Book Review: Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne (Featuring Q&A with Author)


BOOK REVIEW

Title: Burt Reynolds on Screen
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: McFarland & Company Inc.
Released: December 19, 2019
Pages: 314
ISBN: 978-1476674988
Stars: 5

In 1972, Burt Reynolds became famous with his breakthrough role in Deliverance. The actor also posed as Cosmopolitan’s first-ever nude male centerfold in 1972, “marking a milestone in the sexual revolution.” From 1977 to 1982, Reynolds was Hollywood’s top box office-grossing movie star, appearing in the hits Smokey and the Bandit, The End, Hooper, The Cannonball Run, Sharky’s Machine, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas among other notable films that made him a household name. Anyone who was watching movies in the 70s and early 80s knew who Burt Reynolds was and they were reminded again in the 90s through his hit television series Evening Shade and 1997 comeback film, Boogie Nights.

Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne is the definitive work of film criticism and long-form tribute to one of Hollywood’s most enduring and well-liked actors. It discusses, in-depth, “many films which haven’t been previously covered in critical, historical or aesthetic contexts of any great scope or consideration” and covers his most popular films as well as some of his “most interesting works which have been grossly overlooked or forgotten.” The book “analyzes Reynolds’ films and television series in chronological order, relating behind-the-scenes production information and discussing their respective places in history, while making sub textual allusions between the man and the characters he played.” It also features exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and many films’ stills in black and white.

Its Foreword was written by American cinematographer Nick McLean, Sr. who worked with Reynolds as his camera operator and director of photography on several movies as well as his television series B.L. Stryker and Evening Shade and went on to be DOP on the television series Cybill, Friends, and Joey among other well-known shows. Byrne has since written a book about him, too, entitled Nick McLean, Sr. Behind the Camera.

Cinematographer Nick McLean and author Wayne Byrne in Naas, Co. Kildare, March 2019


Burt Reynolds on Screen
features an Afterword by C. James Lewis, who, as well as being an actor who graduated from the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theater Training (BRITT), also worked as Burt’s stand-in, photo double and stunt double for many years. It’s this kind of insider knowledge as well as the author’s remarkable attention to detail that establishes the validity of this book.

Although you’re probably aware that Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. was best known for being an action star, you might not know that Reynolds was originally typecast as a Native American in many of his early films or that he gave successful performances in almost every genre of film from romantic comedy to satire to film noir.

Film historian Joe Baltake was quoted in the Introduction for his “astute estimation of the actor’s appeal”:

Burt Reynolds, in a nutshell, is the movie star who’s a pal…but there’s something else, something deeper, something sad that makes Reynolds’ playfulness and flippancy wrenching…In his eyes, we see Reynolds’ integrity. They’re what make him original in a business full of clones. We look at Reynolds and we see a man who’s believed in old movies, the American Dream and loyalty; we look in his eyes and we see how difficult it’s been. Today’s devoted film aficionados and even our critics can’t fully appreciate what Burt Reynolds represents. Yes, he’s out of joint. He may be too good for today’s movies. His secret with audiences is that he’s one of us.

Wayne Byrne grew up a child of the 80s and first saw Burt Reynolds in a trailer for the film Heat in 1988 when he was “roughly six years old.” He spoke to numerous friends and collaborators of Burt Reynolds for this book, and one word recurred more than most: generous. Many of them recall with wonder the actor’s resolutely giving nature – giving of his time, talent and experience; giving financially, emotionally and morally. These interviews are absolute gems for Reynolds’ fans, and one which particularly surprised and delighted me was with actress Rachel Ward, Burt’s co-star in Sharky’s Machine and the made-for-TV movie Johnson County War. I became a fan of Rachel’s when I saw her in Against All Odds and The Thorn Birds in the 80s. Rachel’s career might have never taken off without the influence of Reynolds who cast her in Sharky’s Machine which he also directed. Byrne also interviewed Bobby Goldsboro, Bill Bennett and Adam Rifkin, among other Hollywood producers and directors.

Reading this book completely reinforces what kind of man Reynolds was. Throughout his career as an actor and a director, he often worked with friends (Jerry Reed, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, stuntman turned director, Hal Needham, Nick McLean, Sr.) and was loyal, kind, good-natured and unfailingly generous which is something one doesn’t hear much these days about the movie stars of the 21st Century.

