June 27, 2008

BOOKS: Cheer, Kate Torgovnick (2008)

Like Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak and Mark Obmascik's The Big Year, Cheer gives us a look inside a subculture that outsiders may have never really been aware of. This time, it's college cheerleading.

Cheerleading has become a full-fledged sport, one that makes just as many physical demands on its participants as football or basketball. It's one of the most dangerous sports, too, with an injury rate so high that many lifts and throws have been banned unless the performing surface is either gym mats or natural grass. That means that many cheerleading squads can't perform their most elaborate routines at sporting events; basketball courts and Astroturf are too dangerous for those tricks.

So for most cheerleaders, the year is divided into two pieces. During the fall and winter, when they are obliged to cheer on their sports teams -- what's known as "spirit cheering" -- the routines are often simpler, and the cheerleaders are using the time to get into top physical shape for the more difficult spring, when they will be preparing their competitive routines.

Torgovnick follows three top teams through a single year. The Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin State University are a national powerhouse, hoping to win their fifth consecutive national title. The Southern University Jaguars believe they can compete with the best, if only they can convince the school to foot the $17,000 bill it will take for them to travel to Nationals. The University of Memphis All-Girl squad does lifts, throws, and pyramids that are the envy of male cheerleaders, but still don't get the respect they feel they deserve.

Torgovnick does a fine job of building suspense and drama throughout her year, as the teams prepare for their championship meets. Unlike most sports, there are very few preliminary competitions between schools during the year. There are so few, in fact, that schools have to submit videotapes for preliminary judging to qualify for Nationals, and most schools will have never seen any of their rivals perform before Nationals.

The biggest missed opportunity here, I think, comes from the fact that none of the three teams compete against one another at the end. There are two different organizations that sponsor a national championship, and the Lumberjacks and Jaguars don't attend the same one; the Memphis All-Girl squad competes only against other female teams.

Still, each team's story is filled with drama, and each team has its own set of challenges to overcome. At Stephen F. Austin, there's a last-minute coaching change just as the season begins; the Jaguars, located in Baton Rouge, are still struggling -- individually and institutionally -- with the aftermath of Katrina; the Memphis women are plagued all year by injuries.

There are a lot of people to keep track of here, and Torgovnick does a good job of keeping everyone straight for us, providing just enough reminders as to which Chelsea or James we're talking about this time. Chapters rotate among the three teams, with one out-of-place extra chapter in which Torgovnick interviews a former cheerleader who talks about the abuse of drugs in the sport; apparently, one is not allowed to write any sort of sports book these days without the obligatory "drugs bad" chapter.

That misstep aside, though, this is a solid piece of journalism. Torgovnick is lucky enough to have chosen three teams with particularly dramatic stories to tell, and she tells them in an entertaining way.

June 24, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind

Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is the moral center of Gone With the Wind; she is the wisest and most mature character in the movie. Even Rhett Butler understands how important it is for him to win Mammy's respect if he is to have any chance of winning Scarlett's heart.

Even before the death of Ellen O'Hara, it's clear that in a very real sense, Mammy is far more of a mother to Scarlett. It is Mammy who scolds Scarlett when she misbehaves, who worries that Scarlett will damage the family's reputation, who warns Scarlett against "acting like poor white trash children." Mrs. O'Hara may have taught Scarlett religion, but it is Mammy who has taught her -- or has tried to teach her -- morality.

It's not an easy task, and Scarlett never does quite get the hang of it; Mammy has to keep reminding Scarlett of what is right ("He's her husband, ain't he?" she says when Scarlett wants to butt in on Melanie's reunion with Ashley), and she insists on going with Scarlett to Atlanta, knowing that adult supervision and guidance are still required.

But for all of her wisdom and moral virtue, Mammy (unlike Melanie) is a human being. She's very sly and capable of great humor; she can be a little bit vain (her scene with Rhett and the red petticoat is a delight). Watch Mammy and Melanie as they climb the staircase after Bonnie's accident -- Mammy is grieving, Melanie is performing grief because it is expected of her.

