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Not Your Usual Summer Reading

For some, the summer is a time to indulge in frothy beach reading: the latest chick lit or globetrotting, highly unbelievable thriller. But book critic Maureen Corrigan has taken a different tack this year: She's catching up on more substantial reading that she hasn't had time for yet.

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Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 2005: Interview with Robbie Fulks; Review of summer books; Review of the documentary "March of the penguins."

Transcript

DATE July 29, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Robbie Fulks discusses his career as a
singer-songwriter and performs several songs
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Robbie Fulks is a gifted singer-songwriter whose music crosses many
boundaries. His roots are in bluegrass, but he's written and recorded
well-received alternative rock and country material. He's even recorded an
album's worth of Michael Jackson songs, but the project was shelved after
Jackson was arrested on the child abuse charges he was later acquitted of.

Robbie Fulks grew up near Raleigh, North Carolina, and played banjo as a
teen-ager, but he spent most of his musical career in Chicago. He recorded
his first solo album, "Country Love Songs," in 1996 and has since released
six more, completing his latest, "Georgia Hard." Mary Houlihan of
the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that `On "Georgia Hard," Fulks' music harks back
to the days before Nashville was overtaken by the slickness of modern hat
acts. His clean vocals, memorable melodies and satiric lyrics recall the
styles of Shel Silverstein, Johnny Paycheck and Roger Miller.'

"Georgia Hard" was recorded in Nashville, where Robbie Fulks worked for a few
years as a staff writer for a songwriting company. Here's his song
"Each Night I Try."

(Soundbite of "Each Night I Try")

Mr. ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Well, it's bad enough the way I feel when I'm not
stoned, but since you've gone, I can't leave bad enough alone. And these
heartaches aren't too real to be denied, but each night I try. Each night I
try. Each night I try most anything that'll open up and pour, but each night
I fail to hit the heartache I was aiming for. I know I'm never gonna drink my
teardrops dry, but each night I try. Each night I try. Come on, give it an
effort, Red.

DAVIES: That's "Each Night I Try" from Robbie Fulks' new CD, "Georgia Hard."

Terry spoke to Robbie Fulks in 1998 after the release of his album
"Let's Kill Saturday Night." Fulks brought his guitar with him to the
studio.

(Soundbite of interview)

TERRY GROSS, host:

I'd love for you to do a song for us. Let me suggest a song called "I Can't
Win for Losing You." Would you say something about the song before you sing
it for us?

Mr. FULKS: Yeah. There's a--(strums guitar)--it's not an earthshaking song,
and the lyrics are real, like I said, simple and universal. It kind of
reminds me of a Roger Miller kind of '60s groove. (Strums guitar) It's a
shuffle, and (strums guitar) it's one of those things. Another thing that
country specializes in, I guess, is sad songs set to happy, up-tempo grooves.

(Soundbite of "I Can't Win for Losing You")

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) There you go again, out of control again, off runnin'
like the wind, leavin' me blue. Well, I take you back and then you break my
heart again. It seems I just can't win for losin' you. We've tried a
thousand times to keep this love alive, but your fickle heart just can't be
true. Now I've pinned my every hope onto a lie. Well, I just can't win for
losin' you. There you go again, out of control again, off runnin' like the
wind, leavin' me blue. Well, I take you back and then you break my heart
again. It seems I just can't win for losin' you. Well, a man's a fool that
makes the same mistake time after time but feels each heartache like it was
brand-new. Yes, I'd be rich if broken dreams were dimes, but I just can't win
for losin' you. Whoa, there you go again, out of control again, off runnin'
like the wind and leavin' me blue. Well, I take you back and then you break
my heart again. It seems that I just can't win for losin' you. Well, it
seems that I just can't win for losin' you.

GROSS: That's a really good song. I really like that a lot. That's Robbie
Fulks.

Robbie, you lived in Nashville for a few years, and you were actually working
for one of the song publishing companies, writing a lot of songs for the
company, being like a staff songwriter. That must have been a really
interesting experience. What made you decide to go down to Nashville and try
out that life and that approach in the music business?

