Tag Archives | Books

Event Review: Festival of Books

The 22nd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a unique combination of book sales, signings and promotional events. I’ve attended for years and, still, I enjoy it while acknowledging its deficiencies. My top complaint is the same as always: volunteers, event staff, venue staff and security are poorly equipped and trained to direct the over 150,000 people who come to the University of Southern California campus. Event maps are lacking. One volunteer in a festival information booth gave me the wrong directions to the Salvatori Computer Science Center, not to be confused with an arts and letters building donated by a Salvatori with that name emblazoned on it. Getting around the festival, important if you favor lectures and panel discussions as I do, gets worse every year (read my thoughts on last year’s festival here).

Once at the destination, which could be anywhere around USC’s wonderful campus near downtown Los Angeles, you’re often afforded outstanding opportunities to listen, learn, ponder, explore and examine the world of books and ideas. I spent much of the two-day weekend event roaming around booths, visiting small university presses, independent booksellers, university writing programs, USC’s many schools’ showcases and booths for various authors, theaters, publications, schools and products, from Atheists United, Titanium sponsor Acura dealers of Southern California and the Ayn Rand Institute to author Zoe Summer and YaYa’s Creole Products. Add music—the Trojans’ marching band is always a favorite—cooking and kids’ areas, and C-Span’s Booknotes interviews and scads of other contests, prizes and free samples, from books and prints to power bars and bags (which come in handy with California’s plastic bag ban, which amounts to a tax) and the book fair truly is a festival. Subtract the presence of book publishers that dominated early festivals, however, and there are fewer and fewer books, especially new, major books and authors.

I had previously attended a conversation with author Glenn Frankel at an event at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park several weeks ago. His book about High Noon and what he and many others in Hollywood refer to as the blacklist (Hollywood’s highly touted 1950s’ blackballing of presumed Communists or Soviet sympathizers, not the list of unmade scripts) makes Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and worked for the Washington Post, an attractive guest speaker. So, I already knew that Frankel, who also taught journalism at Stanford and the University of Texas, knows his subject well. He’d told the Autry audience, for instance, that High Noon was shot in 32 days on a low budget, that screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify to a congressional committee about his membership in the Communist Party and that star Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants, that he may have been impacted by childhood visits to Montana’s state house, where he saw a painting of Lewis and Clark, and that he was not very political.

When I saw that Frankel was on a book festival panel on classic Hollywood, I decided to attend. Knowing that, at the Autry, he had dropped the context that the United States was under threat of attack by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), something that people who talk about the Hollywood blacklist usually do, and that we know that the Soviets funded subversive efforts to undermine the U.S. government, I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of classic Hollywood, including the blacklist, through panel discussion.

Instead, the panel was the opposite. Moderated by USC writing instructor, Newsday political cartoonist and author M.G. Lord, who wrote a book on Elizabeth Taylor titled The Accidental Feminist, the panel was a barrage of uncorroborated claims and arbitrary assertions about the blacklist which turned into a political rant against Trump and conservatives with hardly any discussion of classic Hollywood. Author Jon Lewis, a movie professor at Oregon State University, declared that Trump’s election means democracy is dead in America (seriously). Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, whom apparently everyone calls Kenny, barely spoke about classic film, though he did mention being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Frankel, who is both extremely knowledgeable and fundamentally mistaken in his book’s assertion that Ayn Rand is to blame for what he sees as the injustice of a Hollywood blacklist, gave the most substantial classic Hollywood analysis. Others went for laughs and digs at Trump or the blacklist.

To her credit, Karen Maness, a scenic artist and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and painting instructor for the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, gave very interesting facts and insights about classic movies’ backdrops.

The classic movies discussion was disappointing but a panel on writing short stories was worse, despite efforts by PEN Center USA literary programmer, author and moderator Libby Flores. Given the team’s credentials, I was astonished that no one really talked about writing short stories. Channelle Benz, who earned her MFA at Syracuse University, has published short stories in The American Reader and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. Author Dana Johnson is an English professor at USC and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Brooklyn writer Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program and her stories have appeared in The Guardian. Deb Olin Unferth, who writes in Austin, Texas, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Tin House. So I was looking forward to a detailed examination of writing short stories. The panel started late and veered into the writers’ rambling thoughts on why they are fascinated by “the color of blood” and admissions and confessions of personal tastes and idiosyncrasies. When I asked if they have an explicit theme in mind when they write a story, only Schiff answered and she didn’t say much. No one else spoke.

