Book Reviews

Book Review – The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White

It seemed as though Richard White wrote The Republic for Which It Stands for an unorthodox reason. From my perception, he utilized it to raise awareness regarding the vilest villain in American History. As the book covered the period from the beginning of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age’s conclusion, the choice surprised me. I’d expected a monopolist, a Klansman or even John Wilkes Booth to claim that title. The impact of the malign monster in question impeded our nation’s progress towards a more perfect union and set it back for generations; destroying the “free labor” dream of the post-Civil War generation in the process. And what is the identity of this individual who belongs among the ranks of Judas, Crassus and Brutus in the Ninth Circle of Hell? Stephen J. Field. Now who reading this can honestly say they guessed that?

The volumes comprising the Oxford History of the United States tend to be rather compendious. In this one, Dr. White pushed the envelope. He chose to present an overview of the period from the end of the Civil War through the election of 1896. Many historians have approached Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as two distinct periods in American history. In this sense, Dr. White isn’t the typical historian. He explained it appropriate to group the two together. The latter era served as a logical resolution of the first.

Reconstruction witnessed the beginnings of the “free labor” system in the United States. During the years that bridged the time period, the nation transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Small producers gave way to monopolies. Labor’s role in this transition became unsettled. Strikes and violence ensued. And here enters the Snidley Whiplash of American history.

Stephen J. Field served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Ironically, the most revered figure of the era, Abraham Lincoln, appointed him. The legal concept of substantive due process served as his major contribution to the annals of American juris prudence. His views inspired other judges to adopt his original application of the due process clause enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. While not well defined in the book, in essence, substantive due process allows judges to prohibit the government from infringing on rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Gilded Age judges did so in detrimental ways. As the author summarized:

The judicial imposition of liberal free labor and contract freedom in regard to workers and their unions had a large and surprising caveat. The courts continued to appeal to common law doctrines of “masters” and “servants,” which flew in the face of freedom of contract. The contradictions gave judges even greater leeway to pick and choose among doctrines so that workers and their unions often faced “tails I win, heads you lose” situations. On the one hand, the courts granted workers property in their labor, but on the other, they also granted employers a property interest in their employees’ labor. Actions by workers that deprived employers of this labor illegally stripped them of property. The courts assumed that companies were entitled to their “servants” loyalty and obedience; actions by workers that threatened this entitlement could be ruled illegal. The courts sanctioned the employers’ right to petition the courts and unleash state violence against workers’ organizing efforts. (Page 819)

Dr. White added:

The Sherman Antitrust Act became virtually a dead letter against corporations for much of the 1890s, but unions, which were not the original concern of the legislation, became its targets. The courts would empty laws of content and fill them with new meaning. Of the thirteen decisions invoking antitrust law between 1890 and 1897, twelve involved labor unions. (Page 819)

That’s a disturbing ending to an historical epoch that began with the eradication of slavery and the advent of a “free labor” system. While troubling, the professor proved his thesis very well.

The Republic contained A LOT of detail regarding this thirty year period. It covered political events, social history and the increasing conflict between industrialists and labor. That’s a broad array of topics for a single book. At times the abundance of information became overwhelming. Still, it made for a good general overview of the era.

In 1879, reformer Lyman Abbott observed,

“Politically America is a democracy; industrially, America is an aristocracy.” The worker might make political laws, but “he is under industrial laws. At the ballot box he is a king; in the factory he is a servant, sometimes a slave.” (Page 674)

Substantive due process ignited the process through which this enigma occurred.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

 

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Book Review – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Without doubt Mr. Ishiguro crafted the most creative work of literature I’ve ever read. The latest Nobel Laureate in Literature fused a fantastic story, superb plot twists along with elements of the Arthurian legend into a memorable tale regarding the power of memory. Ironically, it focused on the lack of ability to remember.

The Buried Giant contained an outstanding setting. The story took place in a medieval society just after the reign of King Arthur. A mysterious mist spread over the land causing denizens to lose their memories. With this backdrop, the author chose to make his novel a quest story. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, two married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, endured a strong marriage. The former, in fact, always addressed his wife as ‘princess.’ While they ostensibly left their village to visit their son, their journey turned into a voyage of discovery. That unearthing included not only the mist’s source, but attributes about themselves. It also made for an entertaining read as the plot developed.

