Blogging for a Good Book
Writing yesterday about Michael Pollan’s Cooked got me thinking about other great books about food and its preparation. In my mind, Harold McGee’s masterful On Food and Cooking is the best writing I have found on food, covering chemistry, preparation, taste, individual fruits, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, and pretty much anything else you might eat—algae anyone?
Whether you want to know about sugar substitutes and their qualities (p. 660-661), how baking pans affect the qualities of the item being baked (p. 563), what drinkers mean when they talk about the “tears” in strong wines or spirits (p. 717), or how you get from tea leaves to black, Oolong, or green tea (both Chinese and Japanese) (p. 438) there is something here for you.
Along the way, McGee includes recipes, food lore, quotations, and more, but the heart of the book is the comprehensive exploration of how cooking, fermenting, and other forms of processing affect the taste, texture, and edibility of food stuffs. An obvious appeal here is for readers who are cooks themselves and are perhaps developing new recipes. McGee is a great source for figuring out how to best combine and prepare ingredients. The book also is a useful compendium of cultural histories of food and ingredients. For instance, the chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” begins with a section on the evolution of bread from prehistoric to modern times (concluding with a section on “The decline and revival of traditional breads.”
On Food and Cooking is best read by dipping into an chapter that looks interesting, but be forewarned, McGee is an addictive writer, and, like a bag of potato chips, you will find yourself wanting to read just one more section. For readers who have forgotten their chemistry, there is a helpful “Chemistry Primer” at the end of the book that covers atoms, molecules, chemical bonds, energy, and the phases of matter. Any food lover will find a banquet of topics here to feast on.
Check the WRL catalog for On Food and Cooking.
Ever since purchasing On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee back in the 1980s, I have been a fan of books that explore the scientific and cultural aspects of food and its preparation. I recently picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s wonderful Cooked and was delighted to discover another title I need to add to my permanent collection of food books.
Pollan is probably best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he explores in sobering fashion how we eat in the 21st century. In Cooked, he looks at the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—and how humans use these elements to transform animals and plants into food. Pollan has a clear affection for food and food preparation, and his enthusiasm and passion drive the stories here. In each of the sections of the book Pollan seeks out experts in the field—a barbeque grill master, a master baker, wheat growers, brewers, cheesemakers, and more—and talks with them about their work. Like John McPhee, another of my favorite writers, Pollan gives his characters the stage and lets them talk about their own passions in their voices.
Pollan also writes engagingly about his own attempts at cooking. Pollan writes about grilling, making liquid-based dishes, baking bread, and brewing not only as an observer but also as a participant. In doing so, he makes clear the value in preparing your own food from scratch, rather than purchasing processed meals. Cooking forces us to slow down, think about things closely, and then to share with family and friends the results of our work.
Cooked also provides a somewhat bleak picture of contemporary eating habits and commercial food preparation. In exploring the concepts of taste, Pollan relates how the processed food that makes up a disturbing percentage of our diet relies on unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to make up for the lack of careful, and slow, preparation. After reading Cooked you may come away wanting to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, making a hearty stew for a cool fall evening’s meal, or appreciating a well-aged cheese. At least I hope so.
Check the WRL catalog for Cooked.
My final film review this week is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, the French horror classic that influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster of a run-down boarding school for boys. He’s a mean-spirited and petty man whose cruelty extends to his long-suffering wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot), and his mistress, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), both teachers at the school.
After Michel beats her the night before a school break, Nicole decides to take action. She enlists Christina’s help in a plan to drug then murder Michel. Although she is initially reluctant, Christina agrees to help Nicole. The two women leave the school and travel to Nicole’s apartment, where Nicole laces a bottle of wine with a powerful sedative. Christina then calls Michel and tells him she is making plans for a divorce. Enraged, Michel goes to Nicole’s apartment to confront his wife. During the course of the argument, he drinks some of the wine and passes out. With Christina’s help, Nicole drowns Michel in the bathtub. The two women take Michel’s body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool. When his body rises to the surface, it will appear that his death was an accidental drowning.
Although the plan is seemingly foolproof, Christina becomes concerned the following day when Michel’s body does not surface. When the women finally have the pool drained, they make a shocking discovery: Michel’s corpse is not in the pool. Christina launches a search for her husband, following up on stories of unidentified bodies and hiring Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired detective. At the same time, bizarre clues and sightings of the deceased Michel test Christina’s fragile health and her alliance with Nicole.
