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REVIEWING

We the Animals

by Justin Torres

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 2011 | $18.00 |128 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Hungry for Life

justin torres

We the Animals by Justin Torres can be difficult to read.  Not because it’s not brilliant and startling—it is, but because the book can be intensely visceral, angry, and violent.  Because the book also has moments of great tenderness, I felt swayed and unmoored, stranded somewhere between excitement and dread.  I realized that surrendering to the characters’ highs would only allow me to feel the lows even more.

To his credit, Torres made me feel the absolute bond and protectiveness of this family.  At the same time I felt what the narrator (he is never named) must have felt—claustrophobic within the suffocating bonds of the family.

Like the title, the male siblings in We the Animals are described as “animal-like”; at once unruly, greedy, and hungry (in a very real sense and hungry for all life has to offer), they spend their days in a tribe of three, doing what they can to survive and squeezing joy out of life when they can.

They forage for food in an Old Man’s garden, trampling his vegetables and stuffing tomatoes in their mouths only to feel guilty afterwards; they smash a camper’s window and wait breathless at the end of the road to see what awaits; they dangle their feet off a bridge as cars whiz by, and when the wind comes they lift kites made out of garbage bags to the sky. 

Torres describes this insatiable desire (for manhood, for being understood, for power) in the opening pages of the first chapter, “We Wanted More”:  “We wanted more.  We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry.  We wanted more volume, more riots.  We turned up the volume on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men … we wanted muscles on our skinny arms … we were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Much of the time the children are left to their own devices, essentially uncared for by a mother who is exhausted after working the night shift at the local brewery and by a father who works as a night guard.  They are afraid to ask for food because their mother might get furious.  When she offers them a bowl of soup, they hungrily, gratefully eat.

Yet in spite (or because of?) their parents’ neglect, they feel a heart-breaking connection and loyalty to them.  The mother is described as weak.  Although she seems more solid than the father (she keeps her job), the narrator is often disgusted by her.

He may feel that her love—sickeningly sweet at times—is false.  In one story she begs him to not grow up and become like the other boys or a man like “Paps.”  She tells him he should remain six forever.  The narrator does not trust her sugary words even as he wants to.  He may know they are twisted or exaggerated or not the entire truth.  He sits there uncomfortably; and indeed she ends up flinging him to the floor. 

There are so many painful moments in these stories, moments when the characters are about to reveal something, only to act violently instead.  But even as the narrator feels uneasy about his relationship with his mother, he notices everything about her.  He often talks of her flesh, her smallness, her bird-like bones.

When she pulls her work boots and socks off after a long shift at the brewery, the narrator notices the fluff from the socks clinging to her painted toenails.  He feels both repulsed and curious about the sight.  It’s as if he tries not to notice, but he can’t help noticing.  He thinks his mother should stop crying.  He can’t stand it when she cries, but that is because he can do nothing to help her.

The relationship the narrator has with his father is different.  Whereas the narrator feels sickened by his mother, he’s in awe of his father.  His father, Paps, a Puerto Rican from Brooklyn (much is made in the book of the mother being white and the father being Puerto Rican) is hard, confident, strong, and fully masculine.  He also seems to see his son for who he is.

In one chapter called “Niagara” the narrator accompanies his father to Niagara Falls.  There the father holds the boy way over the water almost daring him to commit suicide.  Later the boy goes into the gift shop where he watches old footage of people getting into barrels and plunging down the falls, many to their deaths.  The boy begins to dance by himself.  The boy is aware that the father is watching him, but continues.

The father tells him later, “I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.”  This seems to be the father’s way of telling his son that he may accept his son’s sexuality—the narrator is gay—but the mother does not.

The immediate family is everything in We the Animals.  Rather than showing that “a village raises a child,” the book shows children raising themselves, fighting and grieving and hoping, while their parents alternately abandon them and almost strangle them with a cloying watchfulness. 

In the story “Ducks” the mother has decided to leave the father, but because she has no place to go she just drives to a local park (with all their clothing packed in trash bags, “the white plastic stretched to a milky translucence and here and there ripped through by the angled edges of letters and envelopes and pictures.”) 

The children end up on a highway, dangerously perched by a rush of cars.  When a woman gets out of her car to rescue them, the narrator recounts:  “We refused politely, looking down at our feet, but she kept insisting that she could not, in good conscience, leave us there, until finally Manny stood and said, “Listen bitch,” and picked up a chunk of pavement, and then Joel followed suit…” This fierce loyalty to a violent family is hard to watch.  The author dares us to despise his characters, but we don’t have the heart to.

I want to talk a little about the form of We the Animals.   The book is arranged in short vignettes or chapters with mostly one word titles:  “Seven,” “Lina,” “Ducks,” “Trash Kites,” “Niagara,” etc.  These stories are so dense and image-driven that they almost read like prose poems.  Although the plot is propelled forward, the chapters are self-contained.  Also the book is a scant 128 pages so as a “coming of age” story much is left out or implied rather than told.   As I was reading the book, I was at first questioning what I was reading—a novel?  connected short stories? a memoir?  prose poems?

The mixing of genres is exciting.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter; a book is good or not, but still my mind would hum with wondering how true the stories were to life.  And if this book is being presented as a novel, it just doesn’t feel like one.

The last few chapters dealing with the narrator’s sexuality are interesting to read in contrast to the first parts of the book when the narrator is younger.  In these we get flashes of who the narrator might become.  We feel that he will finally break free from the struggle within his family.

The narrator realizes that he must leave his brothers and parents behind to become himself, but the idea is terrifying as well.  (He’s put in the psychiatric ward when his mother finds his journal, which fully describes his sexual longings for men).  One feels that although the narrator will leave his tough, macho brothers behind, he will never quite find, no matter how brief, those moments of utter freedom he found when he was a part of three.

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REVIEWING

Catherine the Great—Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Random House, New York | 2011

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

robert massie

What better endorsement can a reviewer give a book than to recount the many hours of pleasure brought in reading it? And so it is with Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796.