Unferth was the most entertaining short stories panelist, using humor to lighten the dense discussion, which did not include mention of a single writing habit. Unferth, who told the audience about a story she wrote in which a shooter contemplates whether to gun down a child at the top of a hill, was asked about the most memorable reader response to her writing. She made the audience laugh when she admitted that a blogger once posted—and apparently kept posting—about how he hated one of her stories, which he wrote was a downer that kept dragging him down. Imagine that.

When Flores asked everyone to name the first story to make an impression, no one could think of a single story to name. At some point, Schiff did manage to credit Kurt Vonnegut with the advice to “make your character want something—even if it’s just a glass of water.”

Titles among their material might have been a cautionary clue that they aren’t terribly interested in breaking down the writing, let alone editing and publishing, process. Benz is the author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Johnson’s newest book is titled In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Schiff’s latest book is called The Bed Moved.

Easily the most stimulating panel came late in the festival on Sunday. Whereas the short story writers gave the impression that writing is mysterious, magical and indecipherable, the writers on the “From Page to Screen” panel stressed the opposite idea.

Panelists included Brian McGreevy, author and screenwriter (and co-creator of AMC’s The Son with Pierce Brosnan), who was a James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His latest novel is The Lights. Also on board: novelist Tod Goldberg, who wrote novels based on USA Network’s Burn Notice and co-authored the Hammett Prize finalist Gangsterland, for which he’s writing a sequel, Gangster Nation, scheduled for publication this fall; Los Angeles writer Pamela Ribon who recently co-wrote Disney’s Moana and former Dark Shadows actress Lara Parker, author of three novels based on NBC’s cult soap opera, who attended Vassar College, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a BA in philosophy and received her MFA in creative writing from LA’s Antioch University. The moderator, USC writing instructor Richard Rayner, who’s written nine books, including an LA crime history, A Bright and Guilty Place, and an interesting article on Rudyard Kipling, liked to talk more than he liked to let the panelists talk.

When they did, the page-to-screen writers were hilariously insightful and incisive, generously sharing their insecurities, showing their battle scars and being utterly candid in every detail about their writing. Contrary to the painfully pretentious short stories panel, these writers were quite self-aware and purposeful in trying to help the audience grasp the hard work and wrenching business of writing. They fed off of Goldberg’s delightful banter with Ribon, which was at once politically incorrect and perfectly suited to the occasion, delivering with good humor the necessary tips, tools and knowledge to manage Hollywood’s often anti-conceptual handling—more like belittling—of the writer. Goldberg wisely explained that he knows his limits (he didn’t put it this way) by focusing on prose writing. McGreevy had said something similar.

Everything Tod Goldberg said, and he is enormously successful, and, not coincidentally, decent, kind and gracious in person, tracks to not letting the pain of pursuing a livelihood in writing go too deep down into your soul. In his own introverted way, McGreevy, too, let the audience know how to let off steam and cope with adversity in the potentially ruinous page to screen process, alluding to horror stories while delivering a blistering breakdown of the term “showrunner” as a total lie. McGreevy, who explicitly embraced writing’s solitude and said that he really doesn’t like spending a lot of time with people, explained that he studied the creative process from a primarily different orientation—that of the perspective of those titans of the technology industry. He said he read many of their books on being productive and gained real value. He also encouraged writers to take breaks often to give detachment and distance to the material (my writing class students may recognize this particular writing lesson).

Parker shot down the moderator’s attempt to credit her acting with any meaningful tie-in to her writing, crediting her own reading of great works of horror literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to more recent novels and, finally, her decision to mimic the structure and approach of Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). She derided the box office bomb movie version starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins (“Tim Burton is not interested in story”, she said) and, having played a villainess, the witch, she pointed out that the franchise Dark Shadows is a supernatural thriller rooted in serious, universal themes of life and death through gothic romanticism. Asked by Rayner after she griped about having to deliver bad lines as an actress to name the worst line, Parker fingered The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC, in which she played Col. Steve Austin’s love interest who told him at the end of the weekly episode that: “There will always be a candle buring for you in the window, Steve.” To which Mr. Goldberg deadpanned, a moment after audience laughter subsided: “Was this during the Civil War?”

All of which only made this writer want to read their books.

Spring’s Festivals 2017

The 8th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival (which I previewed here) ended this month with a party at the Hollywood Boulevard ballroom where the first Oscars ceremony was held (Wings won the Academy’s first Best Picture award). I’ve covered, moderated and hosted film festivals before. TCM’s festival is my favorite.

