Book ReviewsDavid Hoppe and Tom Aldridge The Manchurian Candidate

By Richard Condon

Pocket Star Books; $6.99

Although Jonathan Demme’s remake of the film The Manchurian Candidate barely cast a ripple across the distracted consciousness of last summer’s movie-going public, book lovers remain in its debt. That’s because the movie brought Richard Condon’s astounding 1959 novel of the same name back to bookstores in a mass-market edition. Thank God for unintended consequences.

Richard Condon is a novelist whose work has never fit comfortably into anyone’s literary canon. This is partly because he was commercially successful at a time when such success was artistically suspect and partly because his books were redolent with the operatic aroma of pulp. Was this stuff trash or treasure? In days when such distinctions mattered, Condon was trivialized, pigeon-holed as a writer with a talent for making books that made good movies.

Today he seems visionary. In novels like Winter Kills and Prizzi’s Honor, not to mention the towering inferno that is The Manchurian Candidate, Condon presents us with as steel-toothed a dissection of American society and politics as anyone has dared put on paper. Reading Condon is like going to a party with Triumph the Insult Dog. You don’t know whether to laugh — or hit him.

The shame is that since Condon never quite graduated to the level of literature, his books have been allowed to go out of print. For the past decade or so, your best bet to find him would be in the stacks at the annual library book sale.

Until now. Thanks to Demme’s film we can revisit this chilling, poignant, outrageous story of how a brainwashed veteran of the Korean war, Raymond Shaw, is turned into an assassin by an evil alliance combining the worst of American fascists, Chinese communists — and his mother. This is Greek tragedy set in the bloody heart of an American political campaign and energized by Condon’s unflinching prose, by turns hard-boiled and baroque:

“Broadway was patrolled by strange-looking pedestrians, people who had grabbed the wrong face in the dark when someone had shouted, ‘Fire!’ and were now out roaming the streets, desperate to find their own … Raymond lived beyond that, on Riverside Drive, another front street of large, grand apartments that had become cabbage-sour furnished rooms which faced the river and an excessive amount of squalor on the Jersey shore. All together, the avenues and streets proved by their decay that the time of the city was long past, if it had ever existed, and the tall buildings, end upon end upon end, were so many extended fingers beckoning the Bomb.”

People don’t talk much about writing The Great American Novel anymore. Maybe that’s because, with The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon wrote it.

Help: The Original Human Dilemma

By Garret Keizer

Harper San Francisco; 24.95

In the 1980s, novelist Norman Mailer developed a correspondence with an imprisoned felon and killer named Jack Abbot. Mailer was moved by Abbot’s story of almost lifelong incarceration — and by his eloquence. When Abbot was paroled, Mailer, playing the role of self-appointed Good Samaritan, stepped forward and offered to be Abbot’s sponsor. He opened his home to Abbot and used his considerable influence to help Abbot begin a new life. But Mailer’s efforts backfired. Abbot picked a fight with a man in a New York restaurant and stabbed him to death.

This story serves as one point of focus for Help: The Original Human Dilemma, Garret Keizer’s meditative collection of linked essays. Help — what we do for and to and with each other — has played a major role in Keizer’s life. Before he decided to commit himself to writing for a living, he was a priest and a teacher. As his book makes clear, he has spent a lot of time trying to be of help to others, which is another way of saying he has been a man often consumed in chasing wild geese. This, however, has not diminished his conviction that help — both the giving and the getting — defines us in an essential way.

Whether he’s reflecting on Mailer’s dilemma, the fact that the poor are always with us (although that may refer to the impoverishment of the spirit within ourselves) or how the people of Chambon instinctively opened their homes to shield Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, Keizer is a rigorous, if at times garrulous, tour guide.