Catherine was the enlightened empress who governed ten million Russian subjects during the last half of the 18th Century, during the time of the Enlightenment leading up to the French Revolution. She was the spiritual heir to Peter the Great, who had wrested Russia from being a primitive, medieval backwater into a modern European nation.

As if the world had not been sufficiently enriched by Robert Massie’s masterful biography of Peter the Great, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read (for which he deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize), I suppose it inevitable that he would one day also write the biography of Catherine the Great.

If Peter’s biography was somewhat flawed to a reader not terribly interested in the detailed military maneuvers of Russia’s wars with Turkey and Sweden, Catherine’s biography is seamless.

Peter the Great was born in 1672 and he died in 1725. Peter was tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. His self-given title was Peter the Great though he was officially Peter I.

Peter the Great is credited with dragging Russia out of the medieval times to such an extent that by his death in 1725, Russia was considered a leading eastern European state. He centralized government, modernized the army, created a navy and, alas, increased the subjugation of the peasants. His domestic policy allowed him to execute an aggressive foreign policy.

Peter the Great had two wives, with whom he had fourteen children; three of them survived to adulthood, including a son, Alexei, and two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth.

Peter was succeeded by his wife Catherine who had the aid of the imperial guards. Upon her death in 1727 she was succeeded by Alexei’s son, Peter II. His daughter Elizabeth seized power in a coup d'état in 1741. Elizabeth’s sister Anna was married to a minor German noble and she had given birth to Peter III, who became Elizabeth’s designated heir.

Peter III was a queer duck of a man no more suited to be emperor of Russia than Donald Duck. It was imperative that he marry and produce an heir. Since he was half-German, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a penurious Prussian nobleman, was chosen as his bride. Once married to Peter III she was renamed Catherine. It was this obscure German princess who had traveled to Russia at the age of fourteen who became Catherine the Great.

Not a blood relative of Peter the Great, Catherine shared characteristics with him—a brilliant mind, an insatiable curiosity, an intense interest in the emerging philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the desire to make Russia an intellectual center and part of Europe—and so she rivaled Peter as the greatest of Russian monarchs.

In the pantheon of great female rulers Catherine’s closest company is Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, and achieved preeminence for England as a European power toppling Spain’s dominance. But, these two great female rulers were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to sexual proclivities.

Elizabeth was the celibate, Virgin Queen who rejected all who sought her hand in marriage, as though fearing alignment with a male consort would interfere with her ability to carry out her duties; Catherine, on the other hand, had many lovers and seemed not to be able to do without sex. It’s ironic that such a reasonable and calm lady should have had such a voracious sexual appetite.

Rumors of her nymphomania, which was common knowledge, may be as exaggerated as those of Marie Antoinette’s excesses—despite Antoinette’s essential loyalty to her husband, she was accused of debauchery and of having multiple affairs.

Mr. Massie portrays Catherine so sympathetically that soon enough this kid was rooting for her and feeling defensive on her behalf. In almost every instance she proved to be more levelheaded and reasonable than her temperamental lovers, they the divas who stormed about the palaces she had given them while complaining of their lowly status.

Her husband Peter III was a buffoon—emotionally immature, sexually incompetent, frivolous, and probably a little mad. His loyalty was to the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great. His favorite activity was play-acting battles with his men dressed his Prussian uniform. His marriage to Catherine remained unconsummated after nine years. (This is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI but eventually the dauphin discovered the joy of sex and fathered three children.)

Catherine gave birth during this time but the father of the son she bore was not Peter but Sergei Saltykov, a charming philanderer who bore her no abiding affection. Her son Paul was whisked away from her and raised by Empress Elizabeth, so Catherine was not even allowed to enjoy the comfort of motherhood.

Despite common knowledge that Paul was not Peter’s son, he was proclaimed heir following Peter himself.

Catherine’s luck with men and with life in general improved as time went by. Her third lover, if Peter III can be called a lover, was Stansilaus Poniatowski, by whom she bore another child, a daughter who survived only fifteen months. Poniatowski remained firm in his affection for her but when he became more a liability than an asset. Once she became the empress, she banished him to Poland and made him king there.

Catherine seized power from Peter III shortly after the death of Elizabeth in 1762. She would not have been able to do this without the help of Orlov brothers. Predictably, Peter proved to be a disaster as emperor—almost every policy he instituted, whether remaking the age-old Orthodox Church in the Protestant model, demanding that priests shave their beards and abandon their long brocaded robes, or insisting that soldiers wear Prussian style uniforms, soon alienated the entire population.

When his six-month reign was over and Catherine was enthroned, no one complained. Frederick the Great said of him, “He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.”

Gregory Orlov then was Catherine’s fourth lover, to whom she bore a third child, another son, Alexis. She rewarded Gregory and his brothers, to whom she owed her ascension to the throne, with properties and honors. Gregory was none too happy when he was displaced in the queen’s affections by Gregory Potemkin, who of all her lovers was most worthy of her and whom she actually married.

I was happy for her when she called Potemkin to St. Petersburg and began her affair with him—at last, I thought, Catherine has a lover who is her equal in intelligence and capability, but, soon enough Potemkin proved to be as temperamental and demanding as were her less talented lovers.

Potemkin was also the most enduring. Catherine relied heavily on him and respected most of his opinions. She made him adjutant general of the Russian army, gave him the title Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and then appointed him commander of Russia’s second war against the Turks.

I believe Catherine’s happiest time was the journey Potemkin arranged for her through the Crimea, where along the Dnieper River he had built ports, warships and shipyards. It has been described as the most remarkable journey ever made by a reigning monarch and Potemkin’s greatest public triumph, but it has been disparaged as a gigantic hoax: the prosperous villages the empress saw were said to have been made of painted cardboard, the happy villagers marched from place to place, appearing and reappearing, waving and cheering as Catherine passed. These accusations are the basis of the colloquium, “Potemkin villages,” signifying a sham or something fraudulent.

