Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus

By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd

Zest Books | 2013

The Blue Hour

By Patti Davis

Self Published | 2013

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

What is Young Adult Literature?

I have been curious about this category of literature for some time. We all know about the enormous success of the Harry Potter series, which made JK Rowling the second richest woman in the United Kingdom.

Also, perhaps with a bit of envy on my part, Walter Myers, who was with me in a writer’s workshop at Columbia University, has gone on to great recognition as a Young Adult author.

As a publisher, the best selling book of all at Morton Books, Inc, was the Paperboy pre-teen series. We sold over 50,000 copies and are still selling the four book series.

But Paperboy was not a young adult book; this was a pre-teen book, written by a pre-teen. So what then is Young Adult Literature?

The best explanation I found on the internet was offered by Kay E. Vandergrift of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey:

“Young adult literature is often thought of as a great abyss between the wonderfully exciting and engaging materials for children and those for adults--just as young adults are often ignored in planning library facilities and services. There is, however, a wealth of fiction created especially for teens that deal with the possibilities and problems of contemporary life as experienced by this age group. These contemporary problem novels reflect the troubled times in which young readers are coming of age, but young people also need to laugh at themselves and at their world and to escape that world in flights of fancy.


Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus, is not fiction. Instead, it is a book, where 50 historic persons, mixed with a few unknowns, or barely known, are profiled. From the provocative cover, with a barely nude woman lending it great dash, the book promises something that young adults, especially the males, have on their horny little minds all the time: sex.

As I read the book, some of the people author Kelly Murphy writes about did indeed have vigorous sex lives. Including a wily Cleopatra; and Lord Byron, who was said to be so handsome that women fainted when he walked into a room.

And who knew that a gloomy Gus such as Albert Camus, was such a ladies man

But what are we to make of including such a sexual skinflint as Gloria Steinem, while leaving out the two biggest womanizers of the 20th Century, JFK and Bill Clinton?

Also, for the majority of her subjects, their sex lives were pedestrian, if non-existent

The things that writer Murphy did have going for her in Historical Heartthrobs, is her inclusions of a wide variety of people, and her writer’s voice, which sounds a lot like the people she is writing to.

In the end, however, this book does not live up to its billing. There were few real “hotties,” “peccadilloes,” and “noteworthy liaison,” and much of what she wrote about her subject’s sex life was ho hum heaven.

But, Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes is classic bait and switch. There is some important information contained in this book, and some nice little history lessons, and an interesting way to try and teach history to young adults.

I get it completely.


Patti Davis’ book The Blue Hour is indeed a work of fiction, and it differs from Murphy’s book in not only the genre. There is no sex here. Nor is the language young adultish (if there is such a word). Davis clearly has a way with words, and she tells her young readers that they are just going to have to master it.

Davis puts this talent to great use in her novel. It is a ghost story, fulfilling Professor Kay E. Vandergrift words that “young people also need to laugh at themselves and at their world and to escape that world in flights of fancy.”

The Blue Hour is quite a fight of fancy, indeed. This is a classic ghost story: a kid comes to a small town and moves into a house where much mysterious trauma had occurred. No mistake about it, we had heard this one before.

But Davis adds something else, which is really the heart of her book: the loner, the daydreamer, the misfit. The kids who are her heroes and heroines, all at some point suffered from acute loneliness and misunderstanding, something many young adults can readily identify with

Davis also has going for The Blue Hour her great gift as a storyteller. She moves things around with such a natural gift; and just zips them along. And this is something that all of us editors and publishers love more than anything else, besides money.

With Patti, you just keep turning the pages.

Return to home page


The Story of Mankind

By Hendrik Willem van Loon
Updated and introduced by Robert Sullivan

Liveright: New York. London | 2014

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

In 1921 Hendrik Willem van Loon wrote The Story of Mankind for his grandchildren. At the time the book’s scope was revolutionary, and it was awarded the first John Newberry Medal. Similarly, in 1920, H.G. Wells, a British Fabian, wrote the comparable eight-volume, The Outline of History.

The difference between the two seems largely that van Loon wrote his book for children and Wells wrote his for adults. Both took on the daunting task of trying to cover all of history. When van Loon was asked how he decided what to include, he answered, “Did the person or event in question perform an act without which the entire history of civilization would have been different?”

Van Loon’s book is sprinkled with the illustrations he drew to accompany the text.

In 1972 W.W. Norton & Company, van Loon’s publisher, updated his book, and in 1984 and again in 1999, Professor John Merriman of Yale University updated the text and new illustrations were added by Adam Simon.

In 2014, for the present update, Robert Sullivan added new chapters and a new introduction.

It’s been now 93 years, nearly a century, since van Loon first penned The Story of Mankind. Much has happened since then. Much has changed in nearly every field, including publishing. In 1920 the avuncular style that van Loon used in this book was perfectly acceptable then, but by today’s standards he would be accused of needless editorializing and a rather inexact command of historical events.

