Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I'm taking time off to help a family member recover from being hit by a car. I appreciate your loyalty, and I hope to read again with you soon.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

‘Northwest Corner’ a Startling Exploration of American Misery

John Burnham Schwartz’s flawed characters and artistic choices offer clarity and depth.

I happen to like John Burnham Schwartz’s work very much. But even those who are unfamiliar with Schwartz will find Northwest Corner a curious new release in bookstores. As the intriguing book cover suggests, Schwartz seemingly views the world through a common window screen, a simple American landscape beyond it. Then he pecks at the screen it until it exposes an imperfection that, ironically, allows us to see our world more clearly.

Released on July 22, 2011, Northwest Corner is the sequel to the screenplay Reservation Road (made into a film starring Jennifer Connelly). In Northwest Corner, Dwight is surprised when his estranged son shows up at his home after nearing killing someone, a startling beginning for a broken father who has a disturbing tendency to turn the other cheek when things matter most. Now Dwight must, in his splintered way, reach out to his son. He gets help from his ex-wife Ruth, a cancer-pocked woman who does merciful things to combat her mortality. Despite his best efforts, however, Dwight’s relationships remain in the “lacquered darkness.” While he examines his failed marriage, attempts to mend a broken relationship with his son, and entertains a fragmented love affair with a poet named Penny, his efforts are self-sabotaging. While he comes close, he is unable to achieve a rounded relationship with any of them. His return to the Northwest Corner only accentuates his tragic failures.

It’s not the plot of this story that is riveting—many novels explore broken marriages and disconnected families. It’s the unique voice and style Schwartz gives his simply complicated characters.

The novel is markedly artistic, told in the suspenseful present tense from the viewpoints of five people inextricably tied to one another by blood and sex and circumstance. While four of the characters’ points of view are expressed in the third person, Dwight’s point of view is told in the first, the effect of which becomes a single spotlight on his raw narrative. This is his story, and the other characters who populate his world know it.

Schwartz’s flawed characters have an “unquenchable longing” for one another. The nonverbal beats reveal characters that resist comparison, and the dialogue is sharp and real as Schwartz allows the characters to ask pointed questions of each other, speak candidly and unfavorably, and use each other to satisfy their frustrations. His exquisitely disturbing word combinations such as Ruth’s “henpecked coiffure” and Dwight’s assessment that they are all “hemophiliacs walking through a forest of thorns” gives the reader a distinct encounter with the “isolated chamber” of their murmuring hearts.

The many references to poetic verse are fitting as Schwartz’s brief chapters are, in themselves, poetic. Each stands alone and yet builds upon the others, mini tableaus that slowly reveal prickly and wounded characters. There is tremendous economy in Schwartz’s memorable phrasing. As we examine the imperfect bonds within the American family and community, Schwartz allows us to survey our desire to “get inside where it’s warm.” Still, while the characters crave the warmth of interpersonal connection, they are dubious about remaining together in the Northwest Corner. Instead, they feel like “cheap replicas of themselves in foreign lands.”

Northwest Corner is a literary place you must visit, an exploration of the rough terrain of the human experience.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: Big Work of Art About Fascinating Con-Man

Author Mark Seal's Exhaustive Research Pays Off

Recently, Viking released a nonfiction title about Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German born man who came to America and had a knack for telling tall tales. Who’s that, you say? Good question.

He’s a hitchhiker. He’s a classical music disc jockey. He’s a television show producer. He’s a Wall Street investment banker. He’s a serial imposter with a collection of imitation art, false identities, and a pocket full of distorted ambition. He’s a kidnapper. And he duped millions of people, including his Stanford and Harvard educated wife, into believing he was a Rockefeller. Now the question is, is he a murderer?

Author Mark Seal has outdone himself in telling the true crime story The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, a study of the man who dared to call himself a Rockefeller. As the book begins, the reader will likely align with the general public, doubting the overly-trusting people who became wrapped up in Gerhartsreiter’s distorted world. But as the true crime story progresses, the reader begins to understand the sophisticated way in which the genius imposter wove himself, seamlessly, into wealthy circles, gathering power and money along the way. From the Thurston Howell III accent to the sockless Sperrys to the quick-as-a-fox excuses for living an eccentric life, Gerhartsreiter seems a real character. He fancies Peach Melbas, after all. But occasional reader chuckles give way to fear when Gerhartsreiter utilizes the Son of Sam’s social security number, goes ballistic over seemingly trite details, manipulates church ladies, becomes a person of interest in the disappearance of two people, and forcefully kidnaps his daughter.

