Books

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

The Last Policeman

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverSet in a world painfully aware of its own impending demise, The Last Policeman, a novel by Ben H. Winters, is a philosophically astute page-turner that interrogates the most basic assumptions undergirding civil society. As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, Detective Hank Palace does his best to maintain law and order in Cocord, New Hampshire, despite the fact that news of the impending apocalypse has triggered unparalleled social upheaval. When an apparent suicide turns up in a public restroom, common sense tells him to chalk it up to end-times hysteria, but—per the genre’s dictates—something about the case doesn’t sit right with Palace. Soon, he’s off on an investigation that pits him against survivalists, unscrupulous opportunists, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Yet while the murder investigation provides the narrative with something of a MacGuffin, the real mystery at the heart of The Last Policeman is existential: What’s the point solving murders—or being good, or doing anything for that matter—when death is imminent? It’s the kind of question that can’t help leading to a slew of others, and one that Winters explores from multiple angles throughout this intelligent, suspenseful novel as the world he imagines spirals into chaos and all forms of human decency suddenly go up for grabs.

Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag

Sick JusticeAn eye-opening and compelling critique of the American criminal justice system, Ivan Goldman’s Sick Justice examines the political, social, and economic forces that have increased the per capita number of federal and state prison inmates by well over 250% since 1980. Working under that assumption that the criminal justice system should create a safer, more humane society, Goldman argues that shortsightedness with respect to the problem of crime has done the opposite. We have become, in Goldman’s words, a society, “more concerned with punishment than with truth.” As a result, any semblance of order afforded by the so-called war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, and draconian policies like California’s “three strikes” law is ultimately illusory.

Frequently, Goldman demonstrates throughout his study, criminals who know how to play the game tend to stay out of jail—either by eluding capture, informing on other criminals for reduced sentences, or by simply slipping through the cracks. Indeed, the sheer number of prisoners, parolees, and probationers clogging the system (estimated at over seven million) makes it nearly impossible for authorities to keep track of their charges, thus providing greater opportunities for the most dangerous criminals to commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, many people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law do so unwittingly. Sick Justice offers a wide range of anecdotes regarding naïve first-time offenders who, in some instances, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or, in others, committed crimes so petty as to be otherwise laughable. Due to their inexperience with the system—not to mention a distinct lack of criminal connections on whom to inform—these offenders often end up serving sentences incommensurate with the crimes of which they’ve been accused.

Goldman also examines a number of adjacent issues that have hastened the breakdown of the criminal justice system. The closing of mental health institutions across the country led many former patients to spend the rest of their lives, in Goldman’s words, “bouncing from homelessness on the street to homelessness in jail.” Additionally, the rise of corporate-owned for-profit prisons has led, in turn, to intense lobbying for harsh laws and strict sentencing guidelines: “The Gulag industry can always justify putting more people in prison and imposing longer sentences, no matter what’s going on outside the walls: if crime rises, we must need more people behind bars. If crime goes down, wholesale imprisonment must be succeeding.” Finally, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have left in their wake a culture less invested in attempting to balance freedom and security—erring, it goes without saying, almost invariably on the side of security.

Ultimately, Goldman’s point is that the American criminal justice system has sacrificed long-term effectiveness for short-term gains. Promising to get tough on crime always plays well for politicians in election years but does little to address such underlying causes of crime as poverty, hunger, mental illness, and inadequate education. Yet by focusing almost solely on punishment, Goldman demonstrates time and again, we have, in more ways than one, become a nation of criminals.

SUBMIT TO PLEASURE

pleasurecover_905Look under “ABOUT” on the official Pleasure Editions website and you’ll find that “PLEASURE EDITIONS is a press founded in 2011 dedicated to fostering the furtherance of the international artistic underground via the publication of new and rediscovered art, literature, poetry and translation.” At first this claim comes off as ambitious, maybe lofty, maybe pretentious. Take a look at the content and you’ll find that, on the contrary, they’re being modest.

Any attempt to describe Pleasure’s mission otherwise than they describe it themselves would either fall short or sound stupid. It takes a statement as bold and broad as the one above to succinctly introduce a reader to the constellation of radically interrogative text and imagery that is their catalogue. This is a press that publishes new translations of Gherasim Luca (the forgotten Romanian surrealist poet once championed by Gilles Deleuze) one day and a madcap parody of a Jungian personality survey the next. This is a press that publishes serial installments of “Ill Tomb Era,” a mysterious meganovel that updates maximalist black humor for the age of annihilating post-punk cynicism, as well as new poems dubiously attributed to celebrity chef Eric Ripert. A Pleasure anthology of new writings collected under the theme “Music” promises essays that find seemingly unlikely points of contact between, for just one example, William Gaddis and Pussy Galore.

Beyond that, there’s form-defying prose and poetry, art that redefines the oldest and newest media, design that will leave the staff of any marketing startup baffled and salivating, and curation that suggests, indirectly and maybe even directly, that spirits beyond the grave (Yeats’, for one) might be lending a hand.