I considered myself to be a fan of Burt Reynolds to a moderate degree, but after reading this book, I fully understand his appeal as an actor and how very talented he really was. I find myself wanting to make a trip to our local video store to rent some of his most distinguished, memorable films and watch them (some for the first time) to experience the genius that Wayne Byrne has so reverently and respectfully reviewed in this exceptionally well-written book. However, if you are a big fan of Burt Reynolds, this book is a must-read, must-own treasure for your collection.

Nick McLean and Wayne Byrne

Q&A with Wayne Byrne


Wayne, why did you choose to write a book about Burt Reynolds for your second book?

My first book, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out, was written out of absolute necessity. Tom is my favourite director and I really wanted a book on his career. I couldn’t buy one, so I wrote one. I never set out on a path to become a writer of books but working on that book and seeing it be published was the greatest thing to me. So, I wanted to write more, but the question was ‘what do I want to write about?’ I couldn’t ever imagine writing about a filmmaker, a film, or any art or artist, which I don’t adore. I’ve experienced that in shorter form when writing for magazines and newspapers and you are profiling someone you aren’t particularly interested in, or they aren’t particularly interesting, and it’s a drag; I definitely couldn’t imagine writing something in book-length on something or someone you aren’t in awe of. So, I thought, ‘okay, that’s my favourite director taken care of, how about my favourite actor?’

And I’m not really a “film star” kind of guy, as in I’m not usually overawed at film stars, I am usually much more interested in the people behind the scenes – directors, cinematographers, editors – those guys are the heroes of cinema, they craft what we experience. Which is all to say I have a very short list of ‘favourite’ actors, and in that I would include Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Dennis Hopper, Steve Buscemi, Groucho Marx, and maybe a few more. But at the very top of that list is Burt Reynolds. I guess I had more of an emotional connection to Burt. While Eastwood and Wayne can make you excited and rouse the senses with their heroic feats, they would rarely make you laugh or cry. Burt can rouse excitement and make you laugh and cry, sometimes all in the same film. I’ve been aware of Burt’s presence since I was very young, he has always been there, even when I wasn’t fully paying attention, and then when I began to pay attention I just fell in love with this absolutely compelling performer whose mere presence commands your attention.

I understand how you feel about not being able to write about someone or something that you’re not in awe of as it is very difficult! As a big fan of Tom DiCillo as well, I thank you again for writing such a fantastic book about his films! One can certainly tell from reading this book that you truly love Burt Reynolds. 

How hard was it to write a film synopsis for every film?

Plot synopses are always a grind, and there are a hundred-plus films covered in this book. They are the most laborious thing about writing on film, whether you are reviewing for a magazine, speaking on the radio, or writing in a book. I mean all you are doing is hammering out the plot and trying not to reveal too much or to simply explain the film to people. And that inevitably ends up happening, because in the case of a book like this, you know most of your readers have not seen every film in there, so you do have to offer a lot more than a brief overview; you want them to feel that they have a substantive enough idea of the film so that they can appreciate the author’s commentary and criticism. Although, admittedly, some of the films only needed a cursory account of the plot.

Did you watch every single movie and television series that Burt starred in? 

You could say I re-watched 99% of them all. I had already seen and owned them before the book began. There weren’t that many films that I had to track down specifically for this book. There were a small handful of films he did in the last few years of his life, in which he mainly provided a cameo, and I literally couldn’t get my hands on them to see them. In most cases, they hadn’t yet received official releases in theatres or on DVD. So those few are the only films with Burt that I haven’t watched. And for the TV shows, I went back and watched the ones he was the star or co-star of, which are the ones which have chapters devoted to them – Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, Dan August, B.L. Stryker, Evening Shade. But for my own sense of completion, I also watched the shows where he is in one episode, such as Route 66, M Squad, The Lawless Years, The Twilight Zone, The Lawless Years, Naked City.

Wow, that is truly impressive and a major commitment on your part, as well!

How long did it take you to write the book?

From signing the contract to publication, I would say that was a little less than two years. The writing took around fourteen months. It was a very intense time. I was working two jobs – librarian and journalist – and halfway through the Burt Reynolds book, I signed a contract for another book, which I began work on during this period. Then I went on a nationwide tour of Ireland with my subject, Nick McLean, appearing at events all over the country celebrating his career. Nick has a lot to do with Burt’s career as well, so it tied in nicely. So, I had all of this going on, plus interviews with directors, actors and friends of Burt’s, and re-watching every film and TV show again, sometimes repeatedly. They were the busiest two years I’ve ever experienced, and I loved it. I came out of it with two books and some wonderful friends.

