Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

When I first heard about this book, I thought "A '40's movie star was the inventor a technology that is now used in cell phones and GPS? How fascinating". Certainly, as a film fan, I was familiar with the name, Hedy Lamarr, but when I thought about it, I couldn't recall a single movie in which she starred. In fact, I realized I knew her name best from the running gag in Blazing Saddles ("Its 1874. You can sue her!"). Still, it was intriguing enough for me to borrow the book from the library. 

Hedy's Folly is a breezy read. It tells the story of Austrian-born Hedwig Kiesler, a beauty who pined for the stage, married a munitions mogul, and then made her way to Hollywood where she became part of the MGM stable of stars. It was there she met George Antheil, an avant garde composer and a lover of gadgets and gear even then. One of his compositions, Ballet Mecanique, was written to be performed by syncing sixteen player pianos, a difficult technological feat at the time. Author Rhodes gives almost as much of the book to Antheil as he does Hedy. 

Their idea that received a patent was for a technology known as frequency hopping which allowed radio control of a torpedo (at least in its original intent) that would jump radio frequencies so as not to be jammed by the enemy, thus making the torpedoes more efficient in actually hitting their targets. The U.S. Navy, initially supportive of it, never adopted it and it was shelved. Later the technology would become standard throughout telecommunications and, now known as spread spectrum, is utilized by the cell phone in your pocket. 

While Lamarr and Antheil did indeed receive a patent for the technology, it remains somewhat vague in detail. The author attributes some of it to Lamarr's lifelong fascination with invention and that her father explained complicated machinery to her as a child (!). Rhodes also posits that she was able to learn about some of the technology by overhearing conversations while married to the munitions mogul. No doubt Antheil was a gearhead but it all sounds a little far-fetched to me. I don't doubt that it's true but it seems the author wasn't able to make clear just how it all came to be. In fact, all this talk of invention and patents doesn't really become the main subject of the book until the last ninety pages in a book that is only two hundred twenty pages long. 

Perhaps I'm a little thick (Mrs. Next is likely to agree with that) but, if nothing else, it left me feeling unsatisfied with an otherwise lively and entertaining tale.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

So we've come full circle. Roddy Doyle began his esteemed career with The Commitments, his novel which focused on Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. as he forms a soul band in Dublin. In it, we get to know Jimmy and his large family, especially his father, Jimmy Sr., as well as a marvelous cast of characters that make up the ragtag group. It was a strong start and was the first of four books set in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown. By the fourth book, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, Doyle would win The Booker Prize. 

The Guts picks up with Jimmy twenty-seven years later (though it should be noted that we got to look in on him in the 2007 short story, The Deportees). Today, Jimmy is 47, happily married with his own four kids, and still working in the Irish music biz albeit in a pronounced niche market (Celtic Punk and one-off Irish punk rock re-releases). He has also been diagnosed with bowel cancer. 

Few authors are successful when revisiting characters from earlier works but as we saw a few years back with Paula Spencer, a sequel to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle is more than able to reignite the proper spark and he does so here with Jimmy. It's like finding your old pal with whom you've lost touch, doing well all these years later. Except for the bowel cancer, of course. 

As Jimmy is treated and tries to keep it all together, we see some faces from the past in the book: Commitments co-founder and guitarist Outspan Foster, who is also suffering from cancer though his diagnosis is far more grim; Imelda Quirk, the former Commitments backup singer, still as beautiful as ever, and Jimmy's estranged brother, Derek, who left for England years ago and cut off communication with the Rabbitte clan. Happily, Jimmy meets his Da, Jimmy Sr., for pints on a regular basis and we get to see he's doing well in retirement. 

For me, this book succeeds for so many reasons. Aside from being a huge fan of Doyle's work, I'm the same age as Jimmy and a number of the issues that Doyle addresses in the book have become all too familiar to me. People I know are getting sick and I'm at the age when I'm attending more funerals and fewer weddings. One scene in particular, about having fewer and fewer male friends in middle age, caused me to double over in actual sobs. Few writers, even my very favorites, have the ability to affect me so. Too, Jimmy and I are turning into our fathers, anathema to us in our youth but a comfort now. 

It isn't all a lively romp with a bit of mortality thrown in to counterbalance the levity. Jimmy makes at least one terrible decision that made me angry with him but Doyle manages to make Jimmy all the more human. And as always, the dialogue crackles with life--so profane, so real so funny.

I can't say if we'll see Jimmy again in print though I'd love to check in with him when he and I are pushing sixty. By then, I'd like to think we'll have a learned a few things about what's most important and what matters least. I hope we have friends, we have love in our lives, we have our health, and we are content. Perhaps we can even get the band back together. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Before he was Gary, he was Igor. Born in Leningrad, sickly and asthmatic like the Soviet society as it entered its own death throes, his family emigrated to the US in 1979 as part of a deal struck between Brezhnev and Carter that lifted a long enforced limbo for Soviet Jews in exchange for wheat. As Shteyngart puts it, "Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal". 

His Russian relatives already in America explain in letters that, yes, "the streets are paved with gold. We can sell leather jackets at the flea market!" but it isn't easy. He is an anxious boy in a country that he was taught was the enemy, raised by parents who fought constantly, and who put tremendous pressure on him to succeed, Harvard Law being their ultimate goal for him. He works hard and gets good grades but he drinks like a Russian and smokes dope like Tommy Chong. Most of all, he feels completely unloved. 

