We're All Forrest Gump

Looking for the heart of the 20th century

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Biographies are popular for a reason. People are fascinated by other people — particularly "famous" ones. We know some aspects of the lives of the people that interest us: typically, the beginning of their life, their "crowning achievement," and their death. What we desire is color, by way of background. And if these lives happen to have some sort of parallel to our own — or better yet, speak to the human condition as a whole — all the better.In that sense, William Boyd's new novel, Any Human Heart, has everything and nothing to do with the biographical form. Boyd fashions his novel through a series of biographical "journal entries" that purport to catalog the life of one Logan Mountstuart. Mountstuart, a bit of a prodigy, starts out covering the Spanish Civil War. Soon enough, he becomes confidants with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, gets sketched by Pablo Picasso, and becomes something of an art maven. He also variously works under James Bond creator Ian Fleming in British Naval Intelligence, spends time in a POW camp, gets involved with a terrorist gang, and winds up as an art dealer. Mountstuart, it seems, lived the kind of life that's stranger than fiction. Except, of course, for the fact that it is fiction, despite the reviewer-friendly index, afterword, and "Works by Logan Mountstuart" page at the end of the book.

Why does it work so well, outside of the fact that the Zelig-like Mountstuart rubs up against some of the biggest movers and shakers of the last century? It's because we don't know the ending. Reading a retrospective biography is something akin to reading a story about the Titanic — no matter what happens beforehand, you know the ship is going to sink at the end. We all pass on, and can only hope we leave a nice literary corpse.

And this is, ultimately, a biography of us all. The exciting, name-dropping plotline of the novel isn't by accident. Boyd's use of Mountstuart as a universal character demands that the story hold the reader's attention, rather than any internal dialogue or conflicts that Mountstuart may experience. Says Mountstuart, "Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary — it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make life appear interesting or humdrum."

In Boyd's capable hands, Mountstuart is something of an Everyman, a guy with serious potential attempting to get ahead in life the best he can. Granted, this particular Everyman is prescient enough to buy early paintings by Paul Klee and Juan Gris. However, Boyd gives the reader such a textured, fly-on-the-wall imagining of 20th Century history that it's easy to forgive the Forrest Gump-like ride.

Scratch that. Even Forrest Gump never had such a history. After Ian Fleming gets Mountstuart a position in Naval Intelligence, he takes a job spying on the Duke of Windsor, the exiled former king. Jailed after the assignment, Mountstuart is unaware that World War II has ended. He soon finds himself in Nigeria, teaching and covering the Biafran War. As his life winds down, he becomes a radical, and finally, an art dealer (thanks, no doubt, to those original Klees).

The title, Any Human Heart, works as well as any. All of us, if we make the right choices — and sometimes, the wrong choices — can conceivably live a life similar to Mountstuart's, as long as we make sure we infuse whatever choices we make with the appropriate passion. This may mean, as with Mountstuart, that we converse with some of the greatest minds of our generation, and sit in Paris cafés sipping coffee. Or, it may mean that we're fated to mingle with some of the greatest hearts of our generation, fighting for what we believe in, both at war and at home.

Better yet, we might even take a cue from our fictional "hero," and do both. As any look at television will show, Everymen like him are indeed a rare breed.

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Book lovers and English majors love the premise of this book. It's an alternative reality where time travel is routine and literature is taken very seriously. It's set in England where Thursday Next is a Special Operative in literary detection. Thursday's nemesis is Acheron Hades, who kidnaps characters out of books as well as stealing original manuscripts and — horrors — changing the plots. The literary allusions and references fly thick and fast here — everything from the main story involving Jane Eyre to the perpetual debate about who wrote Shakespeare's plays. If you can let yourself go with it, it's a lot of fun. If not, well, there's always War and Peace.

Selected Essays by John Berger edited by Geoff Dyer. This nearly 600-page collection gives the full flavor of one of the world's great essayists and art critics. A 75-year-old British writer who lives in the French Alps, Berger's clear, direct, unaffected style gives force to the connections he's constantly finding, many of them unexpected: connections between politics and art ("Revolutionary Undoing"), farming and humor ("A Load of Shit"); not to mention connections between the artists he critiques so insightfully — Matisse, Picasso, Watteau, etc. — and nearly everything else, including each other (one of his most famous pieces, "Francis Bacon and Walt Disney," in which he sees as much violence and isolation in the cartoon king as in the obsessive painter, is included here.).

Video by Meera Nair. The latest in the wave of Indian writers reaching our shores happens to be one of the liveliest, too. The usual Western Influence On The East & Vice Versa theme is here in these short stories, but the cultural cross-references are treated with a ruthless honesty that creates a kind of uniquely hardboiled but humorous mix of the two cultures. Not real easy going down, but somehow enchanting. Gospel Road Going by Michael Chitwood. This gifted poet's series of poems gracefully evoke the story of the Scots-Irish and their struggle and culture making a life in the southern Appalachians. He brings these rough, stark, hard-working people to life while lamenting the passing of their folkways, steadfastness, and influence. A beautiful, heartfelt tribute that reaches emotional depths about past history without nostalgic cloying, which is nearly impossible. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King. A masterful and very accessible look at the immortal artist's struggles to paint what turned out to be one of the great masterpieces of human history. Michelangelo emerges here as a fully three-dimensional flesh-and-blood man, not the quirky myth that's been handed down to us. Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd. This energetic, eloquent biography of one of the cornerstones of the Harlem Renaissance brings to life Hurston's vivid, extraordinary spirit, strength and talent. Her fieldwork in black folklore was a turning point in American lit's view and use of its own native culture, and remains a model of artistic courage. Boyd is swept up by her subject and does her justice by treating Hurston not as a cultural oddity but as an inspiring example of a free spirit creating a remarkable body of work against all odds. This Just In by Bob Schieffer. Ace correspondent/analyst for CBS News tells a lot of tales out of school in this memoir, mainly about the behind the scenes goings-on, during various points of crisis of the past 35 years, at what was once the finest TV news operation ever. His insights into and experiences with an array of American political leaders make for an intelligent, humorous and eye-opening read. Schieffer doesn't drop any bombshells, and rarely goes beyond the surface of things, but his self-deprecating humor and built-in bullshit detector still create a compelling tale.

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