Born Yesterday (1946) – Garson Kanin
Like Arsenic & Old Lace, this is a play better seen performed than read. The central conceit, which is that a thuggish businessman preparing to go into politics hires a young idealistic journalist to teach the businessman’s shallow, rather stupid mistress how to be a political wife, is pretty good as far as it goes. But without Judy Holliday saying the lines, they lose something of their humor. A light play; not really worth reading outside the context of the 1950 movie version, which is a lot of fun.
Nobody’s Fool (1993) – Richard Russo
Brilliant, witty, ultimately deeply moving and compassionate look at life in small-town New York state. In the central character of Sully Sullivan, Russo sketches a fantastic picture of crotchety old age that never descends into cartoonishness. The plot is incredibly slight; it’s essentially about nothing but a few days in the life of this likable, stubborn old geezer who, as many do, has a tempestuous relationship with his grown children and his business associates in the small town where he lives. This novel was turned into an excellent film in 1994, starring Paul Newman in one of his best, yet unjustly overlooked, performances. Great as the film is, the book is even better. Get acquainted with Richard Russo and with Sully Sullivan too; you won’t be sorry you did.
The Great Locomotive Chase (1908) – William Pittenger
This book tells the story of the Andrews Raid, in which a group of Union volunteers, including some civilians, went behind Confederate lines, captured a Confederate train, The General, and headed back for the Union lines, tearing up the countryside as they went. The Andrews Raiders were the very first Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and their story inspired Buster Keaton’s The General, so they have two extremely different honors going for them there. This book is made up of William Pittenger’s version of events, re-edited from when he had originally written them; Pittenger was one of the Raiders who survived via a prisoner exchange between the Union and Confederacy. It’s a great story, but the telling of it is dry and the book is very dated, being made of up writings from the late 1860s, mostly. I found it pretty hard to read, in fact; Pittenger was a soldier, and, as a writer, he was a good soldier, if you get my drift. There are other, more modern sources to get this story told in a much more entertaining and interesting way.
Primal Fear (1993) – William Diehl
After an altar boy brutally hacks a high Catholic church official to death, Martin Vail takes on his defense and finds himself caught up in a web of blah blah blah. This book is only really notable because it inspired the excellent film of the same name, which introduced most of us to Edward Norton, who gave a fantastic performance as the accused altar boy. The film still holds up, I think, but the book isn’t that great. The film actually improves on the story a lot by tightening it up and ditching Diehl’s often turgid prose. See the movie; don’t bother with the novel.
A Midnight Clear (1982) – William Wharton
I read this one because it inspired one of the most underrated films of the nineties, a masterful ensemble piece about a group of very young American soldiers stuck in a harsh and unforgiving winter locale in Russia at Christmastime and the strange, horrifying experience they have there when they come across . . . well, I can’t even tell you more than that without spoiling it. The movie follows the book very closely and the book, like the movie, is a gripping, horrible, pained experience. The pointless stupidity of war is a great theme and Wharton does himself proud with his exploration of it. An unjustly forgotten novel and movie both.
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