While Axl and Beatrice endeavored on a metaphorical quest, Sir Gawain (of Arthurian legend renown) and Saxon warrior Wistan embarked on a more concrete quest. Both undertook to slay the evil dragon, Quereg. They along with the married couple joined together for a good portion of the journey. I mentioned the author showed extraordinary imagination while writing this, didn’t I?

The novel became philosophical regarding the concept of memory without becoming pedantic. Prior to discovering the mist’s source, Beatrice opined:

Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, or something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And as the stranger told Ivor, when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so. (Page 83)

The monk Father Jonus revealed the source of the mist to Beatrice. (So as not to reveal spoilers, I shall neglect to mention it.) The following dialog ensued.

“Mistress, you seem happy to know the truth about this thing you call the mist.”

“Happy indeed, father, for now there’s a way forward for us.”

“Take care, for it’s a secret jealously guarded by some, though maybe it’s best it remains so no longer.”

“It’s not for me to care if it’s a secret or not, father, but I’m glad Axl and I know it and can act on it.”

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” (Page 171)

Mr. Ishiguro used voice very well in this story. All the characters spoke in ways consistent with their personalities. Sir Gawain addressed others as a noble knight of the Round Table would talk. Even the Saxon, Wistan, also expressed his thoughts like a distinguished warrior. I liked his statement, “You’ve more to fear from your silence than my anger. Speak.” (Page 262)

At times, The Buried Giant read like a work of poetry. The author’s liberal inclusion of alliteration added to this effect. Some examples included:

“pleasant place to pass” (Page 15)

“pollute this precious place” (Page 40)

“soon see his head as smooth” (Page 42)

“tall fence of tethered timber” (Page 51)

“Ivor took a step back and smiled self-consciously.” (Page 77)

“warrior’s way of walking” (Page 104)

“beating back brambles and bushes” (Page 121)

“witness the ways of warriors” (Page 132)

“heads of hideous hags” (Page 190)

“slaughter a sea of Saxons” (Page 233)

“startling them as they sat silently in their semi-circle” (Page 238)

While not alliterative, I thought the expression “pressing in oppressively right” (page 36) exhibited a clever method of expression.

The author melded all these disparate aspects into the narrative brilliantly. While doing so, he thrilled with some well contemplated plot twists. Through all this he kept the story progressing forward. That showed exceptional skill at fiction writing.

At times I did find the dialog a bit repetitive. It made the reading drag at times. All of the exceptional aspects of this book more than compensated for this slight flaw.

I’m jealous of those with the opportunity to read The Buried Giant for the first time. Maybe that mysterious mist will meander into my home and I’ll have the chance to do so again.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Vintage International, 2015. EBook.

 

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

Drama Review: Oslo by J. T. Rogers

A social scientist and his diplomat wife decided to change the world. While embarking on the quest to do so, they expanded the boundaries of the word quixotic. After witnessing the fear in eyes of two child soldiers firsthand, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul chose to seek a lasting peace in the Middle East on their own. Now here’s the really bizarre part: their back-channel efforts led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. J. T. Rogers’ Tony Award Winning play delivered a fictitious take on their efforts.

To borrow an expression from the musical Hamilton , Oslo presented readers with a seat in “the room where it happens.” The playwright allowed his audience to witness for themselves the negotiation process that takes place with international agreements. Mr. Rogers selected a very unconventional back-channel, in the forms of an idealistic couple and some unorthodox diplomats. That made the story much more interesting and engaging.

The author described his work as, “a scrupulously researched, meticulously written fiction.” (Page X) I enjoyed the inclusion of such famous historical figures as Ahmed Qurie (the PLO’s Finance Minister) and Shimon Peres (the Israeli Foreign Minister). Although not actually a character in the play itself, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s presence injected itself into the narrative.

I enjoyed the way the playwright humanized his figures. Simon Peres liked to begin conversations with a story. Ahmed Qurie expressed his love for his daughter. Terje and Mona’s marriage felt the strain of their seemingly naïve quest to end hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I also liked the witty way the author injected humor into the narrative. He included a few jokes that while referencing other cultures, didn’t come across as offensive or objectionable. That’s quite a delicate balance, but he executed it extraordinarily well.

