iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #50: And Here’s the Kicker by Mike Sacks

I’ve been reading this collection of interviews with notable comedy writers piecemeal for the last few weeks, one or two interviews at a time. In truth, it was a bit of a struggle to finish, mostly because of the similarity between the writers, their experiences, their outlooks, and their advice for young writers. Mike Sacks has assembled an All-Star lineup of comedy talent, but somehow his interviews are rarely funny or all that interesting. Perhaps like with a specific joke, the best way to kill humor is to explain it.

Not all of Sacks’s interviews are boring, in fact, individually they’re all good reading for fans of the writers involved, it’s just that in total the book never amounts to anything more satisfying. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m not sure why this is even a book. As in, why is this between covers and why did it cost $14.00 on Amazon, and why did I pay that?

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the sameness of Sacks’s roster of interviewees. Of the 21 subjects, 18 were white men, with two women and one black man thrown in. I understand that comedy’s diversity problem is well-established, and I am not usually the first person to play the diversity police (I am, after all, a white male) but this seemed excessive and contributed to the exercise’s feeling of sameness.

Still, there are some heavy hitters here, and some lesser-known names that deserve a bigger audience. David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Larry Gelbart, Buck Henry, Dick Cavett, and Bob Odenkirk are all their usual interesting selves. George Meyer, a longtime writer for The Simpsons, is an appealingly odd duck, cantankerous and opinionated. Irving Brecher, who wrote for the Marx Brothers, has some interesting stories. A lot of these writers have a lot to say about the institutions of the comedy world. Opinions about SNL, for instance, are widely varied, even among those writers who got their first big break there.

Though there are some interesting stories brought forth, like the time a guest on Cavett’s talk show dropped dead during a taping and the near fist-fight between Bob Odenkirk and Al Franken, overall the format of the book means these topics are dropped shortly after they are raised. Sacks zooms along giving equal attention to the spectacular and the mundane, and as a result even the spectacular starts to seem mundane.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #49: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

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I’m a sucker for novels about old movies, movie stars, and life in America in the early part of the 20th Century, which made me especially susceptible to the charms of Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone. However, I think the novel’s prose, brisk pace, and broad scope will appeal to those without my particular interests just as much.

Cora Carlisle is a married housewife who has overcome a troubled youth to achieve a life of middle-class respectability. She’s the very picture of moral uprightness and social nicety. If she ever thought about it, she might realize how unhappy she is. Cora surprises her husband, and herself really, by answering an ad from a fellow Wichita family seeking someone to chaperone their talented daughter for summer in New York while she takes dance lessons with a prestigious academy.

That talented daughter, who turns out to be quite the handful with her unconventional manners and scandalous attire, is Louise Brooks at 15. For those who don’t know, Brooks was a famous silent-film star famous for her beauty. In Moriarty’s telling she is a conceited, snobby child with ideas that shock her stuffy old chaperone.

Though Brooks is the real-life star, Moriarty focuses much more on Cora, and the novel follows her far beyond that one summer when she was brushed with fame on the rise. Cora’s life story is a handy stand-in for Moriarty to explore the lives of women of the time period, with the myriad challenges and prejudices that they face. That she manages to do so without ever seeming preachy or taking away from her narrative is a minor miracle.

 

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #48: The Temple of Gold by William Goldman

This first novel from legendary screenwriter William Goldman crackles with the author’s precocious wit and playful sense of humor, but the clash between Goldman’s light touch and the dark nature of his plot make the reader uncertain where to place his sympathies. More succinctly, Ray Trevitt might be too much of an asshole to build a book around.

Now, if you read this book, for about the first half you’re going to think I’m nuts. Sure, childhood Ray might be a little rough around the edges, but he’s just a good-ole American boy, in the vein of Tom Sawyer. And you’d be right. Ray, the product of a marriage between a Greek scholar and one of his students, is a fun-loving, affable guy, quick-witted, sarcastic, and amusing. His exploits with his friend Zock (short for Zachary) and his attempts to chase girls will delight many readers, especially thanks to Goldman’s deceptively casual prose.

