Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #103: Mary Ann In Autumn by Armistead Maupin

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The ever delightful Tales of the City marches into an 8th book and its 30th year with this wonderful tale. If you want realism, look elsewhere. If you want larger than life, beautifully rounded characters doing crazy shit, then come on in. Full review is on my blog here.

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Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #51: Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

I was looking for another light comedic memoir to listen to on Audible, and this was perfect. It’s light but not fluffy, sweet but not saccharine, clean but not simple or boring. Yes, it is, as he says, ‘family friendly,’ but that doesn’t mean that it’s for you to listen to with your kids.

There are just a couple of problems with the book; it feels a little short, and it isn’t as linear as I would like. I do recognize that it’s a comedy book, and not a straight-up memoir, but the last chapter especially felt like it belonged somewhere else.

The stories Mr. Gaffigan tells are entertaining. The book revolves around his life as a father, but it opens with a story about travelling to the Grand Canyon while still childless, with a couple who had a newborn. It’s a great start, because it relates Gaffigan to the childless without making him sound patronizing when he later tells his stories involving parenthood. He recognizes the differences in the pre (or no) child life and the parent life.

From there he moves on to talking about the different ways that having children has affected his life. He has five kids in a two-bedroom NYC apartment, so he clearly has a lot to say on the matter. There are some great one-liners – like his description of a place that isn’t kid friendly: “I always think man, this place must be awesome, let’s get a sitter.” He also takes on sexism and pregnancy, pointing out the absurdity of people acting surprised or bummed when extremely attractive women get pregnant. Like, why wouldn’t they want to have kids?

I am not having children, so believe me when I say that non-parents and parents alike can enjoy this book. There is some excellent social commentary in there, such as when he delves into why people feel the need to comment on the number of children people have. I’m not an asshole, but it’s still a good reminder of what not to say to people when they tell you they’re having a kid.

I highly recommend the audio version, because you get to enjoy Gaffigan’s stellar delivery.

lilfed #CBR5 Review #8: Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

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Steve Martin is one of those comedian/actor/all-round indefensibly genius entertainers that reached superstardom in the late seventies, along with Bill Murray and —? — who survived through decades of ever-changing and evolving audiences of adoring fans who faithfully followed their careers through the rest of the 20th century, without ever losing an original admirer, even when they basically weren’t having a career at all. Just showing up on a late-night ‘Letterman’ show or making an appearance at some Hollywood event and doing a 2- or 3-minute monologue was enough to solicit instant thrills from people like me and many others who absolutely loved everything they did, no matter the circumstance. Unlike any other survivor of the ‘SNL’ glory years, like Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy, their stars never dimmed, their genius and talent never questioned. If Bill Murray never writes an autobiography or appears in another classic movie, he has earned a lifetime ‘pass’ from the countless fans, both young and old, who will always come back to him and fall right into whatever ‘groove’ he happens to be in at the time, looking, laughing and listening to him as long as they’re around to entertain us once in awhile. They both made an occasional misstep, like their dramatic forays in film, ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (Martin) and the remake of ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (Murray), but those were quickly forgotten and forgiven, because we simply could not stop loving them, and they both left such indelible impressions on our younger lives that all but guaranteed their continuing, ‘legendary’ status, in whatever work they originally did, and continue to do.

The similarities pretty much stop right there. Steve Martin enjoyed a popularity that no other stand-up comedian had achieved prior to 1977. Unlike veterans such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who consistently made brilliant, award-winning comedy albums that forever cemented their legendary status, both before and after, Steve Martin the Stand-up Comedian had a finite career in that arena that eclipsed every other performer and set a new standard for just how popular a person standing on a stage and making people laugh could be. Martin himself defines the unique superstardom he achieved in Born Standing Up:

“Sixty cities in sixty-three days. Seventy-two cities in eighty days. Eighty-five cities in ninety days. The Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, largest audience in one day, 18,695. The Chicago International Amphitheatre: twenty-nine thousand people… I played Nassau Coliseum in New York. How many tickets sold? Forty-five thousand… This lightening strike was happening to me, Stephen Glenn Martin, who had started from zero, from a magic act, from juggling in my backyard, from Disneyland, from the Bird Cage, and I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever.”

