Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry & Joe Henry

My first memory of Richard Pryor was when he guest-starred on a 1971 episode of the Partridge Family where the Partridges show up at a Detroit soul club run by Pryor and Louis Gossett, Jr., who played his brother. The club was expecting the Temptations but, insert kooky sitcom mix-up here, they got the Partridge Family instead. The brothers need this show to be a smash to save the club from loan sharks and now are faced with certain doom. The plucky Partridges plod on, even writing a soul-tinged song for the show and, as can only happen on TV, they play, save the day AND the club, and the viewer gets a glimpse of what racial harmony might look like.  

I thought it was the coolest episode I'd ever seen. 

Gossett was so handsome and Pryor was so cool and at the end of the show, Danny was given honorary membership in the local black militant society, complete with beret! Oh, how I wished that was me! Thing was, I didn't know anybody black and it wasn't until I was 7 and away at a weeklong summer camp that I had any interaction at all. My junior counselor was black but I learned quickly it didn't matter one way or the other. He was cool and kind and he helped me through my rather desperate bouts of homesickness. I hope I never forget him.

Though racism was everywhere when I look back on my youth, I didn't grow up in a racist household. At one point, my Father had worked among black men and once told me that if I ever used the word 'nigger', he'd "knock me into next week". That was pretty strong stuff from a very non-violent man. Still, despite the fact that blacks used the word 'black' to describe themselves in the early 70s, he still used 'colored'. He meant no disrespect. It was the phrase of his day.

I think my Mother was afraid. She didn't know any black folks, save the couple who lived in the very best neighborhood in town. He was a dentist and his wife was the principal of an elementary school and I think knowing them made my Mom feel like she was 'down' despite the fact that most African Americans in my town didn't live anywhere close to our part of town. Their son was a sweet guy. He was a few years ahead of me and the only black kid in our school system. Talk about having it tough.

So I didn't know Richard Pryor for what he really did and it would be years before I'd listen to him and start to 'get it'. The two concert movies, released while I was in my teens, were where I got on the bus. All that dirty language appealed to the teenage boy in me but I also remember thinking that I'd never seen any stand-up use their body that way. It was during this time that he also became a punch line after the 1980 freebasing incident in which he set himself on fire after dousing himself with 150-proof rum.

Still, it would be years before I understood what Pryor meant to people, especially to his own and how big his influence was. Sadly, in 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and because he was no longer dangerous, it came time to appreciate him.

In Furious Cool, The Henry brothers, screenwriter David and musician and producer Joe, describe how much Pryor's comedy meant to them growing up white in suburban Akron, Ohio and how their love for his work grew into this book (and perhaps an upcoming documentary or bio-pic). However, this is no puff piece on Pryor. I found it to be an honest and often painful look at a very funny, very troubled man who just couldn't find himself.

If you know about Pryor, you know he was brought up in a Peoria whorehouse run by his grandmother while his father pimped and his mother turned tricks in the living room. He started emceeing shows and doing a bit of stand-up at home, then on the Chitlin Circuit, and eventually moving to the burgeoning Greenwich village club scene in New York. While Pryor was funny and insightful on stage, for some time he was unable to find his own voice, instead mimicking Bill Cosby's style. When he did find his voice, he became the great comedian and truth teller we know.

Fame, really BIG fame, came and proved to be his undoing. Drugs and bad decisions plagued him for most of his adult life. As the Henrys describe it, there was rarely a time over the course of many years when Pryor wasn't coked to the tits. Like an addict does, he lied to everyone about everything, all the time, repeatedly explaining to family, friends, the industry, and the press how he was now off drugs, fully focused and committed to his work. Uh huh. Then explain Jo Jo Dancer or Brewster's Millions to me, Richard.

Richard Pryor was so many things to so many people. To fans of comedy, he was a trailblazing genius. To black Americans, he was simultaneously a source of great pride and considerable shame. To many white Americans, my Mother among them, he was a foul-mouthed and scary 1970’s black man. To Richard Pryor, he was everything and nothing. The Henrys do him justice while pulling no punches.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin

If you're looking for a cradle-to-grave bio, this isn't it. This highly readable, warts-and-all book is a memoir of Johnny as the author knew him. 

