04 June 2023

Books: The Editor By Steven Rowley (2019)

“After years of trying to make it as a writer in 1990s New York City, James Smale finally sells his novel to an editor at a major publishing house: none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Jackie--or Mrs. Onassis, as she's known in the office--has fallen in love with James's candidly autobiographical novel, one that exposes his own dysfunctional family. But when the book's forthcoming publication threatens to unravel already fragile relationships, both within his family and with his partner, James finds that he can't bring himself to finish the manuscript. Jackie and James develop an unexpected friendship, and she pushes him to write an authentic ending, encouraging him to head home to confront the truth about his relationship with his mother. Then a long-held family secret is revealed, and he realizes his editor may have had a larger plan that goes beyond the page.”

Strangely, I was looking back at my list of books from last year that I read, and was looking at my review of Steven Rowley’s debut novel, Lily and the Octopus. I had already read his third novel, The Guncle, so after finishing his first, I mentioned in my review, that I would probably read his second book, The Editor, sometime later in 2022. That was exactly a year ago. So on the heels of new hardcover, The Celebrants, I finally decided to read this book.

I liked this book much more than his first. It’s still an autobiographical novel, in many ways, and as I read, I just kind of tried to figure out how much Rowley made fiction and what could rang true. In some respect, like Rowley’s James, my relationship with my mother is always stressed. Anger and resentment about how things turned out for her four kids, how different (yet the same) we all are is always there when we talk. I’m passive in my own life, in my quest for being whole and happy. I’m angry at the world for letting me down, even though I recognizes that I’m author of all my problems. But I also know I need to be pushed, kicked forward. I’ve just not run across anyone who was willing to puut up with my bullshit. Some have tried, but eventually give up. Like I have.

Still, The Editor proved to me that Rowley had much more to give than the treacle aspects of his debut novel. As he noted back in 2019 to the San Diego Union-Tribune when asked what influenced this book: “It was inspired by my having written a deeply personal autobiographical (the after mentioned Lily and the Octopus) novel and having it debut with a bigger splash than I had ever imagined. I was motivated to explore the accompanying emotions through another story — this time highly fictional — about a young writer whose small family novel suddenly becomes a big deal and balloons out of his control. For that I needed a catalyst. Years ago, I had started another project, a play, about Jacqueline Onassis’s time in publishing — inspired by a Project Runway Jackie O. challenge — but I could never quite find the proper narrative for it. But it got me thinking, if Jacqueline Onassis was your editor, wouldn’t that suddenly make your book a big deal? And that’s when I decided to merge the two projects.”

Redemption cannot easily be handed out like Halloween candy, and I appreciate that the novel does not resolve everything. But it’s a good enough tale to enjoy, a slice of history when things were still less complicated and full of hope. 

31 May 2023

Books: Sphere By Michael Crichton (1987)

“In the middle of the South Pacific, a thousand feet below the surface of the water, a huge vessel is discovered resting on the ocean floor. It is a spaceship of phenomenal dimensions, apparently undamaged by its fall from the sky. And, most startling, it appears to be at least three hundred years old.”

Sphere gets off to a promising start, with an interesting premise and has potential, with its melding of sci-fi book and techno-thriller. But while this team investigates what the sphere is, we get pages and pages of conversations about humanities vs natural sciences and this sort makes the book a slog through as you progress. I mean, I did read it rather quick, but if only because I wanted to know what the silver sphere was and what it was doing at the bottom of the ocean. The book is filled with your typical trope of the genre, with a black man, a brilliant man, who easily takes offense with his white counterparts, a highly intelligent, but beautiful women who has to prove herself, a storm that cuts them off from the ships above (a devise Crichton would use again in Jurassic Park)…it makes you roll your eyes.

Like a lot of his books, his prose is wooden at times, and you sense you are reading a script and not a novel. Still, his idea is interesting and I get the feeling he wrote out all the speeches the characters give, ones that are really well written and precise, and then created plot out afterwards, which then makes the whole thing a bit absurd.

And that ending…I’m not sure how I feel about it. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get what the late Michael Crichton was trying to say here.

27 May 2023

Books: Two Much By Donald E. Westlake (1975)

“Art doesn’t mean to tell Liz Kerwin that he has a twin. He’s on Fire Island, and she’s so beautiful that he’s willing to say anything for a chance at getting rid of her clothes. So when Liz mentions an identical twin sister, Art blurts out that he has a twin too. His name is Bart, he says, and describes the most boring man he can dream up. Liz thinks he would be perfect for her sister Betty. When Art meets Betty—who is, of course, just as lovely as her twin—she asks about his brother. Hoping for a chance at the family fortune, Art dons a pair of glasses, slicks back his hair, and soon has ‘Bart’ engaged to the sister. As his simple lie spins out of control, Art learns that wooing sisters is never as easy as it seems.”

While the back cover blurbs portends a “outrageously funny” and “a tumultuous, very funny book”, Two Much is a very serious, hard-boiled thriller that could’ve gone out more under Donald E. Westlake’s alter ego, Richard Stark. It’s somewhat of ingenious idea that could’ve only worked in the period it was set, the 1970s, before technology made it difficult to cover up some many things. Art Dodge starts out as your typical Westlake character, a somewhat happy-go-lucky small business owner whose said business is being held together with wire, string, and (sometimes), good intentions. But keeping creditors and others at bay, including the wife of a dear friend has made Dodge try another caper, one that eventually takes your standard womanizer and pushes him (unintentionally) towards a dark turn into ruthlessness.