Les Diaboliques is a cunning thriller that relies on surprise twists and unusual clues to generate suspense. The pacing is particularly effective; Clouzot gradually builds the tension as Christina comes to realize she’s not sure if her husband is dead or alive. The acting is first-rate. Véra Clouzot and Simone Signoret give strong, nuanced performances. I also enjoyed Charles Vanel’s supporting performance as Fichet. On the surface, Fichet appears to be a good-natured, if occasionally bumbling, detective; however, he has a sharp mind and keen insight that helps further the investigation.
Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, Les Diaboliques should appeal to fans of classic horror films and detective stories.
Les Diaboliques is in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Les Diaboliques
Life is relatively uneventful for high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale). When he’s not spending time with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), or best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), he’s watching horror films. He’s particularly enamored of a late night horror film series called Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a one-time star of Hammer-style vampire films.
Charley’s routine life is interrupted when the Victorian mansion next door is purchased by a man named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). Although Charley’s mother insists Jerry bought the mansion because he restores houses for a living, odd incidents around the house convince Charley that Jerry may be a vampire. One night, Charley sees Jerry and his housemate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement. A few nights later, a young woman who visited Jerry’s house turns up dead. Charley starts watching the house through his bedroom window and soon gets the proof he needs when he sees Jerry biting a woman’s neck.
Convinced he needs to do something to stop Jerry, Charley first turns to his local police department. Billy offers plausible explanations for everything Charley saw and the officer ultimately dismisses Charley’s story, believing he has an overactive imagination. Amy and Ed are skeptical of Charley’s story as well, and in desperation he turns to the one person he thinks will believe him: Peter Vincent. This turns into yet another dead end as Peter informs him that Fright Night is being cancelled because, “The kids today don’t have the patience for vampires. They want to see some mad slasher running around and chopping off heads.” Thinking Charley is an obsessed fan, Peter speeds away from the station.
Concerned that Charley’s belief that Jerry is a vampire is affecting his mental state, Amy and Ed contact Peter and offer to pay him if he will demonstrate to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire. Peter agrees, and a meeting is arranged with Jerry. The meeting is intended to be a harmless way of putting Charley’s mind at ease; however, the lives of Charley, Ed, Amy and Peter are put in grave danger when Peter accidently discovers that Jerry really is a vampire.
What I enjoy most about Fright Night is the way Holland (who also wrote the screenplay) deftly mixes humor with horror. The scenes from Peter Vincent’s show, particularly the clips from Vincent’s films – complete with Roddy McDowall in a bad wig – gently parody the Gothic vampire films popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, the Peter Vincent character has some of the best lines in the film and McDowall gives a wonderfully droll performance. The rest of the cast deliver solid performances, particularly Chris Sarandon as the charming and seductive Jerry Dandridge. The elaborate visual effects are effective and creepy, but don’t overwhelm the story.
A remake was released in 2011, with Colin Farrell playing the role of Jerry Dandridge and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) as Peter Vincent, a Las Vegas magician and vampire expert. I recommend the original film, but fans of Colin Farrell and David Tennant might enjoy the remake.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) enjoys a prosperous career as a banker with all the trappings of success; however, he has few personal connections and is estranged from his former wife Elizabeth and younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Conrad pays him a surprise visit and gives him a voucher from a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). If Nicholas redeems this voucher, he will receive a virtual reality game custom designed for him. Conrad refuses to describe the game in detail, but insists that it is a life-changing experience.
Intrigued, Nicholas visits CRS and meets with a man named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Like Conrad, he offers few specifics about the game, telling Nicholas that it’s like an “experiential Book-of the-Month club.” Nicholas decides to fill out a lengthy application for the game as well as undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. Shortly after applying for the game, he receives a message from CRS informing him that his application was rejected. However, this message actually turns out to be the first move in Nicholas’ game.
Nicholas continues to go about his daily business, but soon cracks start appearing in his orderly world that may or may not be a part of this game. These range from the mildly annoying and inconsequential – a leaking pen and a locked briefcase – to the bizarre – a trashed hotel room filled with photos that appear to show Nicholas in compromising positions.