Catherine was also inspired by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Her friendship with Voltaire, whom she never met but with whom she carried on a voluminous correspondence, caused her to believe the best form of government was a benevolent autocracy. When Voltaire died she purchased his library.

Denis Diderot, the founder and chief editor of Encyclopedia, visited Russia at her invitation and stayed for four months. Later he assisted Catherine in buying a number of European art collections.

Catherine’s embrace of Enlightenment principles made her an advocate for the abolishment of serfdom and prompted her, like the 6th Century Byzantine Emperor Justinian, to write her own legal code, called Nakaz or Instruction.

She began with Locke’s belief that in an ordered society, law and freedom were necessary to one another, since the latter could exist without the former. She defined Russia as a moderate monarchy and said that the laws ought to be so framed as to secure the safety of every citizen as much as possible.

She rejected the use of torture and sought to abolish serfdom—when Diderot had criticized the squalor of the Russian peasant, she replied bitterly, “Why should they bother to be clean when their souls are not their own?” It fell to Tsar Alexander II to finally emancipate the serfs in 1861, one hundred years later. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed America’s black slaves.

The French Revolution had a profound impact on all the monarchs of Europe, not the least of which on Catherine. As reports of the atrocities committed—of the property of the nobility being seized, the defacement of Versailles, the imprisonment of the royal family and the eventual beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—trickled into Russia, Catherine was aghast, fearing this “poison” might spread into Russia and cause uprisings there.

Now she found the idealism of the philosophers of the Enlightenment more flawed than she originally thought, and she censored publications that a decade before she would have welcomed.

She was right to fear these ideas, but what she feared would not happen in her own lifetime—Russia would be ruled by the Romanovs until the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

Catherine became a great patron of the arts. She commissioned many buildings to be built in St. Petersburg, including the Hermitage, originally an art gallery in which to hang the new collections of paintings which she had purchased and a private retreat. The Hermitage, with its Rembrandts, Hals, Van Dycks, Rubens, and a Caravaggios, is now acknowledged as one of the great art museums of the world.

One of the last works to be commissioned by Catherine (completed by Etienne Maurice Falconet in 1787) was the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, which still stands along the Neva River in the middle of the city which Peter founded. Its inscription reads simply, “To Peter the First from Catherine the Second.”

Catherine, the great tsar’s true political heir, decided that there should be a visual tribute to the figure that had made Russia a great European power. She considered herself as resuming his journey to civilization and greatness. Perhaps she wanted people to understand and accept this connection—as indeed we do!

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REVIEWING

The Rebel Wife

By Taylor Polites

Simon & Schuster | 2012 | 304 pages

Reviewed by Andrea Janov

taylor polites

Trying Times

The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites explores the struggle of a woman trying to take care of herself in a world full of upheaval, where friends and society shun her, family manipulates her, and those who she always took for granted become her alliances. If the catalyst to this book can be summed up in one line it is, “Our world had changed so much, I guess none of us knew whom to hate and whom to love anymore.”

The story is set in the years following the Civil War, during Reconstruction, where the Union has won the war and the slaves of the South are new free men and women. The aristocrats of the novel are now faced with as much of an upheaval to their way of life as the newly freed men.

Our protagonist, Miss Gus, sets the temperament of the novel for the reader, “And always before the war. They say it again and again. Before the war. Before the war. It is our common currency. The only way we understand things.”

In this society, tensions between colleagues, family, and former friends remain high, as the issue of slavery still remains a dividing issue, years after the war is over.     “Everyone behaves so cordially now…With so much that we all lost, how could there not be anger?”

     It is in this society where we meet Miss Gus, who will soon have to question and challenge all of its norms in order to survive. As the novel opens, Miss Gus’s husband dies suddenly from an unknown illness, which becomes the catalyst to Miss Gus’s growth and the progression of the story. As Miss Gus begins to settle their estate and move forward with her life she begins to uncover many details about her husband, his business, his political activities, the circumstances surrounding their courtship and marriage, and her place among her family and friends in society.

Her husband’s death has lifted a protective veil that she never knew she wore, and she begins to discover just how alone she really is. The arch of this novel is really the character of Miss Gus. Her progression and growth represents the adjustment that many rebel men and women had to acclimate to as the life they knew was overthrown, and they had to decide what side of the divide they were on.

    Told in the first person limited point of view, we the readers are tied to Miss Gus and her journey from average southern woman to heroine. Miss Gus’s character begins as a stereotype of what we expect for a southern woman of her time; she accepts the new laws yet keeps a separation between her and the servants who work for her.

She also naively believes that those around her also share this tolerant view and her trust remains in the Southern way of life and its culture. Following her husband’s death, she puts her trust in Judge, her mother’s cousin, to settle the estate and in turn take care of her and her monetary affairs, even though Judge and her husband were political rivals in regards to rights of the newly freed men.

   Although we do not immediately like Miss Gus, we soon begin to root for her in spite of her flaws. Because we are immersed in her point of view, we begin to decipher her real thoughts and feelings from those that society had instilled in her as proper, and note how the people around her are trying to manipulate her. “These are not the women I knew during the war. They are changed women – changed faced that I cannot recognize.”

As soon as we soften to this character, we are wrapped up in the action as it unfolds and in her thoughts as she tries to make sense of everything that she is being told in relation to everything that she knows. We are confused and angry when we find out that the people who are supposed to be taking care of her are the worst villains, we root for her to find her compassion and strength, and we cheer when she finally takes charge of herself and her household.

As the novel progresses, Miss Gus not only uncovers her husband’s business and political affairs, but she learns who he was as a man. She had known her husband helped found the freedman’s bank and promoted the colored vote, but she did not realize how extensive his assistance was, being told “He did more for us than many people have. Other than Mr. Lincoln.”

