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New York Minute

An Object of Beauty: A Novel by Steve Martin (Hachette Audio,$34.98)

An Object of Beauty is the first novel I’ve read by Steve Martin.   I’ve enjoyed Martin’s comedy and movies for years, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from him as an author.   What I discovered was a very well written, intriguing novel about the art world in New York City in the 1990’s and 2000’s.   My husband loves to talk about how Steve Martin is one of the premier banjo players in the country.   With his music, comedy, acting, and writing, I think it is safe to say that Steve Martin is a true renaissance man.

An Object of Beauty has one of the most unusual heroines that I’ve had the pleasure to read about.   In the vein of Scarlett O’Hara or Catherine Earnshaw, Lacey Yeager is a strong-willed woman who cares mostly about herself and getting ahead at the cost of those who get in her way.   Yet, she is fascinating to read about.   I really enjoyed this book and couldn’t stop listening to Lacey’s story.

An Object of Beauty is narrated by Lacey’s friend Daniel.   Daniel once had a casual fling with Lacey, but now meets her occasionally as a friend and fellow art lover.   While Daniel writes for an art magazine, Lacey works her way up the chain of the art world to own her own gallery.   Lacey’s rise to the top is filled with scheming and intrigue, and involves at least one mystery that is finally resolved at the end of the story.   Lacey has learned to find art an “object of money” rather than an “object of beauty” and she lets this passion control all even if it costs her the love of her life.

Lacey’s journey was fascinating and I especially loved how the art world and Lacey’s place in it paralleled the major events of our time.   This included the rise of the markets in the 90’s and early 00’s and the crash at the end of the decade.   Lacey’s experience on 9/11 was quite intriguing and I couldn’t turn the CD off at that point!   I also didn’t know how this affected the art world.   I know next to nothing about art and I loved Martin’s detailed explanation of how the art world works.   It was interesting and never boring.

I listened to the audiobook as read by Campbell Scott.   He did a fair job as a narrator and stood in for me as Steve Martin narrating the novel.

Laura Arlt Gerold

Used by permission.   You can read more reviews by Laura Arlt Gerold at the brilliantly titled Laura’s Reviews, http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .

A review copy of the audiobook was provided by the publisher.

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These Dreams of You

Cleaning Nabokov’s House: A Novel by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone; $24.00; 336 pages)

Debut author and literary agent Leslie Daniels sets the reader up for a tough and jarring ride before she detours us onto a softer road.   This begins as the story of a woman, Barb Barnett, who has no domestic skills and little self-esteem.   She leaves her husband John and her two children before they discover that she doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher in their home.   It may be the beginning of a period of freedom and growth for her – instead, she finds that she’s powerless, a helpless and hopeless person who’s utterly lost in the world.

Barb finds a weathered rental home in her husband’s (“the experson”) Upstate New York community of Onkwedo, home of Waindell University; a not too thinly disguised version of Ithaca, home to Cornell.   This turns out to have once been the temporary home of the famed writer Vladimir Nabokov; it may have been the home in which he wrote the classic Lolita over a two-year period.   The very lonely Barb finds that she’s not free of her ex-husband’s demands since she must do what he says in order to see her young children – a  purse-collecting girl and a very serious boy.   Even when John Barnett takes his kids and new girlfriend and moves a two-hour drive away from Onkwedo, Barb is expected to act as his servant, even taking care of John’s new dog for periods of up to six days at a time.

Barb’s powerlessness may have come to an end when she happens to find a manuscript in the rental home, a not fully completed novel about Babe Ruth that may or may not have been written by Nabokov.   Ah, the reader sees, this is going to be her ticket out…  Well, maybe.   At the urging of a literary agent, Barb takes it upon herself to complete the novel and takes it with her to New York City for authentication by literary experts.   (No doubt it’s going to be a genuine Nabokov and she’ll be rich.)

“My mother didn’t like bad things to happen to anyone, particularly herself.   To be fair, she didn’t like bad things to happen to me either, so she pretended they didn’t.   Her warding off of bad things involved revisions of reality.   When I was a child, she told me two years in a row that ‘Grandma is in Florida and can’t come for Christmas.’   The third year, I pinned her down and discovered that Grandma was dead.”

Forty-five percent of the way through this tale, the reader is certain of what’s going to happen.   Everything seems to be all sewn up in a neat little bundle for resolution.   And then everything changes.

While in Manhattan, Barb discovers a successful brothel that’s visited by men.   It dawns on her that her path to power and riches may lie in establishing a brothel in sleepy Onkwedo, although one that will meet the needs of the women in the village rather than the men.   One of the university’s heralded sports teams has just the young bloods she needs for her own unique team of athletes.   This is exactly where the fun and the sense of personal empowerment comes into play, for Barb realizes that if she can make enough money for herself she can stand up and take on John Barnett in a fair custody fight.

