It's summer. Traditionally the time to take it easy, lay on a beach, read easy throw-away books, and don't do theatre unless you're a song-and-dance man who works on outdoor stages. This blog will touch (in easy throw-away fashion) on the above topics and more.
I've probably read about eighty books (and scripts) already this summer. The majority have been thrillers – cops, spies, lone heroes etc. I'm always looking for new favorites, though I keep coming back to those who I think are best, who, coincidentally, usually have a new one out every summer. Those have included:
Lee Child – His series features Jack Reacher, a 6'5” ex-Military policeman who roams the world trying to stay out of (but always finding) trouble. Like most thriller heroes, he's got a soft spot for the little guy, the abused woman and the generally downtrodden, and he always sets things right. Like many of his fellow thriller writers, Child does verge (or tumble over into) on parody of himself sometimes (you get an amazing amount of technical detail in Reacher books on weapons, surveillance etc etc), but his books are a consistent clean read. This summer's entry: GONE TOMORROW. Be ready for the conclusion, when Reacher takes on a building of terrorists himself.
James Lee Burke – Burke has a few series with a couple of different main characters (chief among them, Dave Robicheaux, cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans. Two of Burke's Robicheaux books have been turned into films: HEAVEN'S PRISONERS with Alec Baldwin as the lawman, and the recent straight-to-DVD IN THE ELECTRIC MIST. Both films were disappointing, the last one particularly so, because it had Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed) as the perfect Robicheaux. (By the way, Burke's THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN, on the surface another typical Dave Robicheaux crime novel, has been cited by many critics as one of the best books dealing with Katrina and its aftermath.) Burke's new book, RAIN GODS, features a new lead character, Hackberry Holland, a Texas lawman fighting the out-of-control drug and human smuggling crises on the border. Burke seems energized by his new character and setting, (though he may have also been energized by NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEAN, with, like this book, a grizzled old-school sheriff and an almost inhuman, unstoppable hit man) and this book is as good as he's ever done.
Daniel Silva – His books star Gabriel Allon, renaissance art restorer and Israeli hit man. These books are global in scope, relentless in their suspense, and richly satisfying. This summer's edition: THE DEFECTOR.
But missing in action this summer was ALAN FURST, who is probably my favorite of the bunch. I came upon his work just after 9/11, and his books seemed to capture the mood of the world at that time perfectly. All of them are set in Europe in the late ‘30's. Depending on their location, the Nazis are in power, or coming into power, and everything, indeed life itself, seems just hopeless. Central to each of the books is a man, a writer or lawyer or film director, someone who is sympathetic to but removed from burgeoning resistance movements. Inexorably, the main character is drawn into the movement and assumes the risks and courts the dangers of fighting the grinding Nazi power. Furst's books call to mind CASABLANCA, and the existentialist choice to fight the good fight, even when the outcome seems doomed. Perfect for our time.
(Also perfect for our time, and a little outside this genre, was THE STRAIN, first in a planned trilogy co-authored by fantasy film director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It's the story of a massive vampire infusion of New York City, with the subsequent two books detailing its world-wide spread and desperate fight by the human race. If you like this sort of thing (and I love vampire stories in all shapes and sizes), this one is highly recommended.)
As I'm straying from thrillers, I'll also mention a couple of novels I liked: HOW TO SELL by Clancy Martin, very funny story of a young man's entrée into the retail jewelry business, a kind of CATCH-22 for the new working young, and Eric Bogosian's latest, PERFORATED HEART. Of course, I know Bogosian's work well from doing most of his one-man shows, and I've been following his writing – plays and his first novel, MALL – as he transitions from angry downtown performance artist to serious grownup artist. MALL was a bit of a cliché, but PERFORATED HEART is strong. He examines the 70's New York cultural scene he invaded as an actor, and charts the growth of a writer from enfant terrible to mature artist. Bogosian is improving as a novelist, and I'm looking forward to his next book,
CELEBRITIES – These are my real beach/beach reads: bios and autobiographies of celebrities, primarily actors, directors or musicians. Knowing a little about their worlds, they fascinate me, from bitchy name-calling or name-dropping, to instructive lessons on complex production or artistic issues.