It is once she begins to understand what her husband was working for that she begins to see those around her for who they really are. She sees that those who she trusted have been lying to her, and will continue to manipulate her to get what they desire, and that Simon (her servant) has been trying to help her.

She begins to see her servants, Emma, Simon, Rachel, and John, not as servants, but as people who are trying to make their own way in the world, just as she will now have to do. It is at this point in the novel, where her attitude changes from ambivalence to respect, and she begins relying on Simon for information. This is when we know that she will become the heroine that we are hoping for.

Throughout the novel I was carried along with the right amount of suspense and resolution to peak and satisfy my curiosity. I kept turning the pages and telling myself that I would stop at the chapter break, but was unable to put it down. I will not give away the ending, but I will say that those who have invested themselves in Miss Gus’s character will be satisfied with the conclusion. Also, I am always a big fan of learning a bit of history and anthropology as I am carried through an intriguing story

This book is an interesting, emotional, and engrossing look into a character who illuminates the Reconstruction Era, women, and their place in southern society. Though this novel is very time and location specific, it speaks to a greater theme, it is a comment on women, the strength a woman needs to battle the social mores of the time in favor of what she believes is morally right.  This is a theme that will grab and resonate with readers across many demographics.

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REVIEWING

The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life

By Floyd Skloot

University of Nebraska Press | 2011 | $16.85

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

When Memory Serves

floyd skloot

In Edgar Allen’s Poe’s terrifying story, “A Premature Burial,” the narrator describes a horrible fantasy about being buried alive. Although it’s just a waking nightmare, the experience could be likened to what happened to poet/fiction writer Floyd Skloot.

In his 40s, he was stricken with a virus that severely impaired his cognitive abilities. For a time, he was trapped inside an illness that decimated his communication skills. Writing brought him back to his life, to himself.

As he outlines in this his third memoir, a collection of essays, he has permanently lost the ability to write poetry and fiction. He describes the loss of his future fiction characters, “The lesions on my brain, holes scattered throughout the cerebral cortex, were where I believed those voices had gone.”

In some respects, something else came in through the holes. That is his memories from his past. He explains in his preface that he can’t remember things in chronological order. Yet, his recollections are rich with detail.

In the title essay of the collection, “The Wink of the Zenith,” Skloot takes us back to the days of black and white television channels. The television set was Skloot’s ticket to never never land. “A presence from within the mysterious distances of Television was, I sometimes imagined, trying to send me a message, trying to reach me, share a vital truth. I welcomed the wink of the Zenith.”

Often, television was where Skloot found his heroes. Like many of us baby boomers, he was impressed by Palladin’s code of honor and by Peter Gunn’s hip wit.

Skloot uses the television as a metaphor for his adolescence. “The vertical hold went wild. I couldn’t steady.” This description also presages the havoc the virus would wreak on his mind.

In addition, Skloot used television to escape from his abusive mother. After the death of her husband, she began to physically abuse her youngest son. Television escapism helped him cope.

A teenager when his father died, Skloot was often left alone for weeks by his mother. She went on cruises in search of a second husband. Skloot recounts how she would leave him TV dinners instead of groceries because she didn’t want him to dirty the kitchen. When she came home and found crumbs or anything out of order in the kitchen, she would beat him. Other times, she would slap his face or pinch him, or call him names.

Despite this, he learned how to cook. Preparing meals is one of the ways that Skloot began healing his psyche during that period of his life. He explains that he is still a good cook. The food nourished his body. In his mid-teens, he discovered writing and that comforted his soul and later afforded him a livelihood.

While in college, Skloot was very fortunate to be chosen as the reader for his blind professor and later mentor Robert Russell. As a result of this work-study job, Skloot read/recorded numerous novels, poems, and short stories for Prof. Russell. This work enabled Skloot to develop exemplary skills as a reader, critic, and a writer.

In his essay, “When the Clock Stops,” Skloot critiques Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  “There were voices—a chorus of voices—to distinguish, and levels of feeling to express that were somehow tied to the language of each character.”

In some ways, the reader has a similar experience with Skloot’s voice as it changes in each essay to suit that time in his life.

In one, he talks about his childhood experiences at summer camp. There is a joyful sense of wonder and expectation. In the next, he talks about his first marriage. He is a mature man with growing responsibilities and a sense of purpose.

The essays move like his mind moves now. There is no continuity. Everything here is in the moment. The reader experiences first-hand what it’s like to have shattered memory. It can be frustrating, and yet Skloot charts a course for how to get back to who you are.

Over the twenty years after his illness, he used music from his youth, compilations of television programs, out-of-print novels to regain his memory and his writer self. Readers of his earlier poems and essays sent him emails about the subjects of his work. Their recall helped him reactivate his.

His journey back is also a cautionary tale. He doesn’t bring back baggage that he doesn’t need. He sees a correlation between his rise out of and his mother’s fall into memory loss, specifically dementia.

In the essay, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” his mother often sings classic ballads as she sits in her chair all day in the nursing home. When Skloot and his second wife visit, they sing along with her. He is trying to connect with his mother because he never felt connected to her. It is painful to read how hard he tries to reach out to her because he knows full well that she is beyond his (or anybody’s) reach.

Toward the end of her life, he is able to piece together parts of her memories. However, as he describes her behavior, it appears his mother had undiagnosed dementia for many years. Maybe Skloot doesn’t see this, but he leaves a trail for the reader to follow.

He doesn’t want to let her go. It becomes apparent that despite her treatment of him, he doesn’t waste time judging her. He is restoring and reshaping his life. In moving to wholeness, he never considers bitterness or recrimination.

Instead he imparts a discovery. “…this experience of memory loss lifted me out of myself, and made me part of something larger. Not just the community of the sick, but the wider community of selves.”

The reader will learn much more too, like the value of resilience, the balm that is love, the importance of self-acceptance. The book demonstrates Skloot’s unswerving belief in his craft. He was willing to reinvent himself as a writer, but he never doubted that he is one. Like the narrator in Poe’s story, Skloot overcame a terrifying experience. From it, he learned to navigate a course back to who he is and to embrace his ever present creative abilities.