Mr. FULKS: Well, you know, Nashville was there, and so I decided to take a
stab at it. I had a friend that worked down there as a staff songwriter. I
never did live down there, actually, but...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. FULKS: ...I'd been up in Chicago for the last 15 years and I got a family
up here and stuff, so I didn't quite take the plunge and totally relocate.
But I thought I'd get my foot in the door, and I was so encouraged by my first
trip or two down there that, you know, I got a writer deal in fairly fast
order and got set up with a performance rights organization, and away we went.
And that's where I just kind of hit the brick wall after that. But it did let
me spend three years kind of honing my craft and, you know, as a part-time
job, it let me spend several hours every day just sitting in my room and
writing songs, and that was just invaluable to me.

GROSS: What's the deal like, working with a publishing company?

Mr. FULKS: Well, you sort of have, you know, an editor to help give you
feedback and, you know, somebody at the publisher will say, `Well, this
line'--at a good publisher, that is--will say, `This line doesn't exactly feed
out of this line before it, and this hook isn't quite strong enough,' or, you
know, `This song--go back and rewrite this from the female point of view and
make it a little softer and take out that mention where you say that the
singer is 5'2", because we want somebody taller to be able to sing it, too.'
So I get all sorts of comments like that, and sometimes I'd pay attention to
them and sometimes I wouldn't. And then they'll go out and record and try to
pitch them to Garth Brooks or whoever...

GROSS: And...

Mr. FULKS: ...and make a million dollars.

GROSS: So I can see how the artiste in you would feel offended that somebody
was editing your songs. On the other hand, it must have been really helpful
craftwise to have somebody critiquing every song like that.

Mr. FULKS: Yeah, well, I kind of knew what I was getting into, I guess, when
I took the job. And to me it was--well, I spent some time writing for this
market or, you know, as best I can, and that kind of work is sort of more like
crossword puzzle work. And then I'll spend the rest of the time just writing
whatever I feel like, and that's how I got, for instance, a lot of the songs
off of the "Let's Kill Saturday Night" record was, you know, that other half
of the time that was just for me.

GROSS: Now what about "I Can't Win for Losing You," which you just played?
Which was that?

Mr. FULKS: That was more or less a Nash--that was a Nashville pitch,
actually, 'cause I wrote it--I co-wrote it with a songwriter down there, and
they demoed in pretty quick order; they liked that one a lot. But in general,
people down there aren't looking for something that old-fashioned, sounding
the same and, you know, the shuffle quality and the little yodel quality and
all the rest of that is so old-hat and outmoded to them that that didn't
really trip any triggers down there.

GROSS: So what's in if that's out?

Mr. FULKS: What's in is kind of soft rock--(strums guitar)--you know, my
friend Jon Langford says that country music today is just kind of like
suburban light rock music, and that's pretty much it to me. It's got to
me--it helps if it's kind of feminized and socially aware and doesn't offend
anybody.

GROSS: Do you want to do a few bars of what you think of as the prototypical
song that you've just described?

Mr. FULKS: Well, no, I don't want to offend any other songwriters, but I got
plenty that I wrote like that, like--here's a chorus of something I wrote.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) Look how close we came when we hardly had a prayer and
only seconds left to spare. Then the hand of fate came and pulled us from the
flame. I can't imagine losing everything, but look how close we came.

That kind of thing, you know. To me, that was a Tim McGraw kind of a pitch,
and I'm singing it kind of making fun of it as I'm singing it. But...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. FULKS: ...it's a song about a guy that almost lost his wife and then they
almost lost their kid and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

GROSS: Well, I think whenever the hand of fate makes an appearance, it's
always a bad sign. (Laughs)

Mr. FULKS: Very bad sign.

GROSS: So how did you feel when you wrote in a `hand of fate' line?

