Thursday, November 02, 2006

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

What a wonderful story. This is a truly engrossing page-turner that hits almost all the right notes and meticulously paints a picture of a time when the world was much larger. Just as he’s about to graduate from college and take his final exams to become a veterinarian, Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a tragic car accident. Finding they had mortgaged absolutely everything to put him through school, he despondently hops a freight only to find it’s a circus train. The Greatest Show on Earth it ain’t. The Benzini Bros. Circus is as third rate as it comes but Jacob finds work as a much-needed vet. Gruen did a ton of research and it shows–her evocation of this Depression-era circus, the language of the time and how a circus functions, day to day and town to town, is remarkable. The characters that people the circus are memorable and she manages to humanize the minor characters--the roustabouts, dwarves and cooch dancers--as well as the main characters like Uncle Al, the sadistic ringmaster and boss; August, the psychotic head animal trainer and his wife, the circus’ star, Marlena, whom Jacob falls for immediately; even Rosie the elephant. The only disappointment was the ending, part of which I could see coming a mile away. Still I cried like the fool I am for stories like this. This is a must-read.

Not Enough Indians by Harry Shearer

Yes, that Harry Shearer, of The Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame. Set in Gammage (rhymes with damage, I’m guessing), NY, Shearer’s debut novel begins when an idea is hatched by the local politicos to reinvigorate the financially depressed town by opening an Indian casino. The rub is that there are no Indians so they call in an “expert” who makes a specious claim that most of the residents are 1/16 Filaquonsett, a tribe that used to live in the area but were relocated to reservations by the US government a generation or two before. From here, Shearer lets his zany & madcap cast of characters run the show all the while trying to comment on greed, big business, and political correctness. It only works occasionally. The peculiarities and peccadilloes of the townsfolk are forced, the commentaries on modern day America are thin and the ending falls flat. Still, Shearer can turn a phrase and does dash off some clever lines that caused me to laugh out loud a few times. Not what I had hoped for but not as terrible as it could have been. I can only hope he has another, better novel in him but it seems, after reading some of his non-fiction works that also weren’t as funny as we all know Harry Shearer is, perhaps he’s better off reading and acting out the writings of others.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

26A by Diana Evans

Sad, sweet and somewhat haunting, Evans debut novel tells the story of twins, Georgia and Bessi who share a loft at 26A Waifer Avenue in a London suburb. Reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Evans absolutely nails the “twinness” of the sisters, enough to make me wonder if she is actually a twin herself. It is a rather sprawling coming of age story of sisters, '80s England, mental and sexual abuse, ghosts, Nigeria, sad families and flapjacks. Evans has a rather lyrical prose style and an intriguing ability to get in the heads of her characters and that is literally how the girls end up. She has a real feel for the pop culture of the time and a great ear for dialogue. Keep an eye on what she does next.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird

This is definitely being marketed as lad lit but it’s a cut above most lad lit in that it’s not the usual formula—dorky but likeable guy who can’t grow up and/or commit, surrounded by lovable but eccentric pals and the wackiness that ensues until dorky but likeable guy actually does grow up and/or commits. First off, Laird has a vocabulary that had me reaching for the dictionary and it wasn’t just one of those “I’ll really impress them if I use ‘crepuscular’ here instead of ‘twilight’” moves. Second, his main characters, old friends from Belfast, Danny and Geordie, aren’t the stock lad lit characters. They’re both a bit more thoughtful and in touch with themselves. Danny is living in London as a somewhat successful lawyer but hates his job. Geordie, who stayed in Belfast and hasn’t really done much with his life, shows up on Danny’s doorstep unannounced with a sack full of stolen money that is actually supposed to fund a terrorist action by Ulster loyalists. Cue ensuing wackiness! Throw in your inter-office, inter-racial love affair, chances to do right by “the people” by thwarting big business and a rather hurried ending and you have Utterly Monkey. Despite the Belfast connection, I found this reminiscent of Robert McLiam Wilson’s delightful Eureka Street (anyone have any idea what happened to Robert McLiam Wilson?) though not as clever or as laugh-out-loud funny. Still, Laird’s writing is strong and amusing and he tells a pretty engrossing tale.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mixed Nuts: America's Love Affair with Comedy Teams from Burns and Allen to Belushi and Aykroyd by Lawrence J. Epstein