How did you choose which quotes to use from Reynolds’ characters in each specific film?

They had to tickle me somehow, if they were funny or if they encapsulated some intrinsic characteristic of the film. One of my favourite quotes is from The Last Movie Star, “You were the one who loved me before anybody even knew my name,” because it is loaded with a sense of history and a lifetime of regret, tinged with the melancholy and wisdom of someone who experienced the zenith of fame, fortune, and adoration, that which came at the price of losing people who cared for them long before the stardom and stature. I also love the quote from A Bunch of Amateurs – “Richard III it is! – What’s that about again?” – because it speaks to the absurdity and irony of Burt’s humour. He was so playful. I don’t know anybody in today’s Hollywood who has such a mixture of beauty, humour, grace, volatility, masculinity, and humility all in one package.

You interviewed some very interesting people for this book. How did the interview with actress Rachel Ward come about?

I was lucky to get Rachel because she was hard enough to find. She didn’t have any social media, so I couldn’t make direct contact with her, and none of my Hollywood friends or acquaintances knew her personally anymore, so it seemed like a dead end. But then I remembered that she is now a producer and director, which means she must have a company listing. So, I found out the name of her production company and approached them. My letter eventually found its way to Rachel through that avenue and we arranged some Skype chats, which were fun. These things can be a little surreal at times, and one instance of that with Rachel was when we were chatting it was breakfast time over in Australia and at one stage in our conversation her husband came into view bringing her a cup of coffee. I’m just sitting there thinking, “That’s Bryan Brown from that movie F/X!” She is gorgeous and graceful and all the things you would expect of her. I know many people fell in love with her in Sharky’s Machine, and it’s very hard not to, though I think she was even more beautiful and brilliant in Johnson County War twenty years after Sharky’s Machine.

Your interview with Tempted director, Bill Bennett, was also quite fascinating because of his unusual method of filmmaking and what he asks his actors to do. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Bill was a very intriguing guy to talk to. He made some really interesting Australian films throughout the eighties and nineties and then he made a Hollywood rom-com with Denis Leary and Sandra Bullock called Stolen Hearts (which is titled Two if by Sea in North America) which seems entirely random in the middle of his filmography, and then made another cool Aussie film called Kiss or Kill before doing Tempted. Anyway, he is the kind of filmmaker I love to talk to. Someone who has experienced both sides of the industry: the indie hustle and the studio system, and he has ideas on doing things differently, and one of those was to shoot his film using only improvisation. His “script” laid out scenarios and had a structure, but he wanted his actors to create their own dialogue based on the relationships which they built early in rehearsals. Given that he was working with a star of the old studio system in Burt, and with some hot, young up-and-comers, it was interesting to hear how they reacted to this method and how Bill made it all work. Tempted is a fiercely underrated film in the Burt canon, a very well-made contemporary noir.

Was Charles Durning, Reynolds’ most frequent co-star? Were they close friends in real life? 

Charles was certainly one of Burt’s most frequent co-stars. Then again, there were a few people who worked with Burt just as often. Burt and Charles had immense love and affection for each other, and I think you can see that throughout the work. It took on a bittersweet note in the later films when you see them as older men; you could see Charles wasn’t in the best of health in some of the films, but they still have an immense spark between them, amazing chemistry. My favourite story of their friendship was one Burt told about Charles being a brilliant dancer and dance teacher – which not a lot of people knew about – and one night at Burt’s house, during one of his famous shindigs, Fred Astaire and Charles Durning danced the night away. The way Burt described it; it was magical. They sounded like good nights at Burt’s place.

Many people may not know that Reynolds taught acting for many years. Can you tell us about what you know about that?

A lot of people that I spoke to for the book told me that, first and foremost, Burt was a teacher. At the height of his fame, in the midst of him being one of the world’s most famous film stars, he opened an acting institute in Florida and a dinner theatre. It became an apprenticeship program for many people who would go on to have great careers, and many established stars and Hollywood legends would grace his theatre stage or go and coach the students. Burt was hands-on in the early days, he would nurture and develop the talent, offer them a chance at acting in his films if they succeeded at the audition, of course, it wasn’t just handed to them. They had to work hard, and when they did, Burt offered them a chance at something great. I think Jim Lewis, who wrote my afterword is a great example; while he was at the acting program he ended up with roles in The Cannonball Run and Sharky’s Machine, which meant he got his union card, but Burt insisted he still go back and finish his apprenticeship. Jim then became Burt’s stunt man and stand-in, was offered even more substantial roles, and later became a camera assistant. And they remained close friends until Burt passed away. That’s an amazing career, and amazing life, all because of Burt. But Burt really gave himself to people, both onscreen and off.

