Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Last year, Mrs. Next and I embarked on a wonderful trip to England and France. I visited France at 18 and always wanted to return. Neither of us had been to England, despite my long-held interest in the country, especially for its many cultural exports--music, film, literature, humor, oh and there was some history, as well. In fact, Mrs. Next had never made the transatlantic trip before so this was a big deal. 

In the planning stages, I realized I was over my head and turned to a dear old friend, Wendy, the former groovy ghoulie and now, so glamorous, it hurts to look at her. She plied her travel agents' experience, I brushed up on the French I failed to learn well in college, and we had a marvelous time. With each leg of the journey, Mrs. Next and I were delighted again and again. And so we found ourselves staying at le Bastide de Marie, a luscious resort in a town called Menerbes. Chatting poolside with an English couple, we learned that the book, A Year in Provence, was set in this very town. 

Flashback time!

Years ago, when I was just a cub of a bookseller, you couldn't swing a salami without running into a Peter Mayle book. He became something of his own industry with his travelogues of being a transplant in southern France. He was on the bestseller lists for ages. This book begat sequels and calendars and fifty-year old women dreamily describing how much they loved his work as you rang them out. Naturally, in my callow youth, I was a skeptic and a snob. "Who the hell cares about life in small-town France?", late-twenties Reed Next snorted, "I read heady, provocative, contemporary fiction, damnit!"

To say the least, A Year in Provence is a delight and not simply because we stayed in Menerbes. Mayle's storytelling style is so breezy and nonchalant, it belies the hard work that writing must be to be this good. He brings out the color in the characters and their many idiosyncrasies, which are likely quite maddening in real life but damned charming from a distance. He is also able to capture the beauty of the region and the French way of life as to make both irresistible to our hurried American existence. And did I mention Mayle is funny? 

I will admit to remaining skeptical and snobbish though slightly adjusted for my age. However, I'm at the very age when I look back on our trip as dreamily as the readers Peter Mayle enchanted 20 years ago. Mrs. Next and I will return to the south of France in the near future, perhaps even taking a sabbatical and teaching English or something equally silly for a middle-aged man and his ageless bride. Neither of us can wait.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Only Read It For The Cartoons by Richard Gehr

I love The New Yorker. Truth is, I am sort of obsessed with it. Many of my literary heroes wrote for it and I try to read just about everything that comes out about the mag and its' illustrious history while still trying to keep up with my subscription. (Last Summer, I got caught up for the first time in three years, a triumph known only to regular subscribers, but soon fell behind again. Currently, I'm reading the July 21st issue and Friday is Halloween.) Naturally, I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of this. 

Cartoons are part of what makes The New Yorker distinctive and enduring. Here Richard Gehr writes about and speaks with twelve prominent cartoonists whose work you'll recognize even if you don't know them by name. You get a wealth of background, back story, and behind-the-scenes stories. Some of these characters (and they are characters!) have been drawing for the magazine for decades, others far less, but they all have that certain something that makes their cartoons "New Yorker cartoons". Few other cartoons can be distinguished in such a way, especially these days, with newspapers having gone the way of the dodo and few other magazines bothering with the art form any more. Cartooning is practically an endangered species and that makes this examination of these artists all the richer.  

A real treat comes at the end when New Yorker cartoon editor and contributor Bob Mankoff discusses the process of choosing the cartoons for each issue. As one would expect from the mag, it is a painstaking process but it obviously pays off time and again, week after week. 

That said, this might be a book for dorky New Yorker obsessives like me and not for someone who wishes to read cartoons. For that, you'll need another book entirely. May I suggest The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, a magnificent coffee table volume that will supply you with all you need and more.

Sadly, one of the greats featured in the book, Charles Barsotti, he of kings and puppies, passed away this June, just a few months before the book pubbed. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History by Mark Bailey

The film industry came of age during the Roaring '20s and Prohibition so it makes sense that Hollywood, especially Golden Age Hollywood, always had more than its' share of drunks. To read the sodden stories Mark Bailey has assembled in the delightful Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History is to learn that damn near everyone in Tinseltown was a drunk and often of epic proportions. 

Having has bellied up to the bar before with Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American WritersBailey brings artist Hemingway along for plenty of oddly twisted caricatures of all the inebriates. They also offer up forty cocktail recipes and short histories of some of the great restaurants, bars, and nightclubs of days gone by like Chasen's, Ciro's, and The Brown Derby. 