In 1970, Bushkin was a young lawyer just learning the ropes in the entertainment world when a mutual friend with a certain moral elasticity entreated him to meet Johnny. The friend and another man, along with Carson, were planning on breaking into Johnny's then wife's apartment to find evidence she was cheating on him. Despite how illegal the whole caper was, in Carson's mind, having a lawyer along would be helpful in case they were caught. So, they broke in, found she was indeed cheating on him (with Frank Gifford, no less) and got out. Carson wept. From there and for the better part of the next twenty years, Bushkin would remain Carson's lawyer and among his closest friends if it could be said he had any. 

While Carson was the nation's most beloved late night companion with millions of viewers each night, his business affairs were in shambles, his marriage was a mess and money was short. Carson could rarely be bothered with business matters and chose to trust those he thought were doing business in his best interests. Mostly, they weren't. Bushkin stepped in, cleaned house, and made Johnny a very rich man. 

Carson was a fiercely private person and Bushkin maintains that, aside from some drinking companions, three wives, and a few business relationships, there wasn't even an inner circle of friends. Johnny could entertain a small group of people, say the guests at a party, or millions watching the show but on an interpersonal level, he was worthless. Small talk bored him, compliments made him uncomfortable and, in truth, he just didn't really care about you. According to Bushkin, Johnny was really only interested in Johnny. This inability to connect with people was a problem Carson blamed on his mother, an icy woman, whom he could never please despite his great fame, wealth, and public standing. 

Heedlessly, he drank and smoked too much and refused to quit despite the toll it took on his health. He was a serial womanizer and a great wooer of women but a terrible husband, an almost entirely absent father, a workaholic bereft of business acumen, a cruel boss, and often, a giant prick to those around him. For how much we loved Johnny, Johnny didn't really love anyone, including himself. 

There has been some criticism that there's too much Bushkin and not enough Johnny though I would disagree. After learning who Carson really was, I'd had enough of him by the book's end. It has also been said Bushkin has an axe to grind but his willingness to write vividly about his own considerable shortcomings makes me believe otherwise. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Seems I'm riding the bestseller bandwagon of late but this is another title that I absolutely loved and you must read. It is an unusual book for many reasons but it is a great story, well told. 

The Book Thief is Liesl Meminger, a young girl we meet as she is about to be adopted by the Hubermans, kindly Hans and flinty Rosa. Liesl's younger brother, who was to be adopted with her, has died on the way and she is haunted by this. 

The setting is Molching, a small German town outside of Munich. It is the late 1930's and Hitler is gaining ground.

Zusak creates characters that are rich and deep and realistic. How I loved Hans and hated Rosa (initially), how I feared for Max, how I hurt for Rudy, how I came to admire Death. Binding them all together, our unlikely heroine, The Book Thief. As Liesl learns, and we as readers have always known, "Words are Life". 

Another roaring success by the author is to have Death narrate the book. I loved him--the clarity and brevity of his views of humankind, his remarkable wit and keen perception in statements like, "It kills me sometimes how people die" and "I am haunted by humans". When my time comes, I hope this Death comes for me. He seems such a decent sort.

At 550 pages, even aimed at the YA market, it is an ambitious book but you will become absorbed by it's many stories: a young girl finding a new family, righteous Gentiles who hide a Jew in the basement, the rising tide of Fascism, endurance, hope, hatred, beauty, and sadness.  

A movie based on the book will come out later this week. As always, it will lead people back to the book. I envy them. 

Trailer for the movie

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Answer To The Riddle Is Me by David Stuart Maclean

Here's the set-up: a twenty-eight year old American man awakens, standing up, in an Indian train station with no memory. He has no wallet or passport or any other identification. He doesn't know his name, where he lives or why he's in India. 

Sounds like the start of a great Hitchcock movie, doesn't it? Thing is, it's true. Subtitled a Memoir of Amnesia, it is as frightening a tale as I've read in ages. At just under 300 pages, I devoured it in three sittings over a couple of days. It's that good. 