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REVIEWING

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean

Simon and Schuster | 2011 | 324 pages | $26.99

Reviewed by Amanda Martin


susan orlean

Arguably the biggest breakout star of the 2011 film season was Uggie, the canine co-star of The Artist.  Playing “The Dog,” the leading man’s best friend and constant companion, Uggie acted the part of collaborative buddy doing tricks on-stage and on-screen in support of his leading man, adorable empathetic co-conspirator in domestic scenes, and, when the script called for it, heroic dog running to the rescue of his suicidal owner.

Uggie is only the latest in a long line of canine actors. Dogs, as Susan Orlean tells us in her wonderful new book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, have been appearing in movies since the beginnings of film.

Orlean’s book tells many stories. There is, of course, the story of the character known as Rin Tin Tin, and, as with many figures of popular culture, there is an origin story. There are also the stories of his creators (i.e. writers), of the many reboots of the character, and of the fans, the true believers, and the merchandisers.  Orlean tells of America’s population moving from country to city to suburbs, which changes its relationship to animals. Dogs are transformed from utilitarian beasts who sleep in the barn to beloved companions who share our beds. Most of all it is the tale of three people who become dedicated to telling the stories of Rin Tin Tin: Lee Morgan who found and trained him; Herbert (Bert) Leonard who introduced Rinty to new generations of children; and Susan Orlean, who found herself so obsessed with the dog and his significance that she dedicated 10 years of her life to write this book.

Orlean says that one of the main questions she was continually asked was: Was Rin Tin Tin one dog or many? The answer is both.

In the beginning there was one Rin Tin Tin, and the true story of his discovery on the killing fields of France is the stuff of legend.  In 1918 a young American soldier, Morgan, came across a bombed-out concrete kennel and inside, surrounded by the dead bodies of German shepherds, he found, alive, a mother dog and her days-old litter. A country boy from California who loved animals, Morgan saved the pups and through luck, the kindness of others, and his own persistence, brought two of them back with him to the United States. He named the puppies Rin Tin Tin and Nanette after the inch-long doll charms the French carried for good luck. Although the female became ill, a kind Long Island dog breeder who specialized in German shepherds took in the sick puppy and exchanged her for a healthy one. Nanette II and Rin Tin Tin returned with Morgan to Southern California. The dogs were to remain together for the rest of their lives, the founders of a line of Rin-Tin-Tin dogs that remains popular to this day.

That combination of luck, persistence, and the kindness of others was the hallmark of Morgan’s early years. He was a boy who knew and loved dogs; and Orlean makes the case that the abandonment by his father and the years spent in an orphanage until his mother could take care of him again, explained his closeness and bonding with dogs with whom he felt a trust. Lee began to train the young Rin Tin Tin, who turned out to be a remarkably intelligent as well as beautiful animal, and soon Rin Tin Tin became a star in silent movies. There were other dogs who were leads in films, but none seemed to be quite as good as Rinty. Between 1925 and 1927 Rin Tin Tin was a top box office draw. He even had his own radio show, (though the aptly named actor Bob Barker did most of the barking for it).

The dog by all accounts was smart and skilled. He was considered a fine actor, capable of expression and conveying emotion to an audience, as well as athletically performing his own exciting stunts.  Between films the dog and Lee would go on the road and make personal appearances.  He was so popular and admired that when the votes were counted for the first Academy Awards, Rin Tin Tin won for best actor. The Academy, wanting to establish themselves as a serious body, re-tabulated the votes so that Emil Jannings won for best actor for his work in two movies.

In 1927 Rin-Tin-Tin made four well-received films — and The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” opened to wide acclaim and audience excitment. What happened to many silent film stars happened to Rinty — the talkies ruined his career. It wasn’t his voice, of course, it was the fact that in a silent film he was on an equal emotive level with the human actors. The addition of sound and dialog turned film into a different experience, one in which animals became supporting players, reactive and often comic relief.

By 1929 Lee and his dog had had their contract cancelled. The stock market crashed, banks failed, and Lee lost much of his money. But in 1930 Lee got an offer for Rin Tin Tin to star in a 12-part cowboy movie serial, The Lone Defender. Audiences loved it and Rinty was quickly signed for sequels. Lee and Rin Tin Tin also hit the vaudeville circuit where he was billed as “The Barrymore of Dogs”.

They were a success again, but one thing Morgan was not prepared for was Rin Tin Tin’s mortality. On a warm summer day in 1932, Rin Tin Tin died in the backyard of Morgan’s home. His obituary appeared in all the newspapers, there was an hour-long radio show broadcast across the country, and the dog’s passing was the subject of theatrical newsreels. Condolences came from around the world.

However the story was not over. The first Rinty might be dead — and Morgan may never have loved as much or felt as close to another dog again — but there was a succession of Rin Tin Tins to take his place.

Lee married his long-time girlfriend, Eva, (his first wife had divorced him saying that Lee preferred the dog to her), moved to a ranch in Riverside, California, and had a daughter. He continued to breed German shepherd puppies. He was fifty at the outbreak of World War II, unable to go on active duty, but happy to lend his expertise to evaluate the animals who had been donated by their owners to the “Dogs for Defense” drive. Rin Tin Tin (the third) became the celebrity spokesmodel for what eventually became known as the K-9 Corps.

After the war ended and the troops came home, not only was there a baby boom, but a pet population explosion as well. There was a new canine star in the country; a male collie named Pal played the female title role in Lassie Come Home and was a hit. A new Rin Tin Tin movie seemed to be a natural; Lee had an idea for a screenplay and a movie company was interested.  The Return of Rin Tin Tin was a huge success. As Orlean puts it, “Parents were passing him along to their children. He had beaten time. He had become a classic.”

From silents, to radio, to talkies, to vaudeville, to movies again. Television was to be next.

