Monday, January 27, 2014

1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury

The Author:

Allen Drury (1918-1998) was born in Houston, but grew up in Porterville, in Tulare County in central California.  He was descended multiple members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, most notably Edmund Rice, who immigrated to the colony in 1638.

In 1939, Drury graduated from Stanford and began working as a reporter from the Tulare Bee where he received recognition for his editorial writing, and then spent a year working for the Bakersfield Californian.  He enlisted in the Army in 1942.  He was no longer in the army in 1943. (I have been unable to find details of his military service.  With the exception of some details surrounding his writing career, I have been unable to find any information about Drury not available on his Wikipedia page.)  He worked for United Press International, as a member of the U.S. Senate's staff, from 1943-1945, became editor of Pathfinder magazine in 1947, then joined the Washington Evening Star in 1953, The New York Times from 1954-1959, and finally Reader's Digest from '59-62.

His first and most successful novel was Advise and Consent, published in 1959.  For this, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1960.  Advise and Consent spawned five sequels.  Drury published a handful of non-fiction and twenty novels, writing until his death from cardiac arrest in 1998.

The Book:

Length: 616 pages
Subject/Genre: Cold War, U.S. Politics/Political thriller

Advise and Consent takes its name from the U.S. Constitution, which states that Congress must offer advice and consent to presidential nominations for high ranking officials.  In the case of the novel, this means Bob Leffingwell, a liberal who is popular with the public but controversial within Washington.  Robert Munson, Senate Majority Leader, is tasked by the president to secure enough votes for Leffingwell's confirmation.

Advise and Consent is reflective of the Cold War era, and its political stance is that we'll either destroy the soviets or be destroyed by them.  The novel has a large cast of characters, many of whom were based off of real politicians.  The confirmation of Leffingwell gets problematic, as claims that he was secretly a Communist are brought to the Senate (possibly based on Alger Hiss), and the President starts to play dirty, leading to blackmail and suicide (likely based on Lester Hunt).  The story is largely a matter of dialogue, and most of the conflict is interpersonal, with the various characters each having their own agendas and idiosyncracies.  The story drags at some points, but otherwise is a great example of its genre.

In 1960, Advise and Consent won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making it the last book on this list to have done so.  Advise and Consent has five sequels, A Shade of Difference (1962), Capable of Honor (1966), Preserve and Protect (1968), Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (1973), and The Promise of Joy (1975).  An interesting note is that the last two are actually alternate sequels to Preserve and Protect, which ends with a cliffhanger.  Come Nineveh, Come Tyre and The Promise of Joy each cover the same time period, but are based on different outcomes of the cliffhanger in the preceding novel.  

Advise and Consent was a book-of-the-month club selection, and spawned a film adaptation in 1962 starring Henry Fonda.

Advise and Consent is an excellent political thriller, but I don't think it transcends the genre.  If you are looking to read a political thriller, Advise and Consent is definitely a good choice (although it seems to no longer be in print).

Bestselling Novels of 1960:
Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
Hawaii by James Michener
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Chapman Report by Irving Wallace
Ourselves to Know by John O'Hara
The Constant Image by Marcia Davenport
The Lovely Ambition by Mary Ellen Chase
The Listener by Taylor Caldwell
Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute
Sermons and Soda-Water by John O'Hara

Also published in 1960:
John Barth - The Sot-Weed Factor
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
Walter Miller - A Canticle for Leibowitz
Dr. Seuss - Green Eggs and Ham
John Updike - Rabbit, Run


"Allen (Stuart) Drury." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003.  Literature 
     Resource Center. Web.

Drury, Allen. Advise and Consent. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959. Print.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut

NOTE: The review of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent will run next Monday, at which point the bestseller reviews will resume their weekly update schedule.

I'm a pretty big Kurt Vonnegut fan.  I've written about him on my blog before.  I recently finished reading a collection of articles, essays, and speeches, titled Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974).  The title comes from his novel Cat's Cradle, specifically from the imaginary religion Bokononism.  If you didn't already know that, this collection isn't for you.  The collection contains five speeches, nineteen articles, and one short science fiction script.  While some are worth reading even if you've never read a page of Vonnegut before (especially "There's a Maniac Out There", Biafra: A People Betrayed, and In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself).  But many of the articles and speeches assume a knowledge of Vonnegut's work, history, and philosophy on life, or, at the very least, are weakened without it.

One of the great things about Vonnegut is that his works illuminate each other.  Though they often tread similar ground, they take different paths.  So, frequently when reading Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, I'll come across sections that illustrate or define a concept dealt with in one of Vonnegut's novels, often there will be long passages explicitly about the novels themselves and their backgrounds.  

One thing that surprised me about this collection was it's cynicism.  Don't get me wrong, I don't read Vonnegut when I'm looking for an uplifting, optimistic outlook.  But a couple of the pieces in the collection were very cynical, nihilistic even.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to fans of Kurt Vonnegut's other work, but I'd argue against this as an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut or even to his non-fiction specifically (for that, I'd recommend Palm Sunday (1981).

Overall Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, January 13, 2014

1959: Exodus by Leon Uris

The Author:

     Leon Uris (1924-2003) was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  His parents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.  Uris never finished high school, opting to drop out and enlist in the Marine Corps during his senior year.  He served in combat in Guadalcanal.  After the war, Uris moved to San Francisco with his wife, also a former Marine.  While there, he worked for a local newspaper.  In 1953, his first novel, Battle Cry, was published to huge popular success.  From there he was given a job in the story department of Warner Brothers Studios.