The play’s major strength also became its biggest weakness. At times I found it difficult to read through 115 pages of diplomatic exchanges. Mr. Rogers varied the pace as well as he could by bringing in new characters to serve as negotiators. Through them, he interjected new sources of conflict into the story. Still, a few hours reading about the intricacies of international diplomacy may not appeal to some booklovers.

J. T. Rogers presented a realistic description of history’s perhaps most unconventional diplomatic undertaking. While the Oslo Accords didn’t achieve an enduring peace in the Middle East, the playwright still found a hopeful lesson from the entire process. Perhaps, someday events will provide the author with a more positive ending for a sequel. After all, no one thought an idealistic Norwegian couple could’ve come this close to ending the conflict less than 25 years ago.

perhaps

Drama Review: Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage crafted the most gripping tale of an American tragedy I’ve ever read. Sweat presented a realistic depiction of the disintegration of the middle class’ dreams and aspirations in recent years. A masterpiece of the highest order resulted.

As in Ms. Nottage’s 2008 drama, Ruined, the playwright displayed her extraordinary artistic aptitude. Once again, she paired the perfect characters with the appropriate setting in the proper time frame. Sweat took place in Reading, Pennsylvania. The action occurred in the years 2000 and 2008. The characters reflected the diversity in American society. They included two generations of African Americans, two generations of German Americans, a Columbian American and an Italian American; all born in Berks County, Pennsylvania. NAFTA’s effects coupled with the ensuing economic uncertainty it wrought caused this melting pot to boil over. It did so in the form of resentment, nascent racism and xenophobia.

I applaud Ms. Nottage’s brilliance in using events from the recent past to present a modern story. The show premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on July 29, 2015. The events it described occurred either seven or fifteen years prior. Still, the narrative’s immediacy impressed me greatly.

Ms. Nottage crafted very believable characters. I could imagine sitting down and sharing a beer with the likes of Tracey, Brucie, Jason and Chris. Their values and respective mentalities captivated me even more.

The playwright did an unparalleled job in creating balance throughout the story. One of the factory workers, Cynthia, received a promotion to supervisor. Making one of the “workers” a member of “management” made it difficult to completely vilify the “white hats.” That made the true “villain” in the story a bit nebulous. The “heroes” also struggled with their own hubris.

The playwright captured society’s carefree attitude at the advent of the twenty first century. While drinking together at a bar the subject of the modern business environment became a topic of discussion. An inebriated forty-five year old Tracey said, “We’ve been having the same conversation for twenty years. So, let’s stop complaining and have some fun.” (Page 27)

Jason, the twenty one year old white American, discussed his plans to retire at 50. He envisioned his “killa” pension would provide him with the means to purchase a condo in Myrtle Beach. Possessing “money to burn” would supply the means to buy into a donut franchise and run his own business. (Page 32)

Not all the characters possessed this boundless optimism, however. After Brucie’s plant locked out its workers, he struggled to cope not just financially, but personally. His very identity evaporated with the loss of his job. Like many in his generation he struggled to understand his plight. When comparing his time as a factory worker to that of his father’s, he asked Stan the bartender: “Where did I go wrong?” (Page 36)

The playwright creatively alluded to the title throughout the text. Evan, the parole officer, commented, “It’s no sweat off my back.” (Page 9) Stan observed that the new managerial generation didn’t enter the shop floor because they didn’t want their diplomas “stained with sweat.” (Page 26) Chris declared that he broke up with his girlfriend due to her “sweating” him. (Page 98)

Many writers become overwhelmed by their own research. Ms. Nottage avoided this mistake. Each scene opened with the date followed by a brief description of news events. They included both national political and financial happenings as well as occurrences specific to the Reading area. It provided for a good contrast. The use of the old beer commercial line “Wazzup” in the dialog provided a true voice from the era.

Stan, the bartender observed, “Nostalgia’s a disease.” (Page 97) The drama illustrated the wisdom in that aphorism. It didn’t offer much of a prescription to ameliorate its impact in the future, either. With the myriad warnings about increasing economic inequality in our society, all of us should sweat about that.