Mr. FULKS: (Laughs) I thought it was great. The hand of fate pulled him from
the flame. I thought, well, this is just cliched enough to send out to Middle
America and see what happens.

GROSS: Now who decides on the fate of a song? You write it, you send it to
the publishing company, and then what happens?

Mr. FULKS: And then it's just out in the free marketplace down in Nashville
for various A&R people and producers and artists to listen to, decide if they
want to do it.

GROSS: Well, how do they shop for songs there? How are songs shopped to
them?

Mr. FULKS: I don't know. (Laughs) I've never done it. I don't really know,
except it's just kind of an insular network down there where you'll have
meetings and--well, an artist, for instance, will--there's a thing called
Row Fax down there, which is a facsimile that is sent out every week, and it
has lists of so-and-so--`Brooks & Dunn are looking for an uptempo tune a la
"Marie"' or whatever the last hit was, `and so-and-so is looking for a hot
ballad.' Most of them just say, `So-and-so is looking for a gigantic hit.'

GROSS: So basically you'd sit home and hope that the hand of fate would point
one of your songs to a hot singer.

Mr. FULKS: Pull me from the flame of penury.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FULKS: Uh-huh.

DAVIES: Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks speaking with Terry Gross. His new CD
is called "Georgia Hard." We'll hear more conversation and more music after
this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to our 1998 interview with country and rock
singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks. He has a new CD called "Georgia Hard." When
we left off, he was telling Terry Gross about his work as a staff songwriter
in Nashville.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Did you give yourself different assignments so, you know, that you'd
have different kinds of singers to work for, like, `Well, today I'll try the
ballad; next week I'll try the up-tempo for a middle-age singer-songwriter,
for a middle-age woman singer,' something?

Mr. FULKS: Yeah, definitely set yourself little tasks like that. And you
know, at some point it just gets so un-you and so inauthentic that it just
shows through the songwriting. So it's--for me it was a little difficult to
walk that line where I'd use lyrics that were obviously cliched and obviously
that I didn't believe while I was writing them, but still try to make it
sincere-sounding. So maybe it was just inevitably an impossible task from the
beginning.

GROSS: On the other hand, I think there must be something very liberating
about writing for a character as opposed to writing confessional
autobiographical lyrics and just thinking about, you know, the shapeliness of
a song instead of thinking about whether you personally really mean it.

Mr. FULKS: Yeah, or it's like a lot of great writers that got their start
writing pulp fiction or obituaries or H.L. Mencken doing crime reporting or
anything like that. It's just a place to get your tools together, and it is
helpful to get outside your personality and try to adopt other voices, I
think.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to do another song, and this is from a previous
album that was called "South Mouth." And the song is called "Forgotten But
Not Gone." Tell us how you wrote this and if you had anybody or any type of
song in mind while doing it.

Mr. FULKS: Yeah, I had sort of a Johnny Paycheck style in mind. Johnny's
got a lot of stuff that he did with Aubrey Mayhew on the Little Darlin' label
in the late '60s that is just as good as anything ever done in country music.
This is, of course, well before the "Take This Job and Shove It" period, which
got a little bit more cartoonish. But like a lot of stuff you write, you
start with an idea and it gets away from that, so the end product doesn't
really sound that much like him, but it still has some of the chord changes
that I liked about some of that stuff.

(Soundbite of "Forgotten But Not Gone")

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) This old house turned cold when he walked in. Oh, and I
felt myself fading as you smiled at him. Now lately I'm just barely hanging
on, a shadow of the man you loved, forgotten but not gone. Forgotten like a
fool that time passed by. But the day that I let go, I know I'll die.
Unwanted man, a ghost in my own home. That's how it feels to be forgotten but
not gone. Every night these two arms reach out for you, oh, but you just
can't feel their touch the way you used to. I guess no heart can hold two
loves for too long. One staked his claim, now one remains forgotten but not
gone. Forgotten like a fool that time passed by. Now I see my whole life
passing in your eyes. And the epitaph carved in your heart of stone: `Here
lies a true love, forgotten but not gone.'