It’s hard to define just how well-known and universally loved Steve Martin was back in those two to three years of ultimate 70’s ‘hipness’ – regular magazine articles and appearances on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’, one with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, a triad of then-ridiculously famous stars; a debut LP, ‘Let’s Get Small’, the first comedy album to have advance sales of one million copies before it was even released; a feature-film debut just around the corner, ‘The Jerk’, an instant comedy classic that held its own against new blockbusters like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’. Adults may have perceived him as silly, gimmicky and impossible to relate to, but there was no class, gender or ethnic group coming forward as actually disliking Steve Martin, so effortlessly inoffensive and original in front of an audience that the idea of any negative commentary holding any weight was non-existent, much as it remains to this day.

But Steve Martin’s unique stature could not be consistent for any length of time, and he was more aware of this conundrum before the rest of us fans were. His second album, ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’, which tripled in sales compared to his first LP, already peaked his popularity while at the same time inaugurating his inevitable decline in the stand-up career he had carefully and meticulously crafted through years of polishing and testing on countless television appearances, as varied as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ daytime variety programs to the ‘plateau’ acknowledged by every performer in show business as the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ – if a comedian was successful on Carson’s show, they had nowhere to go but down, and very few of them experienced that circumstance when Carson was the King of Late Night, virtually the only program that a stand-up comic could be seen by millions of viewers in one night.

This reviewer was there, all of 18 – 19 years old, and I had nearly worn out my copy of ‘Let’s Get Small’ when ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’ was released in 1978. The recorded evidence could not be ignored by even the most generous fan: it happens at approximately 30 seconds into the beginning of side two, when an another familiar, intimate comedy club act is abruptly cut into a screaming, disorienting blast of enthusiastic stadium noise from an obviously huge, young and overly-familiar crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings that are anathema to what any comedy-seeking audience should be. Steve Martin is literally reconstructing his entire performance, adjusting his rhythm, timing and delivery to suit an auditorium that is entirely too large and noisy to risk throwing out a punchline too early for the back rows to hear and too late to achieve any kind of spontaneous, complete reaction that a reasonably small club full of people would provide for the enclosed acoustics of a single microphone, where everyone hears the same thing at the precise same time. Steve Martin was indeed “the biggest concert comedian in show business” – the only problem was that there was too big a concert audience to collectively appreciate the fundamental experience of hearing a joke or routine that could elicit any organic response to the comedian himself, absent of having to react along with the multitude of others who all hear the ‘funny parts’ at split-second intervals apart.

Born Standing Up delivers exactly what Steve Martin means to explain, the life, the inspirations and the practiced efforts that any comedian would identify with in their pursuit of being a successful stand-up comic. It is not an instructional text, but neither is its purpose in doing anything more than merely describing his singular process in how his act, his persona, was conceived and practiced. But in spite of this initially disappointing fact, he still makes it a somewhat fascinating journey through his own life and experiences, and this is what makes the book an interesting read even for those who are not aspiring to a career in stand-up comedy.

He sprinkles tidbits of his complicated relationship with his father, whose approval of Martin’s vocation was never given, and you realize early on that this is a particularly important matter of unresolved preoccupation throughout his life. He maintains consistency in both his personal biography and the various dynamics and revelations that inform his craft, surprisingly honest and straightforward as to the actual inspirations and origins of his most iconic humorous trademarks – the arrow-through-the-head gag he seemingly forgets is even there; the self-deprecating of his own talents even while he’s bragging ludicrously about them; the incorporation of complex philisophical studies as filtered through a clueless thought process. It’s all there for any aspiring comic to gain insight from, and while this makes for an informative study of how a comedian can reach beyond the generic set-up and punchline, how to achieve laughs throughout the dialogue instead of saving it all for the end means, Born Standing Up cannot be recommended for anyone aside from the truly knowledgeable and adoring fan of Martin’s work; there are poignant and almost uncomfortably-recounted familial incidents near the end of the book that are both heartbreaking and satisfying for those who would really just like to get inside this man’s head, if only briefly.