I've knocked off a number this summer, many pretty flippant – George Hamilton, Robert Wagner, Ernest Borgnine (primarily to get his take on THE WILD BUNCH), Charles Grodin's latest; a few more substantive – the new Paul Newman bio, Lena Horne; and some even inspiring – the bio of the late Hal Ashby, director of some of the greatest films of the seventies – HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, COMING HOME, SHAMPOO, BOUND FOR GLORY and BEING THERE. Beyond his great film work, he was a major personality in the Hollywood power structure of his day, friend and advisor to many of the most celebrated and talented.
And at one point, found myself reading, back-to-back, Carrie Fisher's WISHFUL DRINKING, her story of growing up in Hollywood and her attendant sobriety battles, and a book about the making of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, my favorite musical, which featured Carrie's mother, Debbie Reynolds in her first major film role.
YAHOO WARS (WARNING: This section will get a little heavier. And weirder. You may just want to skip down to the next “Scripts” section.)
Other than the usual PR about personal theatre projects, I hesitate submitting anything to the local Yahoo St. Louis theatre blog. I certainly won't submit my own reviews of shows (the realm of sterling sycophants), and even the most innocent-seeming comments can get bracing responses.
A while ago (and I wrote about this in an earlier blog), I submitted a comment in an on-going discussion of guilty pleasures musicals. In addition to saying how much I loved SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and a few other specific musical moments, I said something about musicals not usually being serious or something like that, and got blistered by Scott Miller in a Yahoo response for taking musicals lightly. Didn't really mean to do that, but I was surprised by Scott's My-Way-Or-The-Highway blast.
Recently I submitted another note, concerning the film version of the German book, A WOMAN IN BERLIN. Philip Boehm of Upstream translated the successful recent English version of the book, and I was just calling attention to its success. (The film will be out on DVD, by the way, on November 10.)
This note received a Yahoo response from Byron Kerman (who is a friend, a supporter of my work, and a talented artist in his own right) yelling “rape rape rape, that's what this book is about, and if you like rape, go see the movie.” I wasn't offended by his note, but also didn't want to come across as someone condoning cavalier descriptions of rape. A WOMAN IN BERLIN is anything but that. It's a personal journal of a woman who had to endure the hellish takeover of Berlin by invading, revengeful Russian troops.
While I was mainly trying to toot Philip Boehm's horn in this matter, I was also commenting in context to things I've read, and have been reading this summer.
I've always felt just one step removed from World War II. My dad was in it (an infantryman who hit Omaha Beach on D Day, and went on to the Battle of the Bulge), and while he (like most veterans) never talked much about it, its proximity, as a young guy, was of interest to me in books and films. And coming into the 21st century, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the whole thing, not only the general scope and sweep of the war, but also the atrocities that had been committed – the Holocaust, the use of atomic weapons, the bombing of non-strategic targets like Dresden, the Bataan Death March, the inhumane treatment of prisoners of wars and citizens on all sides, etc etc.
But I still had a lot to learn. In recent years, I learned about the Rape of Nanking (when the Japanese invaded and used terror, rape and murder as political tools.) The author of key books on this incident was Iris Chang, a Chinese-American scholar, who committed suicide at the age of 36 after her determined, tortuous research into Nanking.
Then I read THE FALL OF BERLIN by Antony Beever, which is basically the overview of what happened in A WOMAN IN BERLIN from a military history point-of-view. It details the Russian sweep westward across Germany towards Berlin. And, as they went, the Russians basically shot every man and boy and raped every woman and girl they could manage. I understand the Russians were out for revenge. Still, it was deeply unsettling.
