Monday, February 23, 2009

Voluntary Madness

Norah Vincent first achieved fame for dressing and living as a man for 18-odd months and writing about her exploits in Self-Made Man. The writing of that book, and the double life that preceded it, were so taxing they drove Vincent to depression. Her first trip to a mental institution gave Vincent, being who she is, the idea for another book that would chronicle the state of mental health institutions in America...Read more>>>

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Citizen Hearst gets a rewrite

William Randolph Hearst is the much-maligned inspiration behind the lead character in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane — a megalomaniac publishing tycoon who left no stone unturned to bring his readers the latest news. It is fitting then that nearly 60 years after Welles' film, Kenneth Whyte, a leading Canadian journalist, redeems this enigmatic personality and his reputation in the absorbing The Uncrowned King.

William was the son of millionaire senator George Hearst, who in the late 1880s was struggling with the San Francisco Examiner, a bleeding newspaper. Still an undergrad at Harvard, William sent his father a detailed proposal to rescue the paper, and, against the wishes of his mother (who thought a career in mining offered better prospects), persuaded George to make him proprietor and later editor of the Examiner.

In Whyte's view, William ran "a smart and well-written paper. Its crusades were often courageous and marked by an unmistakable sense of public service." At a time when it was unheard of, the Examiner routinely carried specials on photographically striking news events such as arson and drowning. Further, it frequently plied its readers with special offers and freebies.

The Examiner's circulation grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1895, Hearst had his eye on New York. Most of the book concerns the bitter circulation wars that ensued between Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Both newspapermen had a touch of the obsessive about them, and the saga of their rivalry is brought out in racy detail by Whyte.

The author overturns a few commonly held assumptions about William Hearst. Quashing charges of yellow journalism leveled against Hearst, Whyte emphatically points out that rigorous scholarship has borne out the veracity of the reports carried in his papers. The Uncrowned King is a sympathetic doff of the hat from one newspaperman to another.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

West is east in this history reimagined

Rewriting history in fiction has been a favorite pastime of countless authors. There have been several outings by authors in which the ascendancy of Hitler or a nuclear conflict between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union have provided rich pickings. Bernardine Evaristo's sparkling new novel undertakes this project on a decidedly epic scale.

In the beginning, Blonde Roots is just another story of a girl abducted from the forest near her house and brought to the New World to work as a slave. All the usual accoutrements of the slave trade are present here, including rapacious masters, scheming mistresses and the mind-numbing pathos of the slaves' deprivation. Doris, the slave girl brought into this shocking world, is just another cog in the wheel that drives the New World's prosperity.

Except that Doris is white (or whyte, as Evaristo calls the race in a slice of pop revisionism), and her tormentors are blacks from "Aphrika." Off the coast of Aphrika sits the island of the United Kingdom of Ambossa. There is also a map at the book's beginning, in which the outlines of the world are jumbled to build an elaborate fiction in which migration of this sort — in the direction opposite to what history has laid out — could have happened.

The real triumph of Evaristo's craft is her reimagining of the conventionalities of the slave trade — with the attendant stereotypes of race. Doris, who works at the house of the local chief, Bwana, dislikes her pale skin and blond curls, and envies the rich "choco-colored" beauty of her mistress. This is taken to a more serious level when Bwana tries to justify the slave trade under the guise of the racial superiority of blacks.

Owing to the poetically surreal quality of its prose, Evaristo's deeply political writing is never far from endearing. Blonde Roots jolts the reader into looking at, and in turn learning from, history with new eyes.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.