Despite the fact that I didn’t like it – and, in fact, I really, REALLY didn’t like it - I have no desire to go on some rant or petty tirade against JDespite the fact that I didn’t like it – and, in fact, I really, REALLY didn’t like it - I have no desire to go on some rant or petty tirade against Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Yes, I expected more. Yes, I think the book had more flaws than strengths. No, I don’t think it deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize (or even a blue ribbon in a local library contest, for that matter). But I’m not angry or outraged or insulted by anything having to do with the book and its material. I’m merely disappointed.
I had heard this book chronicled characters involved in the American punk music scene, and that the music and the soul of that era pulsed on every page. I started out at Emerson College in Boston (a school largely devoted to the performing arts) and, although my era was about a generation or two removed from the punk scene, its devotees still lingered on that campus and its influence was still highly revered. People didn’t just know the names of bands like the Cramps or the Nuns or the Stranglers or Black Flag (I still have a crush on Henry Rollins) – they knew the music, the band members, the song lyrics, the history, and the special quirks and influences of all of those bands in rock history. These things mattered to people. They lived and breathed music and often represented the style of a genre through their own music or fashion sense or philosophy. I was lucky enough to see the Cramps perform once and I was blown away by their crazy energy (they were specifically punk rockabilly -or psychobilly - which is quite different from pure punk, but you won’t find that out - or any other details about the real punk scene in this book). I spent days telling people every last detail – the way lead singer Lux Interior’s jacket was so shiny it looked like it was made out of liquid, the way Poison Ivy Rorshach leapt into the crowd while still playing her guitar - (truly, someone could have been killed!). It was all noteworthy. I appreciate that Jennifer Egan attempted to utilize the punk scene as a vehicle for her characters, but I never once got the feeling that she had ever even listened to any of the music or that she was ever there, even in spirit.. She tosses out a lot of band names without any further description of the unique style of the band or what any of it might have meant to the characters (and, believe me, when you are a teen immersed in music, you have favorite bands and favorite songs and specific significance is attached to certain music - these things are very serious to you, very serious indeed). Egan mentions a few items of clothing that were far more indicative of Goth music than punk music, she mentions a famous club here or there or a famous promoter, and really, that’s about it. Hell, anyone could Google that sh**, you know what I mean? There is the fact of the matter without the sense of the matter. It just didn’t ring true. Early in the book she tells us that one of her characters has written a review for Spin magazine. I remember thinking, “I don’t believe this character would even have a subscription to Spin magazine.”
And I guess, in essence, that’s my problem with the book as a whole, not just the punk aspect, but all of it, every single aspect. It just doesn’t ring true for me. Not the punk music scene, not Lou the record producer, not the ridiculous subplot involving a genocidal dictator, not the safari in Africa, which could have been written by anybody, with little or no research into Africa required at all (and here, in the Africa chapter, again I feel she missed the mark with her character of Mindy: she tells us this graduate student isn’t reading her Boas or Malinowski when any real Anthropology student knows those are names you learn in first or second year and are not still reading for your graduate work. Again, I felt Egan was just Googling sh** and throwing the names around). It was all kind of slapdash for me. There were so many unnecessary gimmicks and inconsistencies and disturbingly inaccurate chronologies. Many of the characters – in fact, virtually all of the characters - seemed like ideas of people rather than real people to me. And usually one major gimmick or quirk dominated the character and, I feel, cheapened the reality (Bennie’s gold flakes, Sasha’s kleptomania, La Doll’s trays of oil – (which really bothered me, by the way, because it never would have happened; she may have designed the trays but she wouldn’t have installed them and whoever did would have known about weight distribution and the way to hang them properly – it would have been a lighting technician or other professional, so here I feel Egan took a concept she thought was cool and trippy and forced it into the book as a gimmick), Scotty’s big fish (and please tell me why a character who is clearly poor and virtually homeless and fishing in a dingy river every morning with seedy characters is buying multiple orders of takeout every night and can somehow afford to regularly dry clean clothes that are already clean?) – oh, and the scene of Sasha’s boyfriend’s inexplicable naked swim in the Hudson with Rob, which seemed more forced to me than almost any other scene, except perhaps the one where Jules is released from prison after attacking a celebrity, and despite his criminal record and dark habits, his highly status-conscious sister who is trying desperately to fit into a snobby community immediately offers to let him stay with her and her family, even though they don’t get along that well and he watches pornography in front of their daughter. Really? Just ridiculous. At the end of the book, Egan even lapsed into some futuristic scenario, despite the fact that the timeframe seemed to be only a few years from right now. Yes, things are moving quickly, but that quickly? Reading this book made me roll my eyes so many times, I felt like a slot machine.