It will publish in mid-January. Write it down now so you don't forget though I will remind you again then. Better still, pre-order it now and it will be a lovely surprise that arrives in the mail in bleak, post-Holidays January.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

You are unlikely to ever forget this book. 

I could spend this entire post heaping superlatives on Unbroken and be justified in doing so. It is enthralling and inspiring but it is also frightening, painful, and draining. Author Hillenbrand already dazzled me with Seabiscuit, a book I snobbishly dismissed many years ago ("A book about an old racehorse? Bah!") Then I read it and couldn't believe how moved I was by the story of a racehorse, a jockey, a trainer and an owner. It was not only the story but how well it was told that made me a fervent believer in her abilities, so much so that I will read whatever she writes.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American born in California when it was still teeming with orange groves and wide open spaces.  He was an average kid with a hyper streak who then became something of a delinquent, taking to fighting, petty crimes, trouble in school, the whole megillah. In his teens, his brother works to channel Louie's vast energies into running track at which he excels, setting records and ultimately winning a spot on the 1936 U. S. Olympic team where he competes in Hitler's Berlin. Louie doesn't medal but is well within range of breaking the four minute mile and sets his sites on the 1940 Olympics (it would be another eighteen years before Roger Bannister achieved the feat). The rub? Hitler invades Poland in 1939 and you know the rest.

Louie enlists and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 that is rife with problems and this is really where Unbroken begins. In 1943, his plane goes down in the Pacific and Louie is one of three survivors. For the next 47 days, he and his two crew mates drift helplessly for almost 2000 miles. They run out of supplies, the rafts are slowly disintegrating from the salt water, and sharks circle them mercilessly, often rubbing their dorsal fins against the mens' backs from beneath the raft. One of them dies before they come aground in the Marshall Islands where they are taken prisoner by the Japanese. The Army Air Corps had long since stopped searching. As Art Spiegelman wrote in Maus, "And here my troubles began..."

For the next two years, Louie was in a series of POW camps, each worse than the last. Since we rebuilt Japan after the war and they have become our friends, we seem to have forgotten how brutal they were during WWII. That comes to an abrupt halt as you read about the endless cruelties GI's suffered and Louie, especially. Because he was famous back in the States, he was repeatedly singled out for additional punishment. This portion of the book is difficult to read and ultimately exhausting which is not to say it is boring or less well-written. Reading about the ceaseless, senseless brutality made me squirm. It brought me down and it made me yearn for the story to be over. However, it wasn't until I finished the book that I realized this was done on purpose by Hillenbrand. By continually cataloging the pain and humiliation, the author gives the reader the tiniest sense of what Zamperini must have endured, the sense that no end was in sight from the physical and psychological torment, that no one could stop the suffering. 

Without spoiling absolutely everything, I will leave it to you to pick up this remarkable book, a testament to endurance, hope and forgiveness. Once you have read it (and not before), check out the CBS Sunday Morning piece about Louie and the author. You can find it on YouTube.

Friday, October 04, 2013

I Shudder by Paul Rudnick

At least a year ago I ran into my friend, Janet, the Grand Dame of Bookselling. She always has more than a few suggestions for me and told me how I must read I Shudder by Paul Rudnick. She thought it was my kind of humor. Dutifully, I added it to my list of books to be purchased. It was several months before I found a beautiful hardcover at my favorite used book grotto and, as usual, she was right. 

Rudnick is best-known as a playwright (I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey) and has had some Hollywood successes (Addams Family Values, In & Out), as well.  Sub-titled And Other Reactions to Life, Death and New Jersey, I Shudder is a series of rollicking personal essays interrupted by the fictional diary entries of Elyot Vionnet, a persnickety aesthete and substitute teacher. 

The essays are sprightly personal pieces describing friends, family and experiences. His reminiscense of the Chelsea Hotel and it's merry mess of oddfellows only adds to my fascination with 1970's New York, an age when people could actually afford to live in Manhattan. The opening piece, The Sisters, a fond though stinging look at his mother and aunts not only had me laughing and nodding but imagining my mother and sisters behaving the same way had they lived in the same city. Enter Trembling, his piece about Hollywood exec Scott Rudin brings warmth and humanity to a ruthless Type-A type. 