GROSS: That's Robbie Fulks performing a song that he wrote called "Forgotten
But Not Gone."

So what was the fate of that song after you wrote it?

Mr. FULKS: Nothing happened to that one. You mean as far as the Nashville
network.

GROSS: Yeah. That's one of the ones you submitted, right?

Mr. FULKS: Oh, sure, yeah. Yeah. I'd write four or five a month and send
them all down and just see what happened. Nothing happened to that one, so I
went and recorded it. And you know, as I started doing my own records, I
started getting the suspicion that anything that didn't really excite them
down there might be a worthy song, so that I should consider it one that I
might record myself.

GROSS: Did you feel like you had to have a certain number of hooks per song
or--you know, like what advice did they give you on hooks?

Mr. FULKS: I think we--my publisher and I both thought that I was pretty
hook-oriented to begin with, so I don't think I ever got the response, `Go
back to this and make it more memorable-sounding or, you know, centered all on
the hook.' I had that part of the craft pretty well down. I think most of
the advice that I got was when I was saying--`Just take some of the hard edges
off. Nobody's ever going to sing a line like "Oh, I feel like a dog" or
anything that's that un-up with people or bluesy. Nobody's going to get that
near.' There's a wash of positive Oprah Winfrey-style feeling down in
Nashville nowadays, apparently.

DAVIES: Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks speaking with Terry Gross. His new CD
is called "Georgia Hard." Robbie Fulks will be back with us in the second
half of the show. We'll end this half-hour with another show from his new CD.
It's called "Where There's a Road." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Where There's a Road")

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) Gentleness was no county line to my daddy, more like a
wall he could not see beyond. Yeah, to me that farm was just a jail and the
day I hit 16 I bailed, shook off the Georgia dust and I was gone into the wild
unknown, where no light to guide me shone and the wheels had ideas of their
own. ...(Unintelligible) joined the ride at a chop and pawn shop and the
hard-core band somewhere 'round Santa Fe. A club to wreck and a town to burn,
not a cent to waste, no rock unturned. Days like those you got to throw away.
Wind to the wheel and bound to no one. Fire up the engine and the band says
go. ...(Unintelligible) upon the blacktop, the background. There's always a
way out where there's a road, where there's a road. That Portland week I
can't seem to remember. Those Houston nights, they just won't quit my mind.
Yeah, checkout at 7, doors at 10, better rooms just up the bend and a thousand
more I left somewhere behind.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, restock your bookshelves. Maureen Corrigan recommends a
few titles for your summer enjoyment. Also, 80 degrees below 0; we chill out
with "March of the Penguins." David Edelstein has a movie review. And we'll
continue our conversation with singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Today we're listening to Terry's 1998 interview with Robbie Fulks, a talented
singer-songwriter whose music ranges from bluegrass to alternative rock and
country. He has a new album called "Georgia Hard," which was recorded in
Nashville. For about three years, he wrote nearly a song a week for a
Nashville music publishing company. He wasn't having much luck getting them
recorded, and his editors at the publishing company occasionally asked him to
change some of his hard-edged lyrics.

GROSS: Can you play a few bars of something that got the most negative
reaction that you like?

Mr. FULKS: Sure. Early on, they--I found out about the great--I don't
know--the great woman problem, which is that stuff that you write for that
market has to fit into what they think a woman would want to sing or want to
hear. And that automatically disqualified about 90 percent of my catalogue.
But they would say, `Go back and write something that's more friendly to
women.' So just to be sort of ornery, I went back home one time and wrote a
song called--I came in, I said, `I got one here that I really think you'll
like.' And they said, `What's the name of it?' I said, "Hating Women" is the
name of it. But the chord kind of went...

(Singing) Hatin' women...

It's kind of a rockabilly thing.

(Singing) Hatin' women. Yeah, I love them like the dickens but you won't
get far hatin' women. All right!