Things have changed radically in nearly every field of endeavor, including the writing of history. The field of medicine, for example, has changed so radically in 50 years that the methods used to cure sicknesses when we were children now seem quaintly out-of-date.

When I began reading, it didn’t take me long to grow picky!

On page 4 he writes, “Then one day the great wonder happened. What had been dead gave birth to life,” but what he doesn’t say was just how long ago this happened, which, I can vouchsafe was about four billion years ago—van Loon offers few dates to the early historical events he describes. I’m of the opinion that it helps to have an understanding of the age of the planet, especially that if the time-line were 24 hours, human beings have existed on earth only for a minute.

His omission of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in his chronicle of the Hebrew patriarchs was really unsettling. The only one he mentions is Moses. Not to mention Abraham, who, was the father of Ishmael and Isaac, therefore, the father of the Arabs and the Jews, seems a rather gross oversight.

When I mentioned this to my roommate, he said that’s because there is no historical evidence that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph ever existed, and then went on to say that that there is little evidence that Jesus ever existed!

Please! Modern historians might accept information contained in the Code of Hammurabi or in the chronicles of Herodotus, but they question the historical record handed down to us through the Bible? Van Loon’s omission doesn’t instill great faith in reliability as a historian.

Annoying too is van Loon’s overly-wordy, overly-avuncular style—his tendency to make grand pronouncements in the kindly manner of a grandfather seeking to educate the young but it’s something grown people might find patronizing.

On page 18 he says of the Egyptians, “They invented writing,” then goes on to say, “Without writing document we should be like cats and dogs, who can only teach their kittens and their puppies a few simple things and who, because they cannot write, possess no way in which they can make use of the experience of those generations of cats and dogs that have gone before.”

Were he to present his manuscript to publishers today I doubt they probably would publish it; van Loon would be forced to self-publish then launch an expensive advertising campaign to engender interest in his book. But then Thomas Wolfe probably wouldn’t be able to publish Look Homeward, Angel either, as no one would be willing to take on editing his mess of a manuscript

Van Loon died in 1944, shortly before World War II ended. Ten new chapters have been added since then, an additional 185 pages, covering the Global War; The United Nations (1948); A Turbulent Peace (on the Cold War); An Old Order Gives Way; Spaceship Earth, the Earth as a Global Village; Entering the High-Tech Age (which includes an account of the Viet Nam War); A New Millennium (including an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism); The Gulf War, Cloning and the Internet; Close Call on the Election (when George Bush was deemed the winner over Al Gore; A Sad Day (9/11); A New Coin (on the European Union); War in the Middle East, Again’ A New Look at Big Cities; a Black Man Becomes the American President, The Downturn in the Economy; China is Back; and, The Arab Spring. The last chapter is called Friends and is about the way in which we communicate with each other.

To be sure, The Story of Mankind, is a worthwhile endeavor. Libraries across the country will no doubt acquire copies of it, but I doubt it will be a best-seller in these times when fewer and fewer people read.

Return to home page


The Usual Rules

By Joyce Maynard

St. Martin’s Griffin, New York | 2003 | 382 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard is an unusual book.  It is mysterious, yet grounded, a quickly moving page-turner, yet a thought provoking book that resonates long after the last page.

My eleven-year-old daughter received The Usual Rules for Christmas.  It seemed much more substantial than most of her tween books, and I was drawn to it.  After she finished, it was my turn.

Like other books, which defy classification, The Usual Rules felt more sophisticated than many young adult novels and didn’t dumb down to its audience.  (For some reason, many of our most vibrant writers have turned to writing young adult books, such as Sherman Alexie with his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

The novel also refers to an array of teen books including The Diary of Anne Frank and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.

The protagonist of The Usual Rules is Wendy, an “average” thirteen-year-old New Yorker, with “average” teen problems—she’s worried that one breast is developing faster than the other and she feels that she’s too fat.  She doesn’t know why she feels so crazy—joyful one moment and so angry the next.

If the reader is an adult, she or he may recognize these feelings—adolescence in all its glory.  The reader quickly sees that Wendy has a more than ideal family—a gentle bass playing stepfather who takes the time to create raisin designs on pancakes, an adorable little brother who wears capes and pretends to be Superman, and a mother who has forgone her dream of becoming a professional dancer in order to provide for her family as an executive secretary—but (because of adolescence) her family is driving her nuts.

She does not realize how good she has it until her mother dies in the twin towers.

I’m not giving much away when I mention the tragedy because the book opens with the morning of 9-11.  By 10:00 in the morning, the reader understands (though Wendy does not) what has happened.  Her mother will not be returning.  The book looks at the first few days after 9-11 when the city was in chaos, but Maynard is more interested in exploring the long-term consequences of 9-11.  What does it mean that a parent has simply “vanished” in an inconceivably horrific event?  How does a daughter deal with the missing when she was in such an angry place when her mother dies (Wendy doesn’t even say goodbye to her mother on the morning of 9-11)?