As I wrote this year, TCM’s Classic Film Festival is focused on the movies and with genuine respect for those who love them, really love them, for the artistry of motion pictures. Not that other festivals don’t have that aspect but TCM’s is driven by this passion and thrives on it. So, read my condensed report on the festival at LA Screenwriter, where you can also read my account of a rare, personal conversation with classic movies scholar and film historian Leonard Maltin. Maltin, whom I interviewed in 2015 about his Classic Movie Guide for TCM, introduced several pictures at screenings this year. Read my full, final roundup of TCM’s Classic Film Festival at The New Romanticist, where you can also read my review of Alfred Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which I saw on David O. Selznick’s nitrate print screening—adoringly introduced by Martin Scorsese.

I’ve also added three new reviews of classic comedies, which I saw during the festival at 35mm screenings in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated The Egyptian movie palace: Jack Conway’s scathing, sexual movie Red-Headed Woman (1932) and a pair of delightfully smart and savvy early pictures by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch, the silent film So This is Paris (1926) and the Jeanette MacDonald-Maurice Chevalier musical One Hour With You (1932). Each of the three movies, part of TCM’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” festival theme this year, center upon male infidelity.

America’s largest literary festival, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happens this weekend at University of Southern California (USC). With more than 500 authors, artists and intellectuals, the Trojans’ campus will be filled with various writers including Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk. Also in the lineup for various events, including book signings, conversations, panel discussions, lectures and interviews, are John Scalzi, Scott Simon, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Bryan Cranston, Roxane Gay, Dave Grohl, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Tippi Hedren, Marlon James, Clinton Kelly, Rep. John Lewis, Cheech Marin and Danica McKellar. The book fest takes over USC with cooking, musical concerts, poetry and children’s readings, and sponsor Center Theatre Group will provide a performance of songs from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is presented in association with USC, with main sponsorship from the Southern California Acura Dealers. Attendance to the festival is free at USC, which is adjacent to Exposition Park. Hundreds of exhibitors offer books and merchandise for sale, giveaways and activities. If you’re interested in more information, visit the Festival of Books official website. Read my thoughts on last year’s book fest here.

Winter Writing

A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.

Top U.S. film

America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.

Eagle Rock Clubhouse by Neutra

Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.

New book this March

A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.

The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.

Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.

Movie Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

At its roots, director Elia Kazan’s first motion picture, an adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is a deceptively taut dramatization of an alcoholic’s family. This could be anywhere in the United States, really, and the essential plot and characters would ring as bitterly, poignantly true as they do here. Screened by this reviewer on the big screen for the first time in Hollywood at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival (more on the screening later; read about festival here), I had seen it in home theater years ago and knew that the conventional wisdom about Kazan’s 1945 debut is that it’s about an immigrant Irish family struggling to survive in New York City.

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But it’s not. Each of those aspects of the Nolan family is understated in the script; what matters is the action through the choices of each character, from father Johnny (played by James Dunn, a fallen star who apparently struggled with alcoholism) to his two kids and wife, played by Dorothy Maguire in one of her best roles. Peggy Ann Garner gives one of the greatest juvenile screen performances as Francie Nolan. Ted Donaldson, who introduced the screening, plays younger child Neeley, the film’s comic relief.

The action takes place in Brooklyn at the turn of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution is transforming lives and radically improving the culture. This is evident in the character Francie (Garner), who desperately wants to become a writer, and her Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell at her best, reminding me of a saucier Scarlett Johansson), who has an opportunity to aspire to the middle class life in the nation that arguably created the middle class. Everyone from the barkeeper to the policeman (Lloyd Nolan shining in the role) is on the upward trajectory.

Not the Nolan family, however, who are held back by waiter Johnny’s drunkenness, negligence and inability to provide for his poor wife and kids. His strengths are known in time but he’s made dreams his master, to paraphrase Kipling’s poem, and he’s unable to cash in on capitalism. Amid gay tunes, frolicking children and a trolley car salute, Johnny’s cheerful disposition comes at the expense of his burdened and embittered wife, Katie (Maguire) who must be the mind and body of the family, depriving her of dreams, goals and soul. Maguire’s tired eyes and downward vocal tones mark the decline in a characterization that calls across the ages to all those betrayed by their loved ones and themselves through drink, dysfunction and moral evasion.

This leaves Neeley and Francie with a harsh mother who’s a chronic reality check and killjoy—”Mama said” is the kids’ sad profession of faith—though they make their own way in the exciting new world, roaming the five and dime, playing with worldly Aunt Sissy and bantering with one another in competition and in code, the language of all children of alcoholics walking on eggshells trying to navigate the secrets, the anger and the shame. Kazan (On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!) navigates, too, keeping steady command of this powerful movie with a constant focus on the characters, not a showcase of the world they inhabit, at Christmastime, in classroom and Manhattan’s distant yet distinctly accessible skyline, a quiet character in its way representing the film’s physical, spiritual, industrial and American ideal. Agonizing scenes of hardship and suffering and all, there is an abiding worship for the new world in every frame.