It is much to McDaniel's credit that Mammy feels so real; while she is the best written of the movie's slave characters, she's still not drawn in a fully three-dimensional way. McDaniel brings to Mammy more than is in the script, giving her a sharp comic edge and a warmth that do wonders to make Mammy more than just an uncomfortably nostalgic portrayal of the happy slave. It's an intelligent performance, and in a movie which is painfully bloated, McDaniel's every appearance helps to make the time go by a little faster.

June 23, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind

How virtuous is Melanie Hamilton Wilkes? She's so virtuous that when she goes to work in a military hospital, her headgear is designed to look like a nun's wimple. She's so virtuous that her death scene is scored for angelic choir and the prominent sound of a harp. Alas, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is so damned virtuous that even an actress as skilled as Olivia de Havilland can't make her anything but annoying.

We first hear of Melanie when Scarlett describes her as a "mealy-mouthed ninny," and though it's clear that Scarlett, being something of a shallow airheaded party girl herself, may not be the best judge of character, that description hits awfully close to home when we finally get to meet her at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. The overwhelming impression we get of Melanie is that she's extraordinarily kind and sweet, but also duller than dirt.

She doesn't do much to change our impression of her in the early going; she's optimistic and cheerful to the point of naivete, as when she tells Ashley that "no war can come into our world." Even when Atlanta is under attack and Melanie is undergoing a labor so difficult that she might not survive, she doesn't scream, doesn't swear, doesn't get visibly upset or frightened. No, Melanie the Good just perspires a bit and smiles her brave little smile.

Melanie develops a bit more character after the escape to Tara; she even -- oh my gosh -- lies to the O'Hara sisters after Scarlett kills a Yankee intruder, and is smart enough to play her part in the deception of the Yankee soldiers after the shantytown raid. Further, her admirable willingness to befriend Belle Watling shows that her sense of decency is not limited to conventional notions of right and wrong.

But those moments are few and far between; for the most part, Melanie remains an easily manipulated, overly trusting simp. Even after catching Scarlett in a compromising position with Ashley, Melanie refuses to get angry, and does her utmost to see that Scarlett's position in society is not entirely destroyed by the incident.

It isn't just that Melanie tends by nature to see the best side of others; she actively refuses to see their bad side. "Don't tell me any more," she says to Mammy, who is describing Rhett's frightening behavior after Bonnie's accident, and it's not the first time we've heard similar sentiments from her. Melanie doesn't want to know anything bad about anyone; she'd rather live in her pretty storybook world where everyone is just as kind and noble as she is.

Melanie's sheer perfection is so inhuman that for all of her efforts -- and lord, is she working hard -- Olivia de Havilland can't make her a convincing character. Melanie is, from start to finish, an idealized Southern belle who, like everything else in this movie's nostalgic vision of the old South, is romanticized in so syrupy a fashion that you could choke on the sweetness.

June 21, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights

As is true of most men who've read Wuthering Heights, I did so only because it was forced upon me in high school. (Wuthering Heights and 17-year-old boys: Surely there is no greater possible mismatch of book and reader, and if there is a hell, countless English teachers deserve to be sent there for that reason alone.) William Wyler's film version of the novel at least has the advantage of being shorter, covering only the first half of the book, and ignoring entirely the second generation of Lintons and Earnshaws.

No, this version is all about the tormented love of Cathy and Heathcliff (Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, each indescribably lovely), if "love" is the appropriate word for their neverending cycle of "I love you, I hate you, I love you, I hate you" mindgames. Such romantic psychosis will inevitably have victims among the innocent bystanders, and our focus today is one of these -- Isabella Linton, as memorably portrayed by Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Isabella is the sister of Edgar, whose marriage to Cathy is one of the many weapons with which she strikes at Heathcliff; Heathcliff will marry Isabella for pretty much the same reason. (Neither Linton sibling realizes until it's far too late that their spouse doesn't really love them; emotionally speaking, the Lintons are not the brightest of families.)

Fitzgerald's portrayal is shaped to an unusually large extent by the directorial choices made by William Wyler; our perception of Isabella is formed by the way he places her within scenes, and by the small bits of action she is given. The first few times we see Isabella, she is always doing something for someone else -- fetching tea for Lockwood, bringing brandy to Cathy, chasing after the doctor to confirm his instructions. If we see Isabella enter the scene, we are certain to see her leave it; she's always exiting the room for some reason. And if she doesn't actually leave the room, she draws attention away from herself in some other fashion; in one striking moment, she sits near Cathy and Edgar, and reclines in her seat, taking herself out of the frame.