There are five pieces billed as excerpts "from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet" and they were far and away my favorites. I found both the character and how Rudnick writes these pieces very reminiscent of the hilarious minutiae of S. J. Perelman entwined with the haughtiness of a Thurber man. 

To give you a taste of what I found so funny, here Vionnet describes his underwear:  "...my intimate apparel is manufactured from a Swiss cotton of such whisper-soft resilience that it is normally used only to wrap the painfully sensitive faces of the world's wealthiest women as they recuperate from acid peels in private clinics. Unlike these women's jowls and browlines, however, my undergarments require mending only once per decade, when I mail them to a Long Island convent, where the nuns compete to gently darn and patch my private attire because, as Sister Herbert Elizabeth once wrote to me, in her own blood, "Mr. Vionnet, your boxer sorts and undershirts do not merely speak to me. They sing.'"

Needless to say, when I read this, I awakened Mrs. Next with my howls of laughter. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Pints by Roddy Doyle

On our trip to England, we found a splendid indie bookstore in Bath, Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights (www.mrbsemporium.com). If you visit Bath, which you should since it's a lovely town, make certain you visit Mr. B's. It is a great example of what an indie can be: well-stocked, well-staffed, a quirky charm and the feeling of home

I'll have what he's havin'.
While I could have purchased a ton of books there, because it was early in our vacation and I didn't want to add to the considerable load we were schlepping already, I fear I left with only a single volume and a slim one at that (Sorry Mr. B.). It was here I purchased Roddy Doyle's Two Pints. 

Regular Reed-ers know I am a longtime fan of Mr. Doyle and have gushed over his works through the years (that's not to say I won't give him what for either. See what I thought of his finale to the Henry Smart trilogy here: http://goo.gl/JjoEK1). Fortunately, his latest is a gem. 

Two Pints, a collection of short pieces that Doyle posted on his Facebook page from 2010-11, allows us to eavesdrop on two middle-aged Irish men discussing matters large and small over a pint. It could be wife and kids and grandkids. It might be football and local Irish matters. It is certainly about politics, the economy, and death. No matter the subject, it is rare that I don't laugh at their musings or commiserate or find their perspectives dead on the money.  These aren't dopes, drunks, or fools. Just average guys with life experience, a healthy dose of skepticism, and common sense (mostly). There is also a marvelous running gag where one the lads keeps purchasing more and more "exotic" pets for his grandson, Damien. Think hyenas rather than ferrets.

From the very beginning of his career, one of Doyle's great strengths has been his gift for dialogue which has always been smart, sharp, funny, very realistic and often quite profane (Irish flautist James Galway visited the first bookstore I worked in. He read me a short passage from The Van, rife with f-bombs and said with obvious approval, "See that? Not feckin'. Fuckin'! That's how the Irish speak."). Two Pints is all dialogue and it allows Doyle to utilize his strongest suit. 

Doyle continues to post these pieces on Facebook. One from last week discussing the death of Seamus Heaney was very touching. His next novel, The Guts, in which we get to catch up with The Commitments' manager, Jimmy Rabbitte, will be out in the US early in 2014 and I'm desperate to get my hands on an advance copy. Two Pints will have to tide me over until then. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Often people reach a point in their adult lives when they get down to blaming their parents for everything they are and are not. Some of these feelings are well-founded and some are bunk. Many of these slights and hurts get sorted out, placed in perspective, accepted, forgiven. Some do not. Jeanette Winterson certainly has the right to lay blame for days.  

Given up for adoption at birth, Winterson is adopted by Pentecostal fundamenalists in 1960's Manchester. Her new father was a passive shadow. The woman whom she refers to alternately as her mother and as Mrs. Winterson is an absolute monster, a woman whose deep religious zealotry causes her to say and do the most hurtful things. She believes she is righteous and justified in her actions and opinions when, in truth, her life is small and deeply shrouded in ignorance.