In summary, I rate this book an ‘A-‘ for hardcore fans, and a solid ‘B’ for those who are still familiar with most of his work and want a little history of his life outside of it. If you’re one of those who do not go out of their way to experience every facet of Steve Martin’s long rise to stardom and how he (wisely) chose to abandon stand-up comedy completely, it would be hard to recommend this book.

In closing, I cannot help but quote some of the jokes he lists as having to abandon in order to streamline his act but still loves anyway:

“I think communication is so firsbern.”

“I’m so depressed today. I just found out this ‘death thing’ applies to me.”

“I have no fear, no fear at all. I wake up, and I have no fear. I go to bed without fear. Fear, fear, fear, fear. Yes, ‘fear’ is a word that is not in my vocabulary.”

and

“I just found out I’m vain. I thought that song was about me.”

Bill Murray is a funny guy as soon as he walks into a room – Steve Martin is too, when he wants to be. But there’s too much talent inside of him to leave it at that.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #48: Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

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I’m going to do that thing I do when I don’t much like a book everyone else is raving about. It’s rare that a book lives up to the hype (Skippy Dies is one of the few that did), and Where’d You Go Bernadette just falls short.

Bernadette lives in Seattle with her husband Elgie and daughter Bee. She’s pretty peculiar, and spends all of her reclusive life railing against her fellow humans (Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ quote springs to mind), obsessing over perceived slights and rejecting the general absurdity of life. When Bee aces all her classes at middle school, she demands a cruise to Antarctica as her long-promised reward. This means that Bernadette is faced with having to deal with real people in close quarters, and she starts to unravel.

The novel uses a multitude of ‘source material’, with various different characters taking up the thread of the story. There are emails between friends, colleagues and employees; a transcript of a TED talk that Elgie gave; notes from doctors and articles about Bernadette’s brief career as an architect. So we learn of Bernadette’s state of mind and the past that brought her to where she is today through her emails to an Indian assistant she found on the internet. Exchanges between Elgie’s assistant and her best friend Audrey (a mother at Bee’s school) reveal an outsider’s views of Bernadette’s eccentric behaviour, and the feud between these latter two women provides some of the best moments of the novel.

While the book may be charming and funny in places, the story telling is a bit cack-handed. There is a pointless sub-plot about the Russian mafia that we could have done without, and the entire portion of the book following Bernadette’s physical disappearance loses its way. Faced with the challenge of bringing all the threads of the story together, Semple struggles.

So, while the book doesn’t live up to the hype, it’s worth a read. Just don’t expect too much.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore

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Ah, Christopher Moore. There are some days when I get so depressed about the state of the world that I can’t even turn on the TV for fear of hearing about a school shooting, or genocide, or Congress. But no matter how dim the world seems, I can count on you to lift my spirits with your completely warped and original view of that world.

For those of you unfamiliar with Christopher Moore, his novels give “suspension of disbelief” a whole new meaning. Usually involving some sort of magical, mythical, or supernatural aspect, Moore’s world is a place where a crazy, former C-movie actress can have an inappropriate relationship with an ancient sea monster and it just seems like good, clean fun.

To try to summarize this novel is a bit like trying to describe the plot of a Monty Python sketch, but I’ll give it a shot. The story takes place in the beautiful coastal town of Pine Cove, California. Moore often revisits locations in his novels and characters cross over from one novel to another, so that picking up a book you haven’t read is sometimes like visiting with old friends. More accurately, old friends who are on leave from a psychiatric institute or prison, but old friends nevertheless. In this quaint little locale, psychiatrist Valerie Riordan becomes disillusioned with modern psychiatric medicine and decides to replace her patients’ medication with placebos. At the same time, a blues singer comes to town and starts playing at the local saloon (now quite crowded thanks to the lack of anti-depressants), an ancient Sea Beast awakes from the deep and makes everyone horny, local rats start acting weird, and Theo Crowe, the town’s stoned-out constable, discovers a meth lab controlled by a scheming Sheriff. Former scream queen Molly Michon (the aforementioned crazy lady) starts hearing voices (no meds, remember) and thinks a strange trailer in her trailer park might be more than that, so she starts calling him Steve.