What did you find out about Reynolds during your research that you didn’t already know as a fan of his work? 

The extent of his teaching work, and the sheer scope of his generosity. And that he made a really lovely album in 1973 called Ask Me What I Am. It’s now one of my favourite records, but I had never been able to find a copy of it until halfway through writing the book, and I ended up interviewing its producer, the legendary Bobby Goldsboro because of it. It went from something I had only ever heard about, to something I was digging deep into with Bobby.

I found Ask Me What I Am on Spotify so I’m happy to have a chance to listen to it. 

Reynolds died before your book was published. What do you wish you could have asked him if you’d had the chance?

I would have asked him if I could shake his hand.

What do you think Reynolds was most proud of in his career?

His students. I would imagine that seeing his students become successful actors and writers and directors was a great source of joy to him.

What do you think he regretted most? 

He has famously regretted several things publicly, such as his failed relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field, and he has also regretted not taking roles in big movies such as Star Wars and Terms of Endearment, but I think – and this is only me speculating – that his biggest regret may have been not having had the chance to enjoy a solid life with a family of his own, a life that he clearly yearned for. It is there all through his films, it is in his books, and it is on his musical album. Just when it looked like he had found that life with Loni and their adoptive son, Quinton, it was ruptured through the divorce; it is unfortunate that it ended the way it did and that all the upheaval was documented in a very messy and very public way. I think he must have been heartbroken to see it all come apart. But that’s only my observation; he may have said that he regretted something else entirely different. Perhaps not having had the chance to become the professional football player that he seemed destined to become. To have that taken away after an injury hurt him immensely. But then again, without that injury and his subsequent embrace of acting, he never would have become the greatest movie star in the world. 

What are your Top 5 favourite Burt Reynolds films?

I’m terrible at this question, which is one most interviewers ask of me. It depends on what day of the week it is, but today is Monday, so here goes, in no particular order…

Stick – Objectively speaking, it’s not exactly a classic film, but I’m not being objective, and I love it dearly. I think some of Nick McLean’s best cinematography is in there; I love the score; Burt nails the image of Elmore Leonard’s character of Ernest Stickley, and the villain Moke (played by Dar Robinson) is so menacing. Just a great 1980s action film. Candice Bergen and Burt make for a hot on-screen pairing.

White Lightning – Burt just as he was taking off into the stratosphere. He could be effortlessly charming and loveable while being mean and uncouth, as he is here as the iconic Gator McClusky. I love both this and its sequel Gator, which is a completely different film, it’s loud, brash, and big whereas White Lightning is taut, lean, gritty, and suspenseful. And Ned Beatty is a beast in it. I just gave you a two-for-one there: White Lightning and Gator. I’m feeling generous today.

Hustle – Now this is what you call a classic neo-noir. Directed by Robert Aldrich, who he worked with on the brilliant The Longest Yard, but this is a serious film, a great murder mystery with political intrigue and a sleazy journey into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. Aldrich’s visual style is superb, and Burt gives a brilliant performance as the fatalist, cynical, morally questionable anti-hero detective. As a neo-noir film, I much prefer this to the likes of The Long Goodbye and Body Heat, both of which tend to be much more lauded than this. Hustle needs to be rediscovered.

Stroker Ace – Most people, including Burt, didn’t think too fondly of this, but for me, it encapsulates that period where Burt had this great Saturday matinee thing going that I recall fondly and nostalgically, where it was all about silly gags, fast cars, wild stunts, and some beautiful women. It is totally lowbrow stuff, but it helps when you have Burt being Burt, Loni looking gorgeous, Hal Needham directing, and Nick McLean shooting it.