She is, in short, presented as a subservient and self-effacing woman, so when she gets her first major bit of dialogue after Heatchliff's first visit to the newly married Lintons, it's a shock. It's not just that we're hearing her speak, but that she's actually scolding her brother and his wife for their rudeness. A little bit of lust -- I refuse to call it "love;" this is the first time she's met Heathcliff, and they've been in the same room for less than two minutes -- has brought Isabella to life.

Once awakened, she's a bold and forthright woman, telling Heathcliff, "I shall let you hold my hand underneath my fan" -- hey, by Emily Bronte standards, that practically makes her a whore -- and flirting shamelessly with him. (I love her disappointed look of disgust when another woman sits beside her in the seat that she had meant for Heathcliff.) Suddenly, we realize that Isabella is lovely; she and Wyler have so skillfully kept us from focusing on her that we hadn't noticed it before.

Not only does Isabella change, but the way Wyler positions her in scenes begins to change. True, she still exits the scene after her balcony conversation with Heathcliff, but she takes him with her, and by the time we reach the bedroom scene in which she tells Cathy of her engagement, it's the other characters who leave the room, and for the first time, there's a fadeout on Isabella.

(Notice, though, that even this key event in Isabella's life is of interest primarily for its effect on others, which is as good a definition of a supporting character as I can think of. At the moment she announces her engagement, her back is to the camera, and our focus is on Cathy's reaction.)

Our brief glimpse of Isabella after her marriage to Heathcliff is shocking; gone are the bright eyes and radiant smile. This Isabella is a gloomy, brooding frump; she's dressed so somberly that we could easily mistake her for a widow. Gone is the flirtatious confidence of the courtship, replaced with a desperate, frantic desire to please. "I'll be your slave," she pleads, not realizing that she's only reminding him of happier days with Cathy.

Fitzgerald's performance is lovely to watch, and Isabella's progression from naive child to lively flirt to devastated wife is always convincing. Many actresses would have begged for something more to do in the first half-hour of the movie, but for me, the transformation is all the more powerful because Fitzgerald has the confidence to let the shy, quiet Isabella establish herself in the background.

June 15, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair

I knew Ouspenskaya's name from crossword puzzles; there was a time when "Actress Ouspenskaya" was a common clue for "Maria." ("Actress Bello" has largely taken over these days.) But the name was all I knew until watching her performance as Grandmother Janou in Love Affair.

The story is something of a Hollywood warhorse, having been remade twice, in 1957 (as An Affair to Remember) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. This version gives us Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne as Michel and Terry, who meet on a trans-Atlantic cruise. They fall in love, but each is engaged to another. They agree to meet in six months atop the Empire State Building, but on her way to that rendezvous, Terry is struck by a car. She is told that she may never walk again, and chooses not to tell Michel of her condition, not wanting to be a burden to him.

The first half-hour of Love Affair is absolutely delightful; Boyer and Dunne are superb at this light romantic comedy -- she is particularly delightful, and I really must see more of her work -- and their chemistry is palpable. Ouspenskaya enters the picture when their cruise ship stops briefly in Madeira, and Michel takes Terry to visit his grandmother.

Janou lives alone in her home at the top of a hill; she is largely cut off from the world, no longer able to climb the stairs that lead to her home. She has a gardener to tend to her needs and a private chapel, and spends her days in devoted mourning for her late husband. Ouspenskaya was 63 in 1939, but it's not hard to believe her as the grandmother of 40-year-old Boyer; I'd have guessed that Janou was a good decade older than the 77 years she tells Terry.

Janou exists in the movie for one purpose -- to validate the growing love between Michel and Terry. They are, after all, each about to break the heart of their respective fiancees for what may be nothing more than a shipboard fling, and we could easily hate them both for that. Grandmother Janou, so wise, so experienced in love and heartbreak, warms to Terry instantly, telling embarrassing little stories about Michel's childhood and sharing her fear that his womanizing will eventually catch up with him ("One day life will present a bill to Michel, and he will find it hard to pay.")