Part of the conflict between Wendy and her mother had occurred because Wendy had decided that she wanted to spend time with her biological father in California.  A dead-beat dad (he has never supported Wendy’s mother financially and only saw Wendy a couple of times through the years), he woos Wendy by suggestions of orange trees growing in the backyard (an image that is at once tempting and exotic to Wendy). 

As the days drag on and Wendy comes to the heart-wrenching conclusion that her mother is dead, Wendy plays with the idea of moving to California.  Her step-father has become numb and is unable to cope in any sort of fashion and her life in New York seems to be meaningless.  Wendy heads to California alone.

There she reinvents herself.  Instead of the pathetic girl whose mother got killed, she becomes a dead-beat herself, skipping school and hanging with a skateboarder.  In New York she was the type of girl who turned in her forms first, a clarinet player, steady and sure.  In California, she becomes more bold and doesn’t, as she says, “play by the rules” anymore.  When she skips school she goes to a bookstore, where she encounters the lonely owner who recommends The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. Later she hangs out with a teenage mother.  She becomes friends with her dad’s earthy, cactus-growing girl friend.  And she gets to know her father, who although a bit detached, isn’t the villain her mother has warned Wendy about.

One of Maynard’s strengths is her avoidance of clichés.  The book could have slid into melodrama or a “romantic look” at what happened.   But because of Maynard’s keen eye and graceful understanding of teenagers, she has a light touch in the book.  She lets Wendy speak for herself and the events that occur seem natural and not forced.  Maynard deftly draws a portrait of Wendy, but she doesn’t force “Wendy the character” down our throats.  In other words, Wendy seems real, in a sense, and not like a book character at all.  Wendy is not outlandish, yet she is not shy either.  She is not flawless, and as readers we hold our breath as she makes mistakes.  By the end of the book, we don’t want to let go of the wonderful girl that we’ve gotten to know.

I hope that adults as well as teenagers will read The Usual Rules, it’s that good.  And as a parent, the book was helpful in me seeing my daughter in a new light (the love and unique bond between mother and daughter is exquisitely explored in this book).  I even took some advice from the book—I’m reading The Member of the Wedding and I wrote my daughter a little love note to express how much she meant to me (Wendy’s mother writes a similar note in the book).  So the book actually convinced me to do something, to act.  It’s been a long time since a book’s done that!         

Return to home page


Undisputed Truth

By Mike Tyson

Blue Rider Press | 580 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

There is a memorable scene in David Lynch’s 1980 surrealistic film, The Elephant Man, where the disfigured creature, encircled by a crowd, shouts in a passionate voice: “I’m not an animal, I’m a human being.”

A parallel exists with this raw, vulgar, maddening memoir, Undisputed Truth, by former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, with assistance from writer Larry Sloman, which is the latest attempt to humanize the scorned beast who once proclaimed he was “the baddest man on the planet.”

Many of the book’s events have been very well publicized, but like a good entertainer, Tyson knows how to put a new slant on the details while connecting the dots like wacky funnyman Richard Pryor used to do.

Like an irate pit-bull straining against its chain, Tyson rants and raves for attention and the folks still line up to see him self-destruct. “I’m a convicted rapist,” the boxer shouted for anyone who would listen. “I’m an animal! I’m the stupidest person in boxing! I get gotta here or I’m gonna kill somebody.” 

Nothing gets our attention like bad behavior and this super-sized book is full of it. Celeb watchers kept their eyes in recent times on outlaws like Lindsay Lohan, Alec Baldwin, Robert Downey Jr., Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Chris Brown. However, Tyson’s roller coaster life through the years was great viewing for fans and foes alike, all wanting to see the next meltdown, the next ego-fueled punch-out.

It’s all here, spelled out in graphic detail about his birth in Cumberland Hospital in Brooklyn, his absent father, his mother who took to the bottle after losing her job as a matron at the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan; his mother’s parade of “tricks” through their shabby apartment when she ran low on funds, his early apprenticeship from age seven in thievery and petty crime. The lads teased him as “a fairy boy” with his high-pitched voice and lisp. The recounting of his hardscrabble existence only reinforces the Tyson legend: gobbling down Thorazine as a young kid in reform school, and later the more hardcore Tyson.

In May, 1980, Tyson met the mythic trainer Cus D’Amato, the molder of boxing champs, and found in this short, bald man the father figure. The ferocious thug wannabe only had Cus for seven years but the relationship made a lasting impression, and when the trainer died, the young black boy’s life nearly came undone.