Having really enjoyed The Haunted Smile, Epstein’s book on Jewish comedy in America, this was a natural next read. More for the comedy enthusiast than the casual reader, the book is still very engaging and informative as it traces the evolution of team comedy. Epstein begins with Burns and Allen in vaudeville and posits that they were really the first successful comedy team of the modern era. From there he profiles the likely suspects—Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby—as well as a few lesser-known but influential teams like Nichols & May and Stiller & Meara. He also talks at length about how teams differed and changed according to the moods of the times and their audiences. He wraps up with the demise of team comedy and examines how that influence can still be seen today.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Grayson by Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox is a world-renowned channel swimmer who has swum the English Channel and Antarctica among other amazing natatorial feats (there’s a word I never thought I’d use). At 17, when training off California’s Seal Beach, Cox came in contact with a baby gray whale who had become separated from its mother and who proceeded to swim with her for several hours as she and others on shore tried to re-unite baby and Mom. When I first read about this book, I thought, “Now that’s a story I want to read”. After reading it, my question is “How did this get past an editor and who does she know that would allow this to get past said editor?” Such a shame.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Winkie by Clifford Chase

Kudos, Grove publicity department; the effective pre-publication marketing of the book dragged me in. Fun premise--a forgotten teddy bear comes to life and is mistaken for a Unabomber-type and taken into custody by the government. This could have, should have been the biting Bush-era political satire it aspired to be (one that seems strangely absent from the bookstores). Until you actually read it. Then you find it such a sprawling mess, filled with such nonsense and loose ends, it's amazing it got published at all. I'd rather eat lint.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The World According to Mr. Rogers by Fred Rogers and I'm Proud Of You by Tim Madigan

One winter quarter in college, I got depressed and the one thing that made me feel better was watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, despite the fact that I was probably 20. It just felt warm and good and helped get me out of my funk. As a little kid growing up in Western PA, it never occurred to me that people everywhere watched Mr. Roger’s—it just seemed like a local Pittsburgh show (it was). After losing my Father in June, I knew I would turn to a book to help me begin to deal with the loss. People made several kind suggestions and other books seemed to be exactly what I should be reading at a time like this (Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People came to mind). Instead, I turned to Mr. Rogers. These two books, one a collection of quotes by Fred Rogers and the other, the story of a friendship between a Texas journalist and Mr. Rogers really were helpful to me. From what I have learned, it seems like Fred really walked the walk and lived his life according to some very basic principles-- respect, honesty, faith, fairness, love—all those things he dealt with on his show for all those years. To buy into the caricature of Fred Rogers (“Can you say ‘dandelion’? I knew you could.”) is a mistake. It seems to me that Fred was the embodiment of the religious principles he held close and it gave me a lot to think about. Hokey as it sounds, I really believe the world is a decidedly better place because of him.

My Life In and Out of the Rough: The Truth Behind All That Bullshit You Think You Know About Me by John Daly

Say what you will about Daly but this is a guy who knows who he is and won’t back down from that. What you get is Daly telling his own story, dispelling some of the myths, correcting some outright lies and shooting straight from the hip. He’s a golfer and a damn good one but he’s also got a gambling problem like you can’t believe, smokes and drinks far too much and knows he could fall off the wagon anytime. His refreshing honesty was what made the book readable. Daly’s no writer but there’s a story to tell and he’s not going to leave that to someone else. Like so much else in his life, he takes responsibility for himself and his actions (past, present and future) and that’s way more than can be said for many other “wild” public figures.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Easter Rising by Michael Patrick MacDonald

A few years back, McDonald wrote the brilliant All Souls, a painful memoir of growing up in the Old Colony housing projects in the Irish-mob controlled, white slums of South Boston and the many tragedies that befell his large Irish-Catholic family because of drugs, guns and the insulating ignorance of the community. This sort of picks up where he left off-- his family is struggling and he’s depressed so he finds the nascent Boston punk rock scene, fits in a little, grows up a little and then he goes to Ireland and everything is all wild Irish roses. (The Ireland trips reminded me of the tacked on “Communism-will-solve-all-your-problems” ending from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was just as unsatisfying.) MacDonald certainly writes well enough but Easter Rising just isn’t All Souls. I’ve said it before—I’m suspect of people who write their memoirs before the age of forty and even moreso of those who then write a second or third, especially if you aren’t some notable public figure or have gone on to do remarkable things between books. As much as I admire the author, his story, and his skills, it just didn't involve me as I had hoped.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Complicated Shadows by Graeme Thompson