Along the way, Nicholas discovers clues to the game, and one of these clues leads him to a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may be an innocent victim of the game or one of its key figures. As Nicholas continues to play the game, the stakes get higher, and soon the game threatens his career, finances, and life.
The Game is a fascinating portrait of a man whose carefully constructed life is completely upended by forces beyond his control. Nicholas is being manipulated, but by whom and for what purpose? Is the game a harmless, if occasionally inconvenient, diversion, or a sinister plot to gain control over his life and his fortune? Nicholas’ attempts to find answers to these questions lead him down the rabbit hole to a surreal nightmare that tests his patience and sanity.
I especially enjoyed the performances in the film. Michael Douglas is perfect as the successful but distant Nicholas, and Deborah Kara Unger brings an intriguing icy reserve as the mysterious Christine. Director David Fincher keeps the pacing sharp and focused, gradually ratcheting up the tension as the game becomes more intense and dangerous.
A complex thriller filled with unpredictable plot twists and moments of dark humor, The Game is a good choice for anyone looking for a surreal thriller this Halloween.
Check the WRL catalog for The Game
The films of French director Claude Chabrol are often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and in his film Merci Pour le Chocolat (based on the 1948 novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong) there is a similar level of suspense and craftsmanship.
The film opens with the wedding of Marie-Claire “Mika” Muller (Isabelle Huppert) and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Mika runs her family’s successful chocolate company in Lausanne, Switzerland, and André is a famous concert pianist. This is the couple’s second chance at love. They were previously married and divorced years earlier, and reunited after the tragic death of André’s second wife, Lisbeth, a photographer. Mika’s relationship history with André is the subject of lively gossip at the wedding, with one guest telling another, “She hates losing.”
The couple lives in an elegant mansion in Lausanne with André and Lisbeth’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Shortly after the wedding, a young woman named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) pays the family a visit. Jeanne was born at the same hospital as Guillaume, and when André came to the hospital to see his wife and child, the nurse mistakenly brought Jeanne to him instead of Guillaume. Although Jeanne’s mother, Louise, insists that the error was immediately corrected, Jeanne is struck by the curious coincidence that she’s a pianist just like André. The purpose of her surprise visit is twofold: she would like additional coaching before an upcoming competition and she wants to see if it’s possible that she and Guillaume really were switched at birth.
André is impressed with Jeanne’s talent and offers to help her practice for the competition. He welcomes the chance to help an aspiring concert pianist since his son Guillaume is not musically inclined. Guillaume, however, is distant, suspicious of Jeanne’s motives for visiting his father. Mika is warm and welcoming, but an incident causes Jeanne to wonder if there’s more to Mika than meets the eye. While admiring some of Lisbeth’s photographs, Jeanne sees Mika deliberately spill a flask of hot chocolate she’s prepared for Guillaume. Jeanne asks her boyfriend Axel to help her investigate Mika and her reason for spilling the chocolate.
As Jeanne becomes more involved in the lives of André, Mika and Guillaume, long buried family secrets begin to emerge and Mika’s behavior grows increasingly unpredictable. Is Mika’s charm and elegance merely masking sinister intentions, and what is in the chocolate she always insists on preparing herself?
At the center of this gripping psychological thriller is a compelling performance by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. On the surface, Mika appears to be generous and caring. She opened her home to André, Lisbeth and Guillaume when they needed a stable place to live and she uses the profits from the chocolate company to fund anti-pain clinics. Although her behavior appears to be good, she secretly delights in doing things to catch people off guard, like spilling a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s foot. Huppert’s performance captures the enigmatic nature of Mika and the compulsions that drive her behavior throughout the film.
Chabrol establishes a strong tone that perfectly fits the plot and characters. The film moves at a steady and deliberate pace as the secrets are gradually revealed. Music also plays an important part in the story and Chabrol’s use of Liszt’s Funérailles is effectively quite chilling.
Hitchcock fans looking for other well-crafted suspense movies should consider trying the films of Claude Chabrol.
Merci pour le Chocolat is in French with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Merci pour le Chocolat
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a wealthy and free-spirited socialite living in San Francisco. One afternoon she visits a pet shop, where she meets a man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who’s looking for a pair of lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Mitch has met Melanie before, but she does not recognize him. Knowing her propensity for practical jokes, Mitch decides to play one of his own and pretends to mistake her for a sales clerk. Melanie’s anger at Mitch over his joke quickly turns to interest. She makes a few inquiries and discovers he lives in Bodega Bay with Cathy and his widowed mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Determined to see him again, Melanie purchases lovebirds as a surprise gift for Cathy and travels to Bodega Bay to visit Mitch and his family.
