Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson *****

Jackson’s folksy, humorous love story is more complex than it appears at first glimpse; its entertainment value is instantly obvious. She has taken the town of Between, Georgia, which exists midway twixt Athens and Atlanta, and used it to create a fictional haven for a plethora of characters drawn so deftly that they all but materialize in front of the reader.

Nonny, our protagonist, is between many things. In fact, the deeper one looks at this supposedly light romance, the more “betweens” there are in the story, in setting, in plot, and above all, in character. The teacher in me wants to assign an essay question about it. You are excused from the essay, but you ought to read the book, even if, like me, you generally pass on romances. And for goodness sake, pay attention!

In some ways, this is a story that could have been set in just about any Between in just about any English-speaking setting as long as it was in a small town (and anyone who sniffs at the story as failing to accurately represent Georgia and Georgians completely misses the fact that this is not really a story about Georgia at all). How many of us have dealt with the question of nature versus nurture? How many of us have alcoholics, anxious individuals who are prone to harming themselves, yet keeping “four baby steps” out of the psych ward, neat freaks, slobs, and feuding relatives in our lives? Are you nodding yet? And how many of us have a small person in the family we suspect is being raised by the wrong relative? Then there are those of us who are between relationships, and the world that exists between the hearing and the deaf, the blind and those whose visual acuity is dandy. I am only scratching the surface here. There is so much of life jammed into this one work of fiction that it leaves me breathless.

It is the commonness and humanity in this tale that ultimately makes it so empathetic and readable, but the writing is brilliant. The prose are so fresh and original that they make me question several of the five star ratings I have given to other writers.

Jackson has written a real gem. Sometimes I conclude my reviews by saying that a book is worth reading if you can get it free or cheap. Not this story, not this time. Open a window and order it, or get in the car and go get it. You have to read this book. Whether for depth of literary analysis or pure fuzzy joy, you’ll be richer for doing so!