Starting with the Silent Era and ending at the end of the '70s, Bailey regales us with drunken exploits of the writers, actors, and directors who managed to have successful careers while nursing enough bad habits to outfit a softball team of fallen nuns. While all the tales are told with a light touch, the author doesn't shy away from showing us the sad side of the stars, as well. The Miley's and Lindsays of today might be amazed to learn they didn't invent trampy, bad behavior. Some of the silent films actresses of the '20s were quite the drunken, self- and sex-obsessed airheads we know so well today. 

WhiIe I had heard a few of these before like Sinatra and Ava Gardner drunkenly shooting out streetlights and the massive binges of Faulkner and Raymond Chandler, Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy, most were new to me and highly entertaining. The excesses of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, the tag team power drinking of Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole, and the wagering by Jackie Gleason and saloon keeper Toots Shor were among my favorites. 


Friday, September 12, 2014

A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It Or Not" Ripley by Neal Thompson

Most of us grew up with Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" in one form or another but the story of the man behind it all is far more interesting than expected.

Ripley grew up poor and isolated in Santa Rosa, California which at the time was the very definition of nowhere. His father, a rather dispirited carpenter, died when Robert was a teen and his mother was left the task of providing for and raising three children. Robert himself was a shy, awkward child with a prominent set of bad teeth and a pronounced stutter. However, he began to come into his own through athletics and drawing. 

In the early part of the 20th century, newspapers were the dominant media and the cartoons within them became a vibrant part of the American culture. In 1918, Ripley sold his first cartoon to LIFE magazine and expected it would be Easy Street from there. It wasn't but it led to work at the San Francisco Chronicle and from there to the New York Globe in Manhattan. Originally, sports was his cartooning beat but he was able to convince the Globe to send him to Europe and the Middle East. There he began to flourish, turning out dispatches of oddities and what Ripley called "queeriosities". At the time, the world was a MUCH bigger place and Ripley was fascinated by the different cultures, customs, and histories and threw himself into his work. The result was a wildly popular cartoon that made him a superstar.

Even then, Ripley understood what we now call "branding" and he was wise enough to continue to build his brand. His cartoon became a syndication smash which led to his Odditoriums at World's Fairs and a succession of popular radio shows. While most Americans struggled through the Great Depression, Ripley became very wealthy, living a lavish life of first-class travel, beautiful women, and ever larger homes yet despite all his achievements and wealth, Ripley was plagued with self-doubt, loneliness, and the crushing pressures of staying on top to protect his brand and his fortune. 

Author Thompson should be commended for continually making Ripley real. Ripley was especially fascinated by what some would call "freaks", a term he refused to use, that he encountered and eventually sought out in his travels. Here Thompson is especially successful at showing us throughout the book how much Ripley related to their disfigurements, their isolation within their own societies, and the pain of being an outsider, something he felt keenly. He also portrays Ripley as a capricious playboy with a petulant streak who, as he rose higher and higher, lost touch with the stuttering boy he once was. A highly readable, entertaining story.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

In The News

Remember In The News on Saturday mornings? I do. 
Just a couple of things you might want to check out: 

Here's a terrific article by Nick Hornby entitled "The Perils of Being a Book Critic" which just ran in the Sunday Times. He raises a number of interesting points about reading, how best to keep up with the onslaught of books and recommendations (even if you aren't a book critic), and offers some sound advice. He also includes a list of books he has happened upon that he thinks deserve a look. 

Great news on the podcast front: Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie have launched their own show entitled "A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment". The two old pals talk about things literary but promise they won't be limited to just bookish pursuits. Both are rather chatty fellows and they have a strong rapport. Having listened to the first episode, I think it shows promise. 

The especially cool part of the show is that each will read from works-in-progress and unpublished material, giving the listener a rare glimpse at work that may or may never see the light of day. As a giant Alexie fan, I'm terribly excited about this. 

You can listen to it here: http://www.infiniteguest.org/tiny-sense/

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Sometimes you just get lucky and come across a terrific book by accident. That was the case with this delightful story which I devoured in two sittings and longed for more. Bertino is the author of the short story collection Safe As Houses, which received considerable praise and several awards. 2 A.M pubbed just this month.


"It is dark, dark 7 am on Christmas Eve Eve" the book begins and, in a linear fashion, concludes close to the time in the title. We are lucky to meet 9 year old Madeleine Altimari, a cigarette-smoking, budding jazz singer as she practices in front of the mirror and grades herself harshly. Her mother has died a year before and her father has withdrawn from the world in his grief. Mrs. Rose Santiago, a neighborhood shopkeeper, looks after Madeleine but mostly the kid is raising herself. 