And then it had a verse about Ernest Hemingway and a verse about pornographers
and a verse about shopping, and it was just calculated for them not to like
it. But it was a pretty good song, too.

GROSS: Inspired by a little bit of "Rock-in-Robin" maybe?

Mr. FULKS: Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. There's another song that I imagine didn't endear you to the
Nashville community, though I don't know if they ever got to hear it. I'm
thinking of a song that's on your new CD called "God Isn't Real." Did you
send that one down to Nashville?

Mr. FULKS: Yeah. That's one of the ones that you send in--or I sent it in
partly because it's so fun to watch the--we had a Christian receptionist down
there at the place where I worked, and one of her jobs was to write up all the
titles in her--in the database. And there were some titles of mine that she
just wouldn't write. And it was always fun to try and make up some of these
titles that would just stop her fingers on the keyboard ...(unintelligible).

GROSS: Is that why you wrote this song?

Mr. FULKS: That was one of the--that's not why I wrote the song, but that
was definitely the most fun thing about submitting that. And also another
song of mine, "F This Town," which was another one that stopped her fingers
from typing.

GROSS: That's like a Nashville anti-anthem. Play us a chorus of "God Isn't
Real." But before you do, tell us what inspired the song.

Mr. FULKS: Well, this song is an atheist song, and it basically represents
my point of view, or a slightly radicalized or caricatured version of my point
of view, about the problem of evil and the implausibility of divine
intelligence in the world. And the first chorus, for instance, goes...

(Singing) Go ask the starving millions under Stalin's cruel reign, go ask the
child with cancer who eases her pain. Then go to your churches if that's how
you feel, but don't ask me to follow, for God isn't real.

That's the first chorus of that.

GROSS: So what reaction did you get to it?

Mr. FULKS: That is another one that kind of went in a black hole as far as
they were concerned. But it's sort of an interesting reaction playing that.
That's on my new record, and so I play it, you know, all the time now when I
go out. And there's often a contingent of people that either refuse to
clap, very ostentatiously refuse to clap for that one, or stare angrily or, on
occasion, just leave the concert at that point. That's happened in a couple
cities so far--Atlanta, Oklahoma City and a couple other places. So we always
kind of look forward to pulling it out and just seeing what'll happen.

GROSS: Does it ever bother you that by singing that God isn't real, you're
not only expressing your opinions as an atheist, but you're saying that the
God other people believe in isn't real and that you really might be offending
them or challenging them in some way?

Mr. FULKS: No, I don't think so because I think the free exchange of ideas
is a fine and American tradition that I'd like to uphold. And I was--on the
same topic, I was doing an interview with a right-wing paper. The interviewer
was Christian, and--this was just the other week--he said, `Well, I appreciate
your putting it out on the table like that because so much of the atheism that
you hear in modern pop culture is just sort of a hidden and watered-down
presupposition in music or in movies or in TV shows, and it's seldom stated so
bluntly.' So better not to beat around the bush and just lay your cards out,
I think.

GROSS: So what reaction did you get at your publishing company when you sent
this song down? You didn't really expect somebody was going to do it, right?

Mr. FULKS: No, I really expected Alan Jackson might take a stab at "God
Isn't Real." I'm just that naive. No, I didn't hear anything, and I didn't
expect to.

GROSS: You have a song called "Blank This Town," "Epithet This Town," which
is a song about Nashville. You want to do just a couple of bars of that?
With--and you could say, `Blank this town,' instead of the word that you
really use, or...

Mr. FULKS: Sure.

GROSS: ...another substitute if you prefer.

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) Hey, this ain't country western, it's just soft rock
feminist crap, and I thought they'd struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie
Milsap. Now they can't stop the flood of (censored). There ain't a big
enough ASCAP. Sure I like old Jim Carroll and BR549. But Nashville don't
need that noise. No, Nashville will do just fine as long as there's a moron
market and a (censored)...

I don't know how much I can say of this. So (censored).

GROSS: Well, what--I mean...