Sometimes Tyson exposes himself warts-and-all in Undisputed Truth putting into words those things the public always knew he was feeling. “I lost all my energy to do anything good,” he writes. “I don’t think I ever did get over his death. I was also mad at him when he died. I was so bitter. If he’d only gone to the doctor’s earlier, he could’ve been alive to protect me. But he wanted to be stubborn, he didn’t get treated and he died and left me out there alone for these animals in the boxing world to take advantage of.”

The boxing world noticed Tyson for the first time when he knocked out his opponent in just eight seconds in the Junior Olympics. It was only a matter of time until he went pro, first guided by Gus, then eventually managed by Don King. He was short, had powerfully built arms, and he could hit, and hit very hard.

His style was to get out of the corner fast, pounce on the opponent, and pummel him senseless to the canvas. It was brutal, fast, and quite efficient. Twelve opponents fell victim to one-round knockouts; some were even carried out of the ring.

Every fight fan will love his gutsy analysis of the long string of wins, from the early set-ups, to James Tillis, Mitch Green, Alfonzo Ratliff, Marvis Frazier, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Tyrell Biggs, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes, and Tervor Berbick. Every trainer feared for their boxers’ lives, because Tyson threw wickedly solid combinations, from every angle, all designed with bad intentions.

Tyson gives little or no respect to any of his opposition in the book, except Evander Holyfield and Buster Douglas, whose recent death of his mother inspired him to fight an incredible battle, ending with the former champ’s first loss in Tokyo.   

In the ring, Tyson could size up any foe, noting the flaws in their defenses, but he never saw actress Robin Givens coming. He thought Robin would save him from himself, make him socialized and civilized. About a year after their first date in 1988, he married her because she told him that she was three months pregnant and there was no pre-nup.                   

Robin and her mother, Ruth, whom Tyson nicknamed “Ruthless,” quickly knew they had the perfect mark. Drugged and drunk by her beauty, Tyson was in love, and, although his accountant said no, he released $10 million into a separate account for the two women.

Immediately, Robin said she suffered a miscarriage after the money cleared. “She was supposedly three months pregnant,” Tyson writes. “Now it was June and she hadn’t gained a pound, so the next thing I knew she was in the bed and claimed she had miscarried the baby.”

Also, that same year Tyson and Robin sat down with Barbara Walters on her TV show. With the wife near tears, saying he often lost his temper and became violent, the boxer just sat there, neutralized by powerful drugs. Satisfied by her lavish financial arrangement, with Donald Trump as their advisor, the divorce was later finalized on Valentine Day 1989 and that next year, an under-trained, overweight Tyson lost to Douglas in one of the most sensational boxing upsets.

If Robin Givens and her mother, “Ruthless” was the worst thing that ever happened to Tyson, then notorious promoter Don King was the next tragedy. Tyson writes that King owed him millions, just like he bilked Ali and Holmes. In fact, he once attacked King, kicking him in the head. “When I think all the horrific things that Don has done to me over the years, I still feel like killing him,” the boxer writes. “He’s such a liar and betrayer.”

According to Undisputed Truth, following the Douglas defeat, the Givens financial swindle, and the King fraud, Tyson went on a binge of excess drinking, drugging, gorging himself with food; and sexing every female he could seduce, until his Apollo physique melted away.

Another bad blow undermined his faltering comeback when Desiree Washington, a beauty contestant, accused him of raping her in an Indianapolis hotel room in July 1991. Tyson said the sex was consensual, including testimony given at the trial that he gave her oral sex for twenty minutes after she removed her panty liner.

In February, 1992, he was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison. He writes that the sex addiction still continued behind bars with female visitors, including a tryst with a prison drug counselor. He also found time to join the Muslim faith.

Finally, he got out in three years and went back to bad habits upon his release.

On the comeback trail, promoter Don King lined up a string of fights worth $200 million, which Tyson spent lavishly on mansions, artwork, girls, drugs, a tiger, and a home for his second wife, Monica. He later told her he had AIDS, to end the union. According to Tyson, King and his buddies were robbing him blind. In 1997, he was suspended for biting the ear of Holyfield during a bout. Bankruptcy followed, along with another short stint in prison for assault.

His last fight was a loss to a journeyman Kevin McBride in 2005. He didn’t train, instead he drank, smoke, snorted, and rode the gals in the strip clubs. Eventually Tyson acknowledges he is a sex addict, a junkie and a drunk, and has wrestled these demons most of his life. The turning point occurred when his four-year daughter, Exodus, accidentally strangled on a blind cord. He suddenly went to rehab programs, therapy, and married a woman he’d known since he was a teen.

Undisputed Truth has no fairy tale ending because Tyson is a real work in progress. He is still in AA, having fallen off the wagon, but his wife, Kiki has been his emotional rock and is responsible for his current renaissance. Gritty, raw, with pure adrenaline, Tyson’s memoir has what the mainstream books by Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson could never generate, that quality of being rude, impolite, and just plain nasty.