The title is a quote from Mrs. Winterson when Jeanette told her mother she was gay and she was leaving. Her response and it's absolutism was striking to me. In Mrs. Winterson's world, there was no gray; only black and white, good and evil. Fuck you.  

Jeanette was a fighter. If she was locked out for the night, as she was quite frequently, before going to school she'd drink the two bottles of milk that were delivered each morning and leave them on the porch as an act of defiance. Ultimately, she left at 16 and made a life for herself with little more than smarts, determination and pluck. She became a graduate of Oxford and a prize-winning novelist

Having been shown so little love, much of the memoir has Jeanette trying to understand love as both a concept and an action. Is love finite? How does one love? How can one be loved or so unloved? She manages to answer some of these questions through her work and relationships while others elude her. She does search for her biological mother and even that leaves her a bit cold. However, the questions she raises are among the most intriguing, thought-provoking portions of the book. Because most of us are never faced with the horrible Mrs. Winterson and the attendant damage she wreaked, because we ARE loved, because we DO love, we don't have to consider these questions but it certainly made me think hard on the answers. 

Jeanette Winterson's memoir is an odd bird much like I imagine Jeanette to be. However, it is a striking work of such immense honesty that it made me hurt for her and root for her. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eve In Hollywood by Amor Towles

Like millions of readers, I loved, loved, loved 2011's
bestseller, The Rules of Civility. First-time author Amor Towles burst onto the scene, fully-formed, and the book was a huge success. It was a fine story with great characters told extremely well.  
(You can read my full post about it here: http://goo.gl/iMj18Y).

In the book, there is a point where one of the main characters, the spirited Evelyn Ross, leaves Manhattan for Chicago only to turn up in Hollywood. When next we meet her, she offers little about her time out West. With Eve in Hollywood, now we know.

Towles said he felt no need to write any more about Katey and Tinker but "it was Eve who was pestering" him. These six stories evoke Eve's exploits from her train trip on the Golden State Limited to the movie set of Gone With The Wind and the people she meets along the way. I was especially taken with the aging actor she meets in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel.  Best of all, I was more than happy to slip into the warm, comforting bath that is Towles' luxurious almost musical prose, sparkling sense of setting and rich detail. It is a slim volume but most worthy. 

If there is one problem with the book, it has nothing to do with the writing or the story. Thus far, Penguin has chosen to make it available as an e-book only release.  Now the esteemed publisher was kind enough to allow me access to the book via NetGalley and I thank them heartily. However, this was a first for me as I don't read books on my computer, my phone or a reader. The experience was okay since the story was so terrific but I want a copy of this book in BOOK form. Maybe they think it's a tough sell at less than 100 pages long but I'm sure some lovely cover art on paper over board and a heavy-bonded paper could bulk the thing up and make a handsome little volume. There are readers who would be all too happy to purchase several copies to give to friends, myself included. It's a great gift. There's money to be made. There is an established audience. How about it Penguin? Fourth quarter is almost here. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

I prefer the British cover to the American.
Before leaving for a recent trip to England and France, I pulled this book from the glorious pile thinking "I should read a real London book" since I was going to be there. It has been years since I'd read Zadie Smith though I loved her debut, White Teeth, and she often turns up in the pages of the New Yorker so I don't feel as though I'd completely lost touch with her. In fact, pieces of this book appeared there as short stories. What I had forgotten is just how tremendously talented a writer she is and NW brought that back to me in spades. 

Told through the eyes of four characters who grew up or live on a council estate in Willesden, a mostly lower-class area of northwest London, we are privy to the past and present and how life changes you. 

The bulk of the book, some told in flashback and some in the here-and-now, is from the perspective of childhood friends Leah and Keisha. They grow up together, they grow apart, they stop growing and yet they still know each other better than anyone else. Leah is, by everyone else's account, stuck in a rut but I just think she doesn't wish to move forward. Keisha is a complete success but can't seem to find much meaning to it all or much happiness. Left alone, they'd likely stay put and slog through, especially Leah. Keisha, however, changes course and causes what may be her downfall or her chance at a new life. The other characters, the tragic Felix and the criminal Nathan make important appearances and round out the book. (re-reading this graph, it sounds like mediocre jacket copy but I don't wish to give away too much)

Smith succeeds in so many ways in the telling. She utilizes a style early in the book that is a melange of dialogue, stream of consciousness, inner voice, and outer influences that at first is hard to follow. I kept waiting for a rhythm that never came but I think that is the author's intent, as though it's a fizzy drink that's she's shaking.  Later, she uses short numbered passages to move the book briskly forward. It is without a doubt an ambitious novel but she manages to make the varied styles work and does so without it looking like she's showing off. 

