Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: Life Class by Pat Barker -- A different side of WWI

A different side of WWI
British novelist looks at war through the eyes of artists

By Pat Barker.
Doubleday, 320 pp. $23.95.

In the United States, World War I may be a mere chapter in the history books, but in the United Kingdom it is still part of everyday life. Vast monuments in nearly every town recount the names of the dead, and on Nov. 11 each year — the day the armistice was called in 1918 — people still pin red-paper poppies to their lapels in remembrance. It should come as no surprise that the Great War still commands the attention of many British novelists. Chief among these is Pat Barker.

In the 1990s Barker penned a series about the war that included Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). They were an alternative to the "blood, mud and poppies" school of World War I writing. Instead of bogging down in the grim mayhem of the trenches, they spent more time in their characters' heads, examining their fragile psyches and emotions.

These novels were also notable for the way they translated the experiences of real-life figures into fiction. For example, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a well-known neurologist and anthropologist, as well as poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, take star turns in Regeneration, a book largely about efforts to heal the shell-shocked.

Barker's trilogy was widely praised for focusing on little-examined aspects of the war such as homosexuality in the military and the role of women. Some critics derided the books as revisionist exercises that cast late-20th-century values onto early 20th-century men. But the debate seemed to be settled in favor of Barker when The Ghost Road won the Booker Prize in 1995.

She returns to the Great War in Life Class, a novel that's supposedly the start of another trilogy, this time examining the conflict from the perspective of painters. So far at least, the series looks far less promising.

Life Class focuses on a pair of students at London's Slade School of Art in 1914, on the eve of the war: Paul Tarrant, a working-class man who has used the last bit of his inheritance to pursue his calling as an artist, and Elinor Brooke, the woman he loves, a fellow student and privileged daughter of a surgeon. Kit Neville, a Slade student who has gone on to win acclaim for his work, forms the third leg in a shaky love triangle that eventually collapses when both Paul and Kit volunteer to serve as front-line ambulance drivers for the Red Cross.

What Barker has done is graft two novels together in service of one big metaphor. In the first half of the book, Paul and Elinor are consumed with the innocent activities of youth. They spend their days fretting about their work, drinking in the Café Royal, strolling beneath the blued-out streetlights and having affairs, all to little consequence. In the second half, Paul experiences the war firsthand and makes the transition from naiveté to knowledge. All the while Paul and Elinor debate the merits of art during wartime. The overall effect is to render Life Class a rather dull, discursive book.

Though these characters are supposed to be "A" artists, they are strangely dispassionate. At the start of the novel, Paul's stern life-drawing teacher — in a scene-stealing cameo by real-life artist Henry Tonks — criticizes Paul for a lack of feeling in his drawing of a nude woman. Later, when Paul is serving as a triage nurse in France and aiding in amputations, he writes to Elinor that the war has left him feeling as though he's "inside a rubber glove that covers all of you, not just your hands." That may be how war leaves him feeling. It describes as well the feeling one is left with after reading this novel.

Barker is said to be working on a sequel featuring Tonks, who had an interesting life story. A surgeon who became an artist, Tonks left teaching at Slade to do a series of 69 portraits of disfigured soldiers returned from the war, documenting their progression through reconstructive surgery. Now that's a book I look forward to reading.

Murder by the Book's Dynamic Duo

McKenna Jordan & David Thompson

Booksellers will tie knot, buy store

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 3/24/2008

Talk about being married to your job: on September 6, when McKenna Jordan, 26, and David Thompson, 36, say “I do” at the Dryburgh Abbey in Scotland, they will cement a bond that already has them spending most days and nights together. Jordan and Thompson are manager and assistant manager, respectively, of mystery bookstore Murder by the Book in Houston, Tex., where they regularly cohost some 150 author events a year. And on January 1, 2009, they will take over as co-owners of the bookstore. “Technically,” says Thompson, “McKenna is the one buying the store, so I’ll be working for her.”

Thompson still maintains a 14-year edge in experience, having started work in the store in 1989 as a shelf stocker. By January 2003, when Jordan walked through the door as a four-hour-a week part-timer, Thompson was already the assistant manager, responsible for the store’s Web site and its quarterly literary magazine, the Dead Beat.

A professional violinist, then working toward a master’s degree in music performance, Jordan had first intended to get a job at a store that sold music and books, and applied at a Barnes & Noble, where she was rejected for being “overqualified.” Now she’ll soon own one of B&N’s few serious local competitors.

Opened in 1980 by Martha Farrington, Murder by the Book today offers some 25,000 new and used hardcovers, paperbacks, first editions and collectibles. Its longevity can be attributed to its specialization, expert selection and, in part, to its location in a high-rent residential district that isolates it from chain competition. While the nearest competitor, Brazos Bookstore, is just a block away, their stock has little overlap.

Farrington, who will retire at the end of this year, says she’d been looking for someone on staff to buy the store for many years. “When McKenna came to the store, I saw that she was the right person,” says Farrington. “For her age, she can handle a lot. I’m not worried about them so much as I’m worried about the future of the book business. I just hope they are able to carry on in the same mode.”