What Westlake is great at is deftly spinning out this absurd concept, adding some fantastic tension, some surreal and dark comedy, along with questionable racist comments (which, again, does not offend me, but is a reminder –neither good nor bad- of how things have changed in the nearly 50 years this tale was first released) in a scenes that is uncomfortable to read in 2023, but is funny if you can set aside your modern feelings (which might be hard for someone who did not live through that era).

While the set-up, as I said, is ingenious, you get a sense that Westlake had some trouble resolving the story. Maybe the ruthlessness was there from the start, but went unnoticed by me, but the rushed last quarter of the book screams “I painted myself in a corner.” So I think of the book more as satire than out-and-out comedy (apparently there was a film version released in 1996, more below), and despite the simple premise (“Gordon Alworthy was five feet two inches tall and thin as the ice I was skating on”) the book is rather fun, and even if Westlake couldn't come up with a better conclusion, I don't know anyone who could have.

Touchstone Pictures released a much lighter version (called a “romantic screwball comedy”) of this tale in 1996, starring Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, and Daryl Hannah. That version of Two Much is really a remake of the French version of book, which was just as light. An Indian-Tamil language version of the Hollywood take was released in 1998.

20 May 2023

Books: This Other Eden By Ben Elton (1993)

"The Earth is being devastated by mankind's continued exploitation, and it seems obvious that the environment will collapse sometime in the near future. Rather than adopt a more eco-friendly approach to life, most people have instead invested in a "claustrosphere", a dome-shaped habitat in which all water, food and air is endlessly recycled in a completely closed environment. A person can therefore survive indefinitely within a claustrosphere no matter what ecological horrors may happen outside. British writer, Nathan, who is attempting to sell an idea for a claustrosphere commercial to Plastic Tolstoy, owner and chief marketer of the company which builds them. The commercial represents a change in emphasis for the advertising campaign; up to now claustropheres have been sold as a kind of fall-back insurance, just in case the environment collapses. However, now that virtually everybody owns at least a basic model, sales are falling and the company is having to try and sell upgrade and improvement packages instead. The new advertising, therefore, attempts to convince people for the first time that the environment truly is doomed and they are inevitably going to have to live in their claustrospheres."

Despite the heaviness to the plot, comedian Ben Elton’s (The Young Ones, Blackadder) third novel, This Other Eden, also takes a satirical approach to environmentalism. So despite some the serious themes, there is enough humor to make this a fun (if overlong) tale about the fact the planet is dying and no one really sees anyway to solve it because, as always, it’s costs money and there is no profit in the end. Fear, however, has always been and will always be, is what drives media corporations, politicians, and even environmentalists to make gobs of money and never solve any of the planets problems.

The book takes place in different parts of the world, including Los Angele and Ireland, and other European cities and we never get an actual date of when this takes place, beyond it being set “in the near future.” But Elton appeared to be prescient on a few things, like gender,  

“Judy was a man, even though he had a woman’s name. He was called Judy because he had been unfortunate enough to be born during the time of the great gender realignment. A period when it was commonly held belief in the University commons-rooms of the world that all single sex imagery was oppressive. This was a time when men were strongly encouraged not to grow beards, which were seen as a visual assertions of gender, whereas it became fashionable for women to be as hairy as possible, in order to blur the margins. The idea was that if everyone could pretend to be exactly the same then no one could be held back by being different and hence, it was argued, the individual would be in a position to prosper”

Also mobile phones, and daytime TV that focuses on how easy it is to exploit people’s problems for profit. He is also able to capture the insanity of how sometimes doing good can be bad, and how one person can convince the mass audience that they are the best person to save the world.

While released thirty years ago, the books themes are pretty relevant today as it probably was when it was published. While wild and unbelievable in some aspects, back in 1993, many would say it was science fiction and no one would let the Earth die for profit.

“The fact was, the cynics in Mother Earth have been naïve as everyone else in the world about the nature of government. The basic perception of modern society is that ‘they’ (that big, catch-all term for the powers that be) are at least attempting to look after our best interest. That there is a logical and at least partially benign force which watches over us, and for which we pay our taxes. Certainly, we think that ‘they’ are, in the main, a bunch of hypocritical bastards on the make, but deep down we presume that at heart they want what’s best for us. “Surely ‘they’ wouldn’t let us drink polluted water?” we say to ourselves. “Surely ‘they’ would tell us if the food was poisonous. Surely they would never stitch people up for crimes those people did not commit and put them away for 20 years without appeal?”

In the end, I found I like the book and highly recommend it. Yes, it can be depressing sometimes, but there is always a good joke around the corner (something comedians are great at). And maybe that’s why anyone who does read, understand that the truths written in a novel thirty years ago are still going on today. Because the book does not give any real solutions, ironically, but does offer some thoughts on if we work together, instead being opposing forces, Earth may recover from the destruction humans have done to it over (honestly) a very short time period.