Ouspenskaya is such a warm and immediately lovable presence that Janou's instant acceptance of their relationship -- she promises to one day give a cherished shawl to Terry, who has admired it -- gives the audience permission to accept them as a couple, and to forgive them for the cruelty they are about to inflict on others. (The movie barely acknowledges the fiancees, not allowing them to register as actual people.)

Unfortunately, the entrance of Grandmother Janou also marks a major shift in the movie's tone. We're no longer in the land of frothy romantic comedy, with frequent references to pink champagne; we're now in a serious romantic drama, and the rest of the movie plods a bit too heavily to the obligatory happy ending.

I kept expecting another scene with Janou after the failed rendezvous. Perhaps she would give Michel an inspirational speech that would lead him to hunt down Terry; perhaps Terry, having recovered from her accident, would journey back to Madeira, knowing that Janou could tell her how to find Michel. But that scene never came; all we get is Michel's visit to the now-empty home of his late grandmother.

A shame, that; the last half of the movie could have used another dose of Ouspenskaya's warmth and charm. It's a tiny performance, barely a glorified cameo -- she's not on screen for more than ten minutes, if that -- but Ouspenskaya has tremendous impact in her brief appearance, and the movie sags a bit when she leaves it.

June 09, 2008

BOOKS: Bonk, Mary Roach (2008)

Yet another marvelous journey into the offbeat corners of scientific research from Roach.

The subject this time is "the curious coupling of science and sex." The expected names appear -- Kinsey, Masters & Johnson -- but we also learn about Marie Bonaparte (the great-grand-niece of Napoleon), who decided that the key to female orgasm was the distance between the clitoris and the vagina, and had her own clitoris surgically moved to increase her sexual pleasure; Ahmed Shafik, the most prominent sex researcher in Egypt; and the Danish farmers who have been instructed to masturbate their sows to orgasm before inseminating them.

As always, one of Roach's great strengths is her sense of humor, which greatly lightens (or sometimes takes great advantage of) the "eeeww" factor. Talking about the natural expandability of the scrotum, she notes:
There are images on the Internet of men with scrotums the size of those inflatable hop-along balls of my youth, but this strays well beyond normal expandability. These men have elephantiasis, and if you know what's good for you, you will not do a Google search of "scrotum" and "elephantiasis."
But there is a serious point to be made. Sex researchers don't have an easy job; their work is viewed with distaste; it's difficult to find human subjects; and they themselves are often seen as perverts, hiding their voyeuristic tendencies under the cover of science. It's a marvel that we know as much about sex as we do, given all of those attitudes, and the researchers who've made those discoveries have done their part to increase the amount of happiness in the world.

I was mildly disappointed in Roach's last book, Spook, about scientific exploration of the supernatural; the gap between science and psychic phenomena is simply too large to make for interesting reading, and Roach's own justifiable skepticism tinged the book in an unfortunate way. But this is a solid return to form; while you may have a few queasy moments, Roach will get you through them with grace and charm.

June 07, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1939: Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk

Here's the hardest part of doing a Smackdown: You occasionally have to sit through a movie you really don't enjoy, and try to provide a fair evaluation of the nominated actress who's in that movie. This was one such occasion. Drums Along the Mohawk is not one of John Ford's better films; it's a slow, creaky Revolutionary War drama in which the most exciting moment is a foot chase, and even that goes on for far too long.

Henry Fonda (almost cartoonishly noble and stalwart) and Claudette Colbert (looking bored, and desperately longing to be back in a good comedy) are newlyweds who settle in the Mohawk Valley in 1776. This was the frontier at the time, and so they think at first that they are far enough removed from society to be unaffected by the beginnings of the war. Such is not the case; the British and their Indian allies (who are depicted as the stereotypical savages one would expect in a movie of the period) burn them out of their farm, and they are forced to hire out as laborers to the local Cranky Old Widder Lady, Sarah McKlennar.

And that's where our Oscar nominee, Edna May Oliver, comes in. As Mrs. McKlennar, Oliver is a veritable prototype for generations of Cranky Old Widder Ladies to come -- severe features, sharp tongue, and no apparent filter between thought and utterance. Mrs. McKlennar says what's on her mind, regardless of whether it's appropriate or polite. To her credit, she is aware of this tendency; "I've got a long face and I poke it where I like," she says. "You may think I'm a nuisance."

