Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Monday, May 29, 2006

Leon Uris -- Information

Here's the Wikipedia entry on him:


And here's a rather better biographical piece from kirjasto:


I was particularly struck by this:

In 1950 Esquire bought an article on football; it marked the beginning of his career as a full-time writer.

Reminding me of the immense importance of Esquire in American fiction of the Fifties and Sixties, for better and worse. And this, too:

After divorce in 1965, Uris married in 1968 Margery Edwards; she died next year - it was an apparent suicide. In 1970 Uris married the photographer Jill Peabody; they had two children. She became his chief editor and published in collaboration with Uris two books, IRELAND: A TERRIBLE BEAUTY (1975) and JERUSALEM: SONG OF SONGS (1981). They were divorced in 1989.

He must have been tough to live with.

Here's the link to an interesting essay I found in Reason, of all places:

Freund crafts an interesting argument that America's vision of Israel owes a lot to Exodus.

The work's real impact, however, lay beyond mere literature. For a great many people, the plot of the novel—and of the even more popular 1960 film—became the popular template for understanding the Mideast, especially issues involving the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Uris popularized Israel as a place of righteous refuge, solidifying a link between the Holocaust and Israel that is actually a matter of contention among Israel's own historians and intellectuals. This is not to say that his story was false; the refuge narrative is at least one valid Israeli theme. But Uris helped make it the primary such narrative, characterizing critics of Israeli policy in terms of that story, and setting the terms of debate for decades.

This is maybe even true, although it strikes me as speculation only. For one thing, you'd need to have been around before Exodus and the founding of Israel and interested in the subject to really be in a position to report knowledgeably about it, and how many people can truly do that?

Secondly, while I do think that fiction can have this kind of power, the only way to accurately measure it would be to give us the whole context: what else was being published pro and con, what people thought of those books, the movie, what people thought of it, how it differed, etc. Freund later goes on to point out some of this, but he doesn't want to go into much detail, presumably because that will spoil the simple clarity of his thesis. Yet, unfortunately, that's what a sociological analysis is all about -- the presentation of context. Hence it's great limitation: when grossly over-simplified, it can give you sexy arguments, but the more seriously you take it the more muddled and cloudy the picture gets.

I'm actually much more interested in a point Freund essentially throws away:

Obits of Uris were respectful, noting dutifully that he was never regarded as much of a stylist, and that he had relatively little talent for character. According to these postmortem appreciations, Uris's real strength was story telling. The New York Times, for example, paid mixed homage to Uris by quoting from a 1976 review by Pete Hamill. "[I]t is a simple thing," wrote Hamill of a later Uris novel, "to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information. Simple, but irrelevant. None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative."

Leave aside for the moment that Freund has to believe this for his thesis to work. If it turns out that Uris isn't much of a storyteller, either, than he can't be blamed/praised for "setting the template". I'm more concerned about Hamill's quote, which is in danger of fixing the opinion of Uris once and for all.

I'm all for speaking kindly of the dead: it's a service we owe each other. But I'm also all for speaking the truth, too, and I think enough time has passed to point out that Hamill was nuts. Leave aside how a man who writes crudely, with wooden dialogue and structures groaning under towers of useless exposition and information can in any way be said to be a good "storyteller". Even on the basic level of plot, Uris was pretty hopeless. His best plotted book is probably Mila 18, the structure of which (a unified setting and a relatively restricted moment in time) inadvertantly helped him. In general, though, Uris's books are plotted like beads on a string, one incident following another with no particular organic connection between them. One often gets the sense of a man vamping about endlessly, trying to fill a wordcount. This is especially true in Battle Cry; QB VII (although still I think his best book) is notable for it's endless flashbacks that meander along aimlessly. I personally found both Exodus and Trinity almost unreadable for exactly this reason -- they became bestsellers despite their writer, not because of him.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Leon Uris

In the immediate post-War period he churned out a number of dreary bestsellers, each fixated on Making an Important Statement about a Key Event of Our Times, blah blah blah. Most of them are very badly written indeed: the Uris oeuvre is definitely recommended to aspiring writers who need reassurance that even their humble efforts can, with luck, get published. If you must read one, QB VII is probably your best bet, a courtroom thriller that (unusually for Uris) actually manages to kick up a head of steam. It suffers, though, from a profound sense of egomania (Uris clearly overidentifies with the author protagonist) and an uncomfortable fascination with atrocity details that borders, to my mind, on pornography.

Poking around Amazon, I see that somebody's going to reissue Exodus as a "Modern Classic". Please God, no.

Abandoned Books?