Drama Review – Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

It’s never easy to write a show with four characters with three being the same person. Edward Albee did so. After crafting such memorable shows as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Seascape he added the extraordinary Three Tall Women to his catalog. It provided the perfect vehicle for the playwright to exhibit the range of his genius. In addition to the creativity involved in the concept, he crafted a moving meditation on the physical and psychological effects of the aging process.

The play contained three main characters. The playwright chose not to name them; settling instead for the appellations A, B and C. It turned out that each character played the same “tall” woman at different points in her life. A was an old woman in her nineties. In the list of characters, Mr. Albee described B as “looks rather as A would have at 52; plainly dressed.” C “looks rather as B would have at 26.”

The drama commenced with A on the verge of death. The three characters discussed the key events from her life and how they led to this conclusion. The disparity in their views concretized the ways people evaluate the same events at different points in their lives.

The author animated this point very well. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between A and C on pages 104 and 105. Both admitted to each other, “I don’t like you.” I found that very interesting for two characters that were, in essence, the same person.

I liked how the author worked A’s difficulty remembering things into the story. With the way the narrative progressed I wondered if the character lacked this ability intentionally. With some of the unpleasant events that occurred during her life I could understand why. A good example took place when B expressed hatred for her own son.

(Rage) He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again. (To him) Go away!! (Angry, humiliated, tears.) (Page 92)

I found the portion where C discussed their future husband with characters A and B the most interesting section of the play. The playwright made C a young lady of 26 years. A and B informed her that she married at 28. The characters derisively described the spouse as “little and he’s funny looking—a little like a penguin.” (Page 82) B even called him, “The little one; the little one-eyed man?” (Page 79) She added that they went on to spend forty years with one man: “more or less.” (Page 79) Under C’s questioning, she acknowledged a torrid affair during the marriage. I enjoyed how C became disgusted by the description of the husband along with her (future) behavior towards him. Of course, we know that she’s the character who went on to marry and cheat on him shortly afterwards.

I did have some issues with the dialog. I found a lot of it repetitious. I can understand that since all three characters played, in essence, the same person the playwright would choose to show that by having the individuals speak in similar ways. It did get a little tedious to read after a while.

Characters B and C also recited a line made famous by Kurt Vonnegut. They both used the expression, “And so it goes.” It really grabbed my attention. I didn’t understand if the Mr. Albee deliberately referenced Vonnegut or if he had a meaning more endemic to the play in citing him. I would’ve appreciated a clarification.

On an episode of The Simpsons, Marge told Lisa, “You could write a depressing Broadway play. It could be about people coming to terms with things.” That would serve as a good general synopsis of Three Tall Women. While a very cerebral and unhappy story, it’s still an extraordinary exploration of aging and its effects on the human psyche. If you don’t believe me, and you’re young enough, try reading it when you’re 26, 52 and 91.

Drama Review – How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

During an interview playwright Paula Vogel expressed her debt to Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita inspired her to craft a similar story written from the Lolita character’s point-of-view. The superb play How I Learned to Drive resulted.

I found the play’s structure outstanding. The author instructed that during the show a voice over recite messages as though coming from a driver’s education film. These included expressions such as, “Safety first – You and Driver education” (Page 9), “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear” (Page 16) and “You and the Reverse Gear.” (Page 45) The playwright cleverly inserted these messages into places where they corresponded with the scene. As disturbing as I found the one on “Implied Consent” (Page 44), the following expressed the most troubling message.

Before You Drive.

Always check under your car for obstructions – broken bottles, fallen tree branches, and the bodies of small children. Each year hundreds of children are crushed beneath the wheels of unwary drivers in their own driveways. Children depend on you to watch them. (Page 32)

No play would be presentable without the addition of quirky and memorable characters. How I Learned to Drive didn’t lack any. This family had a very unique tradition. As the protagonist, Li’l Bit explained.

In most families relatives get names like “Junior” or “Brother” or “Bubba.” In my family if we call someone “Big Papa,” it’s not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. (Page 12)

The playwright provided great insights into Uncle Peck’s character through his behavior. As he taught Li’l Bit to drive, the occasions became a metaphor for their illicit relationship. He took Li’l Bit out for oysters and cocktails after she passed the driving test. (Page 17) When she was 13, he had her do a sensual photo shoot for him. He told her:

Peck:…You’re doing great work. If we keep this up, in five years we’ll have a really professional portfolio. (Li’l Bit stops.)