It's never quite clear whether Mrs. McKlennar doesn't care about observing the social niceties, or if she simply isn't aware that there are niceties to be observed. Even when she tries to say the right thing, Mrs. McKlennar's affect is never quite right. Fonda mentions during their job interview that he had had a farm of his own. "Yeeeeeeess, I heard 'twas burned well that's too bad," says his new boss, in so cold and distant a fashion as to make Dick Cheney look warm and cuddly. Even creepier is the edge of triumph that creeps into Oliver's reading of the line, "I'm a widow," as though this was some sort of personal achievement; one fears for young Adam, the young man with whom Mrs. McKlennar has a vaguely flirtatious relationship.

The only times that Oliver allows any warmth to edge into her performance is when Mrs. McKlennar mentions her late husband, Barnabas ("Barney"). Even on her deathbed -- she's been shot by an Indian arrow -- her response to Colbert's tears is "Don't start tunin' up."

Oliver's performance is an interesting one, and it's certainly got more energy than almost anything else in the movie. But it feels more like something from a particularly bleak piece of Scandinavian drama than like something from a patriotic John Ford/Henry Fonda flick. Part of great acting is making sure that you're in the same movie as the rest of the cast; on that count alone, Oliver's performance must be judged an interesting failure.

MOVIES: Supporting Actress Smackdown 1939

I'm delighted to have been invited to take part in another of StinkyLulu's monthly Supporting Actress Smackdowns, this time focusing on 1939. Over the next few weeks, you can look forward to comments on that year's nominees:
  • Olivia de Haviland, Gone With the Wind
  • Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
  • Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
  • Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
  • Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Story
On June 29th, you'll be able to visit StinkyLulu for comments from the whole Smackdown team, and it's a large group this month, including bloggers from Canadian Ken On..., Criticlasm, The Oscar Completist, Rants of a Diva, Sarcasm With a Light Cream Sauce, and Humanizing the Vacuum.

The only one of these movies I've seen is Gone With the Wind, and that so long ago that I have only the vaguest memories of it, so it'll be an educational month, if nothing else.

June 05, 2008

BOOKS: Down River, John Hart (2007)

This year's Edgar Award winner for Best Novel.

Adam Chase returns to his North Carolina home after five years in New York City, during which time he has not been in contact with his family. They are the standard-issue Southern thriller family: abusive father; borderline alcoholic stepmother; and her children, a jock who won't grow up and a fragile ingenue with emotional problems.

The plot is fairly standard stuff, too. Adam has a history of violence, and left town after being acquitted of murder charges (stepmommy was the prosecution's star witness, and she still thinks he did it); almost immediately upon his return, bodies start popping up everywhere. It all seems to be connected to a land deal; the power company wants to build a plant, and Adam's father is the last holdout, refusing to sell.

There's a neighbor girl of mysterious parentage (because you're not allowed to set a mystery in the South without at least one wild child of mysterious parentage lurking about); there's Dad's sidekick, positioned awkwardly at the intersection of best friend, family retainer, and slave; and there's the old woman in the wheelchair whose dialogue consists mostly of cryptic oracular pronouncements.

The shame of it all is that Hart can write; as familiar as his characters are, he does bring some depth to them, and they're convincingly real people. Even the plotting manages a few small surprises along the way. But telling a story well isn't enough if the story is so stale that it's not worth telling it again.

June 04, 2008

BOOKS: Windy City, Scott Simon (2008)

Chicago politics are at the heart of Simon's charming, witty novel, which focuses on one stressful weekend in the life of an alderman.

Sundaran "Sunny" Rupini represents Chicago's 48th Ward (of 50), and is also the vice-mayor. That's usually a ceremonial post, and Sunny's duties don't extend much beyond wielding the gavel during the mayor's bathroom breaks. But when the mayor is found dead in his office late one Thursday night, Sunny becomes the Acting Interim Mayor.

It's a temporary post, as the board of aldermen will meet on Monday to elect one of its own to be Acting Mayor until Chicago can hold a new election. But temporary or not, it's Sunny who's expected to deal with the surprises that pop up -- turns out the mayor's death wasn't so accidental, after all, and there's a pushy district attorney who'd been investigating corruption in the mayor's office. There are also two teenage daughters for the recently-widowed Sunny to take care off, a new security detail to adapt to, a restaurant to run, and various ethnic festivals and community meetings (not to mention the mayor's funeral) to attend.