In 1953 a young writer-producer named Herbert (Bert) Leonard entered the story.  Leonard had an idea for a TV series, one that would take place in the 1870s in Arizona. It would be the tale of a young orphan boy and his dog who are adopted by a US cavalry troop. Leonard went out to Riverside to see Morgan and they made a handshake deal. In the fall of 1954 The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin debuted on ABC.

Because Lee Morgan decided that the trek from Riverside to the San Fernando Valley was too far and he did not want to be the show’s dog trainer, that job was given to the well respected animal trainer Frank Barnes. Rather than a descendant of the original Rinty, the dog who got the part of Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd owned by Barnes named Flame.   Rin Tin Tin was now a character to be marketed, turned into merchandise, a franchise to be managed. Lee would continue to breed his Rin Tin Tin pups and sell them to the lucky few, but millions could now buy — and did buy — the image of the heroic dog on games, lunch boxes, clothing, plastic models . . . The show lasted for four years and then went into syndication, playing on Saturday mornings, well into the 1960’s, introducing yet another generation to the heroic dog.

But Lee Morgan wasn’t there to see it. He died at age 67 in 1960.

The story does not end here either. The legacy that was now Rin Tin Tin continued with a dog breeder who had bought descendants of Rin Tin Tin from Lee and trademarked the name to sell “Rin Tin Tin” puppies, as well as branded dog merchandise. It continued with collectors who amassed huge collections of Rin Tin Tin memorabilia. And it continued in lawsuits over trademarks and copyrights between individuals and studios and companies as to who really owned the image of Rin Tin Tin, and who had the rights to the name.

Most of all it continued with Bert Leonard, who at heart was a storyteller, and wanted to go on telling the story of the iconic dog. After his success with The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin he went on to produce many other popular television series, including Circus Boy, Naked City and Route 66. His was a success story, until the day it wasn’t when he suddenly found it difficult to get projects made. But he could always repackage Rin Tin Tin. Bert re-edited the old black and white series and tinted it, shooting new color wrap arounds to entice the new generation with color TV sets. Later on he completely colorized the old black & white episodes. There was even Rin-Tin-Tin K-9 Cop, shot in Canada, produced in 1988 for Pat Robertson’s CBN cable channel. And to the very end Bert continued to try and sell yet another incarnation of the Rin Tin Tin story, but luck eluded him and he died broke in 2006.

Luck, persistence and talent, as well as the kindness of others, factor into Orlean’s story as well. She is a character in this tale, talking about her childhood fascination with a plastic figure of Rin Tin Tin, which leads her on a journey to write this book. She writes of the first Rinty that “Rin Tin Tin’s life turned out to be extraordinary, not just because things went his way but because so often they came close to going the other way.” And what luck Orlean had. Not only did Morgan keep a memory room at his Riverside ranch — a virtual museum of Rin Tin Tin’s history — but its contents had been saved by a woman from being dumped from a shed where they had been abandoned by Lee Morgan’s widow — so it was all available for research. She was persistent in tracking down Bert Leonard who had seemingly vanished from Hollywood history, and although he was dead, he had preserved his history in a storage unit, and his daughter had kept the key and was kind enough to give it to her.

As Orlean comes to the end of her book, the tone becomes melancholic. She is concluding her research, Morgan’s and Leonard’s stories have come to their normal mortal ends, and she is examining again why she has spent 10 years writing a book about a dog. Early in the book she says “...what drew me to Rin Tin Tin most of all was his permanence — how he had managed to linger in the minds of so many people for so long, when so much else shines for a moment only and then finally fades away. He was something you could dream about. He could leap 12 feet and he could leap through time.” And in the end she concludes, “I believe there will always be a Rin Tin Tin because there will always be stories.” Orlean has chosen to become part of that narrative.

Orlean the storyteller chooses to end her book with a story by Bert Leonard. It’s the final scene of his treatment for a movie that did not get made, Rin Tin Tin and Me. It’s a scene with Lee, his wife, Eva, and Rin Tin Tin — on a film set, being convinced by a producer very much like Bert, to commit to the new adventure of a television show starring Rin Tin Tin. It is a happy ending.

Legends do not die, their stories just get retold. Orlean with skill, grace and heart has told us anew the story of both the life and the legend of Rin Tin Tin.


Amanda Martin works for the public television station KCET in Los Angles

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REVEWING

Corporal Boskin's Cold Cold  War: A Comical Journey

by Joseph Boskin

Syracuse University Press | 2011 | 184 pages | $26.99

Reviewed by Alan Jay Friedman


joseph boskin

As a writer of many musicals and stories, I have not yet tried my hand at memoir writing.   Somewhere down the road, though, I might try to reminisce on the extraordinary confluences of my life, or sum up its various surprises and happenings.  But of one thing I'm certain; memoirs are a tricky form of writing.  They can be mundane, narrow and self-serving.  Or, by offering up a slice of life that isoutside of our own domain and providing insight into a fascinating experience, a memoir can draw us deeply into another time and place.   An historical memoir that came my way, Corporal Boskin's Cold Cold War:  A Comical Journey, so thoroughly engrossed me that I'm now considering giving the form a whirl.

Joseph Boskin is an Emeritus Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University who has written a slew of academic books.  But an experience he had as a draftee during the Korean War in the 1950s, a major conflict that erupted within the larger context of the Cold War, drew him into writing an historical memoir. 

Intriguingly, Boskin was the sole historian of a top-secret, scientific-expeditionary unit consisting of 275 men of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps who were sent to northern Greenland in 1953.  Operating out of Thule Air Force Base, they were instructed to find a way through the dangerous crevasses that criss-cross the edges of the Ice Cap.  Otherwise it would be impossible to mount large-scale caravans of tracked vehicles and sleds across the vast reaches of the Greenland. 

Ostensibly, the outfit was only to test equipment and map the terrain, but a hidden objective was to look into the feasibility of building yet another air base closer to the U.S.S.R.   B-52 bombers loaded with thermonuclear warheads regularly flew out of Thule and headed towards targets approximately five hours away. 