      In 1955, he released his second novel, The Angry Hills and, in 1956, penned the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In 1958, he published Exodus, which became a runaway success, becoming the first of two annual bestsellers on this list and earning him a considerable fan following. In 1961, Uris released Mila 18 (fun fact: Catch-22 was originally title Catch-18, but publishers were worried it would be mistaken for Uris's novel).  Trinity was published in 1976.  Uris kept writing until his death in 2003.  He was married three times over the course of his life and had five children.  He died of renal failure.

The Book:

Length: 599 pages
Subject/Genre: Jewish history, Israel/Historical Fiction

    Exodus's story centers around the founding of the nation of Israel in 1948 and the relationship between and American nurse named Kitty Fremont and a Palestinian Jewish soldier and Mossad agent, Ari Ben Canaan.  Uris conducted years of research, including thousands of interviews in and around Israel, for this novel.  While the main through-line of the story is the Israel's independence from the British, large segments of the novel focus on Jewish history in Europe, including the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Auschwitz, and the Russian pogroms.
       Much of the novel reads like a political suspense/thriller, which is appropriate for a novel that is very political.  Uris has a clear bias when it comes to Zionism, which is apparent in the sense that he is showing one side of the question.  Regardless of your personal opinions on the subject, Uris does a good job presenting the argument of one side of a complex debate.

   While this debate is common in American political discourse today, it was in fact Uris's novel that brought it to the forefront of public attention when it was published in 1958.  Like most authors on this list, Uris already had at least one popular book published before he became a top bestseller, but the popularity of Exodus specifically is worth noting upon.  The end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties were some of the harshest years of the Cold War.  World politics is at the forefront of the bestsellers list as well, with 1958's bestseller, Doctor Zhivago, focusing on the origins of the Soviet Union, and 1960's bestseller, Advise and Consent, focusing on Senate politics and the Secretary of State.  Exodus made Israel a subject of political discussion for the U.S. public.
     The novel was adapted for the screen in 1960.  The nearly three and a half hour long film starred Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan and Eva Marie Saint as Kitty Fremont.

  If you're interested in WWII/holocaust stories, or twentieth century geopolitics, Exodus would probably suit your tastes.  The novel bounces back and forth between the main storyline and a number of historical episodes, which can be annoying, even if it's informative.  

Best Selling Novels of 1959:
1. Exodus by Leon Uris
2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
3. Hawaii by James Michener
4. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
5. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
6. The Ugly American by Eugene L. Burdick
7. Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
9. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
10. Poor No More by Robert Ruark

Also Published in 1959:
Robert Block - Psycho
William S. Burroughs - Naked Lunch
G√ľnter Grass - The Tin Drum
Robert Heinlein - Starship Troopers
Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House
Philip Roth - Goodbye, Columbus
Kurt Vonnegut - The Sirens of Titan

Uris, Leon. Exodus. 1958. New York: Bantam Books, 1959. Print.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: "S." by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

     S. was released late last year, a collaboration between J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek, etc.) and Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis, The Surf Guru).  The writing is Dorst's, but, as we are told on the back blurb, the book was "conceived by" J.J. Abrams.  

     One thing to know about S., is that it is not simply the content (and contents) of the book that matters, but the book as an object.

    S. is a book within a book (or a book within a box), but in a more literal sense than something like House of Leaves or The Blind Assassin.  The book exists as a physical object instead of mere pages within the containing novel.  As you could see in the two above pictures, the novel within the novel is made to look like an old library book.  This isn't only visual, but tactile as well.  The binding mimics the binding on hardcovers from the '50s.  

     So what's this book about?  Well, the novel, Ship of Theseus, follows a man named S. who awakes in a strange city, sopping wet, with no memory of who he is or how he got there.  He is almost immediately shanghaied aboard a mysterious and disturbing ship, for reasons unknown.

    Ship of Theseus covers the spectrum from fun to philosophical to spooky, and does so gracefully.  Many questions are left unanswered, but in a fulfilling way.  That is to say, in a way that preserves and furthers the mystery.  But The Ship of Theseus isn't all that comprises S.

    Enter Eric and Jen, the two students who are trying to answer the question: Who is V. M. Straka (the fictional author of Ship of Theseus).  Through the margin notes we learn more about the 'author' and the work we're reading.  While the students themselves change, they also discover clues and codes within the novel.  I previously mentioned House of Leaves as a point of comparison with S.  It's also like Pale Fire, insofar as the margin notes go.  But Dorst did something neither Danielewski nor Nabokov did.  Inserts.

These are just a few of the many inserts within the novel.  Pictured above are a fancy business card, a puzzle wheel, and a map drawn on a napkin (yes, that's an actual napkin).  There are also numerous letters, postcards, photographs, and newspaper clippings contained within the pages of S.

Lest we forget, this is also a J.J. Abrams production, so there's a considerable web component to the book, including multiple websites that contain supplementary information not included in the text.  (This blog seems to give a good overview.)

Overall, S. is a fun puzzle and contains a good novel.  A question a lot of people ask is 'how do I read it,' because there are four sets of margin notes, each from a different read/reread of the novel by Jen and Eric.  If you want a (mostly) chronological read, here's what I suggest: First, read the novel and ignore any margin notes.  Then, read the blue/black notes (N.B. Jen writes in cursive, Eric in print).  Then read the orange/green footnotes.  Then the red/purple footnotes.  Then the black/black footnotes (i.e. the ones with black cursive as well as black print).  Read the inserts as they are referenced in the margins.

Overall review:

S.  3.5/5 
The Ship of Theseus 4/5