But above all else, there are 49 other alderman to contend with, each one convinced that he or she is the best choice to be the new mayor. Everyone is choosing sides, juggling the need to play politics with the desire not to be seen playing politics with the mayor so recently deceased.

One of the strengths of Simon's novel is the skill with which his characters are drawn. The two principal contenders for the mayor's job, for instance, are a colorful pair, each so crisply imagined that you can hear their voices when they speak. Linas Slavinskas is a puckish fellow, whose natural impulse to mischief often leads his colleagues to underestimate him; Vera Barrow, the leader of the board's self-styled "African Queens" caucus, is a dynamic woman who does not tolerate stupidity and foolishness in her fellow aldermen.

With fifty aldermen, it's obviously not possible for all of them to be as thoroughly developed, but even those who are background figures are efficiently sketched characters, with more personality showing through than you'd expect. By the time of the climactic roll-call vote, we have a fairly good sense of who many of these people are.

You probably won't be too surprised by the outcome of that final vote, by the way; to his credit, though, Simon does a clever job of disguising and delaying the ultimate result until the last possible moment.

Windy City is a lively, funny piece of entertainment, a sharp look at the multi-ethnic politics of American cities, and I enjoyed it immensely.

June 01, 2008

BOOKS: Monster, 1959, David Maine (2008)

After three fine re-tellings of Biblical stories, Maine turns to more contemporary mythology with a re-imagining of a 1950s monster movie from the monster's point of view.

Well, sort of. Maine's monster -- known as "K." -- isn't really intellectually advanced enough to possess anything as sophisticated as "point of view." And Maine's narrative voice acknowledges the limited viewpoint of his central character in the opening paragraphs:
In his dream, K. flies.

Below him is the island: verdant and vertiginous, lunatic with creation, lush like a scrap of Eden discarded and forgotten in the ocean's endless tundra. Trees flash by, rainforest-dense, tropical growth shrouding the hills in overstuffed quilted folds. Flocks of birds glitter like refracting jewels, like op art on the wing, Vs and swarms and grand unruly mobs weaving from scarp to treetop to lakeside and up again into open sky. Toward K.

K. has no words for this. In fact K. has no words at all. The language center in his brain looks like a Jackson Pollack painting dropped from a great height. K. is preliterate, prelingual; in fact, pre-just about anything you can think of. His thoughts are the pictures he sees and the feelings they create. Sensation is his vocabulary: flavor, touch, sound, intuition, image. And smell most of all. In his dream, the heels-over-head feelings of floating, swooping, soaring are bereft of words to name them. The closest he can come is to grunt in his sleep, whimper and purr and coo and bleat. Slumbering high in his treetop nest, K. does just this. But in his dream, he flies.

Given the challenge of writing from so limited an intellectual perspective, it is remarkable how complete a character K. becomes, and how much personality and dimension Maine gives him.

The plot of Maine's story is borrowed roughly from King Kong. American visitors discover K. on a remote tropical island, take him back to the States, turn him into the centerpiece of a touring circus, and he escapes in New York City. K. himself, though, is a more elaborate creature than a large monkey; he's equal parts Kong, Godzilla, and Mothra, with a few other horrifying parts thrown in for good measure. There's the obligatory human love triangle (which is, of course, the proximate cause of K.'s destructive rampage), the monster's climb up a New York landmark (it's not the Empire State Building this time, but Maine's alternate choice is even more dramatically interesting), and the nearly operatic tragedy of K.'s death.

One of Maine's themes here is our tendency to tell only the most pleasant or interesting parts of the story, and the way in which those choices shape the reaction to the story. Certainly, the adventurers who capture K. and bring him to America aren't telling the entire truth about how he came to be there, or about how dangerous he really is. And as the story progresses through the late 1950s, Maine stops for periodic reminders of the real-world events -- wars, famines, disasters, tyrannies -- that were going on, things that are usually left out of escapist stories like these so that we can believe that imaginary monsters are the only ones we need to fear.

As always, Maine's writing is witty, irreverent, lively, and moving. I had found The Book of Samson to be a slight letdown from the level of Maine's first two novels, but Monster, 1959 is a fine return to form.