Mr. FULKS: That gives you an idea.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. No, I'm wondering did the people who you were working
with hear that song and did they take it personally, like, we're not giving
this guy a break if that's the way he feels about the city and the music
coming out of it?

Mr. FULKS: Probably that didn't help my cause too much down there.

GROSS: Yeah, probably. Were you in a moment of particular frustration when
you wrote that?

Mr. FULKS: I was having a really good time when I wrote that. But, I mean, I
have to say, as far as all of this relates to like sending stuff in and what
their reactions were to it, I just kind of--after the first year of my
three-year deal, I stopped even thinking about it anymore and just started
writing for my own pleasure because so little was happening that I kind of
gave up on it. So that song was written shortly after I gave up on it, and it
was great to vent spleen and just to have total fun writing a song to say
whatever you wanted to say.

GROSS: When we have singer/songwriters on the show I like to ask them at the
end to redeem a song. So I want to ask you if you can think if a song that a
lot of us might find uninteresting or square and that you think is a really
swell song that you'd like to play for us and redeem. When you think of a
song, would you introduce it for us?

Mr. FULKS: Yeah. Let me think a second. This is called "Dancing Queen"
by ABBA.

(Singing) Friday night and the lights are low, looking out for a place to go
where they play the right music, getting in the swing. You're going to take a
chance. Anybody could be that guy. Lights are low and the music's high where
they play the right music, you come in to swing. You're in the mood for a
dance. And when you get the chance, you are the dancing queen, young and
sweet, only 17. Dancing queen, feel the beat of a tambourine. Oh, yeah. You
can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life. Oh, see that girl,
watch that scene, dig it, the dancing queen.

When you tease him, you turn him on, leave him burning, but then you're gone.
Looking out for another, anyone will do. You're in the mood for a dance.
And when you get the chance, you are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only
17. Dancing queen, feel the beat of a tambourine. Oh, yeah, You can dance,
you can jive, having the time of your life. Oh, see that girl, watch that
scene, dig it, the dancing queen. Dig it, the dancing queen. Ah, oh.

GROSS: Well, I am very impressed. I mean, you not only did it, you did the
whole song. You had it all worked out. Do you do this in your show?

Mr. FULKS: No. I haven't done that one. Well, we did it--I don't
know--maybe three years ago for two or three times and then it kind of got
lost in the shuffle.

GROSS: Now what do you love about the song? Why did you choose that to
redeem?

Mr. FULKS: I like that one because it's so much about melody and chords and,
you know, the words are so obviously just kind of wretched words written by
people that don't speak English that well. But to me, it underscores the idea
that the words are less important than everything else a lot of the time, just
general vibe, groove, melody, chorus. And I don't know, any time there's like
a sexy 17-year-old character in it it's, ipso facto, interesting, I think.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to have you on the show. Robbie Fulks, a real
pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mr. FULKS: Thank you.

DAVIES: Singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks speaking with Terry Gross in 1998.
His new CD is called "Georgia Hard." Let's hear one more track from it. This
is "Goodbye Cruel Girl."

Mr. FULKS: (Singing) Well, it's finally happened. You've pushed me to the
brink and now I can't go on. Soon the cold arms of night shall embrace my
body, leaving behind only a memory and these last words to you. Goodbye,
cruel girl and don't forget the hurt. These boots of mine are about to hit
the dirt. And I know I'm bound for a better world, so hello soft, kind city
lights, goodbye, cruel girl. You killed my bed at night, dragged down my
name. You've used my poor heart like you had a clue. But a leash ain't a
leash and a half-drunk promise ain't a strong chain. Now I'm headed back to
the barroom where I first came. So goodbye, cruel girl and don't forget the
hurt. These boots of mine are about to hit the dirt. And I know I'm bound
for a better world, so hello soft, kind city lights, goodbye, cruel girl.

