Category Archives: Review

Tennis v. Shootout, Anyone?

It used to be a cliche in the theater what whenever a playwright wanted to clear the stage so that principle characters could talk alone, an actor in white shorts would rush in waving a racquet and shout, “Tennis, anyone?”

Then all the people who weren’t needed for the next scene would race off.

Bringing in the Greek god

Bringing in the Greek god

A similar device in Greek theater is known as deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” which means that when human characters confront an unsolvable problem, the playwright flies in a god to fix it. In Greek times, a visible machine with a crane was used that the audience pretended not to notice, thus granting the gods their divine power.

In the 20th century, the transition to a new kind of deus ex machina was attributed to actor Humphrey Bogart. After reporters asked for years if he made the Tennis, Anyone? device famous, Bogart told a Hollywood columnist in 1948:

“I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: ‘Tennis anybody?’ It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way, I come in with a gun and bump ‘em off.”

Picture of Bogart with gun

Bogart clearing the room

Amazing, isn’t it? The entertainment world changed this plot device from a mild invitation to play tennis to a deadly attack by gunshot. In the process, you might say that Tennis, Anyone? turned into Shootout, Anyone? and the guy with the pistol became a criminal version of deux ex machina.

Today the phrase,Tennis, Anyone? is a catch-all for the kind of phony contrivance you see when, for example, a TV actor like Josh Charles, who plays attorney Will Gardner on The Good Wife, refuses to renew his contract.

That was the “gut punch” that Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife, confessed knocked the stuffing out of them when Charles’ made his surprise decision to quit the program. They felt backed into a corner, and who could blame them?  Will Gardner’s passion for protagonist Alicia Florrick had become central to the show’s enormous success over four seasons.

How to get rid of the lead romantic interest? A new version of Tennis, Anyone? — like a judge rushing in with a basketball, asking,  “Pick-up game, anyone?” — had been used before, when Will got in trouble for allegedly bribing judges. So that was out. Giving Will cancer would be too slow (Josh Charles wanted to leave now), and we know Will wouldn’t fall in love with somebody else (tried it — she went to London). Going to prison was not an option (that’s Alicia’s husband Peter’s gig), as was falling out of love with Alicia (never).

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in 'The Good Wife'

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in ‘The Good Wife’

So killing him off was the only answer, it appeared, but the Kings forgot a key writing requirement that comes with this deus ex machina choice today: If a beloved central character like Will Gardner must die, he has to die for a reason. He has to be involved organically in the ongoing story, and the legacy he leaves behind must contribute to the growth of other characters, which we’ll get to later.

I think the Kings forgot about this because they seem to have been distracted, as 21st-century TV creator-writers often are, by the fact that in our post-9/11, post-Columbine society, you can do so much with blood spatter after Dexter. They knew the Shootout, Anyone? device happens so often on TV crime shows that a clerk in a local convenience store can’t look twice at a customer without guns coming out and soda bottles bursting and Little Debbies shot off the shelves as automatic firearms go ding, ding, ding down the row.

We viewers in turn are so accustomed to out-of-nowhere violence that we can predict it’s not the anonymous clerk who’ll be caught in the crossfire — it’ll be the beloved Dad who innocently stopped by for milk and is now lying dead among the Debbies, or the newly engaged fiance who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, or the veteran cop who never fired a weapon in 20 years “on the job” and was hurrying off to the retirement dinner when Fate intervened.

Promo for Will's death scene - don't forget that happy smile

Promo for Will’s death scene – don’t forget that happy smile

This is why killing off Will Gardner in a courtroom shootout was so obvious and cheap. It was beneath the standards we’ve come to expect of an otherwise smart, relevant and innovative series.  The coincidences alone were hard to believe: Will just happened to get in the way of a flying bullet? His colleagues Diane and Kalinda just happened to be working down the hall? The bailiff just happened to leave his loaded gun unbuttoned, inches away from the client’s unshackled body? The deranged client just happened to turn paranoid at the moment the pistol came into view? (And why did the usually observant Will miss every warning sign the panicked client revealed from the first arrest?  We viewers all saw it — Kalinda kept mentioning it — so why not Will, except that it was another convenient coincidence.)