People who know my reading habits know that I don’t mind absurdity. A novel can have all kinds of crazy, atrocious, outlandish, highly improbable things going on. That’s fine with me. Just make me believe it. Just make those characters real for me, and I am all in, headfirst. But don’t lead me by the nose through a second year writing workshop full of smoke and mirrors and expect me to marvel at your shell game. No one likes being taken. Some of the Pulitzer board members said they had chosen this novel for the inventive writing techniques it used – its structure as a series of short stories rather than a linear narrative, its use of different characters narrating each chapter, oh – and, particularly, the now famous “PowerPoint chapter.” All of this would have been fine with me, too, if it had possessed some authenticity. Did anyone else notice that every character sounded the same, each one spoke in the same voice, utilized the same clipped delivery, adopted the same minimalist approach to linguistics? If you want a different character to narrate each chapter, that’s great, just give me some different characters. If you want to make each chapter a short story, that’s super, just let each story be something that stands on its own, that makes for a compelling or believable vignette on its own merits. And if you want a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint slides, well, that’s just …well… that’s…honestly, that’s crap. Don’t do it, just don’t. Besides, in that chapter, a twelve year-old is supposedly creating the slides, and yet they were alternately both too babyish at times and far too mature at others. I had many other concerns with that chapter – and all of the others, for that matter – but you get my point, you get where I’m going. I could so easily get lost in semiotics and keep griping about the details forever. When what I really mean to say is, “Jennifer Egan I had such hopes. I was really looking forward to reading your book, and I’m sorry to say I was extremely disappointed. But hey, you won the Pulitzer, so congratulations on that.” ...more
Before I add a few comments about “Catching Fire,” I have to cite my own review for the first novel in this series, “The Hunger Games,” because everyt Before I add a few comments about “Catching Fire,” I have to cite my own review for the first novel in this series, “The Hunger Games,” because everything I felt about that book is strongly reinforced in this gripping and very worthy sequel.
This book begins in the aftermath of the brutal events that have been suffered by our protagonists in the first novel. Life has settled into a dull numbing of that trauma, and our characters are doing little more than sleepwalking through life in the Victor’s Village, not sure what the future will hold for them. Ah, if only we could tell them about the sh**storm that will soon await them, but that’s a ride we all have to share - and what a ride it is! I thought nothing could compare to the captivating breathlessness of the first book’s brutal and surprising Hunger Games, but “Catching Fire” rivals the dynamic quality of that book and adds several new and fascinating characters, none of whom detract from - nor needlessly divert attention away from -the book’s core group of now-beloved ensemble members and the central themes that elevate this story from “young adult fantasy” to “universal imperative.” (Sure, I’m given to overstatement; I like to think of it as "part of my charm.")
I could go on and on about the cleverly devised plot, the seamlessly interwoven elements (action, romance, pathos, grief, responsibility, survival, compassion, greed), the minimalist perfection of the language – all things present in the original book, as well – but what set “Catching Fire” apart from the first book for me was that its story spoke more intently to the political crises that inevitably arise from a culture of cruelty. The implications for our own global society are obvious and cannot be ignored. Rebellion is brewing in Panem, thanks to the outcome of the first book, and its tendrils are going to reach every aspect of our story and every single one of our characters. We know this long before it ever happens. Due to this foreshadowing, the tension involved in the premise is both squirm-inducing and necessary - as well as being wrought with the whims of the powerful, (much as they often are in modern society). Let’s just say, I grew to care about these characters quite a bit in the first book. When I sat down to start reading this sequel, I got a few pages in and realized I had missed them; I was, in fact, thrilled to be reunited with them. I had also missed the author’s clear voice and steady guidance and was glad to have her talking to me again. Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Cinna, even Haymitch – I felt like these were old buddies of mine - and the reunion was sweet – until it occurred to me that it was time to get very, very worried about them all. Yet again. What Collins puts these folks through is pure torture, and somehow we love her for it. That alone speaks to her skill as an exceptional storyteller.