The Pentagon wanted to get even closer to the enemy.

On this level alone this is fascinating military history, yet this is not what Boskin has essentially focused on.  Rather, he was concerned with the kind of history that would emerge from the overall episode and with the actual stories of the men which never make their appearance in the accounts of such reports. 

Boskin wanted to avoid the sanitized format of military volumes, and so has woven a drama of funny interlocking episodes.

Incongruity is at the core of this hilarious take on what happened way up in Thule. In a way, this story is closely tied to Joseph Heller's magnificently satirical novel of 1961, whose title is now part of everyday expressions, Catch-22.  Cold Cold War:  A Comical Journey is  rife with amazing surprises in the frozen north, a climate that gradually softened during the short summer months; at one time or another men grappled with frozen soil, twenty-four hour sunlight, ice-cream deprivation, quick-sand permafrost, plus a host of hysterical responses to these challenges. 

This is a short work, and when I completed it, I wanted more. Not too many books do that for me, and so I offer up Corporal Boskin as a joy for many readers interested in military narratives but with a humorous flare.


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REVIEWING

Greedy Bastards

by Dylan Ratigan

Simon and Schuster | January 2012 | 227 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

dylan ratigan

Gordon Gekko, you’re chopped liver, toast, a penny ante has-been!!! Our country is saturated with your clones who have mastered your operative philosophy and indeed have taken it to soaring heights infecting society beyond even your wildest dreams.  Dylan Ratigan has “outed” the lot of them. And I can’t believe the Karma that has enveloped me as I write this review on the very day that an unknown Greg Smith has plastered Ratigan’s thesis smack on the op-ed page of the New York Times, under the headline, ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.”

In a nutshell, he says of his former bosses, they are Greedy Bastards and he wants out-of-there. Making money is no sin, he declares, unless you are not giving value in return.

Ratigan, the host of the 4 p.m. MSNBC Dylan Ratigan  show is probably the least partisan of the anchors in their stable, an equal opportunity political party excoriator. Coming from CNBC’s Fast Money, The  Call, and Closing Bell, and as a managing editor at Bloomberg, he won Journalism’s coveted Gerald Loeb Award for his coverage of the Enron scandal, and is the perfect messenger to deliver this apocalyptic missive.

Spotted with cartoons and graphics, and devoid of footnotes, the book is not likely to find its way onto academic shelves and it could well  have been  titled: “The Oncoming Fall of the Roman – ooops – I mean, The United States:  For Dummies”  His simplistic, pedagogical, clarity makes the book highly readable, and his thesis is lucid and logical. Corruption and wide spread venal knavery exists in every aspect of society and is perpetuated by archaic systems that are highly resistant to change. And his heavy handed lament is what he calls “extractionism,” taking money from others without creating anything of value, producing economic growth or improving lives. Ratigan  makes frequent references to VICI, core values that he assumes are universal to any deal or relationship : Visibility, Integrity, Choice, Interests.

The book tackles corruption, that is, waste and greed, in several areas of society: banking, education, health care, energy, international trade, tax policy, and the number one system he would like to obliterate and replace, campaign financing.  And who wouldn’t, except six of our “Supremes,” and Citizen’s United, and those with cash cows in their back yard?  His passion regarding the latter has spawned the website www.getmoneyout.com.

Regarding banking, he makes the case that banks should be required to retain more capital and also that they themselves be required to pay the losses when they place “bad bets.” He dares to suggest that  CEOs and board members of AAA rated financial institutions should not collect  bonus pay on losses caused by their own bad decisions just because the losses were covered by the government (“us”).

Referring to China’s big trade-war win with their protectionist policies, he quotes Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein, “Americans acquiesced to this off shoring because it fattened corporate profits (Wal-Mart, in particular), lowered consumer prices, and fit neatly with a free trade market consensus among the economic elite.” One of Ratigan’s many examples of short term wins leading to long term economic disaster: “Low wages and poor working conditions in China drive down those in the rest of the world in a “race to the bottom,”

His health care rant takes on the Affordable Health Care Act – “Obamacare”  if you are fulminating about it– and shores up the criticism, “The best possible world for greedy bastards is when government can legally require people to pay fixed prices.” But he goes on to denounce most suggested alternatives. Referencing Singapore’s system, he urges universal mandated catastrophic policies, which are relatively cheap since catastrophes are rare, and he wants all citizens to contribute to a health care savings account of their choice, from birth, monies from that account to be used for routine medical services. 

He has much to say (negative) about college loans and the “debt for diploma” market, as well as our outdated educational system modeled over a century ago on the interests of an industrialized society and which is pretty much clueless about our changing needs. 

The custom of having Washington insiders become lobbyists, especially in the oil industry according to Ratigan is unacceptable and is partially responsible for our unrelenting energy dependence. And a small one page peek at the evils of gerrymandering hardly does justice to the skewering of the democratic ideals that are currently being addressed, nay, struggled with, in many states these years after the 2010 census.  

A final thrust at the media expresses most of his political philosophy: “We need media that uncovers what every chapter in this book show: that both Democrats and Republicans give away vast amount of taxpayer money to greedy bastards. They just go about it differently. As a result, like any other vampire industry, politics has become an exercise in ruthless self-preservation, a monopoly that exists mainly to keep existing when its productive value has faded away,”

He does end on a note of optimism, although some might call it fantasy. Everything he criticizes is fixable.  “We may never wipe out all of the greedy bastards, but with our resolve and digital technologies, we can reduce their numbers and minimize the damage they can inflict on or world.”

One wonders what he’s smoking.