Oh goody. Another Elvis Costello biography that is assembled from old newspaper and magazine pieces and interviews with everyone but the man himself. I've been down this road before how many times only to be left horribly unsatisfied by the books and turning to the back catalogue of CDs to let the music do the talking. Surprisingly, this one doesn't suck. (Take that Tony Clayton-Lea! And that! David Gouldstone, you moping, misogynistic hack!) It was informative (well, it is a biography), fairly insightful, and well-paced. I suppose I'll never be fully satisfied until we hear the whole story from Elvoid's own lips, but this is perhaps the best of the many clip jobs published over the years.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Marannis

Greg Coates was my neighbor when I was a kid. He wasn’t a baseball fan at all (though he counted a lenticular Pete Rose baseball card he got from of a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes among his prized possessions--go figure), but I will never forget the New Year’s Day, 1973, when he knocked on my door and told me Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash. Clemente had been among my first heroes and now he became my first martyr. Marannis gives Clemente’s life the Gold Glove treatment. He neither paints Roberto as a saint (though in many ways, he was) nor as a tragic hero (he was) but as a man who was far more complex than he was given credit in his day. In 18 years with the same team, he had 16 Gold Gloves, 4 batting championships, a lifetime .326 batting average and achieved 3000 hits in his very last at bat despite being continually labeled a malingerer and a hypochondriac throughout his career. He was the epitome of power, speed, grace (except when running to first) and hustle and Marannis does a wonderful job telling a very complete story.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

I had never read Julian Barnes and was always told I should read Julian Barnes so I read Julian Barnes. Having read him, it begs the question: what is the deal with Julian Barnes? I can’t say I disliked the book, a fictionalized account of an actual, early 20th century legal case where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle defended an unknown half-Indian barrister named George Edjali in court, a legal matter that became quite the cause celebre in England. Told in chapters alternating each man’s voice, it’s well-written and interesting, especially for fans of Conan Doyle from a historical POV. However, I got done with it and didn’t know what it was I had just read. It wasn’t particularly laborious, though the prose style is dense and slower than say, Nick Hornby, though that may just be the Barnes style but it wasn’t engrossing or evocative or thrilling either. This jury is out on Julian Barnes.

The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra

Hendra, a founder of National Lampoon and an actor, perhaps best-known as Ian Faith, Spinal Tap’s beleaguered manager, wrote Father Joe, a controversial memoir that was admired by critics and readers last year but hailed as horseshit by his daughter who claims he sexually abused her. (Hendra refutes the charges.) This is his first go at fiction and it's not a bad start.

The idea: in the not too distant future, the Messiah returns to an
America that has allowed its arch conservative leadership to let the Bible mix so freely with the ship of state that the US is little more than a painfully uptight, fundamentalist Christian theocracy where heresy is an actual crime on the books. (I suppose some might embrace this vision of America as heaven and others as absolute hell. That's for others to wrestle with.) A young Hispanic man and a very motley crew of followers start to try to spread the word and, naturally, all hell breaks loose. I thought it was reminiscent of Richard Bach’s Illusions but a little less heavy-handed and the narrator, a down and out journo had a good voice. Tolstoy, it ain’t--the villain was a bit on the cartoon-y side and it's obvious where Hendra sits on the political fence. Still, an enjoyable, light read with some insightful social commentary about where we may be headed if the Democrats don't learn to fundraise more effectively.

Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex

A great way to start off the year--I was laughing out loud on page 5! Wax is a professor as well as a comedian and he acquits himself admirably on both counts. This isn’t as lightweight as Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish and not as cutesy. Be prepared--this is a bit more academic than the jacket copy leads you to believe, though not so much as to be off-putting. I thought it was really a marvelous, funny look at the language and the layers and layers and layers of actual experiences that went into the creation of so many Yiddish words and phrases.