I now know from the reviews of the many adults on this site who love this series, as well as from the many young adults I know who have read the books that this story transcends age and gender. Boys and girls, men and women, all adore the books equally and find something of worth in them. I find that remarkable in and of itself. Brutal and dark as the themes are, I still find myself anticipating the day I will be able to give the books to my now 8-year old nephew, knowing he will find them as fascinating as I once did. And then, on to his little brother when he is old enough to read them. On a side-note: Perhaps having been raised as a girl in an American culture given to gender-typing triggered some sort of latent indoctrination cues that forced me to care more about the romantic element in this story than I probably should have...but seriously, has any young woman in literary history ever had a better choice of two young suitors than Katniss Everdeen does? Damn – even I couldn’t decide between Gale and Peeta! But, I have to say, I really like Suzanne Collins for making sure that our heroine isn’t wasting her time trying to make that decision. Katniss really doesn’t want much to do with it all. Her goals are far more lofty, more noble, and more survival- and family-oriented than those of a silly lovestruck stereotype. Katniss doesn’t want to get married. She wants to save her family, her district, and maybe – if she’s lucky – save the world. A decidedly better role model for the generations of young people who will now (hopefully) grow up reading about her than perhaps the female role models I grew up emulating. ...more
Yes, five stars. Really. Book snobs of the world, take heed. It's a five star book. No, I fully admit "The Hunger Games" is not "The Sound and the FurYes, five stars. Really. Book snobs of the world, take heed. It's a five star book. No, I fully admit "The Hunger Games" is not "The Sound and the Fury" or "Ulysses," or Ellison's "Invisible Man." Held against those books, maybe I give it four stars, but, as it is technically classified as a YA novel, and since it deserves to stand alone, on its own unique merits, it could just as easily get ten stars. It really is that good. Besides, by today's standards, a book like "To Kill a Mockingbird," often found near the top of critics' lists of the best books ever written, would probably be classified as a YA novel and shelved in that section of the bookstore. Telling a story through the eyes of a young protagonist should not mark a book as less relevant to an adult audience. And deceptively simple (if beautifully cadenced) language, should not make a book seem less inherently complex in its message. Many critically-acclaimed books are wrapped in layers of unnecessary allusions and forced complexities that add little to the story itself other than to demonstrate to the reader how seemingly erudite the author is. This book is not about posturing. Its power lies in the shared mythology of human culture, the imagery of the collective unconscious, whether it is stated outright or not.
This tale of sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen, growing up in the poverty-stricken coal-mining district of the former North American continent (now called Panem), has every single element one could hope for in a great book: compelling characters, imaginative settings, social commentary, political subtext, conflict, danger, poignancy, parallels to modern culture and society, archetypes (even a few classic heroes and villains, but more often, subtle variations of each), memorable vignettes, even some humor and romance. The writing is deceptively simple yet expounds brilliantly on a number of complex ideas, particularly in its exploration of systematic cruelty and the value of human life. After all, the crux of the book is that teenagers are being forced to fight to the death for the glory of the state and the entertainment of the masses. That could never happen here...right? In our current global culture, where wars are being fought on many fronts, public uprisings are occurring around the world, dissidents are tortured in tyrannical regimes, and human cruelty has become so common it barely registers a response anymore, the world of Katniss Everdeen does not seem all that improbable. In America, our top-rated television shows tend to be reality-based competitions, pitting people against each other in sometimes humiliating, even cruelly-conceived tasks that generally result in eliminations of the weaker players. Heroes and villains emerge from these competitions, largely due to the way the shows are edited and the ratings that certain contestants bring in. In Panem, in the arena for the Hunger Games, where 24 teens face off in a Survivor-like competition to the death, the same heroes and villains emerge, the government controls the edit, and a player's elimination is permanent. I particularly found it interesting that in the Hunger Games, as in modern culture, a player's popularity with the masses dictated the amount of sponsorship he or she would get. Money and endorsements follow the victors.
At one point during the book, I started to wonder, "Would a government really be so cruel? And would people really let this happen to their children without finding a way to resist?" And then a series of images flew through my head. Images of people living under Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi or any of the cruel dictators throughout history who have killed and tortured dissidents, abused the masses on a whim, threatened the families of those who spoke out, and ruled through fear. I thought of the countless teens who have marched off to war at the behest of their governments, their families often resigned to the course of events or cheering with pride. I thought of the many children in poor countries, fighting for a crust of bread, while the small percentage of the rich feast in their hillside homes. It was then that I realized "The Hunger Games" is barely even a futuristic fantasy. It's real. It's now.
Images of the hunt are prevalent in this book, from the beginning. Katniss and her friend Gale are poachers in their district, skilled at finding food in a place that has none. Katniss is a whiz with a bow and arrow, and she and her family are also herbal healers, able to make remedies from local herbs and nurse the sick back to health. The mythology of these skills looms large in the book, evoking comparisons of Katniss to Artemis or the Amazonian women of lore. Her fellow district competitor, Peeta, is the baker's son, and provides Katniss throughout the story with the sustenance of life and the hominess of comfort, much like the image of the bread that he bakes. Katniss is the wild, untamed food-providing huntress; Peeta the domestic, familial constant, a foundation of loyalty and love. We come to appreciate the complementary nature of their survival in a way that emphasizes that even the most self-sufficient people benefit from human connection.