DAVIES: Coming up, some midsummer reading picks from Maureen Corrigan. This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Options for summer reading
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The phrase `summer reading' conjures up a beach chair, a tall, cold drink and
a relaxed reader with a good thick book in her hands. But book critic Maureen
Corrigan has been reading frantically far into the night to catch up on all
the books she meant to get to this summer.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

I remember an old John Updike essay in The New Yorker in which he declared
that the magic of summer was basically over by July 4th. The days begin
getting shorter, the ads for back-to-school gear start appearing and by
August, all that's left of summer's bright green promise wilts.

I thought about that essay last week as I faced the pile of books and back
issues of The New Yorker I'd meant to get to this summer. The pile was only
growing bigger and summer catch-up time was only getting shorter. And so I
dove in and chose these three books.

The first choice was, for me, a no-brainer, David McCullough's recently
published narrative history, "1776." Whenever I have the time to read for
pleasure, I like to read American history, especially books about the American
Revolution. Of course, so academic historians have complained that
McCullough's books, like this one and earlier blockbusters like "Truman" and
"John Adams," are themselves no-brainers, feel-good tales of great men
triumphing over adversity, heavy on myth-making and light on complexity.

Unlike so many academic historians, McCullough really knows how to tell a
story. The problem is, he tells it so seamlessly that enthralled readers come
away believing that his is the only possible version of events. In terms of
the elegance and sheer thrill factor of its narrative, "1776" is another
winner for McCullough. I'll confess, it's the one book I've read so far this
summer that I couldn't put down. McCullough follows George Washington and the
Continental Army through the months of 1776 when, as he says, `the fate of the
American cause hung on the chance that its ragged citizen soldiers could
prevail against the far superior professional forces of the British.'

To his credit, McCullough presents Washington not as a man of steel but as a
sometimes indecisive and privately despairing leader. His great strengths,
according to McCullough, were his realistic appraisal of circumstances and his
tenacity. In command of soldiers who frequently turned tail and ran in the
heat of battle, Washington philosophically wrote, `We must make the best of
mankind as they are since we cannot have them as we wish.'

So carried away was I by "1776" that after reading it I led my family on a
forced march to Washington's house, Mt. Vernon, to pay homage. But while I
was in the bookstore there, I bought Marcus Cunliffe's classic 1958
biographical essay on Washington to read along with some still-unread books on
the Revolution I own by some of its finest scholars, books like Gordon S.
Woods' "Short Modern Library History of the American Revolution(ph)" and David
Hackett Fischer's "Washington's Crossing." I think that's the best way to
treat McCullough, let his inspired storytelling carry you way into other books
on the same period.

Elinor Fuchs describes an extreme test of character and fortitude of another
sort in her memoir "Making an Exit." The book is subtitled "A Mother-Daughter
Drama With Alzheimer's, Machine Tools and Laughter," which should give you a
sense of the offbeat perspective through with Fuchs views her nine-year trial
of caring for her elderly mother, Lillian.

When Lillian was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Fuchs, who had never been close
to
her mother, became her intimate caregiver, and she describes forthrightly the
maternal tenderness she develops for Lillian, as well as the revulsion she
feels toward her diapered and demanding body. Here's Fuchs riffing on the
concept of assisted living at the facility her mother stays in for a while.

(Reading) `The facility has full food service, a nurse on duty 24 hours,
laundry and housekeeping services, but that's nothing. Mother can't find her
way from the seventh floor to the first without assistance, can't dress
without assistance, can't go to bed without assistance, can't make pee-pee
without assistance. So in addition to the 24-hour everything, mother has two
nurses splitting the weekday job. Plus, she has me and she has her brother,
Ed, who stops in at least twice a week. Everyone is exhausted. Now there's
assisted living for you.'

Fuchs may have been worn out from the years of caring for her mother, but her
appreciation for the tragically absurd remains undimmed.

Finally, a Sue Miller novel is for me the quintessence of summer reading. Her
stories about families on the verge of imploding are always keenly observed
and smart. Plus, there's Miller's delicious descriptions of the surfaces of
everyday life and what they mask. "Lost in the Forest," her latest book, is
set in Northern California, so there's lots here about old restored houses and
the smell of herbs and good wine.

