Tag Archives: films

Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Hello Goodbye

Antonia Fraser is known in England as Lady Antonia Fraser, her father having been an Earl.   Her forthcoming book Must You Go? – My Life with Harold Pinter will be released in the U.S. on November 2, 2010 by Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.   Fraser’s memoir centers on her 33-year love affair with, and marriage to, the celebrated playwright and poet Harold Pinter.  

We’ll have a review up by the release date of Must You Go? but, in the interim, it’s worth noting that this memoir is getting fantastic write-ups on the other side of the pond.   Here’s a small sampling.

“Writing with exemplary clarity and courage…  Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open.”   – The Independent

“The book is intimate without being confessional, and on certain subjects (Fraser) prefers to say nothing.   But she’s not so discreet as to be dull, and there’s a lot of humour.”   – Blake Morrison, The Guardian

“It may lack sensational revelations but Antonia Fraser’s memoir of married life with Pinter is eccentric and hilarious.”   – Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“It is neither autobiography nor biography but a love story, romantic, poignant and very funny, illuminating her husband’s character and creativity.”   The Times

“This book works, just as it appears their lives (together) worked, as the most touching and enduring of love stories…  The ending is… almost unbearably moving.   The whole of this lovely book fills you with a gratitude that happenstance can, once in a while, not screw up and find the right girl for the right boy.”   – Dominic Dromgoole, Financial Times

“It’s enormously enjoyable to read…  because this is a book that’s intimate without being confessional, and that’s a very unusual thing today.   At the end of it you feel you’ve had an insight into a great romance…  She’s really pulled off something of enormous subtlety.”   Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“This book – full of funny and tender things – satisfies on more than one level.   It is an intimate account of the life and habits of a major artist; it is a pencil sketch of British high society in the second half of the 20th century; and it is, more than either of these things, and much more unusually, a wonderfully full description of the deep pleasures and comforts of married love.”   – The Spectator

“The final third of Must You Go? is dominated by Pinter’s ill-health, his award of the Nobel prize, and his courageous struggle still to speak out on the issues that concerned him.   In many ways they are the best part of the book.”   – Robert Harris, The Sunday Times

Interested?   Lady Antonia Fraser will appear at the Los Angeles Public Library (630 W. 5th Street) at 7:00 p.m. on November 8, 2010; and at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Avenue) on November 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

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Shelter From the Storm

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday; 400 pages; $28.95)

Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is a top-notch, first-class synopsis of Bob Dylan’s career, contributions to popular music, status as a cultural icon, and – to a lesser extent – his place in the history of American commentators.

A person who is taking their first foray into the legend that is Bob Dylan would do well to start here, but the die-hard Dylan-junkies will have encountered much of this material in other familiar works.   In fact, Wilentz himself references as sources books, essays, and compilations that many Dylan fanatics will have already read such as Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name, Ratsko Sloman’s On the Road with Bob Dylan, much of Marcus Greil’s work, David Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Bauldie’s Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, and, of course, a truly great book, Dylan’s own Chronicles.

In light of this, the natural question becomes, “What actually separates this book from the many other books about Dylan?”   First, it is extremely well written.   But beyond that, Wilentz only partially succeeds in trying to put Dylan’s work and persona in a historical perspective because he spends a great deal of energy recounting familiar territory, rather than, what a person familiar with Dylan’s work might be  led to expect by the title would be the primary focus of the book – the integration of Dylan’s musical genius into the collective consciousness of our shared American experience.

He succeeds to a vastly greater degree in placing Dylan’s music in the context of how it relates to our American musical heritage and traditions.   Somehow, in the process, he also manages to successfully accomplish an almost impossible task: evoking an understanding of how Dylan expands that very landscape and either consciously or subconsciously defines many of these American musical traditions as well as various poetic and literary movements though his steadfast commitment to performing his music live.   Wilentz’s continued reference to Dylan as the minstrel couldn’t be more appropriate.

Additionally, Wilentz manges to refer to Dylan’s music intellectually in context, without over-analyzing it – a trap that many other biographers fall into.   Another highlight is the unique treatment he gives to Dylan’s respects for his predecessors.

Dylan’s forays into art (painting) is discussed as well as his interest in movies and attempts at acting and producing films.   Dylan typically does not come across well in other mediums, but Wilentz rightfully points out that he is more articulate these days, and his movie Masked and Anonymous is a much stronger effort than many assumed it would be.

The more recent parts of Dylan’s career make up some of the most interesting parts of the book, perhaps because there has been less written of them, but the album Love and Theft is a masterpiece, his recent tours have been exceptionally strong as compared to his down period, and Dylan’s book, Chronicles, was extremely absorbing.

Wilentz addressed all of these in an interesting and enlightened manner.   He also emphasizes what many others have as well: the perplexing mystery of the songs that were left off of the 1983 album Infidels (e.g., “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride”).

