Tag Archives: television

Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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Only the Good Die Young

Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)

“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”

It’s 1960.   You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo.   The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency.   Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your  mother) that the evil kid has escaped.   Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.

As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business.   You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth.   So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient…   And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything.   Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.

You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works.   You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since:  “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns.   So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”

Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more).   Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody.   Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics.   The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the  nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.

At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser.   It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights…   Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.

Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.

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Streets of Bakersfield

Hot, Shot, and Bothered: A Lilly Hawkins Mystery by Nora McFarland (Touchstone, $14.99, 304 pages)

Get ready for a new type of spunky girl mystery!   This second appearance of Lilly Hawkins, a TV news shooter for the local Bakersfield, California TV station, proves to be a summer stunner.   Lilly is a very honest person, sort of.   That’s to say she’s honest with herself about who she is now and who she was in the past.   She’s not so honest about her intentions when it comes to her boss at the station or the local police and sheriff.   A drowning death that she’s sent to video tape seems fishy to Lilly.   It is one of the two concurrent mysteries that sustain the reader’s interest.   Layered over the drowning is a breathtaking wildfire that may just consume the evidence at the location of the drowning.   Who set the fire and why was Jessica Egan murdered?

McFarland sets the scene with plenty of realistic action.   She has been behind the camera in Lilly’s shoes as a shooter for the news media.   To McFarland’s credit, the details are helpful and she has resisted the urge to bury the reader in techno speak.   One element that was lacking would have proven helpful for this reviewer.   A simple graphic/map showing the general vicinity where the action takes place could have provided a sense of the movement in the story.   Author Lisa Black’s thriller Trail of Blood that is set in Cleveland, Ohio contains one and it was an integral part of enjoying the book.

The characters in Hot, Shot, and Bothered are brought into the tale in a general locale, not exactly in Bakersfield, California, but nearby.   As they are matched up with each other, for example the grocer and the lady mayor, the stakes are raised.   McFarland is very adept at revealing her characters’ motivations at her own pace.   She makes Lilly work under super pressure to cover the growing fire and satisfy her nagging doubts about the drowning.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Hot, Shot, and Bothered was released on August 2, 2011.   “Funny, smart and honest.   Packed full of adrenaline and attitude.   Don’t miss it!”   Lisa Scottoline

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Heart and Soul

One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers (Gallery; $26.00; 272 pages)

Spunky, vivacious and charming are words that easily describe Stephanie Powers, the actress best known for her role in the television series Hart to Hart.   Yes, her character on the series also matches up with these adjectives.   Don’t be fooled by appearances or roles, for when it comes to intellect and curiosity, Ms. Powers leads the Hollywood pack.   Her memoir, One from the Hart, is filled with fully developed recollections of a life lived all over the globe.

Although Powers’ formal education concluded with her graduation from Hollywood High School, readers will be treated to the best in grammar and word selection.   Powers set out to make up for a lack of college education by committing to reading through the literature list for students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   With that goal accomplished, she has maintained a lifelong course in learning.   Her curiosity and willingness to expand as a person has resulted in a remarkable memoir that is well-developed and engagingly narrated.   This reviewer felt as though she had been included in the circle of friends that Powers has grown over the last several decades.

Yes, Powers is talented musically and as an actress.   Yes, she is remarkably beautiful.   Underneath this Hollywood veneer beats a heart that truly loves people and animals.   Her actions speak for themselves for she is the driving force behind the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in Kenya.   Given her enthusiasm for education, it is no surprise that Powers founded the organization to honor the efforts of her long-time love William Holden.

This engaging book includes photographs from Powers’ private collection that serve to document the remarkable events in her life.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Note:  Hollywood High School, the home of The Pharaohs, also produced two notable actors who would come to be known to the world as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of One from the Hart: A Memoir by Stefanie Powers.

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Room: A Novel

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (Little,Brown; $24.99; 336 pages)

The Soul selects her own Society – Then – shuts the door.

Jack could be assumed to be a typical 5-year-old boy being homeschooled by his mother and engaging in similar activities as his peers (watching TV, reading, art).   However, Jack’s entire existence revolves around the life created by his abducted mother in an 11 X 11 room created for the sole purpose of keeping their existence a secret.

Told from Jack’s point of view, the story unfolds portraying realistic outcomes that create the illusion of a non-fiction novel.   You will root for Jack and his ‘Ma’ to escape the confines of their prison-like life with despicable “Old Nick” and enter the real world (outer space) for a chance to live a “normal” life.

Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.   When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.

You will be enchanted by the endearing dedication provided by Jack’s mother as she recalls the details of her own childhood in order to create an atmosphere where Jack can survive and strive within the limits of Room.   This is a wonderful life-affirming portrayal of the strength of a mother’s love for her son.   It is a force which can survive under even the worst of circumstances.

Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.   Room, the seventh novel from Donoghue, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2010.

“Potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.”   Michael Cunningham

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

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

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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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Dave Eggers Goes Retro

It’s derivative…

“…we, the loudmouths who so cloyingly espouse the unshackling of one’s ideas about work and life…”

“If you don’t want anyone to know about your existence, you might as well kill yourself…   You will die, and when you die, you will know a profound lack of dignity.”A heartbreaking work

There’s been an ongoing dispute over Dave Eggers.   His initial novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out in 2000 (hardbound) and 2001 (trade paperback).   Some viewed him as a genius – “like a young Bob Dylan” in the words of the Washington Post – while others just found his writing style to be clever.   After reading this book, I tend to concur with the latter group.   Eggers is clearly funny and he has an obvious knack for writing humor but content-wise there’s not much here.   Heartbreaking is a bit like Seinfeld, which was a TV show about nothing.

Here Eggers fictionalizes his own life, when both of his parents die while he’s in his early twenties and he moves from Lake Forest, Illinois to Berkeley.   Oh, and he also takes care of his nine-year-old brother while his sister studies law at Bolt Hall.   That’s about it for the plot except for Eggers’s work in starting a magazine and auditioning for The Real World, MTV’s so-called reality show.   (Eggers, of course, is not selected to live in the fun house in San Francisco.)

Eggers seems to be at his best when telling shaggy dog stories.   For example, he tells a story of when he and a date were jumped on a San Francisco beach by a group of Hispanics.   He blames them for stealing his late father’s wallet but the reader figures out halfway through the lark that Eggers left the wallet at home in Berkeley.   Not so clever or funny.

Eggers looks back more than once at the 70’s.   But this book is actually a throw back to the 60’s, and this is the biggest flaw with Eggers’s not-so-unique style.   While the style is entertaining, it’s a blatant return to the Gonzo rock journalism practiced back then by Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres (who appears as himself in the novel The Year of Fog) and others too obvious to mention.  

Reading this “work of fiction” in which all the events are said to “have actually happened,” is like hearing a newly formed rock band that sounds like the Beatles and Badfinger.   One would be tempted to say, “Good work but we’ve already been there, done that.”   Next.

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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