The novel opens with a jolt, the sudden death of a youngish husband and
parent. But as always with Miller, it's the long-term fallout of a tragedy
that absorbs her attention. Washington crossing the Delaware in snow and
freezing rain it's not, but in its own fictional way, "Lost in the Forest"
tells a charged story of small heroics, betrayals and strategic emotional
retreats.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is the author of the forthcoming memoir, "Leave Me
Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "1776" by David McCullough, "Making an
Exit" by Elinor Fuchs and "Lost in the Forest" by Sue Miller.

Coming up, David Edelstein's pick for the sleeper hit of the summer. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Documentary "March of the Penguins" might be sleeper hit
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Maybe the heat has something to do with it, but people are coming out to see a
French-made nature documentary about Antarctic penguins. Our film critic,
David Edelstein, tells us why he thinks "March of the Penguins" might be the
sleeper hit of the summer.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

Penguins: You got to love them, those cute little tuxedos, the way they dance
with trays of food in "Mary Poppins." Well, we don't know penguins. They're
tough little birds, tougher than we could imagine when it comes to giving
birth and keeping their babies alive under conditions too grueling even for
polar bears.

The French documentary "March of the Penguins" arrives here with narration by
Morgan Freeman, and his resonance warms up what might have been a cold and
pitiless experience. It's pretty cold and pitiless anyway, even with a G
rating that makes you think that kids under six will go for it. No. Let them
watch "Mary Poppins."

These penguins live in Antarctica, which you'd think would be a great place
for a penguin, until Freeman says that it gets to 80 degrees below zero with
hundred-mile-an-hour winds. The film transcends the `Isn't that amazing?'
animal genre. It's the story of an instinct so fierce, so primal, that it
feels like a creation saga. It takes you back to the beginnings of all life.
It's explicitly about the beginnings of some life.

The penguins' march is 70 miles inland to where the ice is solid enough for
laying eggs. That in itself is a feat since these birds can't fly and their
only source of food is the water they're leaving behind.

When they reach their destination, they take part in what looks like a giant
mixer, milling around, checking one another out. It tells you about their
toughness, that they do this without booze to loosen them up. When they do
find mates, there's nuzzling and foreplay, but that G rating means a lyrical
fade-out. For penguin-on-penguin action, you have to wait for the unrated DVD.

I'm being flip, because what happens next is, in the best-case scenario,
cruel and, in the worst, heartbreaking. Eggs are laid; some crack and the
male and female part without even a peck. As the sun disappears from the
winter sky, it's the females, at this point literally starving, that make the
140-mile round trip to the feeding waters and back while the males sit on the
eggs and try to keep themselves and their future chicks from freezing to
death. Not all of them succeed. You'll be astonished that any of them do.

I don't know how this French crew shot in the worst place on the planet.
They're out in the storms filming hundreds of males in the lethal cold,
pressing together to keep warm with the ones on the outside systematically
rotating in. The filmmakers document every part of this journey, from the
leap out of the water, to the birth of the chicks, to the return to the sea as
the surviving youngsters drift off never again to see the parents that have
sacrificed so much.

In less than 90 minutes, we've watched a species survive in way that suggests
how all species survive. In the most upsetting scene, a bird of prey goes
after a group of youngins and the elders don't intervene, not even the
parents. Why? Earlier we see a grieving mother attempt to steal a baby from
another mother, at which point the whole village jumps in to drive her away.
That's adaptive. You can't have a viable society where mothers steal babies,
but maybe letting a predator take something makes more sense.

The vistas of "March of the Penguins" are breathtaking, with colors so sharp
that they register the cold. And it's lyrical. When a male and female get
close, the curve of their necks and their bowed heads form the shape of a
heart. But above all, this remarkable documentary makes you contemplate the
mystery of what brought all of us to this place and, against the odds, keeps
us here.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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