Li’l Bit: What do you mean in five years?

Peck: You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen. — (Peck continues to shoot; he knows he’s made a mistake.)

Li’l Bit: –Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?

Peck: Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best. (Page 43)

It seemed very eerie to me that an adolescent girl would still address a man as “uncle” when he talked about sending erotic photos of her to a men’s magazine. I credit the playwright for crafting this scene so well. It gave readers an insight into Uncle Peck’s true nature.

But this was just warm-up depravity for Uncle Peck. He had more despicable conduct to commit. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Li’l Bit expressed her disgust in the following exchange.

Peck: — They were gifts! I just wanted to give you some little perks for your first semester—

Li’l Bit: –Well what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go—only two more weeks.—And then just numbers –69—68—67—like some serial killer!

Peck: Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick-up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

Li’l Bit: My eighteenth birthday. I’m not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

Peck: So?

Lil’ Bit: So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Page 49)

The playwright added another distressing bit of realism to this story, too. In the end, Aunt Mary blamed the teenaged Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. It’s always terrible when a victim gets blamed for the crime committed against her. It’s even more awful when that sufferer is a child.

While the nature of the story made for a somber read, the playwright managed to work in some fantastic humor. My favorite occurred when Li’l Bit shared a “Mary Jane joke” with another character.

“Little Mary Jane was walking through the woods, when all of a sudden this man who was hiding behind a tree jumps out, rips open Mary Jane’s blouse, and plunges his hands on her breasts. And little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes.” (Page 37)

For Ms. Vogel’s extraordinary work, How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. To those not familiar with it, I’d encourage these people to get in their cars. Adjust the seat. Fasten the seatbelt. Then check the right side mirror – check the left side. Finally, adjust the rearview mirror. And then—floor it to your nearest theater or bookstore.

God of Carnage by Yasmin Reza Translated by Christopher Hampton

With God of Carnage, Yasmin Reza put the drama into drama. The playwright utilized the perfect formula to do so. First, she created four quirky characters who didn’t like each other very much. Then she placed them in a confined space. To enhance the set-up she added a story spark that would lead to conflict among them. One enteraining and disconcerting play resulted.

I first have to credit the playwright for the pace. At first God of Carnage began as a civil discussion between two sets of parents. The Novak’s 11 year-old son hit the other family’s child in the mouth with a stick. The latter lost two teeth over the incident. These children’s fathers and mothers opted to have a diplomatic meeting regarding the matter. They began by calmly discussing how best to rectify the situation. As the evening progressed, their personalities became the main obstacles to reaching an understanding.

In the course of evaluating the situation the grown-ups exhibited some issues of their own. Alan, the father of the attacking boy, happened to work as an attorney. Interesting enough, he mentioned having to leave town the next day for the International Criminal Court. He represented the pharmaceutical industry in a different matter. The child’s mother, Annette suffered from a nervous stomach and, dare I write, enjoyed a bit of a nip on occasion.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the immortal line about every unhappy family being unique. That description would well-suit the Novaks. Michael worked an “ordinary job” and harbored dark thoughts regarding family life. Veronica earned a living by “writing” primarily regarding injustice in Africa. A bit of an elitist, she took her children to concerts and introduced them to art. She told her guests, “We’re eccentric enough to believe in the soothing powers of culture!” (Page 14) Ms Reza used the remainder of the play to show that naïve would’ve been a better word than eccentric.

This dialog occurred a little over ten pages into my version of the book. At that point in the reading I knew: the train wreck’s coming; a really, really nasty one.

I found God of Carnage an outstanding theatrical work. I would strongly encourage people to either read it or watch it performed. Because of that I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment by giving away spoilers. I would mention how brilliantly the playwright crafted the Alan character. I loved how he became progressively more wedded to his cell phone as the play progressed. In the midst of serious discussions about the children, he repeatedly broke off from the conversation to discuss a business matter with colleagues. The way he dropped the f-bomb in front of everyone during one of the conversations was priceless.