Starting Over – For when I’m feeling a little bit more sophisticated, I put away Stroker Ace and reach for Starting Over, which is a classy melodramatic comedy featuring Burt as a down-on-his-luck loser-in-love, cast aside by Candice Bergen and embraced by Jill Clayburgh. Burt is playing against type here, a comfortably middle-class and urbane writer, shorn of moustache and masculine virility, and he really fought to get this role, because nobody would believe that he could play such a churlish loner who couldn’t find love. Alan J. Pakula directed it, and erstwhile Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen cinematographer Sven Niekvist shot it, which means it looks stunning. A beautiful, warm, funny, and tender work, featuring some of Burt’s finest acting.

And a bonus sixth film – Sharky’s Machine – because it’s Sharky’s Machine and needs no other reason.

The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne

The Cinema of Tom DiCilloBook Review
Title: The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: Wallflower Press
Released: September 2017
Pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-0231185356
Book Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  4.5

I admit that I can’t review The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne without bias, but I can say that my bias is formed by a deep appreciation of Tom DiCillo’s films and Tom DiCillo, the man. I was fortunate to receive a review copy of the book from Columbia University Press’ Wallflower division and am pleased to give you my honest opinion about it.

I believe that the first of DiCillo’s films that I ever saw was Living in Oblivion, when I rented it on DVD soon after it was released – likely in 1996. As a life-long film fan, Living in Oblivion, a humourous, heartfelt film about the making of an independent film, was an absolute treasure to discover and has since become DiCillo’s seminal masterpiece. It wasn’t long after that when I also rented and enjoyed watching Johnny Suede, the now cult film with a cool surf music score that helped to launch Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener’s careers. Because I’ve always enjoyed Keener’s work and because she was in four of DiCillo’s films, I kept watching them and had seen at least four of them before I got to know a lot more about the filmmaker.

Then, in a strange, albeit serendipitous twist of fate, I became friends with Tom DiCillo when I discovered his blog as he was writing about the process of releasing and trying to find a distributor for When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (which won a Grammy in 2011), over seven years ago. The Doors are on my Top 5 Favourite Bands of All Time list and as such they formed the basis for our original conversation. However, we have continued to stay in touch ever since, because Tom is a very accessible, generous man with a kind heart and genuine appreciation for his fans. Not only am I a fan of his body of work, but I admire and respect him as an artist and a human being.  I’m equally enamored with Tom’s music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre, because I love his singing voice and the combination of Spaghetti Western, Surf and Cinematic Gothic Rockabilly grooves that form the music.

But back to the book. This volume by Irish author and Film Studies lecturer / education consultant Wayne Byrne is an extremely well-written, intelligent, enthralling addition to the Directors’ Cuts series published by Wallflower Press and a must-read for any cineaste or film student. It took Byrne five years to complete, but during that time he interviewed not only Tom DiCillo, at length, but also many of the actors in his films, including Steve Buscemi who wrote the foreword.

“In short, this wonderful book details the ultimate triumphant journey of one of independent cinema’s smartest, funniest, and fiercest warriors.” ~ Steve Buscemi

Byrne’s book is an interesting in-depth look at all of DiCillo’s eight independent films (seven of which premiered at Sundance) the agony and the ecstasy of birthing them, as well as an honest, insider’s view into the independent film industry and the machinations of the Hollywood system.

In his book, Byrne analyzes the themes of identity, family, and masculinity in DiCillo’s work and supports it with “in-depth coverage of the generic and aesthetic aspects of DiCillo’s distinctive and influential film style.” Through detailed chapters on each of his feature films, readers receive “…a candid look behind-the-scenes of both the American independent film industry – from the No Wave movement of the 1980s, through the Indie boom of the 1990s, to the contemporary milieu – and the Hollywood studio system.”

Byrne studied the writing, production, and release of each of DiCillo’s films and followed them with an extensive and intriguing Q&A with him, as well as exclusive interviews with many actors and collaborators including Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Chris Noth, Maxwell Caulfield, Matthew Modine, Gina Gershon, Kevin Corrigan, Alison Lohman and John Densmore and Robby Krieger of The Doors.