Once she arrives in Bodega Bay, Melanie discovers that Mitch’s house is only accessible by boat. She also meets several of the local residents, including Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), Cathy’s teacher and Mitch’s former lover. She rents a boat, goes to the house while Mitch and his family are out, and leaves the birds along with a note for Cathy. Just as she’s heading back, Mitch sees her on the water and watches as she’s inexplicably attacked by a seagull. He offers his assistance and invites her to dinner that evening. Melanie wasn’t planning on spending the night in Bodega Bay, but she’s interested in Mitch, so she rents a room in Annie’s house for the night and accepts the dinner invitation.
While at the Brenners’ house for dinner, Melanie bonds with Cathy over the lovebirds, and enjoys Mitch’s company. Lydia, however, is less concerned with Mitch’s new love interest than she is about the chickens she keeps on her property. The chickens won’t eat and, curiously, the neighbors’ chickens are refusing to eat as well. The dinner ends on a sour note after Mitch teases Melanie about a scandalous escapade that made the society pages. Once she returns to Annie’s house, Melanie learns more about Mitch and Annie’s ill-fated relationship, and why Annie relocated to Bodega Bay. Mitch later calls to apologize and invites Melanie to Cathy’s birthday party. After accepting the invitation, Annie and Melanie hear a thump at the front door. They open the door and discover a dead bird on the porch.
The unusual behavior of the chickens, the seagull attack, and the dead bird on Annie’s porch are not isolated and unrelated incidents: they portend dark and sinister events involving birds, including the strange death of Lydia’s neighbor and an attack on a group of schoolchildren. Melanie’s romantic getaway quickly turns into a fight for survival as the town of Bodega Bay is inundated by scores of birds whose attacks only grow in frequency and viciousness.
The Birds is frightening because the villain is not your average horror film creature. Instead of a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, the citizens of Bodega Bay are facing a threat from the natural world whose motive is unknown and whose behavior is violent and unpredictable. Hitchcock builds the tension slowly, starting with odd but seemingly random events that culminate in a harrowing night for Melanie and the Brenners.
More than 50 years after its release, The Birds remains a classic of the horror genre and one of Hitchcock’s finest films.
Check the WRL catalog for The Birds
Harvard’s extraordinary Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon, returns as the central character in this fast paced, intellectual, thriller. As the story opens, Langdon is waking up, disoriented, in a hospital. The people around him are not speaking English, but Italian. While it makes one wonder if Langdon actually keeps office hours on campus (he never seems to be there), it also grabs your attention. From the initial scene there are twists, turns, surprises, danger, and discoveries. Inferno introduces readers to an entirely new cast of characters including Dr. Sienna Brooks, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, The Provost, and Bertrand Zobrist, who keep readers turning pages late into the night.
This is Dan Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon novel. With each book the stakes seem to grow, and as this plot unfolds the potential consequences of not solving the puzzle quickly expand beyond the lives of a few people. As the title will suggest for some, crucial to Inferno’s story is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The author has Langdon using his unique knowledge of symbols to examine and analyze Dante’s work, extracting clues, revealing truths, and saving lives. Langdon’s expertise and his eidetic recollection of art serve as key factors in the story.
Dan Brown’s smooth writing and attention to detail make for exciting story-telling. Brown engages his reader with vivid descriptions of historic architecture, art, geography, and society. The places, art, and history he includes in his novel are largely factual. The narrative Brown weaves into the fact is a big part of what makes Inferno so entertaining for me.
Another part is the protagonist. I find myself awed by Langdon’s superhuman personality. He embodies a combination of being unpretentious, ethical, brilliant, driven, analytical, and confident. Because Langdon has no significant character flaws, I think we need the suspension of disbelief that fiction allows to make the character convincing. I still can’t quite visualize Dr. Langdon, since I’ve never met a middle-aged, brilliant academic who also is extremely physically fit, and stands firm in the face of certain death. Indiana Jones showed us that archaeology and adventure are inseparably linked but, before Robert Langdon, who among us had included symbology in that cosmology? Is it a leap to expect that someone will soon write about the exciting exploits of a suave, globe trotting, death-defying librarian? After all, librarians are pretty cool too.