Wilentz also discusses Dylan’s ability to incorporate past, present, and future into one as he creates his stories and musical impressions.   Wilentz’s storytelling mimics this to a degree to accentuate the point rather effectively, but he often comes across as having some type of inner knowledge on a topic; only to leave the point unsubstantiated, which is at times both troubling and confusing.

The best advice is to read the primary source, Chronicles, or better yet, go see Dylan perform live.   Then, for a very interesting read for Dylan fans, music lovers, and pop devotees alike, turn to Wilentz.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a Well Recommended rating.

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Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

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Every Story Tells A Picture

When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From A Persuasive Man by Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen (Hachette Audio, Unabridged on 8 CDs; $29.98).

“I’ve never been afraid to fail.”   Jerry Weintraub

If you’re going to experience a book based on an “old man’s” stories of his life, you might as well hear them in the voice of the man himself, Jerry Weintraub.   Weintraub, now 72, has worked with the biggest of the big in the music and movie businesses.   Yes, everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan – who wrote the introductory poem – and Led Zeppelin in music; Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Gene Hackman (with whom he attended acting school) in film.

Weintraub was also the Zelig-like figure who befriended the biggest figures in politics including a young John F. Kennedy, CIA Director George Herbert Walker Bush, and a peanut farmer by the name of Jimmy Carter.

I first attempted to read the standard book version of Talking, but something was missing.   The stories were entertaining but I couldn’t get a feel for the narrator, the person telling the stories.   This all changed when I began to listen to the audio book.   Initially, Weintraub sounds every year of his age and I began to wonder if a young actor should have been hired to voice the tales.   But within just a few minutes one becomes mesmerized by his voice.

Weintraub likes to say that there are differences between a person’s appearance and his/her behaviors and true personality; but it takes some time to learn about the individual’s soul.   The same is true here…  Only by spending time with the man do you get past his appearance as one of “the suits” in New York City and Hollywood/Los Angeles.   Eventually you get to the man and his soul – what makes him tick, what really drives him, and what he thinks life – success – is really about.

Jerry Weintraub takes the listener on a journey which begins with him as a poor Jewish kid on the streets of Brooklyn.   In his early twenties he becomes the most ambitious young man working in the mail room at the famed William Morris Agency in Manhattan.   After a couple of very quick promotions, he quits William Morris – now who would do that? – as he has the idea of taking Elvis on his first nationwide concert tour.   In order to do this he needs to come up with a cool $1 million deposit to hand to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager.   How does he come up with the money?   This is just one of the many great, highly entertaining, stories told in this anthology of true tales.

“While we’re here, we may as well smile.”   Armand Hammer

It comes as a surprise that the most fascinating stories are about the secondary figures, such as John Denver, George Burns, Dean Martin, Dorothy Hamill (who married Dean Paul “Dino” Martin), Colonel Parker (who was originally a carnival barker), and Armand Hammer.   But Weintraub saves the very best for last, when this very mature man touches upon spirituality, religion, mortality and family.   By his own admission, Weintraub has never been religious and yet he has come to work closely with Catholic charities and Jewish congregations.   It is all very personal, as he explains in Talking and some of the connections have to be heard to be believed.   (Yes, real life is so much stranger than fiction.)

It is when he talks of the death of his parents that we come to feel the emotional soul of Mr. Weintraub.   His voice breaking, he tells us that “everything changes in life when you lose your parents.”   Materialism takes a sudden back seat to memories, to one’s basic values as one comes to realize that we’re all renters in this place.

Jerry Weintraub, we come to know, was proud of his success but so much more so because he could share it with his parents – such as with his skeptical father who came to doubt that he “really knew” President Carter and the First Lady until the Weintraubs were invited to a State Dinner at the White House.   (Weintraub’s father once wondered aloud if his son had made millions as a Jewish member of the Mafia.)

By the end of Talking, you’ll come to feel that Jerry Weintraub is a very nice man, one you’d be happy to invite to one of those special “10 people you would like to have dinner with” events.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Hungry Like the Wolf

The Wolves of Fairmount Park: A Crime Novel by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

“Somebody out there has turned a gun on two kids.   Whoever did it might be locked up now, and they might not.   If they weren’t locked up, then they were on the street and not far away.   It wasn’t six degrees out here, separating the guilty from the innocent, the living from the dead.   It was two degrees.”

This would have made for a great two-hour made for TV movie – a decade or two or more ago – when people felt they still had the time to watch such things.   Two outstanding males of high school age are shot (and one is killed) in front of  a drug house in Philadelphia, a killing which has shocked the community and the entire city.   The old guard police chief wants the crime solved by yesterday, so he turns to his most on-the-make young detective; a kid with a proven track record (the department’s “boy wonder”), and the best of instincts.

But there are two other individuals who have their own reasons for beating the detective at his own game.   One is the police officer father of the surviving high school students, who feels guilty over his shaming of a son who he viewed as less than masculine.   Then there’s the officer’s troubled and drug-abusing half-brother who sees this as his chance for redemption within the family.