“John used to be right all the time.   It was a cornerstone belief of our former relationship: we both knew that John was always right.   Only that was no longer true.”

The once weak and timid Barb is assisted in her efforts by finding a strong and understanding man, who seems (and this is part of the charm of the story) to have suddenly appeared from the pages of a romance novel.   He’s a working man who knows better than to come on too strong with her, so she’s the one who makes the moves, even when it comes to their first kiss.

And so the serious becomes the sublime, with a heavy trace of satire and comedy, in a very unique offering from Daniels.   What makes it all work – and work so well, from start to finish – is that the reader is always in Barb Barnett’s corner even through all the script, set and background changes.   It’s a dizzying and sometimes puzzling read; all in all, a fun and tremendously engaging read.

Leslie Daniels pulls out all of the stops in this well recommended debut.   Bravo!  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released on March 1, 2011.

“An odd mix of silly, ridiculous, and inspiring…  a pleasure to read.”   Publishers Weekly.

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The L.A. Times Book Festival Goes Trojan

L. A. Times Festival of Books Comes to USC

The Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California today announced that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of the Southland’s most cherished and engaging weekend celebrations, will kick off its 16th storied year in a new home at USC’s University Park campus from April 30 to May 1, 2011.

Angelenos of all ages interested in famous authors, celebrity appearances, speaker panels, superstar chefs and local musicians will have something extra special to look forward to as the celebration debuts downtown.

“After 15 years on the Westside, we are very excited to move the Festival of Books to its beautiful new home and have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with USC to ensure we grow bigger and better in the future,” said Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.   “Attendees and exhibitors can expect more to see, do and experience in addition to great access and a refreshing change of scenery.”

USC President C. L. Max Nikias said, “We are thrilled that the festival has a new home here.   The Festival of Books is known for sparking just the kind of intellectual curiosity and energy that are at the heart of USC’s mission.   The festival is a great fit for our world-class faculty authors and writing programs, as well as for our literacy work in the community.   USC and the Los Angeles Times are two of the oldest institutions in Los Angeles, and it’s fitting that we would be joining together for this event that is so important to the intellectual life of Southern California.”

The move allows for increased attendance due to USC’s central location, proximity to public transportation, abundant parking and newly enhanced campus facilities.  The Times and the university will work together to best utilize the University Park campus to expand programming, provide exhibitors and sponsors with the benefit of more  useable space and other concession opportunities.   The Festival of Books previously was held on UCLA’s campus in Westwood.   (Noted the L.A. Times: “UCLA is a bigger campus, but USC spokesman James Grant said his university had plenty of room for the festival’s many outdoor activities and indoor seminars and lectures.”)

Last year, more than 140,000 people enjoyed the nation’s largest public literary festival, where more than 400 authors blended with hundreds of exhibitors representing booksellers, publishers, literacy and cultural organizations.   Poetry, mystery, politics, young adult, comic book, graphic novel and manga all flavor the festival’s author readings, book signings, intimate Q&A’s, comedy, children’s activities and more.   The event, which is free to the public, delivers a celebration of all the written word inspires.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was created in 1996 to promote literacy, celebrate the written word and bring together those who create books with the people who love to read them.

Source: USC News, September 22, 2010 (Used by permission).   Information on the L. A. Times Festival of Books will be available at: http://latimesfestivalofbooks.com .   Pictured above: USC President C. L. Max Nikias and L.A. Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.

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The Ragged Tiger

Paper Tiger:  An Obsessed Golfer’s Quest to Play with the Pros by Tom Coyne (Gotham, $15.00)

Yes, 7 and the Ragged Tiger was my favorite album from the 80s mega rock-disco group Duran Duran.   This book’s title has no connection to that band, nor – as one browsing Borders might think – to Tiger Woods.   But it is about the maddening sport of golf.

Tom Coyne has authored two other well-received books about the sport, A Gentleman’s Game and A Course Called Ireland.   The one-time college golfer is one of those guys who has had a few beers with his friends in the clubhouse and wondered what it would be like to devote a year or two of one’s life to nothing but the game.   He has a bit of talent, so would dedicating himself completely to golf turn him into a PGA qualifier?

You can probably guess what the answer is, but to Coyne’s credit he gave it a very good shot.   In one year he hit 75,000 range balls to practice his old killer swing, and he woke up early and hit until dark while living in an apartment that joined the greens in Florida.   What did he find out?   That even with the best technology (free Mizuno high-tech clubs) and the best in coaching (Dr. Jim Suttie) you can’t turn a paper tiger into a roaring lion.