And, at its core, that's what "The Hunger Games" is really all about. Human connection. Katniss has entered the games having volunteered to take the place of a beloved sister, knowing she will most likely die in the process. Why make that altruistic sacrifice? Peeta risks his life to save Katniss on several occasions, because he is in love with her. What makes another's life more valuable than our own? Katniss and another contestant, Rue, form a bond and risk all, knowing one of them will not make it to the end of the competition. Why offer up your vulnerability, risk human emotion, all the while knowing it will end in tragedy? These are the concepts our contestants grapple with in the course of the games, and the ones we often grapple with, here in our own games. After all, we make human connections, we love, we bond, we desire freedom and dignity in our lives, just like Katniss and Peeta - and just like the two of them, facing off in the arena, we also know that no one is getting out of this alive.
Tina Fey manages to be one of those people I simultaneously respect, admire, envy, and want to hang out with all at the same time. Her cerebral, edgy,Tina Fey manages to be one of those people I simultaneously respect, admire, envy, and want to hang out with all at the same time. Her cerebral, edgy, and original humor has done for women in the field of comedy what, say, Hillary Clinton (no, not Sarah Palin, ironic as that may have been) has done for women in politics. She has made everyone re-examine their preconceptions and helped people to accept women in roles once reserved for men. As head writer of Saturday Night Live, she helped bring more women to the forefront of sketch comedy and fought against the idea that "women aren't funny." Luckily, she had some powerful men supporting in her in this effort (Lorne Michaels, most prominently) and some really funny women for whom to write (Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon, for instance) or who knows how all of that groundbreaking idealism might have gone. The journey from teen summer theater to the Groundlings to SNL to "30 Rock" and a film career is wonderfully engaging and filled with her trademark clever humor and absurd self-deprecation, but I enjoyed this book the most when it offered some real insights into how the television business really works and the types of obstacles facing creative artists every day, particularly female comedians who still face an old-boy network that refuses to validate or finance their efforts. One of the more striking observations in the book comes near the end when Fey has reached the height of her success to date and is agonizing over whether or not to have a seocnd child. The time this would take from her career, she muses, would leave her "unemployable and labeled crazy in five years anyway." She goes on to state a harsh reality:
"Let me clarify. I have observed that women, at least in comedy, are labeled "crazy" after a certain age...I've known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they're all "crazy." I have a suspicion - and hear me out, 'cause this is a rough one - I have a suspicion that the definition of "crazy" in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fu** her anymore."
Yup. She said it. One of the many times I silently cheered "Good for you, Tina!" while reading this book.
There are a lot of funny stories, laugh out loud moments, and touching little vignettes in Tina Fey's book "Bossypants." It's a really likable, well-intentioned, and smart little read. But every now and then she gives you an insight like the one above and reminds everyone why it's so important that she's here. That's why I love Tina Fey.
(Three and a half stars, btw - which I think is a really good rating for a book I definitely recommend to Fey's fans, people who want to get into the business, and young women everywhere. Plus, the little behind-the-scenes peeks into the world of SNL and "30 Rock" were really fun for me.) ...more
American History was not my favorite subject in school, I admit it. Through a little trickery, I managed to take World History twice just to avoid it.American History was not my favorite subject in school, I admit it. Through a little trickery, I managed to take World History twice just to avoid it. I really know embarrassingly little about Teddy Roosevelt – at least I did before reading Candice Millard’s engaging book “The River of Doubt”- but nevertheless, I always thought he was someone I would have loved to have met. Fearless, charismatic, outdoorsy, eccentric, and adventurous, it seemed there was nothing Teddy couldn’t do or didn’t at least want to try. He seemed to me a slightly crazy, daringly rugged “man for all seasons” with a personality as big as his frame. I made this observation based on very little actual information, mind you, and yet Millard has validated all of the preconceptions I originally had about the man, and perhaps even augmented them. There really wasn’t much that Teddy didn’t – or couldn’t - do. In addition to being a cowboy in the Dakotas, the NYC police commissioner, the Secretary of the Navy, the leader of the Rough Riders, the Medal of Honor winner, the driving force behind the Panama Canal, the founder of the Progressive Party, and an avid naturalist and conservationist given to rugged adventures in Africa and other locales, he also just happened to be the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American winner of any of the Nobel prizes awarded in any category. Oh and, not to leave it out...President of the United States. But even that is just a small series of highlights from a life that incorporated many other interesting asides. Any author who writes a boring book about Teddy Roosevelt has no one to blame but him or her self. Luckily, Millard doesn’t have to worry about that.
