Tag Archives: Picador Books

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $17.00, 576 pages)

Corrections Franzen

“I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough….” Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

I received this book as a gift from my son, which is why I proceeded to read an author I had not previously sampled. It’s a unique gift when an avid reader discovers a writer that, for lack of a better term, “lights them up.” Some novels are decent, enjoyable for certain audiences of a certain time; quaint, funny, guilty pleasures. But one occasionally comes across an author who can just plain write the hell out of a story. Jonathan Franzen is one of these gifted writers. His National Book Award (2001) winning work, The Corrections, is as fine a contemporary novel as I have encountered.

(I don’t know why I did this – because I never do – and it isn’t fair. But as I was reading the book, I could not resist the urge to compare Franzen to another accomplished author whose work I have read, Philip Roth. Roth is brilliant when he’s good, occasionally doles out some nonsense for his readers to deal with, and appears to possess a certain love-hate relationship with writing.)

Emid Lambert has been the caretaker of her ailing husband Alfred, a sympathetic victim of Parkinson’s disease. Her only desire is to enjoy one last Christmas get together with all of her children at her home in the fictitious community of St. Jude. Lambert’s perception of what constitutes the “perfect family” – considering the badly flawed personalities of her children – is comical at times; but it’s presented in a prescient way. Talk about humanity and life on a page!

Chip is an intellectual with tremendous promise as a college professor who loses it all because he cannot keep his zipper shut (ever hear that one before?). He’s so obsessed with getting his screenplay accepted, he actually abandons his parents – who have traveled across the country to see him – without warning, leaving them for his sister Denise to attend to. She is a brilliant cook who apparently has been sexually confused for most of her life, and a lesbian affair ruins her meteoric rise to stardom. Just when you want to like Denise, she comes across as some bizarre combination of helpless, frigid and psychopathic.

Gary, who lives the suburban dream to his great financial resources, corrals a middle school boy’s vision of perfection (a combination Barbie doll, cheerleader and model), Caroline. Who could ask for more? He is initially a sympathetic figure, with his wife appearing to be a highly manipulative woman, until it becomes obvious that he could be the most self-centered individual in the rather strange family!

It is a bit more than implausible that Chip somehow disappears with a Lithuanian revolutionary. Each child’s story is told in succession rather than interwoven, and this leads to characters being abandoned for lengthy portions of the almost 600 page story. It’s not completely clear why Denise’s relationship must be explored in great detail to advance the story and satisfy the reader. What is clear is that in the end, Enid sort of gets her wish fulfilled. Be careful what you wish for.

Franzen seems to have over-written the story in order to fill the expectations for a lengthy, classic, modern novel. So I would not consider this to be a “perfect” book. But is it a good read? Absolutely!

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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That Was Only Yesterday

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The then-new president of the U.S. and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not then known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub-restaurant to watch the 19-inch RCA color TVs broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day – back in the day – I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened.   But years and then decades passed by and the book did not appear.   This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President.   It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose Secret Service code name was Rawhide), his Secret Service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood starlet.   The language and mood become more tense and dramatic as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.

Wilber very properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in recalling these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged a single inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period had passed, the president was advised by the medical professionals to rest and convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and just a month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to end too soon.   The courage of the Secret Service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and it constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Rawhide Down was released as a trade paperback book on March 27, 2012.  

“Full of spectacular, original reporting.”   Bob Woodward

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