28 April 2013

Books: Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)

Solomon Kugel and his wife, Bree and their son have moved from Brooklyn in an old farmhouse in Stockton, New York. Nervous, fearful and bit odd, Kugel is disturbed by the tapping noises coming from the attic. He has hope that it’s nothing but mice, and not the arsonist who is attacking various farmhouses around Stockton. But he is surprised to find that it’s neither mice nor an arsonist, but an old woman typing on a laptop; an old woman that just happens to be Anne Frank.

Kugel is, of course, surprised, and author Aslander laments “while there’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic, this was a particularly bad time” for our protagonist. As mentioned, the Kugels are recent transplants from New York City to the countryside. To help pay for the farmhouse, they take on a tenant, who becomes nosy when he reminds Kugel that he’s paying for the attic space, but is living in another room, next to Kugel’s own mother, who is pretending to die and who believes, as a Jew, she must suffer for all the millions who died in the Holocaust because she lived a very good life. When Kugel considers calling the cops about his unwanted Holocaust survivor who everyone thought was dead, he can hear his mother voice asking him “What’s the matter, you didn’t have Dr. Mengele’s number?”

The gist of the tale is, as Anne Frank has spent decades writing a novel, would her “fans,” both Jewish and those who are not, see her differently had she really survived the Holocaust. Is she only famous, in the end, because she died there? Would anyone care about her diaries had she lived to see them published? 

This is, in the end, an absurdist tale, written with some hilarious and biting satire. It is filled with guilt and pessimism, yet it never wallows too much in either of them, with Auslander handling the tale with aplomb. It’s a great humorous read, and kind of reminded me of what Mel Brooks might have done after History of the World, Part One.

22 April 2013

Books: What in God's Name by Simon Rich (2012)

In his second novel, What in God's Name, author Simon Rich takes on God and creates a funny, touching novel about a deity who is the CEO of Heaven, Inc. 

The biggest problem with Heaven, Inc  is that it’s a grossly mismanaged corporation. For as long as anyone can remember, the founder and CEO (known in some circles as "God") has been phoning it in. Lately, he's been spending most of his time on the golf course. And when he does show up at work, it's not to resolve wars or end famines, but to Google himself and read what humans have been blogging about him. When God decides to retire (to pursue his lifelong dream of opening an Asian Fusion restaurant), he also decides to destroy Earth. His employees take the news in stride, except for Craig and Eliza, two underpaid angels in the lowly Department of Miracles. Unlike their boss, Craig and Eliza love their jobs and they refuse to accept that earth is going under. Inspired to save Earth, Craig and Eliza tells God if they give them thirty days, they will create the greatest miracle seen in centuries: getting two socially awkward humans to fall in love. But true love has never been more difficult as both Sam and Laura –despite being “perfect” for each other- seem destined never to find the course of true love.

A better and more rewarding novel than Elliot Allagash, despite the plot sounding a bit precious, the young author is great with using some hysterical and very sharp dialogue. He’s also able to prevent the novel from becoming gimmicky in many ways due to his ability to create more emotion than one might expect. A quick and fun read.

16 April 2013

Books: Putting on the Ritz by Joe Keenan (1991)

The cast of Blue Heaven return in another madcap screwball comedy that takes on the magazine industry and the rivalry between two exceedingly rich Manhattan publishers who hate each other. 

It’s been several months since the events of the first novel, but Philip and Claire's latest efforts at breaking onto Broadway have flopped. Still, fate intervenes, but their efforts have not gone unnoticed by Gilbert's employer, Tommy Parker. Tommy is a gofer for billionaire Boyd Larkin, who wants to insert a spy into the household of his arch-rival billionaire, Peter Champion. Peter's wife, Elsa, is seeking to launch a singing career and needs just the right songwriting team. Gilbert, on the other hand, is hoping that helping Parker and Larkin pull off their scheme will advance his own chances at snagging the world's wealthiest sugar daddy.

Philip and Claire are soon hired. Unfortunately, Elsa can't carry a tune and her acting abilities are nonexistent –this plot stolen, me thinks, from Orson Welles Citizen Kane. Nonetheless, they have to make her look good: Champion could destroy their careers if they don't. But if they manage to pull it off, they'll be on the fast track to fame. It's not long before Philip and Gilbert are caught spying, which leads them to become double-agents, double-double agents, and triple-agents. 

Much like Keenan’s scripts for Fraiser, the novel resemble the old comedies of the 1930s with a lot going on –mostly booze and one-liners zinging by faster than the speed of light. The book peters out long before the end, but it’s an enjoyable romp through the fog of remembrance of things past when screwball comedies of the bygone era ruled and the most important thing –besides paying the rent- was how to get a good paying job that required as little work as possible.

09 April 2013

Books: Double Feature by Owen King (2013)

In his debut novel, Double Feature, Owen King creates a darkly humorous look at family and low-budget film making, along with doses of screwball comedy.  The youngest son of best-selling author Stephen King, the writer shows a deft hand at creating odd characters that are sympathetic and very real.

The novel is about filmmaker Sam Dolan, who always had a difficult relationship with his father, a B-movie actor/director Booth Dolan—a boisterous, opinionated, lying lothario whose screen legacy falls somewhere between cult hero and pathetic. Sam has a half-sister Mina, who is, at times, violent yet endearing as well. While she sees the faults of their father, she loves him despite Booth’s tendency to screw-up repeatedly –though Mina’s mother is alive, while Sam’s mother Allie is dead, their relationship is strained due to the possible issue that Sandra may be a bit crazy. 

While still young, Sam makes his first film, "Who We Are." But the money man, who is also the first AD, hijacks the film in post-production, altering the film and destroying almost everything else. With his film irrevocably ruined, he’s trashes the only known copy. But as he tosses the DVD into the bin, it misses and lands on the ground. Too depressed to make sure it’s gone, he leaves.

And that little misstep sets in motion a ten years odyssey for him, as the film develops a cult following. Meanwhile, he toils at Brooklyn video store and doing wedding videos. But one weekend in 2011, Sam is forced to come to terms with his failed opus, "Who We Are," his dad and his messy life –which includes seeing two women, one who is married. Along the way we are joined by Mina, Wesely –his housebound roommate who has become famous on the internet- and Sam’s Godfather Tom, a contractor who can’t seem to stop adding additions onto his house. 

As a long-time reader of his father, Stephen and also now a fan of his brother Joe, Owen King’s turn into the realm of such authors who deal with family –John Irving, Jonathan Tropper- in a humorous way is great. While his dad has done the same, the elder King’s family dysfunction has always been sort of mean. Here the younger King takes a more real (maybe) look at regret, resentment and ambition. And he creates real people, who speak real words of everyday people –a hallmark of what I like about the elder King’s novels. 

While I felt the story petered out towards the end, I was still impressed with the novel, as King’s prose is different from his famous father and rising star of a brother; it seemed wilier, I guess. Finding the human condition is always difficult, but Owen King’s perceptive about people is sometimes what is best about the book; it’s very funny and always charming.


Now that I've joined the working world again, I'm bound to slow down my reading time. The last week has been awfully tiring, and while I'm not sure I want to stay with this new company, I also realize I'm in no position to turn it down as well. I fully intend to get back to the Setting Free the Bears, but I needed to read this first. 

Still, until I can find a happy balance of not being so exhausted when I come home from work that all I want to do is watch TV, I might end up reading one or two books a month.