Ultimately, sense of place is what the Keisha and Leila are clinging to even though they are both attracted and repelled by where they grew up. There is great longing for home and yet a knowledge that getting out isn't the end of the story. 

I've lived where I do more than half my life and longer here than where I grew up but if someone asks "Where's home?", far more often than not I'll answer "western Pennsylvania". (However, when visiting western PA and it's time "go home", I mean Cincy.) Now that I have no family left there, I visit less and less often but I still consider it home. A town I always knew I'd leave, a town I don't always recognize when I return, is still in my bones.  Sometimes my dreams still take place there.

You don't forget the bad stuff--the provincialism and small-mindedness, the slights and hurts inflicted by friends and family and fuckheads whom you've mostly forgotten. The scars almost make you wistful for a time when you were smaller and safer and secure when in fact you may have been none of these. Home is where you're not and Zadie Smith completely captures that feeling. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Of Fat, Fault and Blame

I had hoped to post about these books individually and at length but time is running out before our trip and I don't want to wait until we return.

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen
I have been a fan of Allan Sherman since I was wee. Like most people, I'm sure Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp) was the first tune I heard but unlike most people my age, I had the albums and I learned the songs by heart and marveled at the wordplay and melodies. I have happy memories of listening to these records with my Father as we laughed and laughed together and I was thrilled that a much overdue biography was to be published. 

Author Mark Cohen gets all the facts down on paper--Sherman's musical success was truly meteoric. He went from performing these ditties at friends' parties to having three LPs selling millions in the span of about 18 months. His appetites were enormous and enormously self-destructive. He died at 48. His talent couldn't save him. 

However, I think Cohen goes overboard with many of his theories and his analysis of Sherman's mental state and upbringing. As early as the introduction, Cohen's prose seemed more like hero worship than objective biography. He succeeds in providing a portrait of a talented man whose career has faded into obscurity. Sherman deserves the recognition, if not the theorizing.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 

A big bestseller and award-winner, this one is already out in paperback but it's worthy of your time even if I have come to it late. Don't shun it because it's a book about war. I know people who can watch NCIS and other grisly initialed TV melodramas but somehow can't bear to watch a war movie because "the violence is too real". Really? Grow up. Buck up. Shut up and fer chrissakes stop encouraging Dick Wolf! 

Author Kevin Powers served as a machine gunner in Iraq in some of the actual places where the book is set. The narrative, which jumps back and forth from post-war to pre-war to during the war, follows two soldiers, Privates Bartle and Murphy. Murphy is a few years younger and Bartle is charged with looking out for him during their time in service.  

The Yellow Birds is bleak and brutal as war novels should be. Powers is a very gifted writer whose descriptions of the barren, war-torn landscapes reminded me of Stephen Crane, especially when he evoked color. His characters are memorable and doomed but they are ordinary and that makes them recognizable to us. This work is a valuable gem and a window into the Iraq wars. 

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I don't tend to read YA novels but I'm so glad I read this tale of love, cancer, death, and life (Notice I didn't say teen love, cancer, death and life). John Green is immensely talented and makes the story universal. 

This touching tale centers around Hazel and her ongoing struggles with cancer and Augustus, whom she meets at a teen support group meeting. They cautiously fall in love and find something deep and meaningful aside from their respective maladies and histories. The characters are not just wisecracking adolescents but smart, endearing, very real and very funny.  

The Fault In Our Stars was thoroughly absorbing.  This post hardly does it justice but I was touched by it and, of course, cried throughout this fine novel. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

No Country For Old Men?