And I've continued to come across more, the most recent being a film, KATYN, about the murder of 20,000 Polish military (some professional soldiers, most teachers, engineers, artists who had joined the army) in the Katyn forest by Soviet occupying forces.
I'm just scratching the surface of what happened in that era here, of course. But the more I learn about the darkest underbelly of WW II, the more I'm becoming convinced - and here's where this is going to get a little weird – that some sort of real, palpable evil – let me repeat that, evil – was unleashed on the world. And, even weirder maybe, is that I think it's still lurking in and around us to this day.
Of course, there was evil in the world before 1930, but it took on a new, global influence from then on.
I'm not going to dwell on this, so let me make it quick. We've all read about Hitler and the Occult, blah blah blah. I'm not talking about that. But Hitler, primarily, and his gang, just may have stirred things up enough that they created a mode of operation not only for his own henchmen and armies, and not only for the other combatants of that war, but for people who were touched by that war to carry forth into the latter days of the 20th century and even into our own day.
Basically, it's this: that people feel empowered to do whatever they want. Period. That was the credo of the armies of the night during WW II. It's the credo of the robber barons of 2009. They can steal shamelessly and bankrupt millions.
That may seem too easy a connection or too broad of a stretch. So let's cut it right down the middle, to 1963, between the 1940's and the 2000's. (And this goes back to Summer Reading.)
A few months ago I also read BROTHERS by David Talbott, about Bobby Kennedy's secret efforts to uncover JFK's assassination. It's a sober and serious book, in no way a conspiracy nut job, and it supports conclusions that Jack Kennedy's (and Bobby's) deaths were not random acts.
That's tough enough stuff, but then I came across a new book by James Douglass, JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE. It lays out his death as an inevitable conclusion of his evolution as a man of peace, a man who threatened the military/industrial complex. His assassination was perpetrated by men who were shaped by WW II, men who were influenced by evil, men who thought they could do anything they wanted.
I'll cut this off now, but be assured, whackjob or not, I'm into this theory, and will follow it. I do believe what went on in World War II, what's still going on today – from financial rape, to Iraq, to Katrina, to the mad mouthings of Rush Limbaugh, right down to the way each and every one of us sometimes treat other people – is a direct result of a massive evil that was given birth by madmen. And the seeming permission it gave everyone to do exactly what they want. It's easy to say we beat Hitler. But I think, unfortunately, he's still in the game.
Yes, I haven't been neglecting play scripts. A random invitation from the new administration at Herbie's (the successful new incarnation of Balaban's, where I've performed a couple one-man shows) caused me to dash around trying to uncover any one-man scripts I may have overlooked. (I'm not sure there are any.) I found one I thought might have been exciting, but wasn't able to pry rights away from the subject's family. (Don't want to say too much about that one right now. It may become available someday.)
Also, re-looked at a number of interesting scripts I've been sitting on, and worked with Sarah Whitney in reviewing several options, including new scripts she's developing in Chicago. Nothing to be scheduled yet, but they're fun to read and consider.
And finally, MYSTERIES
St. Louis TheatreTheatreTheatre. There is now as much theatre on any given summer weekend in St. Louis as there used to be during the traditional theatre (“school”) year. Where is it all coming from? Can it be controlled? Will we survive?
And here's another head-scratcher. What happened to Dave Wassilak at St. Louis Actors Studio? What happened to Michelle Hand at Orange Girls?
Suddenly they're nowhere to be seen on their respective groups' websites or upcoming plans. Have they been eaten by the out-of-control St. Louis theatre scene?
Some word has it that Michelle simply wanted to act more, and get out of the burden of running a company. And the Actors Studio thing – who knows, but losing Wassilak leaves them with but a shred of artistic credibility.
In any case, theatre companies (and all the new companies in town) trumpet their arrival, their staffs, and their artistic vision, and it's often reported dutifully by the press. It's just as important when key figures depart, but I've seen no addressing this by the companies, and no awareness from the press.
Ah, well. It's a mystery.