Return to home page


A Death in San Pietro

By Tim Brady

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

If ever a new book made excellent use of a lengthy subtitle, it’s Tim Brady’s A Death in San Pietro~~The Untold Story of Ernie Pyle, John Huston, and the Fight for Purple Heart Valley

Right off the bat, we know we’re going to be immersed in a unique three-way story involving a specific chapter of the war in Europe, a legendary journalist (Ernie Pyle) whose columns from varied fronts were syndicated all across America, and a filmmaker whose name alone (John Huston) connotes Bogart, Hollywood, and edgy rebellion. 

That’s quite an agenda.  And you might be asking: Where in the world is San Pietro?  Indeed, it was a village in Nazi-occupied Italy where the fighting raged in December 1943; where elements of the U. S. Fifth Army were pulverized; and from which the Germans retreated north amid the grinding furies of the Italian Campaign. 

San Pietro is rarely recalled, just as the Italian Campaign itself (which lasted for 20 months, blazing away between September of ’43 and May 1945) is hardly discussed in today’s culture, which has sadly reduced the American experience in the war against Hitler to Omaha Beach at Normandy and the subsequent Battle of the Bulge.

Tim Brady’s new book, however, reminds us that long before June 6, 1944, the Americans and Brits and the Free French and Poles and the Canadians and New Zealanders and many other Allied soldiers (ranging from North African colonial troops to mountain guerrillas from India) were embroiled in the Italian Campaign, with the U. S. Fifth Army being an unusually polyglot international fighting force. 

In this remarkable and highly readable work of narrative nonfiction (it qualifies as both history and military history in particular; American studies and multicultural studies as well; but it’s written with a zest and heart, unlike academic history), the story told focuses on the ill-fated 36th Infantry Division of the U. S. Army.  Branded even then as a “hard-luck division,” the story of the 36th Division’s crucible in the vicinity of San Pietro (where the brutal mayhem that also marked Monte Cassino and Anzio created wide devastation) happened to be the place where John Huston created a documentary film that was boldly honest by the standards of the day.

So honest, in fact, that even though President Franklin D. Roosevelt was calling for Hollywood’s top talent to create new works that would show the truth of the war’s ugly violence to Americans at home, The Battle of San Pietro (as Huston’s film was titled) provoked controversy for being too honest.  Too revelatory.  Too full of grim images.  Unlike the sanitized newsreels and still photos in magazines, John Huston’s award-winning documentary, more than other media, showed some of the real war.

Because it was a 33-minute documentary film distributed under the control of the War Department (what’s now known as the Department of Defense), Huston’s Battle of San Pietro was screened in a limited way.  Awareness of the film was limited. 

Contrarily, by 1943-1944, Ernie Pyles’s columns were running in well over 120 newspapers.  The Indiana-born Pyle had a gift for compression, vivid description and narrative intensity, all of which he combined with his amazing ear for the remarks and observations of GIs who were knee-deep in the war.  Pyle had sent dozens of columns about the North African campaign and the liberation of Sicily back to the USA.  In the late autumn of 1943, he was bylining from muddy, grim, freezing Italy.

And, as fate would have it, in the aftermath of the horrendous fighting in and around San Pietro, one day Ernie Pyle witnessed the damnedest thing.  Pyle watched and listened (and listening was his greatest talent) as one GI after another stepped forward to say a few words to the corpse of an army captain who was killed on December 13th.  Captain Henry T. Waskow was his name.  And his men loved him.

Captain Waskow’s lifeless body had been brought down a craggy mountainside by a mule—as crazy as it sounds, the soldiers of the 36th Division routinely used Italian mules to ferry supplies and what not up and down the vertiginous mountains—and was briefly laid out with others who’d been killed in action.  But this was different.

What Pyle saw, heard, and then recounted in a nationally syndicated column that was published on January 10, 1944, gave a close-up view of grief, suffering and death to a domestic readership that usually absorbed upbeat propaganda.  Perhaps most surprising of all was that Pyle’s column about the death of Captain Waskow quoted the soldiers’ repeated use of a profanity that’s known to violate one of the Ten Commandments.  Despite this transgression, the column ran on front pages.

In one fell swoop, Ernie Pyle gave millions of readers this unforgettable scene:

At the Front Lines In Italy—

In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them.  But I have never crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.

Captain Waskow was a company commander in the 36th division . . .He was very young, only in his middle 20s, but her carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.  “After my own father, he comes next” a sergeant told me.

He always looked after us,” a soldier said.  “He’d go to bat for us every time.”

I’ve never known him to do anything unkind,” another one said.

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down.  The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley.  Soldiers made shadows as they walked.

This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quickly.

One soldier came looked down, and he said out loud: “God damn it.”

That’s all he said, and then he walked away. 

Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!”  Ho looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left. 

Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: “I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face.  And he never uttered a sound all the time he was there.  Finally he put the hand down.  He reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

Seventy years later, thanks to Tim Brady and Da Capo Press, this unique heartrending chronicle recapitulates the dramatic vagaries of the Italian Campaign, providing us with a laser-like focus on one specific episode.  It does not take too much imagination to instantly apprehend that myriad episodes like this must have occurred in Europe and the Pacific during those years, as well as in Korea and Vietnam in later decades, and in Iraq and Afghanistan more recently.

As the full title of the book makes plain, San Pietro is in a valley—the Liri Valley, to be precise—and to the 36th Infantry Division it soon became “Purple Heart Valley.”  Plenty of anecdotal evidence, GI memories, and quotations from Ernie Pyle illustrate that there was nothing romantic about this crucible. 

But thanks to Tim Brady’s powerful combination of research, solid narrative structure, and most of all his own strong skills as a writer (Brady's a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and it shows), readers can learn a great deal from A Death in San Pietro.  It was a small part of the world’s largest war, yet as a microcosm of the anguish, dread, courage, despair, selflessness and grit required to beat the Nazis, it signified plenty.

Besides, in sharing with readers the contents of Captain Waskow’s last letter home, which was found in his kit at the time of his death, Tim Brady allows us to encounter a caliber of man who was honorable in every way:

If you get to read this, I will have died in defense of my country and all that it stands for . . . I wanted to live for it—just as any other person wants to do.  To live for one’s country is, to my mind, to live a life of service; to—in a small way—help a fellow man occasionally along the way . . . to rise up in all our wrath and with overwhelming power to crush any oppressor of human rights . . . When you remember me, remember me as a fond admirer of all of you, for I thought so much of you and loved you with all my heart . . . Try to live a life of service—to help someone where you are or whatever you may be—take it from me; you can get happiness out of that, more than anything in life.  ----  Henry T. Waskow

No one could memorialize Captain Waskow better than Ernie Pyle did.  But this book picks up where Pyle left off, as Tim Brady commemorates not just Pyle, Waskow, and John Huston, but also innumerable GIs who deserve a tribute.

[M. J. Moore is writing a biography of novelist James Jones.]

Return to home page


Report from the Interior

By Paul Auster

Henry Holt and Co. | 2013

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

paul auster

Inside Paul Auster

The Europeans, especially the French, get Paul Auster in a way that Americans don’t, judging by his much stronger following across the Atlantic. Jack Lang, France's former minister of culture, proclaimed Auster the only "great young writer" in America back in 1996.

Auster spent some of his formative writing years living a La Boheme lifestyle in France and has translated, among other French poets and writers, Andre du Bouchet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Stéphane Mallarmé.  Much of his own writing follows the French literary tradition of the recit—a studiedly short narrative style in which seemingly simple reminiscences lead up to a sense of tension that reveals no end of ambiguities. Andre Gide and Albert Camus are forerunners of the style.

Yet Auster’s novels capture a uniquely American sense of existential absurdity. His characters tend to start out with delusions that they can succeed in a world that’s rigged against them, then fade into the New York skyline without truly disappearing, failure being its own path to wisdom and the blissful void that is nirvana.

In his autobiographical writings he parts the curtains an inch at a time and offers glimpses of how he arrived at his views of man as a creature not quite of the material world. He has already written five books of autobiographical impressions—The Invention of Solitude, The Art of Hunger, The Red Notebook, Hand to Mouth and Winter Journal—so another such book is bound to cover some familiar ground.

On the surface, after all, Auster hasn’t led a life of high drama. He grew up in a nuclear family, neither rich nor poor, in post-World War II New Jersey; it isn’t as if he dodged enemy soldiers or drug-crazed celebrity parents. As a thoughtful baby boomer growing up in suburbia, however, he found no end of internal traumas and questions to ponder, and it is these unanswerable perplexing questions that are the overarching theme of his new book, appropriately titled Report from the Interior.

This is a companion volume to Winter's Journal, released last year, which was a collection of notes on Auster’s physical feelings as he grew into adulthood, then middle age. Taken together the two are practically a genre unto themselves: the loosely structured second-person reminiscence, Paul Auster saying “...exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task than writing about your physical self” to Paul Auster. Some reviewers have interpreted the books as love letters to himself. It is undoubtedly a narcissistic approach, but oddly fitting for the place where he grew up. Life did seem to be about “you” if you were a child in post-War suburbia—and I mean that in the worst of ways.

Auster was born in 1947, a time when America was giddy with victory, quickly growing complacent in its prosperity, briskly bulldozing forests and farms to build symmetrical rows of residential streets designed for raising children. The human bean, as Auster heard the term for his first five or six years. The horror of post-War suburbia, of course, is well mined terrain: the rot behind the pristine façade, the oppression behind the rally cries about how lucky we all were to be living in the free world, and of course the knowledge that it could all end tomorrow if the Soviets decided to drop an A-bomb over one of our cities.