“The River of Doubt” really only focuses on one major event in Roosevelt’s life, an Amazon adventure that occurred when he was fifty-five years old and had recently been defeated when his Progressive Party took on Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft in the presidential election. (Teddy actually beat Taft and is still the only third party candidate to come in second in an election.) Nonetheless, Roosevelt did not have a disposition suited to a leisurely retirement, and he was lured by an invitation to travel to South America to collect Amazonian species with naturalists hand-picked by the American Natural History Museum. With his son Kermit already working in Argentina, and his friend Father Zahm eager to put together the specifics of the expedition, Roosevelt took to the idea with gusto. He was supposed to travel a route that had already been charted and was well-known to South American explorers (though not without its perils – this is the Amazon, after all), but somehow, inexplicably, despite being ill-prepared and possibly ill-suited to the rigorous demands of the challenge, he was talked into charting a murky, untraveled enigma of a river in the middle of Brazil that was thought to be a thousand-mile tributary of the Amazon. El Rio Duvida. The River of Doubt. An apt name for a river that may or may not exist in its expected form, even according to the man who discovered it, Brazil’s most famous explorer, Candido Rondon - the same man who would be making the journey with the former President - as his co-commander.
At this point in the book, as the journey begins, we have all the elements of a proper adventure story. We have our heroic commanders, Roosevelt and Rondon, we have their hard-working right hand men, Kermit (Roosevelt’s son) and Lyra (Rondon’s able assistant), we have a variety of unique characters: the naturalists Cherrie and Miller, the Arctic explorer Anthony Fiala, the bumbling, self-aggrandizing busybody Father Zahm, an assortment of noble camareras, and the bad apple of the bunch, a hired camarera named Julio Lima, who brought a threatening element of deceit and sociopathy to this already dangerous trek. From here on out, the book read more like a gripping adventure novel than an actual event in history. Anyone who has read “The Lost City of Z” (highly recommended, by the way) or any other accounts of Amazonian exploration, will recognize the unique struggles and perils of that part of the world. A small cut, a minor injury, anywhere else on the globe is often merely an annoyance. In the Amazon, it can mean imminent death.
I often watch a cable show called “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” featuring real people who have found themselves in dire circumstances – out in nature – from which they should not have emerged intact. There is usually an element of extreme bad luck, even an “Apollo 13”–like series of harrowing occurrences that contribute to the ordeals these poor sods endure - and yet somehow they survive. Several of these episodes, as expected, have taken place in the Amazon. I sometimes watch the show and think, “I could have survived out in that desert…or on that mountain…” but I know in my heart, I would never survive the South American jungle. Infection, swarms of insects, parasites, bacteria, and enemies from all parts of the jungle and its waters attracted by blood, by sweat, by commotion, can kill you at any moment. Hostile tribes, venomous snakes, cayman, jaguar, piranha, were all far less worrisome to Roosevelt’s band of explorers than the constant bouts of dysentery, malaria and various other ailments from which the party suffered throughout their journey. Add to that, meager and dwindling food rations that threatened constant starvation and excruciating portages through challenging terrain – or churning rapids - for which they had the wrong transport, tools and supplies, and you have a party that should have ended in complete disaster. Yes, some tragic occurrences took place on the voyage, (Roosevelt very nearly died, for example, and a couple of others did actually perish on the trip), but for the most part, it was an absolute miracle of luck coupled with endurance and teamwork that triumphed in the end.
The River of Doubt is called the Rio Roosevelt to this day. The adventure that nearly killed him also cemented Roosevelt’s staggering legacy by making him a man who put a previously uncharted river on the map. In these pages, Roosevelt lives up to his impetuous, "no holds barred" persona. And for that reason, some of his decisions seem foolhardy, some of his parenting skills seem rather questionable at times, and his lack of regard for safety is truly troubling. But, he also lived a life unlike any other in history, and that doesn't happen by playing it safe. Millard captures Teddy's spirit for all time in this riveting book set along the banks of The River of Doubt. ...more
2011 has not been a stellar book year for me yet. I had read a couple of real dogs lately and thought this book might be the literary equivalent of a2011 has not been a stellar book year for me yet. I had read a couple of real dogs lately and thought this book might be the literary equivalent of a "palette cleanser," the way one nibbles a little pickled ginger root in between portions of sushi and wasabi to bring the senses back to a place of moderation. "The Postmistress" appeared to have an engaging plot, a setting to which I could relate, and several female characters to whom I might potentially feel a kinship by the end of the book. Yes, I admit it - a chick book, but one with a story decent enough not to make me feel guilty for reading it. That's what I thought, anyway.