What will you make of however little or much of their published material you choose to explore? The better question is: what will it make of you? Pleasure doesn’t seek to contribute to, or even recognize, a consumer-oriented system of transaction and gratification. Instead, they create an immersive cultural exchange in which you will get hopelessly lost. But the rewards of this exchange are of a kind you won’t find anywhere else. If you dare, as the phrase once purposed by the press as a call for submissions demands, “Submit to Pleasure!”

JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner

JNT-CoverWith a little tweaking, Richard Marson’s tell-all biography of the late John Nathan-Turner could easily replace its subtitle with that of Peter Hook’s wonderful memoir on the Manchester club scene of the 1980s, The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, as its subject’s tenure as producer of Doctor Who reads like a case study on how not to run a television series. Of greatest interest to Who fans will likely be the vast range of commentary Marson culled from program insiders, especially the insights from actors, directors, and writers of the classic series. Some of the heavy hitters include Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, who played Doctors five through seven, along with the actors who played companions Ace, Peri, Mel, Tegan, Turlough, and Adric (Sophie Aldred, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Matthew Waterhouse respectively). What emerges over the course of nearly 400 pages is a portrait of an ambitious, flawed, and ultimately tragic figure whose insecurities both fueled his success and led to his downfall.

The consensus, as far as Marson and those interviewed for the book are concerned, is that J N-T (as the producer was known) excelled at the art of spectacle. As soon as he took over as producer, he commissioned new titles for the show and an arguably catchier (for the times) version of the show’s trademark theme music. He’s also responsible for giving the Doctor a “uniform,” most noticeable in the question marks that started showing up in the Doctor’s costume during Tom Baker’s last season in the titular role. Along similar lines, the producer also did all he could to keep both the show and himself in the spotlight, including grabbing headlines by giving the Doctor new companions on a fairly regular basis and making himself a celebrity in his own right. One of N-T’s favorite poses involved pointing a finger in the face of any celebrity he was being photographed with, a move that insured he could never be cropped out of the picture.

J N-T’s intense focus on the marketing of his show, however, came at the expense of paying attention to its writing, and the book is full of commentary from writers, directors, and script editors who express frustration at the lack of direction they received under the producer’s tenure. Indeed, even as N-T pursued headlines and press coverage from British tabloids and Doctor Who fan magazines alike, the fans grew increasingly displeased with his work as producer and, at least in Great Britain, voiced their displeasure through the very channels N-T used to promote the show. The result was increasing paranoia on N-T’s part, a situation that wasn’t helped by the BBC’s waning interest in the show.

Tellingly, it turns out the BBC Enterprises (roughly speaking, the merchandising arm of the BBC, now known as BBC Worldwide) kept funneling money to the show to keep it in production even as ratings started to slip. Though fewer viewers were watching the show, sales of TARDIS key chains and toy sonic screwdrivers were bringing in plenty of cash — a lesson, Marson is quick to point out, not lost on contemporary producers of the program. Indeed, when one considers the plethora of Doctor Who toys currently on the market, there’s an argument to be made for the idea that the Doctor Who program exists at least partially to promote sales of Doctor Who merchandise and ensure the longevity of the Doctor Who brand.

In terms of style, Marson adopts a journalistic tone throughout much of his book but also offers his own opinions and analyses where warranted. A chapter on N-T’s sexual exploits and exploitations (title “Hanky Panky”) comes off as somewhat sensationalistic but is balanced out by the rest of the book. Despite his flaws — and they were apparently numerous — J N-T emerges from J N-T as a sympathetic figure whose desire for love and acceptance in all of their forms led to great heights and, tragically, greater lows.

 

The Conduct of Saints

ConductSet in Rome in the wake of the Second World War, The Conduct of Saints reveals Christopher Davis as a writer who remains at the height of his powers at the age of 85. The novel follows a Vatican lawyer named Brendan Doherty (who wins points in my book being a native of South Philadelphia) as he plays devil’s advocate against the man who murdered  Maria Goretti yet now claims to have been saved through the soon-to-be-canonized saint’s intercession. At the same time, Doherty is also attempting to prevent the execution of Nazi war criminal Pietro Koch — not out of any sympathy for Koch or his worldview, but out of a firm belief in the sanctity of all life. The result is a complex novel that explores the intimate relationship between faith and doubt while simultaneously delivering a moving and thoroughly engaging story.

Throughout the novel, Davis’s gift for setting is especially apparent. The streets of Rome come alive on every page. Indeed, one doesn’t so much read this book as enter its perfectly imagined world of bicycles rattling over cobblestone streets, urchins begging for money, and olive trees providing the only respite from the hot summer sun. What’s more, the time period provides the ideal backdrop for a rigorous interrogation of faith and justice, as the atrocities of the Nazis are enough to raise doubts in even the most pious among us. Yet we are all fallen in some way or another, The Conduct of Saints insists on every page. And the world is highly adept at shaking our faith–however we define it and whatever we believe. Ultimately, however, it’s our power to forgive that renders us so deeply human, and this is the ultimate, uplifting message of Davis’s fine novel.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and spectacular writing.