Among the abundant charms and gifts my wife possesses is a sincere appreciation of old men. Unlike most of us who, if we see them at all, see them as they are now, Mrs. Next has a rare ability to see them as they likely were: strong, healthy, vibrant, virile, each with a story to tell and a past lit by their youth. 

Years ago, when she waited tables, these grandfathers and widowers were her favorite customers. Sure, they could be parsimonious with their tips and run her like crazy or talk her arm off when she had a full section and needed to check her other tables but she managed to give them her time and her attention and they loved her for it. She was especially fond of my people, the old Jews. I told her to remember that because one day down the road, she would have an old Jew of her very own.  (In fact, he is showing up with increasing regularity these days.) The unlikely hero of Derek B. Miller's charming new novel, Norwegian By Night, is just the kind of man Mrs. Next would fall for.  

Retired, recalcitrant, and recently widowed, Sheldon Horowitz has uprooted himself to live with his granddaughter, Rhea, in Oslo, Norway, along with her Norwegian husband, Lars. Rhea, whom Saul raised as his own daughter after her father, Saul's, death in Vietnam, is trying hard to make him feel at home in a country that is absolutely foreign to him.  It isn't the US, it isn't New York, it isn't the Berkshires where Sheldon was raised, and it certainly isn't Jewish. Worse, Rhea fears he is suffering from dementia. So begins our story.

Trouble arises when violence erupts in the apartment upstairs. As an argument between a man and woman in another language becomes more heated, the woman runs with her son to the presumed safety of the apartment below. Here she finds Sheldon, who somewhat sanctimoniously shelters the pair. However, instead of calling the police, he hides with the boy while the mother is brutally killed. Sheldon and the boy, whom he calls Paul, flee to safety but they will be hunted for the rest of the novel.

Ok, an interesting premise for a novel but there's something more. Not since Leo Gursky from Nicole Krauss' The History of Love have I been so taken with a character. We are treated to a most compelling chase and, because the boy remains silent, the contents of Sheldon's head and that's what makes Norwegian By Night much more than the thriller or police procedural as it might have been written. Instead, we get a tale of a man facing the end of his life, his long memories, his many regrets, especially his immense guilt over his son's death, and his unique perspective. Often, within the same sentence, Sheldon is both tragic and hilarious. And just who in hell is he? Was he really a well-trained sniper in Korea as he purports or a Marine desk clerk like he told his family? Is Sheldon at fault for his son re-upping for the second tour of duty that ultimately killed him? Is he losing his marbles or is he just cagey and playing the Old Man card?  Read on.

There are only a few weaknesses. About half way through, it seems like everyone--the police inspector, the thugs, the family--is just a little too smart for this to remain believable but I was able to forgive this because I grew to love Sheldon and wanted to see him safely through this terrifying ordeal. The author writes well and there are some real pearls scattered throughout the book but it is the story itself and the strength of Sheldon's personality that carries us through, much like the child he is trying to protect.

Norwegian By Night is as thrilling a romp and as touching a tale as I've read in ages and deserves your full attention. Sheldon is a singular character that will stay in your heart long after you've finished the book.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

This is a re-post.  I was getting some unwanted text attached to the original post.                       --Reed

Getting caught up is difficult for me and every time I do so, it isn't long before I fall behind again.  A few months ago I patted myself on the back for getting current on the New Yorker for the first time in three years.  Now, I'm six issues deep.  And so, here's my attempt to catch up on what I've been reading:

Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the early years of rock & roll by John A. Jackson

Freed was the king of radio disc jockeys and was instrumental in making rock 'n' roll music available to the masses.  Some say he even coined the term but there is no doubt that he took music for a black audience and introduced it to white kids.  Jackson's book is certainly informative but it's also exhausting.  Half the details would have made a book twice as interesting.  

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff

James Thurber is famously quoted: 
"The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people--that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature."

What passes for humor writing these days is, with few exceptions, narrow, nonsensical and nasty (insert cranky old book blogger voice here. And get your books off my lawn!).  I believe Trillin's work embodies the above quotation and this collection of smart humor, real wit, and biting satire provides ample testament.  Whether they are reprints from his column in USAToday, casuals from the New Yorker or his many poems from the Nation, these pieces prove that Trillin isn't taking cheap shots or lobbing soft balls but is surgically skewering his subjects, himself among them.