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REVIEWING

The Royal Wulff Murders

by Keith McCafferty

Viking | 2012 | 330 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber


keith mcCafferty

I’ll Take My Montana Noir

“Montana represents the untamed, the wild, the natural . . . Between the parks lie mountains that don't have names yet, in ranges you've never heard of. Scattered in their valleys, you'll find small towns full of friendly locals sharing the unexpected . . .” [official Montana state travel website]

Keith McCafferty cranks up the volume in his neck of the woods with a little murder, mystery and mayhem. He imports characters to Montana that are stock figures in pulp fiction: Sexier than Bogie is our protagonist, Sean Stranahan, “Stranny,” who’s an artist dabbling in private eye stuff, but really a fisherman.  Then there’s the impossibly curvaceous singer, Velvet Lafayette, with lips "the color of blood . . . not quite fresh. . . Blood and not quite dried." (Would you trust someone like that?)

Well, her half-truths are the catalyst that gets the action in gear.  Good-Girl sheriff, tough on the outside, mush on the inside, Marian Ettinger, flirts with our hero too. Salty characters like Sam the guide, a possibly harebrained deputy, Walt, Harold Little Feather, the Blackfoot tracker who’s good at his job, sexy to boot, and making eyes at our girl sheriff round out the cast. 

We get a handful of scary Bad Guys with big guns and knives, faulty ethics, and very poor housekeeping skills (Why do single men turn feral? asks the sheriff), shootings and stabbings, and the requisite narrow escapes.

McCafferty goes over and sticks his toe in the dark side of the river, gets tangled in the rushes, yet even when he's trying to be menacing, fear and panic are somehow missing. The overall mood is... fun!  This is the outdoorsman’s Maltese Falcon set in Montana along the Madison River.

The heart of the story is quite simply fishing: men fishing together, meeting and greeting your neighbors while fishing, sometimes fishing with a woman, fishing as a way to get in with your new neighbors. Fishing, the new/old networking tool?

This can pose a problem for city dwellers and make you feel like you’re wading through swampy waters without waders – There is so much fish and tackle terminology that reads like gibberish to the untrained eye of a landlubber.

Remember when you were a little kid and did not understand many of the words you were reading, yet somehow intuited what was going on.  At moments, you realize here that this book was written (unapologetically) by a fisherman for fishermen.  Better look up riffle, caddis flies, small olive streamer fly tied with Arctic fox fur.  Or how about Royal Wulff? But, as I said, it’s all lots of fun.

It’s not hard to stay ahead of the plot even with a red herring or two

thrown in with the catch.  Can Stranny reel in the killer?  Resist femme fatale?  Snare the deputy?  Does it matter?  We’re hanging with the home boys in Montana after all with its wide open spaces where dangers lurk in grizzly bears, elk, people, and corporations trying to despoil the natural habitat to make a profit. 

The  town folk are friendly and it’s a haven for fly fishermen looking for rainbow trout.  The Good Guys do triumph, after sustaining some losses, and we all get to go to an Elk Hunt at the end!

The two women, the dark (Velvet) and light heroines (Marian) both have their charms and the romances are left somewhat open ended – will there be a sequel, I wonder?  A new popular serial character – the artist cum private eye cum fly fisherman?

Keith McCafferty has been a Field & Stream editor for the last 20 years, and currently Outdoor Skills and Survival editor, a resident of Montana, experienced journalist and now debutante novelist. He’s a wonderful stylist, and has created amiable characters (including Montana), a plot that keeps you turning the pages, and a certain intriguing mood and mystique about fishing.

It helps if you like/know fishing! In that case, this book probably has erotic elements for you.  A new genre? Fisherman’s porn?

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REVIEWING

Field Gray

By Philip Kerr

G. P. Putnam & Sons | 2011

Reviewed by James Petcoff

philip kerr

Cross the tough black and white noir imagery of Dashiel Hammett with the moral ambiguity of John Le Carre’s gray world of duplicity and you may get an idea of the corrupt delusional and desolate landscape that is the beat of Bernie Günter—ex-Berlin police detective, ex-PI, ex-SS security officer, survivor of two years in a Russian POW camp and most recently, in 1954, an enforcer for the mob in Batista’s Cuba.

Field Gray begins with Bernie trying to do the right thing--much against his better judgment--by smuggling a young female revolutionary out of Cuba to the Dominican Republic. Bad idea. He is popped by US Navy ops out of Gitmo, grilled, sent to NYC, grilled again and put on a plane to the US sector of Berlin, where he is to await a possible trial as a Nazi war criminal.

While at the prison that housed Adolf Hitler, after his failed Munich putsch, he is interrogated by CIA ops, tortured, grilled yet again and made to give information regarding a nefarious German communist with whom he had dealings while a detective in the Berlin police in pre-Nazi Germany and who is now a major player in East Germany’s secret police, the “Stasti”.

To survive, Bernie makes yet another “Devil’s Deal,” a deal he has made many times before with Nazi, Russian and allied, so called, intelligence services.  Like The Continental Op in Hammett’s Red Harvest, Günter will play all sides against the middle and let the momentum of their ideological perception limitations give him the opportunity to slip the noose. These Ivy League boys from the CIA are out of their league when it comes to dealing with Bernie–he’s been worked over by the worst—Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and a whole assortment of NKVD thugs.

Bernie is not a good man but he is not delusional as are the CIA, NKVD and French ops that wish to blackmail and use him for their own ends. As one of John Le Carre’s characters observes in the novel, A Perfect Spy, the only difference between the criminal and the spy is that the spy puts his larcenous nature at the service of the state. Bernie, a cop at heart, does not have a larcenous nature. He also knows Berlin better than his keepers—the worse for them.  Bernie does not have the luxury of warming himself over the fire of self-righteousness and will make the men who have tortured and use him pay. At the bottom line he is a gumshoe cop getting justice anyway he can.

Philip Kerr has a talent for putting fictional characters into real historical situations and then have then interact with historical personages of the times. Bernie Gunther may be a fictional character but he very well might have co-existed with the real people he comes in contact with.   

If you like Dashiel Hammett and John LeCarre, you will love Field Gray and the other Bernie Günter novels of Philip Kerr.

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