Book Report: ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’ in book form

“October 27, 1940, Sunday — Went to chapel all day as usual. Our big meeting next Sunday. Gwilym Rees will be preaching.”

“October 29, 1940, Tuesday — Went to school/ <u feet fit easier into the shoes than they did yesterday, as I have corn removr on and I hope they will succeed. I am going to take them off Thursday night probably.  Did a lot of homework.

“November 3, 1940, Sunday — Big meeting today.  G. Rees gave three beautiful sermons.  Could not work today.”

Preceding are three diary entries written by a 15-year-old boy growing up in Pontrhydyfen, Wales. When the boy grew up, he resumed making diary entries, which are considerably different than those penned earlier.

Here’s a sample from June 1967: “En route St. Margarita-Portofino. We were in St Margherita yesterday for watering and fueling and just as well it gave us a chance to get away from Rex and Rachel. We had spent Sunday up at their house and, as usual it was very liquid. Rex sees to hold his booze better than he used to but Rachel is still maniacal.

“We saw them on Monday evening at La Gritta bar. Fortunately before Rachel became totally demented they left (not without difficulty for Rex)….by this time Tennessee Williams and his friend Bill had arrived…. Tennessee now prefers to be called Tom, seemed sloshed and spoke in a loud voice. E. told im to lower his voice a few times….”

And so it goes to almost 700 pages. “The Richard Burton Diaries,” edited by Chris Williams (Yale, $35), is lots of fun for celebrity hunters. Rex, of course, is actor Rex Harrison and Rachel is his actress wife, Rachel Roberts.  “E” is Liz Taylor.  The book is crammed with casual photographs and anyone who enjoys a rags to riches story won’t be able to put this book down.

“The Sin-Eater’s Confession,” by Wisconsin psychiatrist Ilsa J. Bick (Carolrhoda Lab, $17.95) is a sensitive novel about teenagers in crisis. It all begins in Merit, a small farm town in Northern Wisconsin. And it ends in Afghanistan, where its narrator, Ben, is serving as a medic in the U.S. Army.

How he got so far away from home is the story that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout this compelling book. Ben is a serious-minded high school student who studies all the time and never dates under the pressure of his mother’s ambition.

When a neighbor boy dies, Ben is sent to help out his survivors with chores. The neighbors include the dead boy’s brutish fundamentalist father, his mousy mother and Jimmy, a frail kid who is abused verbally. Ben feels sorry for the kid and encourages him to stand up to his father. One day, all hell breaks loose. The brutish father roars into the farm in his pickup, accompanied by his pastor, and beats hell out of Jimmy with a rolled up magazine. And he tells Ben never to come to the farm again.

Turns out that Jimmy took a photo of Ben dozing on a hay bale, shirtless, glistening with sweat. He submits the photo to a national contest and wins first prize. The photo appears in a magazine and the town of Merit is abuzz with gossip.  The photo is very erotic and people start whispering about Ben. His little sister tells him that everyone in town knows that Jimmy is gay and wonders aloud if the same rumor will emerge about her brother, who has never dated, etc., etc.When Jimmy is murdered, suspicious falls on Ben.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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