Brilliantly rendered details move the plot toward its tragic and bittersweet titular theme that progress is possible at any stage in life, even when life seems impossible—closeups of the child in a moment of realization, a gesture with rosewater, shadows on the wall—such as a song played on a piano and sung from the soul or a rooftop compact between cohorts. The snow and hard rain that build to the climax gently but insistently slow to rhythmic drops symbolizing a child’s answered prayers. When the child’s compositions are delivered to the mother as Katie gives birth literally and figuratively—to a conscience; a new awareness of herself, motherhood and joy—the family is made good and whole, with one final, crucial reward to come.

The result in Elia Kazan’s black and white A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is both wrenching and liberating, which makes this movie unforgettable.


TCM writer Jeremy Arnold interviewed Ted Donaldson (who played Neeley) before the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 world premiere of the restored print, which was, in fact, pristine to my eyes. Donaldson said he’d grown up in Brooklyn and that he recalls Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!) convening the cast around a giant, viking-style table and instructing everyone that this movie is a small story about people’s desires, tensions, ambitions and problems and how they try to solve them—and that, if A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t about that, it isn’t about anything. He made the audience laugh when he talked about Blondell’s “ebullient sexuality” and admitted his boyhood crush on the actress, who let him sit on her lap. Later, Donaldson said, she gave him an autographed picture of herself with the inscription: “With love from Joan…I’m waiting for you.”

Book Review: Keep Calm (2016)

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An exciting debut novel by filmmaker Mike Binder, Keep Calm, combines travel, politics and an act of war to serve a redemptive and cautionary theme about securing one’s country and family.

The action begins in London, with a female politician named Georgia Turnbull who immediately calls to mind one of Binder’s many strong movie characters for women.

Georgia’s tough-minded in a time of crisis, demonstrating the title’s directive after the United Kingdom is hit by an explosion at 10 Downing Street. With the British prime minister seriously wounded, Georgia, the chancellor of the exchequer, is basically propelled into running the country.

Propulsion is Binder’s top skill in this first novel, as the thrills originate with organic plot points, development and characterization. What happens stems from the story progression. Nothing is included to deceive, confuse or distract, though the reader may succumb to any of these thanks to Binder’s clever use of a timing device, as he reconfigures the bombing timeline to maximum effect, and deploys certain hints, lines and clues. Keep Calm, which is not without flaws, is always fresh and often surprising.

But it is never dull and the story, as with screenwriter and director Binder’s best motion pictures (The Upside of Anger, Indian Summer, Black or White), peels back peculiar yet discoverable characteristics, secrets and motivations. As the prime minister’s life teeters on expiration, and the prospect of a woman prime minister looms, Binder spins several characters into separately rotating orbits, each revolving around the mystery of Keep Calm: who attacked and why?

Chief among these are American Midwesterner Adam Tatum who’s traveling to London on business with his Brit wife and their kids, hotshot investigator Davina Steel and crony statist billionaire David Heaton. Subsidiary characters, such as a father-in-law, a male secretary and assorted Londoners, foreigners, policemen, policewomen and thugs figure into the plot, too, with shocking or thrilling results.

To say more is to say too much and I do not want to spoil the plot. I don’t want to be too vague or minimize plot, either, though, a more common problem in the favorable book review. A lot happens in Keep Calm, and it happens at a steady and purposeful pace with good characterization, dialogue and transition. There are flashbacks of a helicopter crash, subtle clues, shifting allegiance and, prominently, checkered Adam Tatum’s family on the run from both the British government and the culprits who may have set him up for implication in the attack.

Young detective Steel, under watchful orders from the British state, must rely on her judgment and everything from Islamic terrorism, sexual assault, addiction, detachment from the European Union (EU), power-lusting members of Parliament and lesbian eroticism comes into play.

Mike Binder is at his best with heart-thumping chases into London’s Underground, gunfights, nighttime dalliances, a kidnapping, a showdown in the country and a climactic compound siege and his London streets and landmark details are a treat for fans of that grand metropolis. The propulsive plot does come at the expense of the novel’s underdeveloped theme, which fades and leaves a hurried and unfinished resolution. Sometimes, character actions strain plausibility. A few plot loops close too neatly or dart too quickly into another subplot as London becomes the center of epic intrigue. I found one character’s violation to be gratuitous and thematically self-defeating.

As always, however, with this intelligently gripping literary debut, Binder—who’s already adapting Keep Calm as a movie—writes with purpose and passion. Binder’s theme that the government’s urge to keep calm, with its profound and eloquent place in Britain’s history, ought to be viewed with doubt and scrutiny, makes his first novel a promising start and enticing source for a major motion picture.