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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Inspiration, Amazement Found in Top Picks for '07

My favorite nonfiction of 2007 includes books about music, dance, literature, and film. I am proud to say that one of the authors lives in Evansville.

Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters by William Baer (Praeger, 2007). Baer is Professor of English at the University of Evansville and is a poet, playwright, and author of twelve books. While studying screenwriting at the University of Southern California, he met some of the great Hollywood writers of film. Often they had been overlooked as major contributors to these movies' success. In this book, Baer gives the screenwriters a chance to tell their side of the films' stories in their own words.

What makes this book so good is the author's thorough preparation and knowledge of his subject going into each interview. He seems to have read everything about these films and talked to many insiders about their participation. He has thoroughly mastered the original screenplay, as well as noting all the changes that were made for the shooting script.

Baer says that each interview was a great experience, and this comes across vividly. Each screenwriter appears to remember everything about their film, and they are, without exception, approachable and probably grateful for the chance to set the record straight.

For example, it is thrilling to find out how writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan worked together to create On the Waterfront. In fact, one of the things we learn here is that for all these classic films, the director respected the writer's script and did not make changes to it without the writer's permission. This mutual respect is surely one of the reasons these films succeeded.

Another thing we learn is that often studios don't have a clue to how a film is going to go over. Most of them didn't want to have anything to do with American Graffiti, The Sound of Music, or The Exorcist. And the latter two are among the highest grossing movies in movie history.

One of the most intriguing interviews is with Sylvester Stallone about Rocky. We find out that he wrote the script basically to create a role for himself as an actor because Hollywood had typecast him as a heavy. Stallone sounds more like a literature major than an action star.

Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Smart (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007). I found this book to be the most inspiring read of the year. I was immensely impressed with the discipline and the depth of intelligence of the author's students and colleagues at West Point.

I didn't realize that the education cadets receive at the Academy is so well-rounded. In college rankings, West Point comes out near the top of the nation's liberal arts colleges, and I always thought of West Point as more of a technical school.

Granted that many of Smart's best students are English majors, and they are a small segment of the Academy's population. But every cadet has to take English, and she takes the job of preparing her charges for their certain deployment to Iraq seriously. She convinces us that they are better men and soldiers because of their study of literature.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007). Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker and all his fans have eagerly awaited his first book. The critics have responded to it with enthusiasm, and The New York Times selected it as one of the best five nonfiction books of the year.

I liked it, too, and if you want to learn more about what happened to classical music after Schoenberg and his followers got hold of it, then this is a good place to start. One of the most enlightening things I learned is how the U. S. government supported Avant-garde European and American composers after World War II because they were "non-Germanic."

Chance and Circumstance by Carolyn Brown (Knopf, 2007). I love books that grab hold of me and take over my life for a few intense days. This is one of those books. A memoir of a dancer's 20-yr tenure with the Merce Cunningham (modern) Dance Company, it has to be one of the best written books on dancing ever penned.

The first half of the book is the best, when the Company is struggling financially and traveling to gigs together in a van as one happy family, shepherded by the eccentric composer for the company, John Cage.

David Locker is reference librarian at North Park Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.