But about halfway through the narrative, events transpire which will not be spoiled here, and you’re opinion of Ray will have to change. And I’m sure Goldman knows that, I’m just not convinced he knows how much you’re opinion will and should change. Because Goldman, who it should be pointed out was 24 when this novel was published, never changes his tone. Even when Ray’s behavior is appalling, however understandably, Goldman still has him cracking wise, as though you’re supposed to enjoy watching him keep plugging away.

It is perhaps less than illuminating to write this review without mentioning the key turning point. It constricts me, prevents me from fully getting into my fundamental problem with the story. For now, let it suffice to say that Goldman uses a character, a really good, well-drawn character, in a way that I always hate, less like a person and more like a plot device for the protagonist. It’s too shallow for the great writer Goldman would turn out to be.

As an early work of a master stylist, The Temple of Gold is a worthwhile read. Certainly its brevity and the breezy nature of the prose will keep you from wasting too much time on it. But as a narrative in and of itself it is unfortunately lacking. An enjoyable disappointment, if you will.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #47: City of God by E.L. Doctorow

Whenever the blurbs on the back of a book cover describe it as “luminous” I get worried. Usually that means that the sentences go on forever and use deliberately opaque language and substitute general confusion for clarity of purpose and plot. I hate that kind of book.

I thought that despite the presence of that damned word “luminous” I could rely on E.L. Doctorow. I had read five of his other novels and enjoyed most of them very much. None of them struck me as particularly “luminous.”

City of God, on the other hand, is “luminous” in spades. Ostensibly, it is about the relationship that develops between an Episcopal priest and a female rabbi after a strange act of vandalism brings them together. Really, though, Doctorow splices that rather straightforward, if uninteresting tale with an incomprehensible mishmash of other narrators, including a film director exploring the universe’s philosophical contradictions, a Holocaust survivor’s recollections, a newspaperman turned unwitting murderer, and Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

None of this is as interesting as it might seem from that description. It is impossible to understand why Doctorow includes much of what he does, and why he put it in the order that he does. Indeed, his intentions in writing this book at all are indiscernible.

My intentions in writing this review, however, are perfectly clear. I don’t want anyone to make the same mistake as I did. Don’t read this book. It’s not worth it.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #46: The Era: 1947-1957 by Roger Kahn

Roger Kahn’s The Era is a firsthand account of baseball’s so-called Golden Era, the decade-plus between Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier and the Dodgers and Giants departing for California. In between, New York’s three major league teams won nine World Series and provided some of the game’s most memorable moments. Though the idea that it was a Golden Era must surely rankle baseball fans in places like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Kahn’s breezy, personal retelling of these warmed-over stories is worthwhile for hardcore baseball fans.

Kahn writes as though he were sitting on the next bar stool over, insisting that he could tell you the real story, except he actually does. Kahn knew everyone involved with all three teams and his wealth of experience pays dividends for the reader. Too much of history is in shorthand, and The Era is a necessary corrective. The integration of baseball may have been a wonderful thing for humanity, but the men behind it weren’t motivated purely by the cause of justice.

Kahn also exposes the myth of Casey Stengel as a kindly old clown, portraying the Yankees’ manager in all his selfish, bitter, calculating glory. For all their remarkable success in the period, the Yankees were often beset by tumult, much of it centered around their aging superstar Joe Dimaggio, whose pride and ego should be as legendary as his 56-game hit streak.

Other colorful personalities emerge from Kahn’s narrative,  Leo “the Lip” Durocher, Walter O’Malley, Larry MacPhail, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese. The glacial pace of integration, especially of the Yankees, is explored, as are the impact of television and the behind-the-scenes machinations which lead to the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles.

Kahn’s book is uneven in its focus and oddly paced to be sure, and many of the more historic aspects of his subject matter have been picked to death in other places. Still, The Era is a fun read full of interest to the knowledgeable fan.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #45: What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

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Starting with a burst of kinetic energy that unfortunately peters out due to repetition, What Makes Sammy Run? is the story of an ambitious climber stepping over others to get ahead in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. Narrated by his conflicted, fascinated and repulsed compatriot Al Manheim, the novel is an exploration of obsession, both the one Sammy has for power, and the one Al has with Sammy. Al is a genial guy who wants people to like him and think he’s a good guy, and defines success along those lines, whereas Sammy has internalized the more perniciously capitalistic standard of success.