In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:
Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs). Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White. That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.
Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.
Taft did not crave the limelight. If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career. He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.
Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them. He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.
Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent. In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents. Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists. However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.
Today, we get Benjamin’s take on one of the most talked-about biographies in recent years:
Zealot was a number one New York Times bestseller. The book has been vilified by some and praised by others. This comes as no surprise, as Zealot looks for the historical Jesus, a search that invariably causes uproar.
Aslan produces a readable exegesis on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. He informs his reader at the start that he is not writing to question anyone’s faith or beliefs. He is, however, presenting a view of Jesus as a man who lived at the beginning of the Christian Era. Jesus gained a following in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, went to Jerusalem to rail against the establishment, and was executed on a small hill named Golgotha.
Alsan methodically explores who the man Jesus of Nazareth was in the context of the world in which he lived. This is possible because a great deal is known about how the Romans treated criminals, what constituted a crime against the Roman Empire, who had power, and who did not. There has been extensive discussion and analysis about the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes (the major Jewish sects during that time). Numerous narratives of Jewish messiahs exist, including accounts of their anti-Romanism, aversion to the hypocrisy of Temple priests, nationalism, and executions. Despite this, there is limited hard evidence for many portions of the history to draw on, so Aslan spends much of his book reaching conclusions based on interpretation and correlation. Aslan carefully and systematically forms his thesis based on what he can suppose, infer, and theorize.
Zealot does not actually contain much history that has not previously been explored. The difference between this book and other discussions of the historical Jesus may be one of style and accessibility. As a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, it is cogent, clear, and understandable.The author’s extensive research is documented through his 50 pages of endnotes.
For me, Zealot is a book primarily about a man who lived two thousand years ago and what that person’s experiences may have been, given the culture, political reality, and existing religious environment. Aslan has crafted a well researched, thought provoking history. While Zealot is not a book for everyone, it does offer an interesting perspective that will lead many readers to contemplation the topic and perhaps some lively discussion.
My first memory of Billy Crystal was his character Jodie Dallas on the sitcom SOAP. Crystal’s sense of humor, genuine intelligence, and honest delivery were evident then, as they are throughout this autobiographical memoir. In this book he is both funny and poignant.
Crystal’s writing style is relaxed, delivered much like a comedian’s stage act. There are jokes aplenty, and if you are familiar with his comedic style, you will recognize his characters weaved into the book. Crystal recalls a childhood surrounded by musicians and the entertainment industry, his lifelong addiction to sports, the career impact his impressions of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell had, his rising star as a standup comic, and his numerous friendships with individuals whose names any reader instantly recognizes. The book is a combination of one-liners, personal and professional experiences, and commentary on getting older.
Among the vagaries of advancing age, Crystal talks about the challenges of staying physically fit, the inability to stay awake in theaters, the loss of loved ones and friends, and the joys of family. None of this is earth-shatteringly new in concept, but Crystal’s take on it all is lighthearted and fun to read. He’s clear that he’s not done living.
Crystal notes that from a young age, he relished garnering laughs from any appreciative crowd, be it family, friends, or unknown onlookers. He recounts his career highs and lows, although his career lows are few and far between. Crystal’s dedication to craft and excellent performance, combined with his intuition and innate talent, has resulted in a nearly uninterrupted climb to the top of his profession. If Still Foolin’ ‘Em has a flaw, it is Crystal’s constant references to well-known celebrities and not as well-known individuals with whom he has developed close and lasting friendships. Not everyone is his friend, but through the book, he gives the impression that most people are.
Still Foolin’ ‘Em is a light memoir, examining the life of a likeable comedian. Billy Crystal has enjoyed tremendous success while staying out of the tabloids. His successful marriage, well adjusted daughters, good health, and lack of obvious foibles might make you think his memoir lacks the dirt and dish of a “good” memoir. But, really, it’s a crystal clear look at what’s right in this world.
I was born too late to experience Richard Pryor in his prime. I only recall news stories about him as I was growing up, and seeing many of the movies he did during the 1980s. So, this biography offered me the opportunity to learn a great deal more about the man. His life was full of laughter and success, but also turmoil and violence.