Seal’s research is significant, the structure is clear, and the writing is impeccable as he weaves the themes of trust, identity, and status into a compelling examination of a mastermind at work. The author navigates Gerhartsreiter’s life with proper caution: Gerhartsreiter is pending extradition to Los Angeles County for the alleged murder of John Sohus.

As we follow Seal’s meticulous trail of words from the beer halls of Germany to the foothills of Southern California to elite clubs in Manhattan and Boston, the story of Gerhartsreiter’s changeling existence is increasingly mystifying. Describing the way Gerhartsreiter watches the wealthy and influential people around him, plucking phrases and affiliations to his benefit; Seal writes that Gerhartsreiter used the people in his world as “clay for the character he was building.” A spot-on description for a man who molded his own existence.

There’s a tremendous payoff at the end of this book. The man who called himself ‘Clark Rockefeller’ is arrested, and he utters one simple, sad sentence about himself. Through Seal’s meticulous work, we learn, perhaps, the motive for his fabricated identities.

Profound interviewee architect Patrick Hickox reminds readers that we are our own inventions. Seal’s exploration of the sophisticated German con-man who set out for America in search of a new life explores this statement.

As this reader is left dangling at the end of the book, wondering the fate of Gerhartsreiter in Los Angeles, she’ll remember this big work of art about the small man who called himself Rockefeller.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Coming Soon: Mark Seal's 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit'

I'm waiting on an advance reader copy of The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, a fascinating "stranger than fiction" story of the German impostor who went to extreme lengths to make believe he was a Rockefeller. Author Mark Seal is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

I'll be shocked if this one isn't optioned for film. This one smacks of good ole' Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Tom Ripley, but I suspect it will have greater depth and iconic old-money intrigue.

I'm excited to read and share my review with you. I'd attempt an interview if author Mark Seal only knew I existed.

Now please excuse me while I pretend to be Paris Hilton.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Conversation with Tom McNeal, Author of 'To Be Sung Underwater'

(Article first published as A Conversation with Tom McNeal, Author of To Be Sung Underwater on Blogcritics.)

Author Tom McNeal has won the California Book Award (Crooked and Goodnight, Nebraska); the James Michener Prize (Goodnight, Nebraska); and the O. Henry Prize (What Happened to Tully?).

Now, seven years in the making, McNeal’s novel To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown & Company) is due in bookstores June 2, 2011. I talked with McNeal about Underwater, a beautiful story about the depth of love, and how we occasionally leave rippling heartache in our wake.

Underwater is loosely based on a longtime friend of McNeal’s who never truly recovered from a lost love.

“When you get to a certain age,” says McNeal, “you start thinking about the shape of your life. You wonder, what makes a good life? A good marriage? Pretty often the two questions become one.”

McNeal thought it would be interesting to explore the choices that preempt a given life path.

“What if the first love is the only one that really takes? What do you do with the rest of your life?”

These universal questions set his riveting story in motion. The implicit promise McNeal makes to his readers to address these curiosities resonates within protagonist Judith Whitman.

Tom McNeal
(Photo credit: Jeff Lucia)
Whitman is a Hollywood film editor in the midst of a mid-life awakening, yearning to go back in time and revisit the road not taken. While she sees her life play out before her like a film, she is unable to edit it accordingly. In ways, she wants to manipulate the emphasis and intensity of her own story.

“She’s not a perfect person,” McNeal says, “but she’s smart and watchful and sensitive to the needs of others. I thought she would make good company.”

Tom’s wife, National Book Award finalist Laura McNeal, reviewed early drafts to ensure he related the female experience in a credible manner, though she says that he needs no help in this department.

One way or the other, he gets it right. Most notable are Judith’s conflicted feelings about motherhood, her marriage, and how her past might possibly relate to her future.

Whitman’s past involves lost--but not forgotten--love interest Willy Blunt, a simply complicated man who views life through a Bushnell rifle scope.

“I would never say Judith made a mistake,” McNeal says, referring to her decision to leave Willy behind. He believes in both the strength of their relationship and their divergent paths.

