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infernoInferno, the movie, is expected to begin filming in Florence next year. If you haven’t read the book yet, Benjamin recommends that you do:

Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, returns as the central character in this fast paced, intellectual, thriller.  As the story opens, Langdon is waking up, disoriented, in a hospital.  The people around him are not speaking English, but Italian. While it makes one wonder if Langdon actually keeps office hours on campus (he never seems to be there), it also grabs your attention. From the initial scene there are twists, turns, surprises, danger, and discoveries. Inferno introduces readers to an entirely new cast of characters including Dr. Sienna Brooks, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, The Provost, and Bertrand Zobrist, who keep readers turning pages late into the night.

This is Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel. With each book the stakes seem to grow, and as this plot unfolds the potential consequences of not solving the puzzle quickly expand beyond the lives of a few people. As the title will suggest for some, crucial to Inferno’s story is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The author has Langdon using his unique knowledge of symbols to examine and analyze Dante’s work, extracting clues, revealing truths, and saving lives. Langdon’s expertise and his eidetic recollection of art serve as key factors in the story.

Dan Brown’s smooth writing and attention to detail make for exciting story-telling. Brown engages his reader with vivid descriptions of historic architecture, art, geography, and society. The places, art, and history he includes in his novel are largely factual.  The narrative Brown weaves into the fact is a big part of what makes Inferno so entertaining for me.

Another part is the protagonist. I find myself awed by Langdon’s superhuman personality. He embodies a combination of being unpretentious, ethical, brilliant, driven, analytical, and confident.  Because Langdon has no significant character flaws, I think we need the suspension of disbelief that fiction allows to make the character convincing. I still can’t quite visualize Dr. Langdon, since I’ve never met a middle-aged, brilliant academic who also is extremely physically fit, and stands firm in the face of certain death. Indiana Jones showed us that archaeology and adventure are inseparably linked but, before Robert Langdon, who among us had included symbology in that cosmology?  Is it a leap to expect that someone will soon write about the exciting exploits of a suave, globe trotting, death-defying librarian? After all, librarians are pretty cool too.

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bully

In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:

Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs).  Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White.  That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.

Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.

Taft did not crave the limelight.  If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career.  He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.

Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them.  He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.

Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent.  In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents.  Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists.  However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.

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zealot

Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years: 

Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.

Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.  He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs.  He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.

Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not.  There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions.  Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.

Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility.  As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.

For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.

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billycIn yesterday’s review of Furious Cool, Benjamin commented on the dark side of a famous comedian’s character. Today, things lighten up with this review of another comedian’s life story: 

My first memory of Billy Crystal was his character Jodie Dallas on the sitcom SOAP.  Crystal’s sense of humor, genuine intelligence, and honest delivery were evident then, as they are throughout this autobiographical memoir.  In this book he is both funny and poignant.

Crystal’s writing style is relaxed, delivered much like a comedian’s stage act.  There are jokes aplenty, and if you are familiar with his comedic style, you will recognize his characters weaved into the book.  Crystal recalls a childhood surrounded by musicians and the entertainment industry, his lifelong addiction to sports, the career impact his impressions of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell had, his rising star as a standup comic, and his numerous friendships with individuals whose names any reader instantly recognizes. The book is a combination of one-liners, personal and professional experiences, and commentary on getting older.

Among the vagaries of advancing age, Crystal talks about the challenges of staying physically fit, the inability to stay awake in theaters, the loss of loved ones and friends, and the joys of family.  None of this is earth-shatteringly new in concept, but Crystal’s take on it all is lighthearted and fun to read. He’s clear that he’s not done living.

Crystal notes that from a young age, he relished garnering laughs from any appreciative crowd, be it family, friends, or unknown onlookers. He recounts his career highs and lows, although his career lows are few and far between. Crystal’s dedication to craft and excellent performance, combined with his intuition and innate talent, has resulted in a nearly uninterrupted climb to the top of his profession.  If Still Foolin’ ‘Em has a flaw, it is Crystal’s constant references to well-known celebrities and not as well-known individuals with whom he has developed close and lasting friendships.  Not everyone is his friend, but through the book, he gives the impression that most people are.

