelig-like figure who befriended the biggest figures in politics including a young John F. Kennedy, CIA Director George Herbert Walker Bush, and a peanut farmer by the name of Jimmy Carter.

I first attempted to read the standard book version of Talking, but something was missing.   The stories were entertaining but I couldn’t get a feel for the narrator, the person telling the stories.   This all changed when I began to listen to the audio book.   Initially, Weintraub sounds every year of his age and I began to wonder if a young actor should have been hired to voice the tales.   But within just a few minutes one becomes mesmerized by his voice.

Weintraub likes to say that there are differences between a person’s appearance and his/her behaviors and true personality; but it takes some time to learn about the individual’s soul.   The same is true here…  Only by spending time with the man do you get past his appearance as one of “the suits” in New York City and Hollywood/Los Angeles.   Eventually you get to the man and his soul – what makes him tick, what really drives him, and what he thinks life – success – is really about.

Jerry Weintraub takes the listener on a journey which begins with him as a poor Jewish kid on the streets of Brooklyn.   In his early twenties he becomes the most ambitious young man working in the mail room at the famed William Morris Agency in Manhattan.   After a couple of very quick promotions, he quits William Morris – now who would do that? – as he has the idea of taking Elvis on his first nationwide concert tour.   In order to do this he needs to come up with a cool $1 million deposit to hand to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager.   How does he come up with the money?   This is just one of the many great, highly entertaining, stories told in this anthology of true tales.

“While we’re here, we may as well smile.”   Armand Hammer

It comes as a surprise that the most fascinating stories are about the secondary figures, such as John Denver, George Burns, Dean Martin, Dorothy Hamill (who married Dean Paul “Dino” Martin), Colonel Parker (who was originally a carnival barker), and Armand Hammer.   But Weintraub saves the very best for last, when this very mature man touches upon spirituality, religion, mortality and family.   By his own admission, Weintraub has never been religious and yet he has come to work closely with Catholic charities and Jewish congregations.   It is all very personal, as he explains in Talking and some of the connections have to be heard to be believed.   (Yes, real life is so much stranger than fiction.)

It is when he talks of the death of his parents that we come to feel the emotional soul of Mr. Weintraub.   His voice breaking, he tells us that “everything changes in life when you lose your parents.”   Materialism takes a sudden back seat to memories, to one’s basic values as one comes to realize that we’re all renters in this place.

Jerry Weintraub, we come to know, was proud of his success but so much more so because he could share it with his parents – such as with his skeptical father who came to doubt that he “really knew” President Carter and the First Lady until the Weintraubs were invited to a State Dinner at the White House.   (Weintraub’s father once wondered aloud if his son had made millions as a Jewish member of the Mafia.)

By the end of Talking, you’ll come to feel that Jerry Weintraub is a very nice man, one you’d be happy to invite to one of those special “10 people you would like to have dinner with” events.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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