Johnny Suede (1991)
Living in Oblivion (1995)
Box of Moonlight (1996)
The Real Blonde (1997)
Double Whammy (2001)
Delirious (2006)
When You’re Strange (2009)
Down in Shadowland (2014)

I own all DiCillo’s films and have watched them all again with new eyes after reading Byrne’s book, getting something new from each of them even though I’ve seen six of them previously, at least a couple of times. Perhaps that is what allows DiCillo’s work to endure throughout the years. It is clever, often subversive and upon first viewing you may think, “Well, what was that all about? That was a bit bizarre…”, but upon further viewing, you really get a feel for the director’s unique style and voice, use of colour, choice of music (often created by composer Jim Farmer) as well as the themes that inspire him. It is DiCillo’s way of viewing and expressing humanity in his work with his distinct sense of humour and pathos that makes these films stand out in the crowd of slick, violent, comic-book infested, often soulless, unoriginal movies from Hollywood that we’re seeing today. Give me the work of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, The Coen Brothers, Michael Winterbottom, Tim Burton and Tom DiCillo any day. If you agree, read this book.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot SeeBook Review

Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Imprint: Scribner
Published: 2014
Pages: 544
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0456-5
Stars:  4.0

I am not usually drawn to novels set during World War II.  Maybe it’s because I am half German, and have no desire whatsoever to read anything about Hitler, particularly now that we are living in a political climate fuelled by a buffoon dictator just south of the border, in 2017. I do, however, love stories set in Paris, which is why I decided to give this book a try, although it was also enthusiastically recommended to me by my good friend Deborah Ledon who did not steer me wrong with her last recommendation.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, is a work of art in more ways than one.  Each short chapter is like a photograph come to life, filled with colour, texture, and light, revealing one image, a small piece of the story. Doerr’s prose is so beautiful that we cannot put the book down for wanting to experience, with all of our senses, that next piece of the story. And all of our senses are heightened as we do.

The book begins on 7 August 1944 as Germany is bombing France, or more specifically, Saint-Malo, France, as a 16-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a table at Number 4 rue Vauborel, holding a model of the city in miniature. She knows every centimetre of the model by touch and has memorized its street names. She can hear the bombers, who are three miles away, approaching Saint-Malo.

“Five streets to the north, a white-haired 18-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum.” He is in the Hotel of Bees, a once cheerful address where Parisians would stay on weekend holidays. Werner is in the building when bombers brandishing high-velocity anti-air guns known as 88s start to destroy everything in the vicinity of the hotel. What, we wonder, could possibly happen next?

Compelled to turn the pages of each short chapter, we study them as if they are photographs on exhibition in an art gallery. As we move through each chapter in the first 90 pages of the book, a ten-year history of these two main characters is revealed in snapshot after snapshot.

We learn about the curse of an ancient blue diamond containing a touch of red at its center, known as the Sea of Flames. The 133 carat diamond has been locked up in a cleverly disguised vault in the basement of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Marie-Laure’s father works as the principal locksmith.

We also learn that Werner was raised with his sister Jutta, in a Children’s Home in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex near Essen, Germany by a kind woman named Frau Elena, and that young Werner, who has a love of science, also possesses a knack for repairing radios, which may just save him from having to work in the coal mines like all of the other 15-year-old boys in the region.

Sergeant Major Reinhold Von Rumpel, a gemologist before the war, now works for the Reich. It is his mission to find the Sea of Flames for the Führer for his proposed empyrean city in Linz, Austria, at the center of which he plans to build a kilometre-long museum filled with the greatest treasures in all of Europe and Russia.

The author flips us back and forth between what is happening to Marie-Laure and what is happening to Werner from 1934 to 1944, his exquisite writing moving with the pace of a suspense thriller. And then he starts to weave in the story of Von Rumpel and we slowly discover how all three characters’ lives will intersect.

Werner’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is recruited by the Reich – who force 14-year-old boys to train for their Machiavellian purposes – always weeding out the weakest, with unbelievable cruelty, while staying focused on building their superior Aryan race. Werner is small, sensitive and very smart and he dreams of becoming an engineer. He tries with all his strength to hold onto those dreams as the grim realization of his situation becomes evident and he slowly understands just how evil the force that he has had to follow and support really is.

By the time I read half of this novel, my guts were gripped by the horror of how vicious human beings can be and I cried as I was reminded that although we earthlings have endured two World Wars, so many of us don’t seem to have learned anything from them as the current political state of affairs in much of the world can attest to.

However, it is the indestructible optimism and resilience of the spiritually strong, like Marie-Laure,  who give us hope that things can change for the positive in the future. When one’s will to live is as strong as hers, there may be no limit to what we can endure. However, the price we pay for surviving the struggle is steep.

By the time I read half of this book, I was filled with sadness. This is not the type of book I should be reading as throughout this winter I have struggled with stress and depression. I read on because I had to know what happens to these characters in whom I had become deeply invested. There has to be some light at the end of this literary tunnel, some redemption, joy even. After all, the title is All The Light We Cannot See…but by page 400 there is still no light.