Even in the middle of the playground, a thoughtful child like Auster could exist in a perpetual state of ennui, but the upside was that he would have no pressures to distract him from his search for ideas. You could carry this narrow universe with you for the rest or your life, or you could contemplate what exists beyond the concepts we express through language and how one small disaster might change everything--themes that appear over and over in Auster’s fiction.

He has already, in The Invention of Solitude, told stories of his non-communicative father and how he might have become that way. For one thing, Sam Auster, at the age of eight, saw his own mother shoot and kill his father. "One could not believe there was such a man - who lacked feeling, who wanted so little of others,” Auster wrote of his father in the earlier book. “And if there was not such a man, that means there was another man, a man hidden inside the man who was not there, and the trick of it, then, is to find him. . . . To recognize, right from the start, that the essence of this project is failure."

That sentiment fueled City of Glass, the first of the metaphysical mystery novels in his New York Trilogy, in which ultimately the mystery lies in the illusion of what’s real. City of Glass features a cruel father with at least one Doppelgänger.  The main character, Quinn, a writer who has been mistaken for a detective named Paul Auster and played along, sets out to tail the father only to see two identical copies of him get off a train—or perhaps the man is a shadow of Quinn himself.  

Of course Auster’s father had other stories, some that he never revealed –Auster and his cousins found out about their grandfather’s murder only through a chance encounter with a stranger on a plane—and some that he told his son only after a myth had taken a life of its own. In Report from the Interior , Auster writes about some of his heroes.

An easily accessible hero for boy in New Jersey was Thomas Edison. As a child Auster visited the Edison house, which had been turned in to a museum, and the tarpaper shack known as the Black Maria, where Edison had set up the first film studio in the world.

“You felt a special connection to Edison, a singular intensity of admiration,” he writes.

Then one day his father quietly informed the young Auster that he, Sam Auster, had worked in Edison’s lab after graduating from high school.  It wasn’t until Auster was fourteen that his father told him the second half of the story; the job with Edison had lasted only a few days. Edison found out that Sam Auster was Jewish, and since Jews weren’t allowed in the area, had fired him on the spot. “Your idol turned out to have been a rabid, hate-filled anti-Semite, a well-known fact that had not been included in any of the books you read about him.”

Hard to know if the bursting of the Edison bubble had some bearing on Auster’s lack of interest in the most revolutionary innovation of his own time; he is known for eschewing computers, instead writing his first drafts in longhand and second drafts on a manual typewriter.  He most certainly didn’t turn against movies, however, in spite of Edison’s role in inventing them. Auster attributes a number of his lessons in reality to the very purveyors of all that’s make-believe. Indeed, in many ways it was movies that brought the world to the children of post-War suburbia.

An entire chapter of Report from the Interior is devoted to an eye-popping plot summary of the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, a film that had no major stars but holds up as a slice of Zeitgeist and what could have happened under a nuclear cloud.  As Auster tells the story, it opens with ominous music, then a reassuring voiceover from the hero, Robert Scott Carey, so that you know he’s still alive.

Then a flashback to Carey on a boat in the Pacific with his wife, Louise. His wife goes below deck to fetch beer when a dense mist envelops the boat. Six months go by, and at home in America, Carey begins to lose weight and grow shorter. There is a remedy that ultimately doesn’t work. Auster recalls the horror as Carey shrinks to the size of an ant, and the concluding monologue, when he has become so small that no one can see him.

For Auster the movie was a glimpse into what was out there beyond the visible.  “You try to absorb what is happening,” Auster writes. “He will continue to become smaller and smaller, shrinking down to the size of a subatomic particle, devolving into a monad of pure consciousness, and yet the implication is that he will never entirely disappear, that as long as he is still alive, he cannot be reduced to nothing....you feel that the world had changed its shape within you, that world you live in now is no longer the same world that existed two hours ago, that it will not and cannot ever be the same again.”

In Auster’s fiction, men—it’s always men—can vaporize into the neighborhoods of New York voluntarily, invisible to those who know them best. It happens in The Locked Room, the third novel in the New York Trilogy, for example. A young writer named Fanshawe—borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by the same name—disappears but leaves behind unpublished manuscripts and a beautiful wife, then watches, unseen, as the world discovers his writing and his best childhood friend marries his wife.  

The actual evidence of Auster’s own life up to the age of 18 has, in fact, evaporated, except for his memory, which is as unreliable as anyone’s. "Every time you remember an event, you’re remembering the last time you remembered it. And so you can’t ever really go back to the origin," Auster said recently in an interview with New York 1 TV.