I thought TV critics would denounce The Good Wife for using such a tacky plot device that broadcasts a dangerous and inaccurate message about violence in America. That message is:  Shootouts are so prevalent today that gunfire is as likely to kill Our Hero as a heart attack or car accident. This is not true, and it’s doubly irresponsible coming from writers who’ve been so fastidious about the accurate portrayal of real controversies in our time, such as Bitcoin currency,  insurance fraud, rape in the military, undocumented immigrants, surrogate mothers, army torture, sexual harassment, capital punishment, wiretapping, and of course the Cheese Guild (which you have to see to believe).  Shootouts are incredibly rare in  society, but they’re so sensationalized by the American press that they seem to be  “considerably more common than they are.” 

So why did the Kings use the Shootout, Anyone approach? Maybe all they wanted wanted was a big distraction. Maybe they hoped the gunshots, screaming crowds and blood-spattered walls would cause TV critics to be so dazzled  that they’d forget how shameful and outrageous it is that Josh Charles would blithely walk out on the complicated and seductive character whom he and the Kings so carefully created over four seasons.

Writer Delia Ephron

Writer Delia Ephron

Indeed, other than Delia Ephron, who wrote a silly essay in the New York Times that she was mad at the “selfishness” of Josh Charles because she personally was going to miss his sex scenes, most of the critics I read praised the show for unleashing a “bombshell” and keeping Will’s death a secret for nearly a year.

Josh Charles himself appeared proud and happy on the Dave Letterman program when he should have been ashamed and apologetic for crippling the series by removing its most riveting male character and story line. it was as though he expected audiences to pretend not to notice the deus ex machina of the moment so we could keep on loving the character of Will after he’s gone.

Which brings us back to the integrity of any work of fiction, which is to say that every event has to have a reason, including a character’s death. The great irony of The Good Wife is that a foundation had been laid for several legitimate possibilities leading to Will’s murder that would have contributed to the strengths of the show.  All the writers had to do was follow their own subplots.

Suppose, for example, Will is killed — possibly assassinated? — when he’s on the way to meet someone involved with, say,  the voter fraud issue that’s dragging Peter down, or the drug-smuggling kingpin who may switch law firms, or the Milwaukee Food Festival bomb suspect, or webcam spies, or tampered juries, the hilarious Office of Public Integrity (this has got to be a spoof on the National Security Council), all of which offered complex gray areas in which Will is neither villain nor hero.

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

There he is, wearing that great Will Gardner glower that means he’s going to do something big, maybe change the world, maybe tell Alicia he loves her, when bam, shots ring out, intended only for him. Given his history of shady legal deals, Will’s death would  leave a mystery to be solved in subsequent episodes that could challenge every character who knew or loved him. In the process, everybody on The Good Wife might think a little more deeply about the difference between living passively and meeting one’s destiny. So in a dramatically challenging way, Will’s death would have contributed to the advancement of both story and character.

And because that self-righteous guy from The Office of Public Integrity would positively drool with a new sense of purpose, the story would pick up again rather than bog down in the next episodes with everybody crying mawkishly over Will’s loss. I’m not saying the characters shouldn’t feel grief; rather, the series would be deepened and enlarged if they’re hit with one real crisis after another while they’re trying to recover. Otherwise the story just lies there dragging the pace down growing more mawkish by the second.  (I didn’t buy Diane kicking out the rich client; she’s too professional to parade her woundedness like that, and she was wrong – Will would never have lost those billings, either.)

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

It’s too bad that Kings have defended the courtroom shootout as part of the theme: “To us, there always was a tragedy at the center of Will and Alicia’s relationship,” they wrote in a letter to viewers. “The tragedy of bad timing. The brutal honesty and reality of death speaks to the truth and tragedy of bad timing for these two characters.”

Uh-huh. Let’s see now, tragedy = death, you say? As in Shakespeare or something?  Like star-crossed lovers who bemoan their fate but can’t do anything about it?