Unfortunately, Al’s ceaseless examination of Sammy quickly grows monotonous, and even though that is pretty much the whole point it still doesn’t make for a fun read. Sammy’s rocket trip to the top of the studio system is utilized for Schulberg to ponder the implications of the American system over and over again. 

What Makes Sammy Run? is more entertaining when it gets into the nitty-gritty of the movie business. Schulberg is gifted at filling his alternate-dimension Los Angeles with realistic Hollywood types and extremely plausible fake movies. He also outlines the struggles of the screenwriters of the day to form a respectable union. More of that kind of stuff would make for a truly captivating novel. Instead, Schulberg belabors his point, causing the reader to tune out the message.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #44: Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

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Elmore Leonard, who recently died at the age of 87, was a godsend to movie producers, who gobbled up his potboiler crime novels and adapted as many of them as they could. Leonard was a-ok with them taking and reshaping his words, as long as the checks cleared, but he himself said his novels had only spawned three good movies: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown, which is adapted from Rum Punch.

In the book, Jackie Brown is an airline stewardess and an aging beauty who funnels money into Florida for an arms dealer with connections in Jamaica. When the ATF and the state police collar her with $50,000 and a small amount of cocaine that doesn’t belong to her, Jackie tries to find a way out of the situation. If she can make off with enough money to retire, that would be a bonus.

Leonard is perhaps most admired for his bad-guy creations. As a rule, they are more selfish and stupid than your typical villains. Elmore Leonard understood better than anyone that the term criminal mastermind was an oxymoron. He also understood that bad guys were more like normal people than we like to think, which is why so much of the action of Rum Punch takes place while characters are doing such everyday things as shopping at the mall, talking about music, or forgetting where they parked their car.

For as much fun as Leonard has with his characters, the plotting in Rum Punch leaves a bit to be desired. Jackie’s plans and the counter-plotting by the bad guys and the cops get bogged down in minutiae and overshadow the actual events of the story, which take place in quick bursts of excitement followed by long lulls. The senseless violence and unending stupidity lend an air of verisimilitude, but they don’t do enough to entertain the reader.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Reviews #42 and #43: The Garden on Sunset and The Trouble with Scarlett by Martin Turnbull

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These are the first two books in Martin Turnbull’s Garden of Allah series, set against the backdrop of Hollywood history. Mr. Turnbull has created three original characters, a beautiful would-be actress, a budding female journalist who gets side-tracked writing gossip columns, and a gay man kicked out of his hometown by his disapproving father trying to make it big as a screenwriter. The series takes it’s name from the unusual (and historical) hotel where the Gwendolyn, Kathryn, and Marcus live while struggling to realize their dreams. It’s a converted mansion once owned by the glamorous Alla Nazimova, an aging silent film star who still lives in a villa on the premises. It’s a popular stop for many now legendary figures on their way up or down in Hollywood, which of course enables Mr. Turnbull to get away with his characters having an increasingly unlikely series of run-ins with some of show business’s biggest names.

The action in the first book, The Garden on Sunset, covers the dawn of the age of talking pictures, which go from fad to the only game in town with frightening speed. Many careers fell apart in the transition, as anyone who has seen The Artist already knows. It’s Marcus who stands to benefit, as the movies will now need more writers than ever. But he can’t get a job until he’s proven himself to be a writer, so for now he’s delivering telegrams for Western Union and piling up rejection notices from the magazines that publish short stories.

Kathryn has trouble breaking into the newspaper business. Despite the trail-blazing work of her heroine Nellie Bly women have a long way to go in the workplace. A chance meeting leads to a job answering fan mail for Tallulah Bankhead, a renowned stage-actress (and notorious alcoholic) trying to cash in with some movie roles.

Gwendolyn finds herself just one of the thousand pretty girls who’ve decided they’re going to make it in pictures. She suffers through humiliation upon humiliation as she tries to get noticed by the right kinds of people, and avoid the unsavory attention that comes all too readily. The temptation to give men what they want to get ahead is constant, but Gwendolyn wants to do things the right way, for now.