While the Henry brothers are not biographers by profession (one is a screenwriter and the other a songwriter/singer) they are Richard Pryor aficionados. Furious Cool is really a tribute to Pryor. The Henrys do not offer excuses for his deviant behaviors, but rather a recounting of the high and low points of his life. Pryor was not a role model. He was not even a nice person much of the time. He was a comedian who could take his audience anywhere and everywhere using just his voice, physicality, brilliant delivery, and agile mind.
Richard Pryor was born into poverty, physical and mental abuse, a culture of drug use, and an anger toward mainstream society. He grew up a user of hard drugs, an alcoholic, and a violent man, who surrendered to his demons, even embraced them, rather than battling them. Furious Cool also reveals that he was a comic genius who revolutionized standup comedy. By all accounts, Richard Pryor was so brilliant live on a stage that his performances are considered the best of the best by comedians and enthusiasts. To this day, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) is heralded as among the best-ever recorded comedy concerts.
In some ways, Pryor’s lifestyle was a testament to how much self-destructive abuse a person can absorb and still survive. It seems that most “modern” celebrities who go down the path of drug addiction either come back repentant or never come back. Pryor spent his entire life a junkie and was never particularly apologetic about it. Although his demons had definitely gotten the better of him before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was that disease that ended his life, not his questionable activities.
Readers should be aware that because Pryor’s act was irreverent, disturbing, and filled with expletives, this book includes many examples of stand-up routines laden with swears and difficult subject matter. It contains stories of drug use and other deviant behavior that were part of Pryor’s everyday life. It also reveals a tormented individual and a comic genius. That noted, Furious Cool is a well written biography for anyone looking to learn more about Richard Pryor. While reading this book you may laugh, you may cry, but you will never think of Pryor in the same way.
Leonard Peacock, age 18 today, doesn’t connect with anyone at school except for Herr Silverman, his social studies teacher. He spends his free time with a chain-smoking elderly neighbor watching Bogart films, and surfing the subway dressed in a suit, observing the workaday adults, and looking for any sign that “it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy.” He sometimes writes letters to himself from imagined loved ones from his future, as suggested by Herr Silverman to get through the daily life of his teenage experience.
Leonard is a loner, to say the least. His self-absorbed failed rock-star father is gone, and his aging model mother, pursuing a mid-life career as a fashion designer, spends most of her time in New York with an insidious “Jean-Luc.” None of these are the reasons Leonard has decided to kill himself and his once best friend Asher Beal today.
Leonard Peacock has a bitterly funny and painfully sincere perspective reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, questioning the norms of a world in which so much seems wrong. He laments a world lulled into the habit of accepting or ignoring everyday evils. But he harbors hope for the better: “Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day.”
This book is swiftly-paced, darkly humorous, and probably for the more pensive reader of realistic fiction. The darker themes may resonate more with older young adult readers, but adult readers shouldn’t miss out on this YA gem. (Quick also wrote The Silver Linings Playbook). The characters are flawed, real, and sometimes lovely. Several long footnotes/sidebars annoy at first, but seem to drop away once the main story and characters are established. Quick offers a perspective on hope and happiness in spite of terrible events, rather than for lack of them, and that happiness can require work. I really connected with this book and feel compelled to read the rest of his works–all of which have been optioned for film.
Check the WRL catalog for Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.
Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language. It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined throughout the decades.
The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.
Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.
As a longtime fan of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, I picked this up as soon as I saw the subtitle. The book is told in free verse–but don’t be thrown if you are not a poetry lover–from Mary’s perspective about her young life from age 14 through her early 20’s, during which she ran away with the charismatic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to travel Europe with his coterie of fellow intellectuals and artists, and she wrote Frankenstein, before she was even 20 years old.
I fear this book won’t be very popular for those not inclined to pick up historical fiction, poetry, or the gothic classic, Frankenstein, but it is full of romance, scandal, and adventure in a format that doesn’t keep you waiting. The brief but dense poetic format offers one scandalous tidbit after another, and the title of each of the poems/entries make it easy to flip back to earlier moments in the story or character introductions. I would almost call this a celebrity gossip special, 19th-century style, if it also weren’t so beautifully written, and didn’t so carefully explore Mary’s joys and struggles as a young woman who is intellectually voracious, determined to write, and in love with an inspiring yet unstable man (did someone say “bad boy?”)