By the time I had almost finished the book, I could barely read the last 50 pages because of the ugly, depressing, soul-destroying events that occur page after page in relentless succession. Surely there can be no light in reliving this dismal history? I understand Doerr’s metaphors and by the end of the book I could see the light he refers to in the title, but that light just didn’t shine brightly enough to make me feel that reading this book was a gift and something that I shouldn’t have missed out on. The novel has its share of beauty and light, to be sure, but the cold, hard facts of what people endured in World War II at the hands of a fascist dictator are definitely not something I ever want to relive in a story, of any kind, ever again.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti SmithBook Review
Title: Just Kids
Author:  Patti Smith
Publisher: Ecco
Released: October 24, 2010
Pages: 306
ISBN-10: 0060936223
ISBN-13: 978-0060936228
Stars:  5.0

Like Patti Smith, I grew up writing poetry and listening to rock’n’roll. That is where the similarity ends because I am not an artist, only an appreciator of them. Although I haven’t read Arthur Rimbaud or Jean Genet, nor have I yet been to Paris, I have always been captivated by the music of the 70s and the writings of Sam Shepard, Jim Carroll and Jim Morrison. I had no idea that Shepard and Carroll were Smith’s lovers but reading the dreamy, tender narrative of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe surprised me in many ways, including the fact that he was also her lover, because I knew he was openly gay. Until now, I haven’t known very much about Patti Smith except that some of my friends are big fans of hers, she’s collaborated with Springsteen (one of my music heroes), and that her poetry, music and art earned her a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

I often dream of where I’d go if I had my own hot tub time machine and New York City during the late 60s/early 70s is definitely one of the places I’d choose. Patti Smith was born almost 20 years before me, but I’ve listened to and loved a lot of the music that was created by her contemporaries (in particular, The Doors and Janis Joplin) and have been a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography for a long time. However, she has made me appreciate his work with new eyes and I’m grateful for that. Reading Smith’s autobiography Just Kids is the next best thing to using a hot tub time machine as she has written an exquisite account of her early years as a struggling artist and Mapplethorpe’s muse.

From 1967 to 1978, Patti shares her memories of their lives in New York City and specifically at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, a dreamscape so perfectly realized and vividly fascinating that you feel as if you’re there with them. We meet many legendary artists including William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine, although none of them holds a candle to the flame that is the telling of the birth of Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s artistic legacy.

Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 and was part of a close knit family that included her siblings Linda, Todd and Kimberly, who later relocated with their parents to South Jersey. What struck me about Patti that I wasn’t expecting is that she’s a very down-to-earth, deeply spiritual person and was never a drug addict as one who hasn’t known her might imagine based on her skinny heroin chic look and the time in which she came of age and became famous for being a punk rocker poet. In researching her for this review, I discovered that we share a very similar view of religion as well:

I believe there is good in in [sic] all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so corrupted and so infused with power that I really don’t have interest in any of it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human condition. (Rolling Stone)

Patti’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe was utterly pure and transcended any boundaries that society might have wanted to instill upon them. Although they weren’t meant to be together as husband and wife, they were most certainly soul mates (regardless of her marriage to MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith) up until his tragic death at the age of 42. On March 9, 1989 Robert died from complications due to AIDS. Her recollection of his passing within the pages of this book brought me to tears. Just Kids opens with the phone call she received from Robert’s brother Edward telling her that he had finally succumbed to his illness, at which moment she was listening to Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”, and it ends with her making peace with having to say goodbye. (“Smile for me Patti, as I am smiling for you.”) In between, we get to know Robert Mapplethorpe as intimately as a stranger can and develop an understanding of what inspired him as an artist as she traces “their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods…” (Interview Magazine)

Just Kids is a masterpiece, filled with iconic black and white photographs of Smith and Mapplethorpe, including some of their art and a few of Smith’s poems as well. She’s a very gifted poet and although I confess that I was never a big fan of her music aside from “Because The Night” and “Power To The People”, (I was 11 when Horses was released) I’m listening to it now with new ears and would love to read more of her poetry and song lyrics because this book has made me fall for her…hard. I now understand why she has endured and why there will never be another female rock artist like her. Anyone who can write a memoir that inspires someone to discover their career forty years after it began deserves to be the national treasure that Patti Smith is.