At a young age, his beloved grandmother, who was left behind in Russia (another super sad true love story) plied him with sandwiches in exchange for stories. This was a love he sought the rest of his life and so stories have always poured out of him. His father is jealous of him, his mother lacks compassion and Gary is lost. 

Naturally, I expected it to be very funny, and it certainly is, screamingly so at times, but the real power is in the pain that is inflicted and dealt with and not dealt with that makes Little Failure a bitter yet rewarding pill throughout its nearly 400 pages. 

Face it: we all think we are honest with ourselves and, truth be told, it's bullshit. As I try to write pieces other than blog entries, it is my own lack of honesty that prevents me from getting anywhere beyond writing about the works of others. So it goes for me but my admiration for Shteyngart rose considerably as a result of this book. He was a goob and a rube and he smelled funny. He was teased and bullied and ignored. Who wants to revisit these pains and indignities? And who in hell would want to tell the world? These days, every book reviewer and jacket copy writer describes damn near every memoir as "unflinchingly honest" but it was this honesty that made me angry and made me cry for little Igor. 

Little Failure is a love letter to America, to Russia, and to his parents. If you've read any or all of Shteyngarts' three novels, you know how funny and smart his writing is and you'll appreciate his memoir knowing what to expect. If you haven't, reading the memoir will lead you to the novels so you win no matter what. Say what you will about Eggers but I think this is actually a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like Eggers, that's overselling it just a skosh but it's damned close. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Quick and Dirty

In an effort to clean house and get caught up, here are some titles I read to close out 2013 and begin 2014. Not a bad start to the year. 

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I found a copy in a chateau where we stayed in France this past summer. It was on a shelf with other books you could borrow during your stay though most were in French. Even better, this was a signed copy and since I was fairly certain most vacationers wouldn't appreciate that as much as I would, I nicked it. Just call me the Book Thief.  

Petty larceny aside, I enjoyed the book immensely. Jordan crafts a story told from multiple viewpoints about love, temptation, race, PTSD, mud, and one bitter bastard of an old man. The book moves swiftly and deserves the many accolades it has received. Add it to your stack.

Giving Up The Ghost by Eric Nuzum

I'm a sucker for books set in the 80's but more often than not I end up hating them. This was no exception. I should have seen it coming when I saw blurbs by Chuck Klosterman AND Rob Sheffield, whose books I also hated. Even setting it in Canton, Ohio couldn't save this mess. You're welcome to my copy.

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Let's see, some biting social satire and a secret society set in an odd, always-open San Fran bookstore? Where do I sign up? I absolutely loved this book. It reminded me a bit of Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection though it wasn't quite as dark. Sloan gives us a memorable debut and some great characters, particularly Mr. Penumbra himself. I didn't want it to end. More please, Mr. Sloan, and soon. 

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak

Too clever by half for my money. Either that or I've aged out of hip-lit. Some short pieces and some VERY short pieces make for an easy read but once I reached the hundred page mark and still felt nothing for it, I put it down and moved on to something better.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Regular Reed-ers know of my deep and abiding love for the work of Sherman Alexie and also my many snobbish tendencies. Until this past year, when I finally relented and started taking YA seriously, I always held this book at arm's length despite knowing damn well that Alexie could write a great book for that audience. Still, I never bothered with it. Stupid me. This was a complete delight.

The story isn't unfamiliar to me; in fact, he has touched on many of these tales in his adult work (including the short story What You Pawn, I Will Redeem) but he manages to make these stories funny and poignant without dumbing them down. I laughed throughout, I cried when I was supposed to, and, as ever, I marveled at his ability to tell the story so well. The accompanying illustrations by Ellen Forney are the perfect complement to the prose and are as vital to the story as the narrative itself. 

As is often the case, you don't need my thumbs-up. The book has won many awards, including the National Book Award, and it continues to be taught AND banned in schools throughout the country. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

My Top Books of 2013

It wouldn't be overstatement to say I got lost in December. I got busy doing things I needed to do instead of things I want to do, like this mess of a blog. However, since there have been inquiries as to my whereabouts and to my top book recommendations for the past year, well, here goes:

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Battleborn by Clare Vaye Watkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
NW by Zadie Smith
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I Shudder by Paul Rudnick
Ready, Steady, Go by Shawn Levy
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David McLean

Three striking fiction debuts (Watkins, Marra, Miller), two brilliant YA novels (Green & Zusak), Saunders at what could be the peak of his career (though I hope not), and Smith making certain I don't forget how great she is. 

In non-fiction, Rudnick made me roar with laughter, Hillenbrand made me feel despair and triumph, Levy thoroughly entertained me, and McLean scared the shit out of me (the book pubs January 14th so go buy it). 

In all, I finished 35 books and read some or most of another 15. There were some books I read that I never posted about--some were good enough and others were disappointments. A few made me angry for wasting my time and others I'd re-read if I could find the time because they gave me such joy. Looking over my blog and my master list, it was a fiction-heavy year and my choices lean just a little more heavily that way. 

You can read more about all these titles on the blog. I hope you manage to avoid the post-holiday doldrums but if you don't, the titles here may help get you through. 

As always, special thanks to friends in the book biz who still keep me in the pipeline, to authors who have been kind enough to contact me after reading my posts, and to you, my regular readers. Happy new year. 

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.