"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Monday, January 17, 2022

Born Standing Up

TITLE: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
AUTHOR: Steve Martin

This year, I plan to read a lot of the memoirs I've accumulated over the years.

I've been a fan of Steve Martin since I first saw him appear on the Smothers Brothers' Comedy Hour. This book, copyright 2007, focuses on his time as a stand-up comedian, but there are chapters covering his childhood and the roots of his desire to perform, as well as concluding with him moving on to other ways of entertaining, starting with movies. 

The prose is straightforward, making for an easy, fast read, and I was fascinated by his journey to find his comedic voice, along with the insecurities he dealt with early in his career. Photos imbedded in the text are wonderful glimpses of how he became a "wild and crazy guy."  

Friday, January 14, 2022

Swamplandia!

TITLE:  Swamplandia!
AUTHOR: Karen Russell

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The title refers to the island park in Florida's Everglades, where the Bigtree family makes a living wrestling alligators. But the untimely death of the park's star, Hilola Bigtree, wife to the Chief, mother to 13-year old Ava and her two older siblings, sends the family into a tailspin. The tourists stop coming, the Chief withdraws, leaving Ava, her sister Ossie, and their brother Kiwi to fend for themselves. But Kiwi heads to the mainland to work for their competitor, the Chief heads out on a business trip, and Ossie is dating a supposed ghost, leaving Ava to try to save Swamplandia! and her family.

The book skirts the surreal and after what seemed to me to be a slow start, it became a compelling read about grief, loss of innocence, endings, and beginnings. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I don't think I'll ever forget Ava and her family.

That said, this is also a flawed book. I'm a forgiving reader, so once I really got into it, halfway through, I stopped noticing the small bits that seemed off, the sorts of things that bother some readers and not others. It's an odd book in many ways, one I ultimately liked but also one that could have been much better.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Paragon Hotel

TITLE: The Paragon Hotel
AUTHOR: Lyndsay Faye

This historical novel is also a love story and a book about finding and accepting your true, authentic self, set in 1921, with earlier flashbacks. Alice James, aka Nobody, grew up in Harlem, a half-Italian born to a now single mother turning tricks in the hotel where they live. In the book's present, Alice is on the run, nursing a festering bullet wound and carrying a suitcase full of counterfeit cash. She ends up in the Paragon Hotel, a Black-owned hotel in Portland, Oregon that caters to a strictly Black clientele. The arrival of a near-death white woman causes quite a stir. Throw in the KKK, a missing mixed-face child, Alice's attraction to the Black train porter who saved her life, and a lot of secrets, and you end up with a true page-turner as Alice forms attachments with the denizens of the Paragon Hotel and faces her own questionable past working with Italian mobsters. I fell in love with Alice and all the other characters, their warts and all. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

36 Righteous Men

TITLE: 36 Righteous Men
AUTHOR: Steven Pressfield

This is a page-turner, partly due to the story and partly due to the writing style used by the author. Dialogue is presented script-style and the overall narrative reads like a police report, which it mostly is, being told by Dewey, a junior detective in 2034 New York City. Climate change has reached crisis-level and now someone is killing environment activists in New York as well as other locations across the globe. Dewey and her older partner Manning are assigned to the taskforce investigating the murders. The killer leaves no trace behind, other than a mysterious mark between the victims' eyes that can be seen only after the skin is pulled back during an autopsy. A mysterious woman provides a clue that sets Manning and Dewey off on an investigative direction that puts them at odds with their supervisor. The deaths seem connected, according to the woman's info, to the Jewish myth of the 36 Righteous Men -- their identities hidden -- whose existence is keeping God from destroying humanity. Now, it seems, some supernatural creature has identified them and is killing them to bring about Armageddon. 

The urgency to keep the remaining righteous men alive is matched by a global ecosystem spiraling out of control. The sections dealing with excessive heat and storms feel all too real. The story might be fiction, but it's a cautionary tale. This could be our future, perhaps sooner than Pressfield assumed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Carter Beats the Devil

TITLE:  Carter Beats the Devil
AUTHOR: Glen David Gold

This is a wonderful blending of fact and fiction, focusing on Charles Carter, a magician in the early part of the 20th Century. The inspiration for Gold's story, aka the jumping off point, is the somewhat suspicious death of President Warren G. Harding. From that moment of historical significance, Gold weaves an amazing tale full of wonder, as well as perseverance, grief, and hope. It also makes clear that a magic trick is not the same as an illusion, while continually reminding the reader of the importance of misdirection. 

Because Harding, in the book, attended Carter's show shortly before he died, participating in the mysterious final act of illusion, a determined Secret Service agent becomes convinced Carter is somehow involved in the president's death, a plot thread that gives the story most of its tension. A digression to Carter's childhood and early career, leading up to Harding's death and beyond, gives the story its soul. Carter quickly became one of my favorite characters, someone I couldn't help but root for, with his almost childlike sense of joy and confidence that things will work out. 

 I'd barely read the first hundred pages before turning to the "Program Notes" at the back, then Googling new characters as they appeared so I could know which characters were based on actual people. And as a Marx Brothers fan, I got a thrill when, during the time Carter worked on a vaudeville circuit, a comedy act titled "Fun in Hi Skule" and therefore, knew the Marx Brothers would show up. In fact, Julius (Groucho) does show up with a small speaking role. And that's all I'll say about the many delights found in this book. 

Writing about magic and illusions can't be easy, but Gold pulled it off spectacularly, grounding the story in believable characters, the ones based on reality and the ones created to fill out the story.  This book is one of the most entertaining books I've ever read.