My first problem with the book was a minor one, but one important enough for me to question the author's lack of attention to detail early on. The setting is meant to be Cape Cod - the furthest town on Cape Cod, in fact, where the town of Provincetown currently sits on the map. Ms. Blake has named her fictional Cape Cod town "Franklin." That would be totally cool with me if in fact there were not already a Massachusetts town named "Franklin," and one that is not only not on the Cape, but not even a town any tourist would want to visit for any reason that I can think of. This bothered me, and then bothered me again, even more than usual, as I got deeper into the book and into one of its main characters, a postmistress named Iris James, who is very prim and orderly and makes sure that every piece of mail is properly stamped and addressed and gets to its proper destination. Iris would have known that the town name of "Franklin" was already taken and might have let Ms. Blake know that another fictional place name might be in order.
Still, I plodded on, determined to ignore this mosquito in my ear and judge the story on its own merits. It started off with great potential. A new town doctor and his young bride have just settled into town, while postmistress Iris James, well past her prime, finds herself being courted by town mechanic, Harry Vale. In the background, World War II is looming. The radio is constantly tuned to reports from London during the bombings, and often the reporter is a woman named Frankie Bard, who works for Edward R. Murrow and is one of the few females working in the industry at the time. These were our main characters, and we knew that somehow their lives were going to intersect, and that part of the story would have to do with a piece of mail that would never be delivered. An intriguing start. Leading to a frustrating middle. And an infuriatingly dull ending.
Maybe I'm cranky and being too harsh, but I never cared about these characters at all. Ms. Blake is very good at letting us know where they were standing and what the sky looked like and how many cigarettes they smoked in a day, but I never got a feel for the inner lives of the characters, never felt a connection to them, and thought they all had a nasty habit of misconstruing the most innocent comments in polite conversations, and then bolting out of rooms in a huff. The female reporter, who obviously has been trained in journalism and knows that to make it in the field during this era she has to be tougher than the guys and possibly smarter, is a teary, emotional wreck who gets angry at the drop of a hat, can't seem to make a rational argument, dissolves into tears when she's not busy being indignant and at least twice causes harm to others in the book due to her inane actions. The author wants us to see her as a savvy dame and then writes her as a nincompoop. Similarly, we are set up to care about the young doctor and his waif-like wife and their deep love and destined life together, when almost immediately he has a traumatic mishap that causes him to feel the need to leave his young wife and go to London to help care for people during the height of the bombings. You know, just because. She is, of course, pregnant and he doesn't know it. Why? Oh, you know, just because. And there's an Austrian man in town, who everyone thinks is a German spy but really he's a Jew who has fled Europe and come straight to Franklin for no reason. You know, just because. And the postmistress's lover, Harry Vale, he seems like a normal guy except he spends every waking moment up in a bell-tower staring at the ocean looking for U-boats. You guessed it - just because.
Even all this wouldn't be so bad if the book weren't filled with horrendous and ridiculous contrivances that just make you want to slap Sarah Blake's editor and give him or her a good talking to. People die unnecessarily at implausible moments for unthinkable reasons, and it's meant to make us think how transitory and random life really is. Because, make no mistake, as poorly-conceived as the plot is, it still manages to take itself very seriously. Very seriously indeed. It's about World War II, after all. And Murrow. And dead people. And the U.S. Postal System. So by all means, we need to feel something of the heft and patriotism of all this. Well, sure. Of course we do. And in a really well-written book with characters that stir the soul, it always does. Just not in this book. Why? You know. Just because. ...more
Absolute crap. I still can't believe how truly bad this was, because a friend recommended it based on the alleged monumental effect it had on his lifeAbsolute crap. I still can't believe how truly bad this was, because a friend recommended it based on the alleged monumental effect it had on his life, and it appears to be quite highly rated by the majority of Goodreads readers. I don't know what they saw that I didn't, but I found this a completely ludicrous, utterly fabricated story told through unlikable, two-dimensional characters. The writing is abominable. Seriously abominable. I spent most of the time wondering how it had even managed to get published, let alone make it into repeated printings, sequels, and - apparently - a film (!). The book purports to teach deep, mysterious lessons of the "warrior's path," and yet I have learned more penetrating lessons watching reruns of "Kung Fu" which, in fact, were far better written and more emotionally stirring than this complete dreck. The only reason I am even giving it a star is because I believe it was well-intentioned. If this book changes your life, good for you, I mean it - all my best to you. All it did for me was waste several hours of my life that I will never get back. For those in flux, skip it and watch some Kwai Chang Caine - trust me on this one....more
I’m a Dave girl. I’ve been in the Letterman camp since I was twelve years old, and if you’re a late night junkie – like me – you know which camp you’rI’m a Dave girl. I’ve been in the Letterman camp since I was twelve years old, and if you’re a late night junkie – like me – you know which camp you’re in. In truth, I would have liked for Leno to have been more appealing to my sensibilities. He’s from Massachusetts, after all. New Englanders like to root for the home team. We talk about people like Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg as if we know them. And Leno’s gotten a lot of mileage from that blue collar work ethic, the anti-elitist stance – all things that might appeal to me on a visceral level. And yet, when Leno is the vehicle…somehow they don’t.
