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Frank Rich's autobiographical "Ghost Light" and "The Blind Assassin," by Margaret Atwood.

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Paltry Rich
Frank Rich's autobiographical new book, "Ghost Light" (Random House, $24.95) begs to be evaluated as a play. Rich is a former theater critic for The New York Times where his occasionally scathing reviews earned him the fearsome moniker "The Butcher of Broadway." Some locals may also remember him as one of the founding editors of the now-defunct weekly newspaper, the Richmond Mercury. As is fitting for a lifetime devotee of theater, Rich has organized his memoir into three acts and he uses theatrical imagery abundantly throughout. However, while he is an undeniably talented writer, Rich is no playwright. In this story of his life from grade school to college, he often stumbles on the melodramatic portentousness of his own prose. The book's first section, covering the years immediately after his parents' divorce, is particularly overwrought and, therefore, a chore to work through. At 7, he finds his life on a "new, unexpected, and possibly perilous path" that will be "full of transitory moments, double-edged with ecstasy and loss." Cut through the bluster and you find a scared kid from a broken home whose upper-middle-class life in suburban Washington falls far short of "perilous." Rich relaxes a bit in the middle section, allowing the excesses of his new stepfather to speak for themselves. Rich's stepfather, an unbalanced, abusive man who also magnanimously feeds Rich's obsession with theater, makes this second act of the book its most engaging part. To escape his domestic torment, Rich loses himself in the fantasy world of theater. As a teen-ager, he is lucky enough to witness the evolution of a true Broadway hit, hanging around as his best friend's dad, Joseph Stein, writes and develops "Fiddler on the Roof." Rich's job as a ticket-taker at the National Theater completes his immersion in the theatrical world just as the volatility of his mother and stepfather's relationship intensifies. But in the third act, Rich once again loses his way, with the description of his home life nearly vanishing as he focuses on other relationships. We're never really given a reason to care about the only moderately interesting details of Rich's life. In the end, we don't. — D.L.. Hintz A Pretty Mess
"The Blind Assassin" (Doubleday, $26) by Margaret Atwood is an ambitiously designed family saga that sprawls across the terrain of 20th-century North American history. The novel is compelling in originality and scope. Loss, betrayal, guilt, the Depression, the Red scare, union activity, the blending of personal and political spheres of existence, absentee mothers, and the reconciliation of memory and history with imminent death are prevalent among its themes. "The Blind Assassin" succeeds in spite of a rather dense assortment of failings. The structure (complete with embedded narratives and an array of historical artifacts) is intricate, and this intricacy heightens the suspense upon which the novel depends. Written in three different forms, "The Blind Assassin" consists of: Iris' memoir, written in the 1990s; her sister Laura's novel-within-the-novel, also titled "The Blind Assassin, published posthumously in 1947; and a science-fiction parable told, within Laura's novel, in a sort of gender-reversed Scheherazade setup. Where "The Blind Assassin" falls short, is that the expansive scheme requires the author to do a bit of filling-in. Most of the forward movement of the story takes place in one 10-year period, from the mid-1930s to Laura's death 10 years later; Iris' memoir consists mostly of philosophical reflection. While these reflections tend to illuminate the spiritual connections and disappointments of Iris' life, this technique eventually begins to seem coy, particularly when considering Iris' ultimate confession toward the end of more than 500 pages. And many of the characters never manage to step out of the two-dimensional, although the villainous Griffen siblings (Iris' husband, Richard, and his sister Winifred Prior) manage to transcend this lack of depth, while remaining prime examples of it. Of course, the saving grace of these intermittent flaws of static writing and flat characterization is that Atwood is a poet - no one writing today can hinge similes upon such fantastic vehicles as Atwood does and get away with it, much less give them meaning in the way that she does. Tricky plot manipulations ultimately tend to be diminished by Atwood's attractive way with words. Apparently, the Booker jury agrees. This novel was just awarded the prestigious British Booker Prize. — Jeffrey McKinley Heads-up
M. Thomas Inge, a leading expert on comics and professor at Randolph-Macon College, has edited a collection of interviews with the late "Peanuts" creator Charles M Schulz. ("Charles M. Schultz Conversations," University of Mississippi Press, $20). According to Inge's introduction: "His gift was the saving grace of comedy, a laugh or two on a daily basis for 50 years, itself a singular record in the history of the comic strip … Schultz was the major pop philosopher, theologian and psychologist for the second half of the 20th century in America, but more importantly, he combined these concerns in an eloquent and enduring art form, the comic strip."

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