Archive for June, 2013

Review: Devil In The Grove

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Gilbert King won the Pulitzer Prize for Devil In The Grove, and it’s easy to see why.  This is a well written, meticulously researched history of a horrifying miscarriage of justice in a 1949 rape case.  King collects a dizzying array of facts and testimony that make clear just how badly America treated its black citizens.  It’s the kind of sobering history that makes you worry how much has changed.

The case is cut and dried by any reasonable standard: several of the men convicted had never laid eyes on the woman they were alleged to have raped, all were beaten until they confessed (or it was clear they wouldn’t), the trials were all overshadowed by mob violence, and defense attorneys nearly lynched.  When a new trial was ordered by the Supreme Court, the sheriff simply shot the two defendants on the way to the court house (one miraculously survived).  No charges.

King makes it clear that it was also cut and dried by the unreasonable standard of the day: a white person claimed rape by blacks, so they were guilty.  A lot of the impact of Grove is how well King brings that standard home.  The case was the kind of media circus that happens with alarming frequency today – as I write this the Trayvon Martin case is the analog – but the lynchings and shootings were considered expected.

Understanding central Florida’s history here makes people’s reaction to the modern case much clearer.

Grove is harrowing and essential reading.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Unnatural Creatures

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Unnatural Creatures is a collection of fun stories loosely organized around interactions with mythical or imaginary creatures. It is organized by Neil Gaiman, who in addition to his skills as an author, shows off his taste in the fantastic.

The stories in Creatures cover a remarkable period of time.  The oldest, Frank Stockton’s “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” was first published in 1885, and others were produced for the collection in 2013.  While there is probably a slight statistical bias toward recent stories, the publication dates spread out rather well.

The broad range of times and tellers never feels like a stunt.  If one skipped the tale introductions, it would be difficult to tell which stories came from which decades.  This is partially the nature of fantasy stories about unnatural beasts, of course.  More often than not such things take place in Jane Austen-y English heaths, making it as easy to write one looking around in 1885 as looking back in 2013.

As if anticipating that criticism, Gaiman not only picks stories from the past, his setting varies.  Larry Niven’s “Flight of the Horse” was published the same year as the moon landing, but blends science fiction and fairy tale creatures in thoroughly modern ways.  The versatility and inventiveness of many other writers is similarly on display.

Creatures is the kind of collection a kid would do well to stumble across in a school library or other unexpected place and have their ideas about the power of storytelling expanded.

Recommended, even if you already have an open mind on the power of stories.

Review: Life Itself

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

I feel confident that Roger Ebert titled his memoir Life Itself partially so there would be a bunch of reviews titled like this one.

There are a lot of ways to look at Life Itself, but I think I’ll take Ebert’s own tack in assessing it: how did it affect me when I read it? I came away feeling that I’d spent time talking with someone who was colorful and interesting.  The book convinced me that I would like the opportunity to meet Roger and get to know him better.  He seems honest, interesting, and intelligent.

Honesty is necessary for a great memoir.  A writer who spends a couple hundred  pages making press releases or excuses may as well just write fiction.  Ebert doesn’t do this, nor does he write whatever he thinks at the moment.  The book is full of genuine sentiments, arrived at after a lifetime of consideration, and expressed with verve and polish.  That can rob them of some immediacy – his discussion of his personal theology is intentionally measured rather than ecstatic – but overall seems consistent with the man’s character.  I also think an examined, joyful, life clearly and honestly expressed is the best we can hope for.

It also helps to have an interesting life to talk about.  Intellectually, I agree with Scott McCloud that everyone has a story to tell, but in my heart I believe that some people’s lives are just more interesting than others.  Ebert’s clearly done a lot; pulitzer prize winning journalist, television star, leader in the film community, and cancer survivor.  In addition to living a full life himself, he’s interviewed a lot of other standouts.  Life Itself tours all this interesting space.

Finally, he thinks about things well.  Some intellectuals come off as cold because their drive to analyze the world drains their intensity.  Ebert tells you what he thinks without ignoring how he feels.  Few people can think well and maintain both intensity and civility while they explain it.  Ebert is one of them.

If one wanted to be critical of Life Itself, one could point out that it is episodic and lacks overarching structure.  And this is so; it has clearly coalesced from blog posts, rather than being a literary undertaking.  But, so what?  It’s a well-written distillation of a man’s beliefs and the path that lead him to those beliefs.  That’s a pretty good definition of a memoir.

Strongly Recommended.