All of his childhood artifacts are gone—the photographs, souvenirs, report cards, home movies and letters.  When American suburbia took off after the war it had no history, and who was to say it wouldn’t be ephemeral? Nuclear families turned out to have more fission than fusion; certainly that was the case in the Auster home. His parents fought for years, often over conflicting views of money—a painful situation he chronicles in Hand to Mouth, his memoir of his own grinding poverty as a young writer. They made a clean break from each other when he was seventeen. After that, he writes “there were no more fixed addresses.” His mother remarried and moved often, taking nothing from his childhood along.

Auster himself went off to Columbia University, which he chose because it was in New York, “the center of the world for you back then, still the center of the world for you.” A place where a suburban kid can disappear in a good way, discovering that even if he happens to become famous and loom large, the world is infinite. It turns out, rather ironically, that Auster does have evidence of his life from this period.

Out of the blue, while he was working on Notes from the Interior, he received a call from his first wife, the writer and translator Lydia Davis. She was making plans to donate her papers to a research library and she wanted him to see all of the letters he wrote to her in their youth, wanting to know if he found anything in them too private or embarrassing for public scrutiny.  For Auster it was an opportunity to run excerpts.  They are rambling letters, not always testimony to his character, capturing the lonely narcissism of a young man who is uncomfortable at parties as well as the student uprisings at Columbia in the 1960s and the disgruntlement and restlessness of his generation.  He ends with a particularly rambling letter, a letter that is, indeed, an embarrassment to him now for his use of such terms as “fairy” and “queer” as well as the tales of what he calls “low-life adventure” that include sleeping with another girl.

The letter comes off, though, as a rollicking precursor to his narrative style. He tells his future wife about hanging out with a friend in New York, a friend “determined not to be destroyed by New York”, meeting two girls, bouncing from a Chinese restaurant to Brooklyn Heights to Coney Island to Ratner’s Deli, which he describes as a “subterranean attitude... beyond worry, beyond exhilaration, beyond boredom,” to a burlesque show, to an apartment where two girls bake a cake and three drug dealers beat up a visitor then flee. It is a youthful quest, as quixotic as it gets even though his actual purpose was to look for an apartment in the city. It ends as many youthful journeys must, with a bus ride back to his mother’s house in New Jersey, reading Henry Miller’s “Letter to All Surrealists Everywhere.” The letter was, I think, the best part of the book, a young man beginning to discover that he can disappear into his stories.

Return to home page


The Highway

C.J. Box

Read by: John Keating

Macmillan Audio | 2013 | Running time: 10 hours | 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by: Michael Carey

C.J. Box, author of the award-winning Joe Pickett series, brings the Sullivan girls, Gracie and Danielle back in his latest effort, The Highway. Danielle, the older, prettier, and more self-involved sister, hijacks hers and Gracie’s Thanksgiving trip to see their dad in order to go win back her boyfriend, Justin, whom she has been losing touch with in a long distance relationship. Justin’s parents got back together after his father, Cody Hoyt, saved him and the Sullivans in Back of Beyond. The girls’ road trip is going fine until they cross the path of ‘The Lizard King’ and vanish from the road.

Cody is a police investigator but loses his job when his rookie partner, Cassie Dewell, allows the sheriff to use her, exposing Cody’s questionable tactics. He copes with a bottle after a long stint of sobriety, but this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Justin can’t reach Danielle or Gracie and, fearing the worst, goes to his father. Cody accepts the task of going to find Danielle and Gracie. With the help of Cassie, who wants to repair the relationship she ruined by costing him his badge, Cody will try to match wits with an intelligent criminal who’s always a step ahead.

The Highway is not a murder mystery but a murder adventure. We experience the story from the side of the protagonists and antagonists alike. We know what happens, but we are drawn in to ask, “How will it end? Can they get to the girls in time?” We’ve probably all heard that to make a better story, make a better villain. Box seems to be adept at this. With over fifteen novels under his belt, Box manages to create a villain that is at once intelligent, perverse, violent, and disciplined. Therefore ‘The Lizard King’, with a little help of his own, throws open the door of possibilities making the task of finding the Sullivans near impossible.

The Highway is a joyride. Withholding some clichéd talk and relationship dynamics, all of which involve Danielle, and most of them between her and Gracie, Box’s latest novel is thrilling, intense, and complete. I can’t help but think (and sorry Mr. Box if this is a spoiler) that the author is preparing one of the characters for their own series.

Holter Graham adds his expertise to the project and does so successfully. We’ve heard him in the audio book Flat Water Tuesday (reviewed in Neworld Review Vol. 6 No. 43). There he created the air of arrogance at a New England boarding school, the angst of youth, and the pain of loss. I felt Graham’s talents were not as suited for the sisters Sullivan or the rough exterior of Cody Hoyt, but he uses his voice to create a unique drama that compels the listener on as our protagonists sift through the clues and our villains plot their demises. Box’s story and Graham’s performance captivate listeners with this frightening journey down The Highway.

Return to home page