The author showed extraordinary skill at foreshadowing…and displaying hypocrisy. Early in the evening Anette told the Novaks: “We can’t get involved in our children’s quarrels.” (Page 15) Very, very shortly thereafter she changed her view. It turned out the other child verbally offended her son prior to the altercation.

Annette:…(embarrassed pause.) Something occurred to me in the bathroom…

Veronica: Yes?

Annette: Perhaps we skated too hastily over…I mean…What I mean is…

Michael: Say it, Annette, say it.

Annette: An insult is a kind of assault.

Michael: Of course it is.

Veronica: Well, that depends, Michael.

Michael: Yes. It depends.

Annette: Benjamin’s never shown any signs of violence. He wouldn’t have done that without a reason.

Alan: He got called a snitch! (Pages 23 – 24)

At this point the action degenerated into Lord of the Flies with a grown-up cast. While I found the play very amusing, Ms. Reza earned credit for her trenchant depiction of human nature at its worst. During one of his numerous cell phone conversations, Alan told his wife, “Annette, right now I’m risking my most important client so this responsible parent routine…” (Page 20)

Keep in mind all this occurred PRIOR to the couples passing around the bottle of rum. Not the best idea at this point, but, after all, these weren’t the most responsible people. The alcohol really allowed the characters to release their inhibitions.

Michael: What I always say is, marriage: the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you.

Annette: Great.

Michael: Marriage, and children. (Page 32)

Now, Michael could have stopped there, but no. He decided to elucidate his point even further.

Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us toward disaster; it’s unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they’re happy. No one tells you anything when you start out. I have an old school buddy who’s just about to have a child with his new girlfriend. I said to him, a child, at our age, are you insane? The ten or twelve good years we have left before cancer or a stroke, and you’re going to screw yourself up with some brat? (Page 33)

Not to be outdone, Alan shared his own enlightening view of the human condition with the group.

They’re young, they’re kids. Kids have always given each other a good beating during recess…I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time. (Page 35)

Many adjectives could describe God of Carnage, entertaining would serve as my first choice. It did have a much more serious side to it. Ms. Reza used a school yard fight as a catalyst for a disturbing journey into the basest aspects of human nature. It’s one of those stories readers can enjoy for the simple reason they can close the book and walk away from the madness. They also don’t need to worry about the Novaks or Raleighs ever watching their kids.

Drama Review – The Flick by Annie Baker

What cinematic aficionado doesn’t long for the days when film was just that: film? Playwright Annie Baker crafted a semi-humorous take on the subject. The Flick told the story the end of an era. Avery, Sam and Rose worked in one of the last 35mm movie theaters in Worcester County, Massachusetts. They struggled to cope with an abusive boss, changing times and even each other. A charming dramatic work resulted.

The playwright selected an excellent array of characters to tell the tale. Ms. Baker made Sam a disgruntled 35 year old theater employee with a secret. The free-spirited Rose worked the old projector. Avery served as the newcomer to the group. This character wasn’t “into” movies: he “loved” the movies. (Page 12) In fact, when Sam challenged his with a host of “six degrees of separation” games, he solved them all; sometimes in less than six degrees. With that passion for cinema, a reader would suspect he’d fit right into this ensemble. Not so.

This play contained outstanding conflict. Sam and Rose informed Avery that they skimmed money from the box office. They gave this theft the more benign appellation “dinner money.” Due to the scant wages they made, these funds would help them afford meals. They expressed their expectation he would take his cut. Avery battled his own aversion to a changing society manifested through his affection for old style movie making; even calling digital film “immoral.” When a new owner purchased the theater, he wrote a letter imploring him to retain the 35mm projector. Sam felt he’d been passed over for promotion too often. I enjoyed reading how the characters coped, or didn’t, with these issues.

In addition to the drama, the playwright included a sold dose of comedy. While cleaning the theater Sam complained about all the outside food people would bring in and leave there. While visiting family out of state he caught himself doing same thing. He later lamented his hypocrisy to Avery.

I’m that douchebag who brings in random weird ethnic food into a movie theater and then forgets about it and leaves it there!