But Dave. Ah, Dave. That edgy, curmudgeonly anti-social iconoclast. I don’t know what it is about him exactly, but from the first time I saw his “little dog and pony” show (as he calls it), I just got him. Jay might deliver solid topical jokes night after night like the modern embodiment of the ghost of Henny Youngman (set-up, punch line; set-up, punch line), but Dave isn’t from that Catskills school of stand-up. At times, his jokes aren’t even jokes as much as strange images that catch his fancy or life’s absurdities that deserve a skewering. If a line doesn’t work, sometimes Dave will just keep repeating it, over and over again, maddeningly so, at times. Sometimes I think he does it for spite - to show a writer how truly bad the line was or to tweak the audience with the fact that they should have found it funny. And sometimes I think he does it just because he knows that if he repeats the line enough times, it will not only suddenly become funny, but it will also become part of the legend. His legend. There’s something just a little bit subversive about Dave. Something a little more obscure and philosophical about his comedy. Which is probably why Jay has beaten him in the ratings for sixteen years. And also why, even according to Bill Carter in “The War for Late Night,” every major player in late night television (from Conan to Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Fallon to John Stewart to Stephen Colbert to Jay himself) names Dave as an idol. None of them say the same about Jay. Comedians get Dave. Mainstream America gets Jay.
But this story isn’t about Jay and Dave. That’s just the backstory. Dave was the heir apparent to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He had been told it was his; even Johnny had handpicked him for the job. But when the time came for Carson to retire, it turned out that Jay Leno also had designs on the job, the NBC executives had never put anything in writing with Dave, and Johnny was no longer being asked who should succeed him. Through a series of backhanded deals, whipsmart agents, and ruthless machinations by certain players in the fray, the Tonight Show went to Jay, Dave went to CBS, and the first real late night battle of the network stars began. In the backstory, Letterman and Michael Ovitz (I won’t get into details – read Carter’s first book, “The Late Shift” for that) came out as victors and quasi heroes in the story, while Jay and his former manager (the, by all accounts, heinous Helen Kushnick) came out as Machiavellian manipulators. It’s not that simple, of course, but that’s how it played, until things settled down and went back to normal and stayed that way for over a decade. Until one dark day in 2004 when a man named Jeff Zucker woke up one morning with a plan that he thought was brilliant – never a good thing when the plan is hatched by an NBC executive.
Conan O’Brien had done well with David Letterman’s old late night show, having been plucked from near obscurity by Lorne Michaels to rise in the ratings to a place where he was carrying the youthful demographic NBC so eagerly sought. But his rising fame and popularity among America’s college campuses made him attractive to other networks as well, and NBC knew that ABC and the cable channels were about to come calling. How could they keep Conan, (and they desperately wanted to keep him), when they were paying him a pittance and FOX alone could offer him many millions more without blinking? Oh wait, oh, oh, I know. Offer him “The Tonight Show.” “What?” you might ask, “The Tonight Show? Doesn’t that show already have a really successful host in place?” Yes. Yes it does. But even good things can’t last forever. At least that’s the way Jeff Zucker saw it the day he decided to go to Jay Leno’s dressing room and tell his biggest star, his biggest money-maker and possibly his biggest bargain (Jay was making less than half of David Letterman’s salary at the time) that he would renew Jay’s contract, pick up his option as usual, and never do so again. Five years from now, Jay would hand the show over to Conan O’Brien. The end. As one might expect, there was some shock on Jay’s part and some hemming and hawing. Someone else might have taken the opportunity to negotiate, make a few demands, remind the brass that he was their biggest star and he’d be damned if he’d be told what to do that way. He might have had his agent come in and read them the riot act. But Jay didn’t have an agent. He didn’t like conflict, he didn’t like to think about money. All he wanted in life was to “tell jokes at 11:35” and tinker with his cars. So, in the end, Jay meekly said, “Okay, if that’s what you want,” and he swallowed his anger and signed his contract. While, meanwhile, in NYC, the young Conan O’Brien had similarly agreed to keep working for five years of peanuts and give up a possible 20 million dollar offer to get the one thing he had always dreamed of – “The Tonight Show.” In five years, that is.