As these protagonists engage in a race to solve the crime in a dangerous environment, things quickly become far more dangerous.   Control of the drug trade in this community already changed hands once in the recent past, and now there’s a full-fledged war to see which adult gang will control the multi-million dollar trade in the future.   This is a war fought with automatic weapons and snipers; a war in which friends betray friends.   The winners will be able to buy anything they want in life, the losers will be dead.

“The city was a box between the two rivers, a couple of miles up and down.   Chances were he really did already know the shooters.   And that they knew him.”

Our fourth major character is the city of Philadelphia, Philly, which is anything but inspiring or glamorous.   This is the tough and downtrodden city seen in the film Invincible, in which most folks are out of work and one’s leisure time is spent in dive bars and strip clubs.   The only job training program available is run by the drug dealers who own “the corners”, and it’s a program that is far from being sanctioned by the federal government.

“He thought about how everyone thought they had the right to do whatever they did.   Everything, no matter what.”   

Author Dennis Tafoya does not easily or readily give up information to the reader, which in this context is a good thing.   The reader will be almost two-thirds of the way through the story before learning the simple reason the two young men were standing in front of a drug house on a dangerous night.   Tafoya makes you work for it, to become invested in his tough and gritty story.   It is an investment that pays off extremely well in the end.

Well recommended.

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

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Almost Everything

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell (Henry Holt and Company; June 2010)

“We got what we needed.”

This novel tells the story of one Birdie Baker, a young woman from a small eastern town and a deeply religious upbringing.   She marries young – a huge mistake – and decides to escape the life that others have planned for her.   So she “(comes) to Los Angeles, running from something.”

Birdie has a fantasy, that in the big western city recovered from the desert she will find everything lovely, effortless, safe.   She dreams of becoming an actress, being discovered, walking on red carpets and having young girls envy her.   But L.A. can be a tough town for those without money and fame.   Years pass as Birdie exists as a stand-in for a famous actress and a sometime body double.

Important men, men with power in the movie trade, find Birdie attractive but even they can see that she’s aging fast.   Now time has passed and “she was thirty, almost everything, almost nothing.”

Similar stories have been told in other novels about Hollywood, and this reader worried that the story was running out of gas before the halfway point.   Birdie seems less than totally interesting and often unlikable, and she spends too much time with older men.   Fortunately, Birdie eventually meets Lewis – a young male actor who believes in the same things that Birdie once did.

First-time author Hollowell comes up with some great lines detailing how Birdie sees Lewis as a younger version of herself; a fellow traveler haunted by his past but filled with hopes and optimism:  “How young he was, afraid of forgetting the tragedies that made him.   He did not yet know that he will never forget, that he will want to forget but will not be able to.”   With the character of Lewis, Hollowell finds a sweet spot.   Birdie will, of course, become romantically involved with Lewis but even she understands that this will end up like a brother and sister relationship.

Birdie is at first confused about life in L.A. and about why she is not getting what she wants and needs.   She goes on to become a woman who literally comes to believe that having a life – at least the life she wants – is impossible.   And yet she knows she has certain powers.   While producers and directors may not chase after her (pretty girls in Hollywood being a nickel a dozen), a lot of average men do want to be with her.   Why?   Well, because Birdie “did not talk about the future or ask them to be in it…  She did not seem to want them so they pursued her to discover the reason.”

The second half of the novel is strong as Hollowell discovers a way to give Birdie most of what she wants out of life, if not all of what she once dreamed.   And the conclusion – the final words – of Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe cannot be improved upon.   “This is how everything should end:  with the forgotten remembered, the wounded healed, and the sinners forgiven.”

This is a nice debut for Jenny Hollowell.   This reviewer hopes that her sophomore effort is built around a more engaging (and intelligent) protagonist, and that she finds a unique story line.   She’s a self-professed fan of Bob Dylan (“He is so good at summing things up…”) and perhaps she will find some inspiration there.

Recommended.

Take Away:   This story is not very original and it is not close to perfect, but there’s enough here to make it an engaging and satisfying read.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Another Rookie

The Long Snapper by Jeffrey Marx (Harper One, $24.99, 245 pages)

The Long Snapper would be a charming true story except that we’ve read and seen it before.   In the book and film version of The Rookie (Dennis Quaid starred in the movie), we were told the true story of Jim Morris, a professional baseball player who becomes a school teacher when his athletic career is over.   Years pass before he’s suddenly contacted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who want him to try out for a pitching opening.   He’s undecided but his students encourage him to take the try-out, and this “rookie” returns to “the Show.”

Take the exact same story and substitute the football player Brian Kitchen for Morris and you have The Long Snapper.   Kinchen played pro football for 12 years before losing his job and becoming a school teacher.   Two years pass and then guess what?   Oh, yes, the same thing that happened in The Rookie.   Except that Kinchen is invited to try out for a team that’s two wins away from the Super Bowl.

You can probably guess what the ending is going to be.   Does our hero come through in the Big Game?   The climax will only surprise those who haven’t seen Hoosiers, The Bad News Bears, Invincible or Remember the Titans.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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