I am my own worst nightmare! (Page 73)

Ms. Baker resolved this complex story rather well. The playwright brought the points of the “dinner money”, the references to Pulp Fiction and the debate over a digital versus 35mm project to proper resolutions. It surprised me that she managed it so well.

I’ve read some criticism of the play regarding banal dialog and the characters performing too much “sweeping.” I found both appropriate for the story and characters. Both Sam and Avery enjoyed movies. The discussions allowed Avery to demonstrate his passion for them. Plus, the two men performed custodial work at a movie theater; the latter serving as the lone set in the show. Other than sitting in the seats and talking, what else could they have been doing?

The Flick entertained on both a humorous and dramatic level. It takes an extraordinary playwright to balance the two while keeping the overall narrative cohesive. For Ms. Baker’s efforts, this work received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s well worth a read. Don’t wait for the movie.

Drama Review – All the Way by Robert Schenkkan

What Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did for film, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way did for the theatre. Both works followed the journeys of American Chief Executives in the quest to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation. Mr. Schenkkan selected a much more controversial public servant for his story. While today Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the majority of blame for escalating the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, the playwright chose to focus on the pinnacle of his domestic achievements: the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the child of a Vietnam Veteran, I grew up exposed to a negative take on America’s 36th President. Robert A. Caro’s four-volume (to date) biography of Johnson introduced me to his myriad complexities as both a politician and a person. I read Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning play All the Way curious to discover his take on the nation’s most significant post-war leader. It didn’t disappoint.

This biographical work explored Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as the nation’s chief executive. It encompassed his first moments in the Presidency following the Kennedy assassination through his election to the office in 1964. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill served as the main story line. The play contained myriad conflict. It illustrated Johnson’s superb managing of civil rights leaders, his subordinates and reactionary Southern Democrats to get the proposal enacted into law. This made for a very engaging and tense read.

The playwright clearly performed his research. I found the portrayal of his protagonist accurate. Several times I felt like I was sharing a drink with the former President at the Johnson Ranch. I could envision LBJ saying things such as, “You can tell that Liberal crowd of yours, I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” (Location 523) and “’Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war…You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life. You’re trying to cheat death.” (Location 1729)

The rattlesnake story sounded like vintage Johnson, too.

Knew a good ole boy once, caught a rattlesnake bare-handed on a dare. Stood there with that big ole thing wrapped around his arm, head snapping this way and that, with this stupid look on his face, saying “Wow! It’s a whole lot easier to catch one of these critters than it is to let it go.” (Location 605)

In Caro’s biography he quoted one person as saying, “Some people read books. Johnson read men.” Mr. Schenkkan incorporated this uncanny understanding of human nature in the drama. Here’s the President’s assessment of Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen as told to the Floor Manager of the Civil Rights Bill: Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Let me tell you about Senator Everett Dirksen. That man is in love with himself; in love with his voice. Did you know that every day he gargles with warm water and Pond’s beauty cream? I shit you not. Now, a man like that wants one thing—he wants to be a “Great Man.” And you’re gonna give him every opportunity to do just that. Every chance you get, you praise Dirksen, you thank Dirksen. You’re gonna kiss his ass so much, he won’t be able to sit down. He wants the spotlight? Give it to him. Six months from now, all anybody will remember is that the Democratic Party passed a historic civil rights bill. (Location 1324)

The author included several famous figures among the characters; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover among them. I enjoyed the following exchange between him and LBJ. It took place following a male Presidential aide’s arrest for lewd behavior with another man. As the scandal occurred so close to the election, Johnson worried it would impact him at the polls.

LBJ: CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I worked with that man for twenty-five years. Not a clue. (A threat.) How do you know when somebody’s that way?

J. Edgar Hoover: Well, well, there are certain signs; mannerisms. The way a man dresses or combs his hair. Or walks kind of funny.

LBJ: News to me. I’m not questioning you; I’m sure you’d know—In your line of work, I mean. Take care of this. (Location 2707)           

LBJ noted during the play: “What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Location 1414) Later he added, “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.” (Location 2433) Abraham Lincoln once commented that upon serving in the Presidency he found only “ashes and blood.” After reading All the Way, the same could be said for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Instead of adapting LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan for the play’s title, a version of the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for” may have been more appropriate.