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A review of Paul Newman: A Life (Updated Edition) by Lawrence J. Quirk.

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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The Case of the Wrong Place

The Magician’s Accomplice: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime, 336 pages, $25.00)

It’s a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or is it?   Michael Genelin’s third Commander Jana Matinova mystery novel begins by introducing the reader to a charming, if somewhat opportunistic, starving student.   No sooner does the reader take a liking to the young chap, than poof, he’s gone.   Not in the magical, disappearing sense, more like a bang, you’re dead departure.  

The sinister undercurrent starts with the student’s death at breakfast in the dining room of an elegant Slovakian hotel and gains momentum as another murder takes place within hours, this time at the city prosecutor’s office.   The second  murder is by far the most traumatic for the Commander, as her lover (actually, her would-have-been fiance) is the victim of a telephone bomb.

The story is smoothly depicted in flawless English, somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s style in her Tuppence and Tommy mysteries.   Genelin draws the reader into his scenes with highly cinematic descriptions of the Eastern Europe locales where the action takes place.   The mystery might well be moonlighting as a sophisticated travelogue.   The cafes and their menus reflect the foods and traditions that make each city unique.   The Magician’s Accomplice is also reminiscent of the 1963 film Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn; however, Commander Matinova is no Audrey Hepburn.   Her character aligns better with Cary Grant’s character, for she’s truly a capable spy/law enforcement officer.

There are no gimmicks, or sleight-of-hand tricks, just dogged pursuit, plenty of worn shoe leather, and characters that are generally not what they appear to be.   The author obviously has first-hand knowledge of bureaucracy and law enforcement.   Each agency depicted in the story contains a full complement of the personalities one would expect to encounter, along with their gossip and tight cliques.

Although the settings are a bit exotic, the calm resolve of the main character is welcome and familiar.   This is not because the book is the third in a series; rather, Commander Matinova is the embodiment of today’s serious professional woman.   Society has come to expect her to suppress her raw emotions in the aftermath of disaster and soldier on.   She is able to carry on admirably as she embarks on an odyssey to placate her boss and secretly search for her lover’s killer.   The commander’s unlikely companion is an elderly magician who insinuates himself into her travels and ultimately aids the hunt for the murderer.

The Magician’s Accomplice is a classic police drama and mystery complete with a fine dedication to principles.   It is a joy to read because author Genelin knows how to write, in the very best sense of the word.

Highly recommended.

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

 

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Only Us

I’m coming home again, home again / And I hear you calling me home again / I am coming home again    Peter Gabriel

When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.    Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

So here is what we know about The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold.   It was first published in 2002 and took seven full years to gain some traction.   Then it belatedly became a best-seller in book form and was made into a relatively successful film.   Some claim that the unique story was first recognized by young adults who gravitated toward the tale of a young woman who was killed by a serial murderer; a girl who monitors the search for her killer from heaven, while also monitoring the activities of her father, mother, maternal grandmother and sister.

Sebold herself has indicated that she wrote the story in order to give life to the invisible victims, the young long-haired women, killed by serial killers like Ted Bundy.   We also know, by a quick glance at a few websites where readers can post their comments, that most readers seem to experience either a love or hate relationship with this novel.   Which makes me different, I suppose…   I didn’t find The Lovely Bones to be one of the best stories I’ve read nor one of the worst.   I would not assign it an A or an F but, if placed on a polygraph, I’d give it – at best – a C+ to B- grade.

Much credit goes to Sebold for fashioning a unique story that starts off so, well, so tragically.   We feel the death of Susie Salmon and take it personally.   More than anything, we want justice and revenge.   We want to see her killer, Mr. Harvey, captured and punished and this is why we keep reading.   And this is where the problems begin.   After such a great start, the story seems to plod along for chapter after chapter.  

As with the twins in Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, ghosts are real in Sebold’s novel.   They appear to the living “like an unexplained breeze,” or an image that’s there for just a second.   But I wished so very much that this story – which at its end still felt like the skeleton of a story – had been written by Niffenegger who would have added flesh and blood.   Perhaps the biggest flaw with Bones is that the villain eventually meets, or is given, justice in an artificial manner that comes off as totally fake…  It won’t be disclosed here, but it’s an inside joke on something that occurs earlier in the telling, something juvenile.

Sebold’s strength is in creating an artificial world, if not a universe, in which the living and the dead miss each other.   She uses her story to assure us that life goes on (even in death), that love conquers all, and that unless we move forward each day, “Life is a perpetual yesterday for us.”   Yet, I doubt that I would purchase another work by this author and (based on the audio excerpts I’ve heard) I would certainly not be interested in reading The Almost Moon.

This review is based on the unabridged 10.5 hour audiobook (9 CD) version of The Lovely Bones ($19.98 U.S./ $24.98 Canada), read by the author and purchased by the reviewer.

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It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To…

The Divorce Party by Laura Dave is a perfect book to buy in an airport for a 3-day business trip.   Read it on the plane, in your hotel room or in the lobby, and on the return flight and you should be able to finish it.   It’s a 272-page novella – a smaller than usual trade paperback – that feels much shorter than that.

This story does not need a lot of space as it all takes place in 24 hours or so.   Gwyn Huntington is planning on publicly celebrating her divorce from her husband Thomas with 200 friends and family members.   She does not actually want the divorce but Thomas – not Tom – is having an affair with the woman Gwyn has hired to cater the event.   Strange.   Strange also is the fact that Gwyn knows about her husband’s infidelity, but acts like she doesn’t.   Further, she plans to end the “divorce party” by serving Thomas his favorite type of cake – an ironic variation on what would occur in a traditional wedding celebration.

And the strangeness doesn’t end here.   The co-plot involves their son Champ Nathaniel (Nate) Huntington who is engaged to Maggie McKenzie.   Nate and Maggie plan to marry and run a restaurant together with Nate serving as chef.   On the day of the divorce party, Maggie learns from Nate’s sister that her new life and business partner is worth $500 million (he’s a half-billionaire).   This is supposed to make Maggie upset, but really now…   In this economy, how many people would want to call off a marriage because their soon-to-be spouse has too much money?

This was just one of the aspects of the plot that did not make sense to me.   Maggie learns something else that’s meant to be shocking about Nate, but we’ll leave that up to the reader to discover.   Let’s just say that to this reader the characters were more irritating and odd – and non-communicative – than charming.        

Does this sound a bit like a plot for an afternoon TV movie?   It did to me.   Not quite believable and at its conclusion not much has really happened or been resolved (“Nothing was revealed…” in Dylan’s words).   It’s more than a shame…Divorce Party 2I had read so many positive comments about author Laura Dave that I expected something weighty, dramatic, moving…  life-affirming.   To the contrary, this short work seemed light, slight and mostly forgettable.   Like some of those family movies made for TV, it’s not that bad – yet something not to regret if you’ve missed it.

Disappointing.   As one of Dave’s characters states in this story, “We don’t know anything about what is coming up next.”   True and sometimes we expect more than is delivered.

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