Jordan, who declined to discuss details of the pending purchase, is optimistic: “Three or four years ago, we seemed to have reached our growth potential, but last year we had a 9% increase in sales.” The jump is the direct result of more aggressive hand-selling, in particular of backlist titles (often in a series) that the store was able to turn into bestsellers. In just one example from 2007, Murder by the Book sold 200 copies of Cara Black’s 2000 novel Murder in the Marais; since 2005, they’ve sold more than 1,000 copies of Marne Davis Kellogg’s Brilliant.

Once she’s owner, Jordan says that she’ll consider a few changes, such as refreshing the signage, adding more children’s titles and installing a shopping cart on the Web site, but nothing radical. She says her ultimate goal is to enable Thompson to dedicate himself full-time to Busted Flush Press, a publishing company Thompson founded in 2005 that publishes mystery anthologies and reprints sold in Murder and distributed to other store as well.

As the two move forward, one thing remains certain: books will continue to dominate nearly every aspect of the couple’s life. Even their pet Papillon, Jack Reacher, can’t escape. He is, after all, named for the assassin/hero of Lee Child’s series of thrillers. One can only imagine what they might name a first child.


Names: David Thompson and McKenna Jordan

Company: Murder by the Book

Ages: 36, 26

Hometown: Houston, Tex.

Education: (Thompson) High School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice; (Jordan) University of Houston

How long in current job: (Thompson) 18 years; (Jordan) 5 years

Previous Job: (Thompson) Department store children’s clothing and lingerie salesman; (Jordan) Gap salesperson and miscellaneous retail

Dream job: To transport Murder by the Book to Manhattan and not have to pay Manhattan rents

Passionate about: Promoting authors who are both good writers and good people

Monday, March 17, 2008

Kate Torgovnick looks at competitive cheerleading in 'Cheer'

SPORTS: Kate Torgovnick looks at the competitive side of cheerleading
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 16, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

It's not just Texans who are obsessed with cheerleading. Turn on the television, and you'll see cheerleaders starring in Friday Night Lights and Heroes; they are the villains of countless teen movies, and increasingly, shown in competition on ESPN 2 and Fox Sports Net. It was only a matter of time before someone in New York commissioned a serious book about the subject. Kate Torgovnick's Cheer! is just such a book.

KATHERINE STREETER/Special Contributor
KATHERINE STREETER/Special Contributor

Focusing on competitive collegiate cheerleading, in which a team of cheerleaders performs an orchestrated two-minute routine of acrobatic stunts, Ms. Torgovnick embeds herself with three squads: the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, from Nacogdoches, Texas; the Southern University Jaguars from Baton Rouge; and the All-Girl team from the University of Memphis. She offers a year-in-the-life of each, as they face their unique challenges.

The Lumberjacks, four time reigning national champs in their division, return to discover they will start the season with a new coach, one who'd graduated from SFA just two years earlier. The Jaguars, an African-American team known for their flashy moves, are cash poor and can't afford to travel to top-tier competitions. In Memphis, the All-Girls team struggles to win respect from their school, which limits them to cheering for women's basketball and volleyball.

It may come as no surprise that the shining star of the book hails from the Dallas area: The "uber-blonde" Sierra, from Arlington, is a veteran cheerleader who has won eight national titles at various levels and is expected to be the linchpin of this year's team at SFA. Unfortunately, Sierra also proves accident prone, breaking her hand in a fluke accident and later fracturing her skull.

The risk of injury is significant – of the 104 women athletes paralyzed or killed in high school or college sports over the last 23 years, over half have resulted from cheerleading. (One boyfriend shows his ignorance when he asks, after his cheerleader girlfriend complains about a sore wrist, "Did you clap too hard?") The rate of injury is just one of the arresting "secret life of cheerleaders" facts Ms. Torgovnick serves up, which also includes widespread drug and steroid abuse and eating disorders.

Ms. Torgovnick avoids traps that have snared far more experienced authors writing about college and sports: She doesn't sensationalize things (not dwelling on the clichéd, fetishistic sexualization of cheerleaders, for instance), nor does she wax philosophical (this is not Updike on golf), or pass judgment (she's no Tom Wolfe depicting college kids in I Am Charlotte Simmons). Just 27 when she researched the book, Ms. Togovnick is still young enough to genuinely empathize with these student-athletes. They let her share their meals, participate in a few heart-to-hearts and eavesdrop on gossip. The result is an engaging voyeuristic narrative that suggests these college cheerleaders are as close to real-life superheroes as exist.

Ms. Torgovnick's greatest contribution is the way she handles the sport's peculiar diction, explaining the differences between the "flyers," "tumblers," and "bases" who make up the teams, and elaborating on the subtleties of the various stunts, including the "scorpion," "standing back tuck," "liberty," "rewind" and "awesome." It's more than enough to persuade any doubter of cheerleading's validity as a sport, if not its artistry.

Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly. He lives in Houston and blogs at


Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize

Kate Torgovnick

(Touchstone, $24.95)