I think young women will be able to relate to Mary’s growth as a young woman, as a writer, and in her relationships with others and the world; her strength and frequent acts of informed fearlessness also make her a character to admire. Hemphill’s choice to write this book about Mary’s formative years as a writer offers the additional benefit of exploring the often raw and complicated formative years of young adulthood, and the strength and genius that can emerge from them.
Although this book seems limited to the historical fiction and YA genres, it has much wider appeal characteristics. Teens who gravitate toward gothic and/or historical drama will find this an interesting and fast read, as will anyone who enjoys celebrity drama and scandal without a lot of excess prose. This also offers appeal to both teens and adults that appreciate YA realistic fiction about the struggles and revelations of young adulthood. Young women will also admire Mary’s self-determination, even though Mary’s love affair with Shelley may be questioned by today’s higher standards for the marital and gender equality in relationships. Adult fans of Philippa Gregory and 19th century English literature will enjoy this, as well as literature buffs who may enjoy the insight that this biographical fiction may offer into readings of Mary’s written work (I couldn’t help but constantly comparing the monster/creator relationship in Frankenstein to the strained relationship between Mary and her adored yet rejecting father).
This book was interesting, packed with drama, and nicely written. I will share that there is a character list at the end of the book that may be helpful as one needs refreshing about the large cast of characters that populate the story. Enjoy this on a rainy day.
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The USS Jeannette set off in search of the North Pole in 1879. Manned in large part by men who had just missed the “glory” of service in the Civil War, the expedition boasted the latest innovations, including Edison’s lights and Bell’s telephones, and was spurred on by scientific theories that the Kuro Siwo, a Pacific equivalent to the Gulf Stream current, would sweep the ship effortlessly north to a temperate polar sea. Unsurprisingly, this was not their experience.
Instead, the Jeannette was locked in a vice of pack ice for two years before its hull was crushed, and the expedition was left to make its way 1,000 miles across more ice and unexplored territory to Siberia—before winter, and before their provisions would run out. At one of the lowest points in their journey, they learned that despite days of grueling slog to the south, hauling their boats, the drift of the floating ice over which they were travelling had dragged them north, even farther from rescue than when they started.
Author Sides delves into the background of the expedition, setting the usual narrative of cold and deprivation in its Gilded Age context. Vivid descriptions, many from the letters and journals of the men involved, add to the account.
Possibly the most striking character in this story wasn’t even on the expedition: financier James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, whose journalist was embedded with the crew. In a book filled with colorful personalities, Bennett is still, as Sides writes, “spectacularly weird,” having once abducted a musical theater company, broken off an engagement by urinating into his prospective in-laws’ grand piano, and boosted newspaper circulation by printing a fake story about New Yorkers mauled by escaped zoo animals in Central Park (“A Shocking Sabbath Carnival OF DEATH!”)
Check the WRL catalog for In the Kingdom of Ice.
Mitch Albom, author of the best-seller Tuesdays with Morrie, continues to write inspirational books exploring faith and humanity. I find his books easy to read with simple plots and sympathetic characters, but each also has a message that lingers.
The First Phone Call from Heaven takes place in a small Michigan town. One morning three different people receive phone calls from family members who have passed away. A short conversation–maybe just a phrase–but sending the message that they were communicating from heaven.
That same day Sullivan Harding is released from prison.
The plot jumps from the history of the telephone to Sully’s story of why he went to prison to the growing interest in these heavenly phone calls.
Sully is is trying to carve out a normal life–a life shared with his young son, Julian, but without his beloved wife; a life as an ex-convict, not a respected Navy pilot. The calls intersect directly with Sully when Julian starts questioning when he is going to get a message from his mom. Julian doesn’t see the difference between Sully going away to prison and coming back, and his mom dying and not coming back. Sully determines to get to the bottom of where these calls are really coming from so his son doesn’t hold out false hope for his mom’s return.
Meanwhile the calls themselves are gaining national attention. A small-time reporter gets the first interview with a women who received a call from her deceased sister. The video goes viral, throwing the small town into chaos as more and more people come to witness the miracle phone calls.
The plot reminds me a little bit about the movie Heaven is for Real, which Chris reviewed a few weeks ago. The phone calls are either real or a complete hoax depending on what you believe. Albom explores the ramifications from many different angles–the individuals receiving the calls, the religious community, the news outlets, the believers, the unbelievers, the curious. And like I said, it will leave you thinking long after you finish the book.