She yearns to sing at her school, St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, but that's never going to happen. Her rival, Clare Kelly, always gets to lead the class at Mass. Madeleine hates the way Clare sings, entirely without soul. The bright spot of the coming day is that her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had one and wants to try one desperately. While I was immediately smitten with Madeleine, her yearning for a caramel apple was where I knew Bertino had me on the hook. This poor child, with all the grief and loss and disappointment that hangs over her like the inkiest of clouds, and she still has that child-like intensity for something so simple.  

From there we move through the day and several Philadelphia neighborhoods. We are introduced to a number of colorful characters but the three main threads that tie together 2 A.M. are Madeleine, her teacher, Sarina Greene, and Lorca, owner of the jazz club, the Cat's Pajamas. Each has their own worries. Miss Greene, a recent divorcee, is attending a dinner party that night with old friends including an ex-beau. Lorca may lose the club by closing time (2 A.M.) if he can't raise the money to offset serious violations brought on by a new, by-the-book, neighborhood cop. 

Bertino has a light touch and a wonderful way with words. Some readers may find some of the storylines a little too tidy but the story is such fun, these minor issues are easy to overlook. Besides, not everyone has to write The bloody Goldfinch. Where the writing shines most is in the humor and pathos surrounding Madeleine. She has the mouth of a dock worker, the burning desire to sing torch songs, and the pain and sadness of a little girl who has lost one parent to death and the other to grief. The other characters that people the novel are inspired and interesting, full of tics and truths, but if I had my choice, I wanted MORE Madeleine. Which leads to the question I must ask aloud: can we expect more Madeleine, Ms. Bertino? Are you through with this marvelous character or will we be lucky enough to cross paths with her again? I can only hope so.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Cooks and Books and Leopards

Round-up time, kids! I have been so busy (and so busy procrastinating) that I'm going to give these three books the quick and dirty treatment.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This debut was an absolute winner. The book follows two young men who yearn to become writers. As their relationship blooms into a best friendship, success for one creates a rift between them as does the presence of an unattainable woman. From there, author Jansma deftly utilizes a series of funhouse mirrors to turn the book on its head and not just for the sake of doing so as young writers sometimes do. There is a mood that the author is able to conjure and maintain throughout that feels claustrophobic and desperate and reminded me of The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, another clever debut from a few years back. A challenging read and a writer of great promise.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The pre-publication hype on this book was huge, particularly from friends whose opinions I trust and value, as well as a publisher that is tops on my list. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. While I enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped. It is a light, engaging read with likable characters and is especially appealing to booksellers and people in publishing. Despite that, it just didn't grab me as especially good storytelling or writing. That said, it has sold by the barge load, so you may need to read it for yourself. 

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

Another sparkling debut that takes us into the world of the restaurant kitchen and all the sadism that goes with it. Our hero is an aspiring writer who can't seem to write much and whose dwindling savings force him to get a kitchen job in a restaurant that has seen better days. With no experience, he is hired as the lowest of the low, the kitchen bitch. When the staff learns of his literary aspirations, he is nicknamed Monocle. 

The cast of the kitchen is perfect: Racist Dave, so named because, well, duh; Ramilov, the pugnacious Russian; Dibden, the hapless pastry chef; Camp Charles, the swishy maitre d'; the quiet girl, Harmony, and the evil head chef, Bob. Wroe perfectly captures the testosterone-fueled boys club that is the kitchen and its endless cruelties, insults, and pissing contests. It is that harshness that also manages to turn these oddballs and assholes into something vaguely resembling a family. 

Soon we are introduced to a disturbing character who looms large in both physical presence and in the story, a customer known as The Fat Man. Somehow, he knows everyone's dirty secrets, vices, and peccadilloes and is able to use them to his advantage. His character is memorable for how absolutely distasteful he is; a glutton with power, money, and influence. 

Since we fixate on food to the point of exhaustion (let's put bacon on absolutely everything and then act as though we discovered bacon and agree how delicious bacon is!), since there are endless cooking shows (remember when Food Network aired shows about cooking and not just crappy reality show contests?), since everyone fancies themselves a "foodie" these days (see you at Whole Foods where you'll buy a watermelon for $12, dumbass!), Chop Chop should have broad appeal. It is funny without being obvious and thoughtful without being maudlin. A dash of romance, yearning, and redemption even find their way into the kitchen.