He’s a prodigious aphorist, able to verbally encapsulate observations like these: “Poverty is the inability to renounce anything. To live in poverty is to exist in a permanent yes relationship to the world. When you have nothing you must say yes to everything.” Or: “Only when no one has been left out in the cold can I be left alone in peace. That may be a cold way to put it but perhaps the only way to put it that doesn’t leave me cold.” Or: “We think of ourselves as a hedonistic society; would that we were. Hypocrisy is not hedonism. Our hypocrisy is to hoard our private pleasures and feel guilty about them at the same time, instead of relishing them in such a way that we wish — and work — for all to have their share.”

But as that last bit may indicate, Keizer can also drift past the point of pithiness. He’s the kind of guy who, given the chance, is quite capable of sucking the air out of a room.

The wisdom found here, though, more than makes up for the occasional gust of overheated air. Given our current politics of paranoia and blame, Keizer’s attention to help and how it makes us human is more than welcome. This slender volume contains all the elements to start and sustain what needs to become an extended public conversation. At the very least, it will have you talking to yourself.

Crescendo 75: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra: 1930-2005

By Thomas N. Akins

Indiana Symphony Society, Inc.; $30

Review by Tom Aldridge

To start with, the 9-by-12, 150-page paperback displays one of the more opulent covers I can recall seeing: thick, shiny black — with a raised gilt, scripted title. A modern color photo of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra music director Mario Venzago and his present orchestra melds with a 1930 black and white of the 1930 orchestra, the year it was founded. Before you open to the first page, you sense that a lot of effort went into this project. And most likely love as well.

Tom Akins is especially suited to document a history of the ISO: He’s been with the organization for 40 of its 75 years. He served as the orchestra’s principal timpanist from 1965 to 1991. From 1991 to 2002, Akins was ISO public relations director. From then to now, he has been director of archives — effectively becoming an ISO historian.

The colorful, slick-papered book — filled with photos, diagrams and illustrations — principally lays out the orchestra’s history by the respective eras of its six music directors: Ferdinand Schafer, 1930-’37; Fabien Sevitzky, 1937-’55; Izler Solomon, 1956-’75; John Nelson, 1976-’87; Raymond Leppard, 1987-2001; and Venzago, 2002 to the present. Akins gives a brief life history of each conductor plus more-in-depth discussions of the major milestones, positive and negative, occurring during each of their tenures.

A highlight of the Sevitzky era was his numerous 78 rpm recordings, with a complete discography of ISO “78s,” LPs and CDs given along with numerous personnel lists at the book’s end. Akins also discusses Sevitzky’s “imperial,” authoritarian proclivities — the conductor could fire a player he didn’t like at will — endemic to baton wielders of that era. As well as Sevitzky’s 10-year dalliance, while married, with then principal harpist Mary Spalding, a not-too-well-kept secret. Akins’ inclusion of past gossipy material within the organization humanizes his narrative without stepping on “living toes.”

Though the orchestra had continued growth under Solomon, Akins fully describes its worst strike in early 1972 (the ISO’s second, following a more abortive one in 1966), which, without its having acquired far-sighted new board members and the direct intervention of then Mayor Richard Lugar, may have caused it to fold; it truly marked the ISO’s nadir. The strike severely stressed Solomon, then only 62, his health rapidly declining thereafter. Following his June 1976 resignation, he retired from conducting — though he lived another 12 years.

Nelson and Leppard’s tenures saw even more unprecedented growth: in player numbers, in season length, in budget size — in addition to the orchestra’s controversial, politically-driven relocation from Clowes Memorial Hall in 1984 under Nelson to the Circle Theatre, later renamed the Hilbert Circle Theatre. Akins, writing it both ways, fails to make clear whether “Hilbert” should or shouldn’t be preceded by “the”; I think it should always include the definite article, given its movie-house-moniker history and its location on “the circle.”

All things considered, however, Crescendo 75 is a fascinating read. Clearly written, beautifully illustrated, it will appeal to concert-goers young and old. It’s available in the Hilbert Circle lobby at every concert or event.

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