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If you read this blog regularly, and I hope you do, you may notice that I like to read about politics. Strangely enough, Stephen King, who I really like, wrote a book about politics and my first response to it was less than enthusiastic. I read it again a few years later, and it really drew me in. Just goes to show that the same book won’t be the same every time you read it. Since then, I reread it several times and it’s one I suggest to people when they dismiss King as just another scary writer.
The basic story: John Smith is a young teacher, a nice guy falling in love with a nice girl. Then an accident puts him into a coma, and years of that good life just melt away, along with all its possibilities. When he recovers, he has gained a frightening ability. Just by touching something or someone at an emotional moment, he gets flashes—visions of the past, intuitions of the present, knowledge of the future. Some might think it a wonderful power, except he can’t turn it off and can’t get people to believe him.
Johnny has no idea what he is to do with this ability and no interest in exploiting it. He wants to go back to teaching, to pay off his enormous hospital bills, and to find that nice girl he’s still in love with, but word of his ability spreads and he becomes infamous. He also becomes sensitive to the reluctance that people—even the ones he loves?—feel towards touching him. And through a powerful experience he learns that he does have a purpose, even if it isn’t one he believes or wants. He sets off on his own to avoid it and to rebuild the wreck of his life.
Johnny’s story is populated with memorable characters: Sarah Bracknell, his girl; Greg Stillson, the ambitious salesman intent on riding the winds of change; Sam Weizak, Johnny’s doctor and friend; Sonny Ellison, a reformed biker; Sheriff George Bannerman, a desperate cop; and Chuck Chatsworth, the student Johnny finally connects with. Each becomes a reminder to Johnny that he cannot escape his purpose and it becomes more and more apparent that this good and sensitive man is the only person able to prevent an apocalypse.
Politics is the background Johnny’s struggle is illuminated against. From the radical disturbances of the early Seventies to the post-Watergate cynicism of the American public, Johnny is a witness to public life. The story becomes a lesson in political history as told through the eyes of a time traveler adrift in a culture he doesn’t recognize. People have become personalities, character has become charisma, ideas have become ideologies. But Johnny’s struggle is an eternal one—can the ends ever justify the means?
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Capitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.
And then there are the parasites.
In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?
He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.
But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.
As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.” When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.
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It’s an easy comparison: picture Paris Hilton getting out of prison ten years after murdering her own mother. Even better, she’s only free because the LAPD forensics lab screwed up evidence collection in a bunch of cases, so she doesn’t even have the shelter of a presumption of innocence. Swap Paris for the fictional Janie Jenkins, and you’ve got the premise for Dear Daughter.
With her conviction overturned, Janie wants to do two things: hide from the paparazzi and crime shows and blogs, and find out whether or not she killed her mother. True, they had a rotten relationship, and yes, Janie had stolen some expensive stuff, and she was found in the closet of an adjoining room, covered with her mother’s blood. Oh, and her mother had written Janie’s name in her own blood on the wall just before she died. Not even the Dream Team could get her off that one.
With the help of her faithful and hunky appellate lawyer Noah, she grabs handfuls of cash from her inheritance and sets out to disappear. She’s got exactly one clue to go on, one way to lose the rabid searchers, and one chance to clear her name. Off into flyover country she heads, towards Wisconsin (!). Or so Noah thinks.
Janie finds a way to get to the one place that might offer some answers, but has to completely transform her personality to fool the locals. Plus, she’s deliberately deceived Noah, to his increasing consternation. And a sensationalist blogger has turned his reader base into a nationwide dragnet, and they’re getting closer to finding her. Time is running out.
What Janie learns confounds her. She knew her mother was a gold digger intent on turning Janie into a retro 20th-century heiress, but she had no idea how much of a gold digger she was. She knew her mother had no family, but Janie learns why she was alone in the world. And she learns what her mother really thought of the child who derailed her plans for success.
There isn’t much more I can say, because the plot becomes so twisty that to proceed would untangle the whole thing, and you’d miss out on the fun. The best part of the book is Janie herself—deeply sarcastic, seemingly superficial, struggling to hide her killer persona under the mask of a meek academic. And traumatized, institutionalized, and full of self-doubt as she tries to understand why she’s still running, and where it will get her.
Check the WRL catalog for Dear Daughter.