Statistically, amateur entrants into a U.S. Open qualifying tournament have a .893 percent (less than nine-tenths of one percent) chance “of making it into the final field this year.”   So it’s not a shock that our hero – a rusty and overweight golfer when he begins his links journey – does not manage to accomplish the impossible.   But the fun is in the read, following an Everyman who’s as likely to flame out under the pressure of possible success as any one of us mortals.   To paraphrase what someone else said, Coyne tried to play with the killers on the course and they killed him.

The Philadelphia Inquirer got it right when the newspaper wrote that Paper Tiger is, “A breezy, poignant read…  Hilarious.”   The book contains several very funny true stories and scenes, the best of which is when a rookie caddy mistakes the author for the great lefty Phil Mickelson!   Under the pressure of attempting to “be” Phil, Coyne shoots an 89 and finishes his 18-holes with the young caddy screaming at him – “It’s about G– Damn time!”

This one is quite funny.   Look for the trade paperback at a large bookstore and then take it along on your next multi-hour plane or train trip.   It will well be worth it.   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Clarissa Gets Her Wings

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

“Life is too short, the ghost knew, for a woman to waste it on a man who did not know how to love.”

This is a very entertaining novel about personal liberation.   Our protagonist is the interestingly named Clarissa Burden, a novelist who is burdened by being married to “an amoral and dangerous man.”   Clarissa lives in an ancient home in south Florida that’s also inhabited by a family of ghosts (ghosts being the biggest trend in current fiction behind vampires) and thinking animals and insects.   Fowler makes quite clear that this story of one woman gaining freedom is meant to be symbolic of something far larger:  “Hers was not so much a private, primal scream as it was a release of all the vicissitudes that all women through all time had ever experienced.   Subservience wasn’t their game.”

This serio-comic novel is uplifting while also being quite a fun read.   Not only do we have human ghosts, we also have a ghost fly that’s in love with Clarissa – the woman who killed him – and we have circus dwarfs, mistakenly referred to by Clarissa as midgets.   As with Audrey Niffenegger, Fowler saves some of her best writing for the descriptions of the ghost of Olga Villada, the first owner of the home she lives in:  “Olga spun toward the middle of the room…  She began to whirl, faster and faster…”   Clarissa stood “in the shadow of a whirling ghost.”

Clarissa’s ancient home is “full of haunts” but this is less disturbing to her than her husband’s lusting after other women (primarily young ones) and her difficulty in resuming her previously successful writing career.   She no longer experiences “the same feeling she experienced in the old days when she was writing and writing well, when she knew the next word she typed would be not simply an okay word or a good word, but the only word in all the English language that would do.”

Clarissa leads a frustrated life of writer’s block and blocked emotions until she meets a young male writer, a prior acquaintance, who shows her the path to freedom.   However, don’t fear as this tale never gets too serious or too preachy…   In fact, it concludes with a hilarious shaggy-dog story-type ending involving the dwarfs’ circus and an adventurous dog that will make a perfect ending for a film version.

Reading How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is like taking a nice cooling shower on a hot and muggy day in southern Florida.   Refreshing!

Highly recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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Flipping Out

Flipping Out: A Lomax and Biggs Mystery

by Marshall Karp

Flipping houses takes on a whole new meaning in this, the third Lomax and Biggs mystery from Marshall Karp (Cut, Paste, Kill; The Rabbit Factory).   Karp is a playwright and screen writer who makes good use of his background.   The Flipping Out plot centers on several poker-playing Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detectives, their spouses and a mystery writer with more nerve than a bad tooth.   This is a wild and crazy tale comprised of standup comedy lines and relationship banter set inside the Home and Garden TV premise that a profit can be made from fixing up houses and selling them quickly.   Real world flipping activities have been seriously curtailed by the current economic slump but this is not – fortunately for the reader – the real world.

The spin on the basic concept employed by the mystery writer, who happens to be the mother-in-law of one of the detectives, gets around the real estate slump by adding an only in LA feature.   The house being flipped is the setting of a murder – in one of her novels!   The open house staging is complete with an outline of the body, crime scene tape and a story-board in each room describing the action in the book.

Although the body count adds up quickly, there’s nothing at all scary about Flipping Out; rather, Karp indulges himself by reeling in his reader through many layers of plot and a teaser crime solution part way through the story.

Who knew that LA Homicide duty could be so funny?   A unique and enjoyable read!

Recommended.

Review by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by Minotaur Books.

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