Laura, however, disagrees.

“I read the book as the history of an understandable but tragic mistake,” she says. “The book is true for me because it makes plain that Judith must choose between her youthful ambitions and the love of a person who could not help her realize those ambitions. I think the essential female dilemma is how to pursue an ambition without betraying those—children, parents, friends, men—who might need or want you to be somewhere—or someone—else.”

Judith and Willy’s reunion twenty-seven years later in the pine-scented woods of Nebraska is both surprising and inevitable, the hallmark of a terrific ending. While McNeal had a feeling for the final scene before he started writing, his route was not direct.

“I feel my way with the story,” he says. “Character drives everything.”

For McNeal, setting the ending in the pine-scented woods of Nebraska seemed right.

“One of the things I love about Nebraska is…there is this dilation of the senses. It almost acts like a decongestant. You can breathe better, see further. It’s a more elemental life and you’re surrounded by some pretty sturdy people.”

McNeal knows how to write sturdy people well. He is one of them, finding time to parent his children, work in a family business, and “work at the desk,” which Laura says is how he refers to writing fiction.

“Tom finds it hard to say to someone, ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I’m going to write now,’” she says. “He just says he ‘works at the desk.’”

McNeal’s quiet clarity ripples on the surface of his persona and work, and his life lessons beneath have profound and endless depth. This summer, become absorbed in To Be Sung Underwater.

* Read the review here.

Book Review: Tom McNeal's 'To Be Sung Underwater'

(Article first published as Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal on Blogcritics.)

Tom McNeal’s absorbing novel To Be Sung Underwater (Little, Brown & Company) is a quiet and immersive story about “who gets handed your heart and what they do with it.” The novel examines how one woman’s navigation through life propels her forward in a certain direction, leaving rippling heartache in her wake.

Judith Whitman is “trying to run away but (she doesn’t) know how to do it.” When her distant husband Malcolm wants to cast off her childhood birds eye maple bedroom set, Judith rents a storage facility, moves the bed into it, and begins to nap in the prized artifact of her adolescence. This begins the curious story about a woman’s midlife awakening and her quest to reunite with a lost love.

Alternating between Judith’s past and present, McNeal gradually reveals that by leaving her Nebraska home to attend Stanford, and later accepting a job as a Hollywood film editor, Judith chose a distinct and inevitable path that forced her to leave former boyfriend Willy Blunt behind.

Now, twenty-seven years later, Judith aches to discover what has become of her lost teenaged love. This time she takes the other bend in the road. Hiring a private investigator, she searches for and finds Blunt, a passionate carpenter who lives by his own set of rules.

While the story of her life begins to play in her cinematic and editorial eye, her reunion is anything but a Hollywood ending. Dripping in realistic and bittersweet moments, Blunt, who views life through a Bushnell rifle scope, has never truly recovered from losing Judith, saying:

“For you, I was a chapter—a good chapter, maybe, or even your favorite chapter, but still, just a chapter—and for me, you were the book.”
McNeal’s ability to tell the story from a female point of view is shockingly accurate, as is his Richard Russo-esque ability to make small town characters simply complicated, juxtaposing the human experience with remarkable depth. McNeal demonstrates this trait through his character Willy Blunt, who says:

We’re just small, Judy. All of us, even though we do stuff every day of the week to distract ourselves from the fact, it’s still true. We’re just little and small and maybe if we have some backbone we do a few things worth doing and then we’re gone.”
Gradually developing comprehensive characters that resonate with the contemporary themes of choice and yearning, McNeal’s work feels like an anthology of human experience as he artfully weaves the protagonist’s intricate backstory with her present life.

To be Sung Underwater is a beautiful novel that bravely examines the effect a broken relationship can have on one’s life path. Comparing the “heliotropic” California lifestyle to the “flutish wind” passing through the pine-scented woods of Nebraska, McNeal further helps us understand the profound dichotomy of Judith’s difficult choices.

As you reach the inevitable and surprising ending of Judith’s journey, you’ll find yourself gliding toward the last word, yearning to float along the pages a little longer and marvel at the profound depth of To Be Sung Underwater.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Are you a Ray Bradbury Fan?

If you enjoy Ray Bradbury, you might appreciate this post on my associated lifestyle blog about my encounter with the iconic literary giant and why the experience was a dandelion wish come true.