Sigh. Sometimes the writers are the last to know.

The best part about The Good Wife is that tragedy happens to Alicia and Will before the story begins. It’s the tragedy of Alicia being the loyal housewife and mother who depended on her husband Peter to keep the family secure while he ran around with prostitutes and crime figures. It’s about Will, the sensitive but ruthless attorney-on-the-make who can’t commit to anyone in a love relationship and tends to bend the law too far.

So from the start, the theme of the show poses this question: Can Alicia transform herself from the  loser wife (as people see her) standing powerlessly by her fallen husband to a self-actuating single mom who can think on her feet and have terrific orgasms on the dresser with a rehbilitated Eliot-Spitzer hubby or in a hotel suite with the charismatic-yet-ruthless mentor-with-a-heart Will?

To many viewers, thats the theme: Whether Alicia can learn to carve out her own choices in a world that’s filled with hidden agendas, political in-fighting, social back-stabbers, romantic subterfuge and government/corporate surveillance.  And if she can, what about Will, Kalinda, Diane, Eli, or Cary? Indeed, can any of us? One of the joys of watching this richly detailed story unfold is to witness this theme filtering down to even the minor characters in the show, including the shy new law partner (Nathan Lane), the attorney who exploits his own disability (Michael J. Fox), the possibly autistic fixer (Carrie Preston), Peter’s ethics consultant with the too-big lips (Melissa George),  Eli Gold’s far-too-young love interest (America Ferrera), and dozens of others, all struggling to define themselves as independent players in a world of conformists.

Will's own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

Will’s own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

But i think it’s Alicia’s children who could have played a key role about Will’s future with Alicia when unfortunately the Kings killed him off.   Zach and Grace were just  beginning to realize that Will was their mother’s terrible secret, the Guy Who Isn’t Dad. They were suspicious of him, and he was awkward around them.  How intriguing it would have been if Will happened to  help Zach in a dispute with police, or represented a young Christian minister whom born-again Grace idolized. Then Will, the famously shy and tongue-tied adult when he was around Alicia’s children, could have begun to make a commitment for the first time in his life for the betterment of another human being — not just a love interest (Alicia) but young people he found valuable in his own life and in the world.

That commitment could have challenged the kids’ limited understanding of moral issues and forced Alicia to confront her own fears about what kind of “good” mother and “good” wife she would continue to be.  Then, just when everybody was in the grip of life-changing events, Will would get killed, and the more dubious his legal situation at that moment, the better.

A second scenario lost in the Shootout, Anyone? debacle involves the one thing Will never knew: that Alicia left Lockhart Gardner to get away from the boss/associate and partner/partner relationship problem so that she and Will could go at it in the front seat without violating company rules. Having Cary as her law partner across town, she would have been free to choose Will as a lover (or not) without worrying about client relations or Diane banging on the hood of the car. She could tell the kids the truth, decide about divorcing Peter, earn more money by poaching clients and live openly on her own terms. That, too, would be a great time to whack Will.

Some observers say that all drama is about the possibility of transformation, which is why a Greek play can still be inspiring — the god they lower from the skies is really a stand-in for ourselves. The choices made by a divine power are dangled in front of human characters every day. What made The Good Wife so engrossing was the authenticity of every choice, the rich detail with which we could see that life isn’t stagnant, that independent thought can be scary and fulfilling at the same time. That’s not lost in the shootout; it’s just weakened.

In the end, I could see somebody knocking off Will Gardner for his annoying habit of obsessively unbuttoning and rebuttoning his too-tight suit jacket every time he stands up to address the judge. James Spader did this in every episode of Boston Legal and he, too, should have been jailed for it.  Let’s hope Finn (the new love interest? so soon!) uses Velcro.

Will Gardner's too-tight suit

Will Gardner’s too-tight suit

 

 

 

 

A Single Book Makes All the Difference

Pardon me for writing this lengthy and heartfelt column about a long-ago published book (2008), but each time I hear about brutal interrogations (did they lead to or away from Osama bin Laden, for example), I think of my favorite nonfiction title of the last three years, aside from Facebook for Dummies (not kidding), My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $13.95).