The adventures and misadventures of the three protagonists are entertaining, but they are buttressed by Mr. Turnbull’s well-researched knowledge of the who’s-who of the decade in Hollywood and his insights into the history of the movies. We meet closeted gay men like director George Cukor and Latin star Ramon Navarro, we travel to magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle, where Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers are on the guest-list, and we meet another screenwriter struggling to write and stay sober, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The second novel in the series follows the highly-publicized production of Gone With the Wind, which became a cultural phenomenon as soon as the novel was published. A film version was a certainty, even though prevailing wisdom held that Civil War pictures never made a dime. America has already cast Clark Gable as Rhett, over the actor’s own objections, but who will play Scarlett?

Gwendolyn thinks her Southern Belle upbringing makes her a natural choice for the role, meanwhile Marcus deepens his friendship with the embattled director George Cukor, and Kathryn uses her connections to break big news every step of the way, making many powerful enemies in the process.

Turnbull tells a fun story, but his prose leaves a lot to be desired. His use of period language is sometimes so cliched as to be laughable, and his dialogue is often clunky as a result. He’s also too in love with ending chapters on a cliffhanger, only to move on to a different character in the next one, only catching up with the first story chapters later. It’s a pattern which becomes no less frustrating as it becomes familiar.

Still, if you like old movies these novels will be a fun, quick read and a chance to see the early days of the industry in more detail. Turnbull is especially good when we get to visit the set of Gone With the Wind. And for a male writer, he has a strong sense of the crushing sexism, condescension, and legitimate danger faced by women of the time. His empathy toward Gwendolyn and Kathryn is especially appealing. They are realistic in a way many male-written female protagonists are not.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #41: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Sometimes you and the author just care about different things.

The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the successful assassination of FDR in 1933 leads to Germany and Japan winning World War II and splitting the United States basically in two. Dick sets his story in Japanese-controlled San Francisco, as intrigue between the world’s two superpowers threatens to turn an uneasy detente into a new worldwide conflict.

So of course, most of Dick’s novel is concerned with the manufacture of hand-made jewelry and the people relying on the ancient Chinese I Ching to make their decisions.

It’s infuriating, actually. Dick takes possibly the most intriguing premise imaginable and uses it to muse on the idea of alternate realities. Instead of an engaging narrative, Dick explicates the kind of philosophical musings that cause stoners to slowly intone the word whoa and cause the rest of us to wonder why we agreed to come to this party in the first place.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #40: So Big by Edna Ferber

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Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1924 is an invigorating story about a determined woman facing life head on, overcoming heartache, loss, and extreme hardship, and her efforts to raise her son to appreciate all the beauty life has to offer.

When her gambler father is killed as a result of a misunderstanding, nineteen-year-old Selina Peake doesn’t have time to thoroughly grieve, since she has to figure out a way to support herself. With the help of a friend’s influential father, she takes a job as a schoolteacher in a rural farming community of Dutch immigrants. Selina can’t help but think of this as a grand adventure, even as the roughness of life in the farmland tests her high spirits. Eventually, Selina manages to earn a place in the community, though the others never quite understand her. Selina marries and becomes a farmer’s wife, with all the toil and labor that entails.

Selina’s son Dirk is her pride and joy, and though she loves her farmer husband she can’t help but wish for better for the boy she calls “So Big.” (As in, “How big is baby?” “Sooooo Big!”) Without going into too much detail, events transpire to give Selina the chance to make her dreams for Dirk come true, but whether Dirk will appreciate and take advantage of this opportunity forms the crux of Ferber’s novel.

Ferber’s prose wonderfully evokes the relentless pace of change in the era that So Big encompasses. In large sections the novel elegantly dispatches with great swaths of time, such as taking Selina from age nine to age twelve in about two sentences or covering Dirk’s war service in a page and a half. Sometimes when Ferber stops and settles in to her story it can feel a little slow by comparison, but her attention to detail, and the immense care that she puts into getting things to feel right and true, more than makes up for it.

For a book nearing its 90th birthday, So Big feels quite modern, with the exception of a few antiquated words that have disappeared from the language. But the emotions, ideas, and conflicts evident in So Big are mostly the sort that still resonate today. Sexism may not be as vexing as it was at the turn of the 20th century, but it still persists, and the conflict between personal fulfillment and earning money will never end.

So Big is a novel of its time and for all time. I am sure present-day readers will fall in love with Selina and her practical, big-hearted, indomitable life.