Perhaps my highest compliment is the number of times I had to stifle my laughter, rocking, shaking-the-bed laughter, so as not to wake the sleeping Mrs. Next.  Those kinds of laughs (some call it the "church laugh") are among my most cherished.  As ever, Mr. Trillin, thank you.

And so from the delightful to the dour.  After watching the first season of TV's Mad Men, I realized I couldn't care less about a group of people with so few redemptive qualities. Despite the cool that dripped from the characters, their suits, and their cigarettes, these folks were doomed and all the cool in the world couldn't make up for it.  These were unlikable characters and I decided against investing any more of my time following their exploits.  That is how I feel about The Dinner by Herman Koch which was already a bestseller abroad before its release here earlier this year. 

The premise is great: the novel unfolds over apertifs as two couples, the narrator, Paul and his wife, Claire, and Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, meet for dinner to discuss a serious matter involving their sons.  The book takes place in "real time" over the course of the meal though there are plenty of flashbacks and memories.   

Much has been made of Paul being an unreliable narrator which he certainly is but all the characters are a sorry bunch of angry, petty whiners who lack a moral code and strength of character.  

If Koch set out to write a novel that makes me grow to hate all the characters then he succeeded (though how do you get that through sales meeting?)Unlike many critics and readers who lauded the book, I do not share their enthusiasm. 

Okay.  Back to the lighter side, I give you Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversThis isn't about souls transcending to the astral plane or deeply spiritual asides about life after death.  No.  Stiff is about what happens to your physical body when you die and as Mary says in the introduction "Death. It doesn't have to be boring".  She's right, too.  Despite tales of body snatching, decapitation, and cannibalism, this book is chock full of science while managing to maintain a respect for the dead.  No small feat and it's funny as hell.    
The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people --that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature. - See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quote/19887/#sthash.AgPreaHS.dpuf
The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people --that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature. - See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quote/19887/#sthash.AgPreaHS.dpu

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It's not uncommon for friends in the book business to send me a care package full of books, bless their hearts. They'll send books they know I'd like, some of the hot titles for a particular season, and suggest a few others they are especially enamored with. Few events make my day more than this.  It is, after all, a box(!) full(!) of new books(!). And what is better than a box full of new books?  Damn near nothing.

At the top of the last care package were two that had post-its on them, The Dinner by Herman Koch, which I ended up hating (sorry, 'Chele), and this, which I loved and won't shut up about. 

This stunning debut takes place in Chechnya and has only half a dozen characters. It meanders back and forth over the ten years of the first and second wars that left the country desolate and broken though via flashbacks and memories of some of the characters, it goes back even further in Chechnya's twisted history.  

The setup is simple: in the middle of the night, Dokka is taken away and his house burned to the ground, for what we're not certain. He has prepared his eight year-old daughter, Havaa, with an already packed suitcase, who hides and escapes capture. Our main character, Akhmed, Dokka's lifelong friend and neighbor, finds her and tries to secure for her a safe place in a land with few safe places left. A failed doctor himself, he takes Havaa to a sad, nearly abandoned hospital that has only one doctor, one nurse and a one-armed security guard on staff. He makes a plea to Sonja, the flinty, worn-out doctor, to keep Havaa there and a deal that he will work there if she will consent.

Marra's writing is elegant and funny despite the constant brutality he describes. He makes me laugh like Jonathan Safran Foer did in his debut, Everything Is IlluminatedHis prose sings and is reminiscent of Leif Enger in its beauty.  For example, he describes Akhmed taking care of his long-ailing wife, Ula, this way: "He was losing her incrementally. It might be a few stray brown hairs listless on the pillow, or the crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind the headboard or a dark shape dissolving in soap. As a net is no more than holes tied together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.

It is a masterful work made even moreso by being the first from the author. If I haven't summarized or described this book well enough to intrigue you, please dismiss my writerly inabilities and seek out this novel for yourself. Better still, you may read an excerpt here: http://goo.gl/92g58