If you wince at the word “Guantanamo” and think there’s nothing new to learn about the hellhole even Obama can’t shut down, wait until you meet the detainees from Afghanistan whom the author, an American law student who acted as translator for defense lawyers as early as 2006, came to know during more than 30 trips to and from the heavily barricaded cages that critics have called “our” Abu Ghraib.

We know from the outset we’re going to hear the by-now familiar stories of torture, hoods, stress positions and sexual humiliation; of screaming interrogators and dead-of-night batterings, of Orwellian tribunals, denial of due process and the whole, sad, shameful mess that has made Guantanamo a continuing nightmare.

But what we don’t expect in this book is humor – not gallows humor (the prisoners are already half-dead) or angry humor (they’re too resigned), but an affectionate, teasing kind of humor usually reserved for members of a close family.

Author Khan certainly didn’t expect anything light-hearted or emotionally moving when she first applied to the FBI for security clearance in 2005. An Afghan American who grew up in the United States speaking fluent Pashto with her immigrant family, Kahn was a law student in her 20s when she became concerned about the plight of prisoners from Afghanistan at Guantanamo.

Some detainees at the prison, especially those from Saudi Arabia, came from the kind of wealth that allowed their families to hire aggressive U.S. criminal defense lawyers even when the Bush administration denied them representation. But Afghanistan is such a poor country that prisoners languished for years at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court decision of 2004 gave them access to U.S. courts, and the first pro bono lawyers began setting up meetings.
Continue reading

Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it.  The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough;  that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF PUBLISHING, PART 7,326

Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious.  A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book  — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. Continue reading

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But  I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because  the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she  then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But  boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ‘em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you.  At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” Continue reading

Review of ‘Tinkers’

SHORT NOVEL, HUGE DESIGN

Somewhere in the midst of discovering tiny Bellevue Literary Press and its incredible launch of an original trade paperback called “Tinkers” (191 pages; $14.95),  I decided to take a look at the book to make sure it was worthy of a whole column (or, as it turns out, two). 

Paul Harding

Paul Harding

Wouldn’t you know, this first novel by Paul Harding has so much originality and fresh writing that I could not believe — well, first, that the author is still in his 40s (see left; surely his mind’s age is about 142); and second, that the intricate and animated construction of the novel becomes a character in its own right.

My only regret is that as much as I admire Bellevue Press for its literary standards, I wish the cover copy for “Tinkers” weren’t so dreary. 

“An old man lies dying,” it begins. “As time collapses into memory, he travels deep into his past where he is united with his father and relives the wonder and pain ….” Sounds like a dozen other books to me, and misses a certain playfulness on Harding’s part. In most deathbed scenes, the soul rises gracefully to heaven, but here the house (which the dying man once built himself)  — in fact everything in his universe — comes crashing down on him.

As walls crack and foundation gives way, George Crosby, a former teacher lying in his rented hospital bed, remembers teaching his grandkids how to staple insulation in place. “Now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues,” along with shattered windows, caved-in ceiling, and “electrical wires that looked like severed veins” to George.   

There is no respite. “The second floor fell on him, with its unfinished pine framing and dead-end plumbing and racks of old coats and boxes.” Now he sees right through a crippled roof as “the clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head. The very blue of the sky followed…Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.” Continue reading

When Math Can Be Murder

I knew Wendy Lichtman was a good writer (Washington Post, New York Times), but I never thought she (or anybody) could pull off a book so inventive and winning as “Secrets, Lies & Algebra” (HarperTeen; 183 pages; $6.99 paperback).

It’s a great novel for young readers in the 6th-8th grades, but if you’re a math-phobic oldster like myself, it’s even better for mature(d) audiences.

The story takes off like a rocket and before you know it, principles of algebra and even a little non-Euclidean geometry (I never heard of it before but now find indispensable) fly into your brain as though destined to reside there. Continue reading