Well five years passed like the blink of an eye. Jay was still winning the ratings, Conan was still big with the young people, and NBC started to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all. To get out of the deal they would have had to pay Conan 45 million dollars (Conan did have an agent). But Jay was starting to hint that he might go over to ABC (Jimmy Kimmel was already in place there, and in fact, when Jimmy had first gotten the gig and was asked what he planned to do with his show, he remarked that he “wanted to do the comedy version of The Tonight Show”). Well, as we know, Jay has never been averse to pushing someone out of a gig, so NBC got scared again, and needed a brilliant solution. Well, who better to come up with a brilliant plan than old Jeff Zucker, the rocket scientist who had forced Jay’s early retirement in the first place? He offered Jay Sundays. Saturdays. Specials. A weekly show. An 8:00 PM slot every night. Jay wanted to work but he was a late night creature and none of that sounded good to him. So Zucker reached into his back pocket and came up with a plan to cancel every ten o’clock drama on NBC and put Jay there every night. He would still have his beloved monologue, have his comedy bits, have his guests, work in the same lot. It would be just like what he did now, only earlier, and Conan would still have to follow him. Jay was a creature of habit and this appealed to him. No one thought about the fact that it might just destroy two shows at once, and make NBC look like a network run by pinheads. (No one except David Letterman, that is. No one had a better time with the ensuing mayhem than he did.) We all now know that Jay’s show was abysmal, it destroyed that time slot, it hurt the lead-in for Conan and angered some powerful affiliates. So, the call came down to cancel Jay. It was the obvious move. Until NBC realized they had signed what’s known as a “pay and play” deal with Jay. Unheard of in television, it gave Jay the power to say “Hell no, you can’t cancel me, because you are contractually bound to both pay me and keep me on the air (he had learned from his forced retirement to make the next contract count). So Zucker and his minions now hatched the plan to bring Jay back to 11:35, push Conan back a half hour, and solve their problem. Conan had only been host of “The Tonight Show” for less than seven months and he was about to be told he was now going to host a diluted version of the show, at a time slot that wasn’t even “Tonight” anymore, so that he could try to follow a popular well-known host who was going to steal his prime monologue spot. Super. People have their own opinions, but for my money, I totally respect the fact that Conan chose not to accept this preposterous insult of a deal, and instead wrote the manifesto that would brilliantly state his case while taking the high road and transforming himself from that “kooky redheaded guy” to famous icon of the pop culture. (I highly recommend that everyone who hasn’t read it, read Conan’s “People of Earth” manifesto that he released to NBC in response to their demands.) The youth of America sprung into action at this news. Team Coco became an internet sensation, and Conan was met with cheering throngs for weeks. His ratings shot through the roof those last few weeks, and Jay was once again vilified as a man who didn’t know when to keep his mitts off a job that wasn’t really his (a label he had tried so hard to remove over the past decade and a half).
In the book, Carter quotes people like Seinfeld (a longtime friend of Leno’s) and Lorne Michaels (an NBC mainstay) to say that no one should have taken it personally. It was just business after all. “The Tonight Show” isn’t an institution. It’s just a show! Being host isn’t an entitlement. It’s just a job! Face it – like everything else in life, it’s just about the money. I understand that two guys who have a combined history with NBC of about sixty years pretty much have to say that. Particularly to a journalist who plans on quoting them. And maybe they really have seen too much corporate jockeying, and life has become too insular to see it through the eyes of the audience anymore. But I think you would have to be either naïve, coldhearted – or both – to tell the same American public you’ve been feeding the history of “The Tonight Show” to for all those years that their memories didn’t count for anything, the loyalty you tried to instill in them was a lie. Letterman certainly saw the show as an institution, a safe haven inhabited by a man he idolized. Conan yearned to host the show he had watched as a child with his father, even if it meant waiting for years and taking a pay cut. Countless Americans had memories of the show. Entertainment is about money and ratings for the executives, but for the people sitting at home it’s about what adds to our lives and who we choose to enter our homes on a regular basis. I, for one, will be crying my eyes out the day David Letterman turns in his final show. Don’t tell me it wasn’t an institution. Americans are easily led and we can be spoonfed quite a bit of crap – but once we get attached to it, don’t try to tell us we were stupid to care. Maybe that’s why Jeff Zucker is no longer with NBC. And why David Letterman is currently beating Jay Leno in the ratings. ...more