This blog means to give out information, and more importantly critical evaluations, to books and fiction writers that currently aren't prominent on the web.

That's the only real stipulation. Some of these writers are very famous, some of them quite obscure. Some of these were bestsellers in their day, some weren't. All genres and countries and types of writing will be represented -- as long as its fiction and, in my opinion, needs discussion. The goal, ultimately, is to have something out there so that if some poor guy wants to google "Leon Uris" he can find something relevant.

Note -- my opinion. It seems obvious, but maybe is worth being discussed once: the books and authors are chosen by me, partly due to my interest in the writer, partly due to availability in my area, partly due to the state of my finances , partly due to whim. If a writer you want to see hasn't been talked about yet, probably sooner or later I'll be getting to him/her. Of course, it may be later rather than sooner -- it just depends.

Some authors, even if they're not much discussed on the web currently, won't be discussed here because they're probably best talked about in a different context. I like Men's Adventure paperbacks, for instance, the grottier the better, but most of them will probably not be talked about here, because there's already good dedicated outlets for that kind of talk. Now, mind, I definitely will be talking about writers in all genres -- including Men's Adventure Paperbacks -- it's really just a judgement call of mine about whether he or she will "fit" in here. One rule of thumb is that if they attained popular success but still wrote genre, they may fit in here, because they may not be talked about much in genre circles. Lawrence Sanders comes to mind.

I will be talking about "literary" or "highbrow" or "serious" or whatever-you-want-to-call-it fiction, too, but again, whether a given author fits here or not will be a judgement call. Some authors I think clearly do not: Nabokov and Updike come to mind. Others may. I'll figure it out as I go along.

I am, of course, always open to suggestions as to whom to focus on next.

Life is short and books are many, and I can't pretend to have read every book by the authors being discussed. I have tried to cover either the most famous books of a writer (Irwin Shaw) or a representative sampling (Lawrence Sanders). In some instances an author's career essentially rests on one book, and that's the one I've chosen to discuss (Alan Drury's Advise and Consent). And some authors strike as just very bad; a long discussion of each of their miserable books seems truly beside the point (Arthur Hailey).

Once I get this thing up and running I will be opening my pieces up to comments, and I'm especially interested in people reviewing books by these authors that I haven't talked about. The best of these I'll put in an update or a seperate post, again so the information's out there. You needn't agree with my opinions to submit a review. Obviously I think I'm right , or I wouldn't have said it, but I'm most interested in having critical evaluations of these works out there, period. I'm trying to fill a need.

As you will see, I'm most interested in talking about writing through the context of author's careers. I'm interested in how an author's style or approach shifts about from book to book -- I think that's the most informed way of appreciating his or her work. A book like Marquand's Point of No Return makes far more sense in the context of his career, I'd argue, than it does hanging out there in the air as an example of Fifties Discontent, say. (Although it certainly does that, too.) Now, a true classic does rise above the author's circumstances and the socio-historical circumstances of his time, and stands alone. If we happen to stumble upon one in these investigations I'll certainly point it out. We haven't yet, though.

I am also interested in people contributing basic information about these writers: links, pieces, remembrances, anecdotes, whatever. There is a stunning lack of informationon some of these writers out there. (What I can find that seems interesting I will link, if possible.)

Originally the plan was for Abandoned Books to have both short reports on some authors, and longer essays on writers I think are of especial interest. (Of this first group I originally intended to write longer essays on Marquand, Shaw, and Du Maurier.) Unfortunately I read these books in staggered intervals of time, and honestly it's just too damn hard for me to go back to books I read six months or a year previously and try to talk about them in detail. Most of them I did not take notes on, and while my general opinions are still clear, the specific examples illustrating this point or that are a bit hazy. I might as well reread the damn things again.

Starting with Irving Wallace (yeah, he's up next), I plan to read everything by whoever I'm discussing one right after another. Longer, more detailed essays will come.

What else? My current interest for this project is bestsellers of the past, partly because there seems to be a real dearth of information on these authors, partly because I'm interested in what books become popular, what these authors share (or don't share), and partly because it's relatively easy to find them. I'll probably be on these guys and gals for awhile -- but sooner or later I'll branch into other areas, never fear.

Naturally if my main interest here is critical evaluation you should expect some criticism here. My opinion of many of these writers -- Uris and Hailey, for instance -- is pretty harsh. If you're interested in arguing with me in the comments, that's fine, but I'll probably ask you to defend your opinion. Another interest of mine with this project is to, at least in a small way, help raise the general level of book talk on the web.

And finally, I do have ambitions for Abandoned Books beyond it's current incarnation. This is just the first step.