Still Foolin’ ‘Em is a light memoir, examining the life of a likeable comedian. Billy Crystal has enjoyed tremendous success while staying out of the tabloids. His successful marriage, well adjusted daughters, good health, and lack of obvious foibles might make you think his memoir lacks the dirt and dish of a “good” memoir. But, really, it’s a crystal clear look at what’s right in this world.

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FuriousCoolOur regular contributor, Benjamin, a connoisseur of pop culture, is blogging all this week. Today, he reviews an appreciative biography of Richard Pryor:

I was born too late to experience Richard Pryor in his prime. I only recall news stories about him as I was growing up, and seeing many of the movies he did during the 1980s.  So, this biography offered me the opportunity to learn a great deal more about the man.  His life was full of laughter and success, but also turmoil and violence.

While the Henry brothers are not biographers by profession (one is a screenwriter and the other a songwriter/singer) they are Richard Pryor aficionados. Furious Cool is really a tribute to Pryor. The Henrys do not offer excuses for his deviant behaviors, but rather a recounting of the high and low points of his life. Pryor was not a role model. He was not even a nice person much of the time. He was a comedian who could take his audience anywhere and everywhere using just his voice, physicality, brilliant delivery, and agile mind.

Richard Pryor was born into poverty, physical and mental abuse, a culture of drug use, and an anger toward mainstream society.  He grew up a user of hard drugs, an alcoholic, and a violent man, who surrendered to his demons, even embraced them, rather than battling them. Furious Cool also reveals that he was a comic genius who revolutionized standup comedy.  By all accounts, Richard Pryor was so brilliant live on a stage that his performances are considered the best of the best by comedians and enthusiasts. To this day, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) is heralded as among the best-ever recorded comedy concerts.

In some ways, Pryor’s lifestyle was a testament to how much self-destructive abuse a person can absorb and still survive. It seems that most “modern” celebrities who go down the path of drug addiction either come back repentant or never come back.  Pryor spent his entire life a junkie and was never particularly apologetic about it.  Although his demons had definitely gotten the better of him before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was that disease that ended his life, not his questionable activities.

Readers should be aware that because Pryor’s act was irreverent, disturbing, and filled with expletives, this book includes many examples of stand-up routines laden with swears and difficult subject matter. It contains stories of drug use and other deviant behavior that were part of Pryor’s everyday life. It also reveals a tormented individual and a comic genius. That noted, Furious Cool is a well written biography for anyone looking to learn more about Richard Pryor. While reading this book you may laugh, you may cry, but you will never think of Pryor in the same way.

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forgive

Leonard Peacock, age 18 today, doesn’t connect with anyone at school except for Herr Silverman, his social studies teacher. He spends his free time with a chain-smoking elderly neighbor watching Bogart films, and surfing the subway dressed in a suit, observing the workaday adults, and looking for any sign that “it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy.” He sometimes writes letters to himself from imagined loved ones from his future, as suggested by Herr Silverman to get through the daily life of his teenage experience.

Leonard is a loner, to say the least. His self-absorbed failed rock-star father is gone, and his aging model mother, pursuing a mid-life career as a fashion designer, spends most of her time in New York with an insidious “Jean-Luc.” None of these are the reasons Leonard has decided to kill himself and his once best friend Asher Beal today.

Leonard Peacock has a bitterly funny and painfully sincere perspective reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, questioning the norms of a world in which so much seems wrong. He laments a world lulled into the habit of accepting or ignoring everyday evils. But he harbors hope for the better: “Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day.”

This book is swiftly-paced, darkly humorous, and probably for the more pensive reader of realistic fiction. The darker themes may resonate more with older young adult readers, but adult readers shouldn’t miss out on this YA gem. (Quick also wrote The Silver Linings Playbook). The characters are flawed, real, and sometimes lovely. Several long footnotes/sidebars annoy at first, but seem to drop away once the main story and characters are established. Quick offers a perspective on hope and happiness in spite of terrible events, rather than for lack of them, and that happiness can require work. I really connected with this book and feel compelled to read the rest of his works–all of which have been optioned for film.

Read-alikes for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock include Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.

Check the WRL catalog for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

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IllusionSeparateness

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.

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