Yeah, doesn’t exactly translate that well into one paragraph. But you just have to trust me that Christopher Moore creates a place where it’s impossible to be sad. He doesn’t try to bore you with lessons; he just wants to share the way his crazy brain works. There is love and lust and death (one of the main characters is a Sea Beast, after all; you kind of have to expect that people are going to be eaten), but you never feel weighed down by the moral of the story, if there is one.

Moore himself describes The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove as a kind of Godzilla meets The Bridges of Madison County. While not as poignant as Moore’s excellent Lamb or A Dirty Job, or as absurdly funny as The Stupidest Angel (another Pine Cove adventure), The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove is an antidote for whatever weighty matters are getting you down. I’m no psychiatrist, but Christopher Moore may even be a good substitute for anti-depressants.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #49: The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend

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A book full of the most hateful and thinly drawn characters you can possibly imagine, this earns its second star for one reason only: I managed to read it to the end without smashing my Kindle in. Read the full review here

Lollygagger’s CBR5 Review #17: Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin

I’ve had to stop running for awhile, so I finished up this audio book while cleaning my apartment last weekend (ah, the miracle of those noise-canceling ear buds).

I’m a fan of Kathy Griffin. I think she has a different way of making people laugh, is shameless in a way that doesn’t make me cringe as much as, say, your average episode of “The Office,” and (despite some of her jokes) seems like a genuinely nice and caring person. I picked this audio book because I figured hearing her tell these stories would probably be more entertaining than reading them.

I was right.

She is such a natural storyteller that I didn’t really ever feel like she was READING to me. I’m wondering how much was faithful to the written book and how much was changed for the audio version; she’d stutter, get lost mid-thought and switch gears (in a non-annoying way) and just generally sounded like someone I know sharing a story, not an author or comedian reading from their memoir. That was nice.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Kathy Griffin started out as a comedian and actress, doing bit parts (including a memorable appearance on Seinfeld) until she was cast as the sidekick in ‘Suddenly Susan’, the Brooke Shield sitcom. Griffin is very up front about her understanding of her skills – she’s not a traditional comedian (she doesn’t excel at 10-minute stand-up spots relying on the set-up and punch line), and she was never going to be the ingénue in a blockbuster film. What she can do is be a funny sidekick, and tell some killer stories. If you’ve ever seen her live (I did, back in NYC), hopefully you know that she’s this high-energy person who can spend 20 minutes telling a story that is funny the whole way through but doesn’t rely necessarily on one big HA moment. I like that kind of comedy, but I realize it isn’t for everyone.

This memoir is really a memoir, not just a collection of some essays that tell her story. It really differs from other comedian memoirs (like “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”) in that it has some pretty dark moments. It’s a bit like “Bedwetter” in that aspect. For example, Griffin talks about one of her brothers, who she suspected of being a child molester.

You read that right. A child molester. And she deals with that in like the second chapter, so you know that this isn’t just going to be about some hard-scrabble times at The Comedy Store.

But there are those stories, too. Griffin’s exploration of how she found her place in the comedy world by setting up comedy nights with her friends that focused on storytelling and not repeating material is really interesting, as is her struggle with parlaying her success on “Suddenly Susan” into her own series (“My Life on the D List”). She talks about being repeatedly banned from talk shows, the Dakota Fanning awards show ‘incident’, and the suicide of a colleague. It’s not all laugh-out-loud funny but it’s all really interesting.

She also talks about her marriage, and what lead to it ending. It’s a fascinating section of the book that really had me riveted and annoyed when I had to turn it off because I’d gotten to work.

This is a good book. I probably won’t listen to it again, but if it’s possible to lend audio books then I’ll definitely be offering it up to friends.