Category: Books

by David Niven Niven


“Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try to make everybody else happy, too.” – David Niven


Movie star Niven’s 1971 memoir is certainly “chirpy.” And if you’re a fan of old Hollywood, it’s guaranteed to make you smile. But Balloon also reminded me of – of all books – a more recent “memoir”:  controversial author James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I read Frey’s bestseller after it was revealed that much of his allegedly true story was pure fiction. But I liked it anyway.

In Niven’s case, later biographers have debunked many of the anecdotes he relates in The Moon’s a Balloon as either exaggerated, sugar-coated, or outright fabrications. But I liked it anyway.

It’s odd, though. So much of Niven’s life was so inherently interesting – World War II service, Hollywood stardom, glamorous pals – that you have to wonder why he felt the need to embellish.

My guess is that the above quote explains at least part of it. Niven was a born entertainer, and if that meant stretching the truth a bit, so be it. Or maybe he was just practicing what Hollywood preached in its “golden age”:  Life goes down better with a happy ending.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Madeleine L’Engle Wrinkle in Time


Observations about a Children’s Classic


A Wrinkle in Time is a beloved children’s book about a little girl who goes on a dangerous quest to find her missing scientist-father. It was published in 1963, but I’m a little behind in my reading, so I just now got around to it. Random thoughts:


  • There are heavy doses of both religion and science in the plot, yet author Madeleine L’Engle manages to make them peaceably co-exist.


  • I kept thinking of the book’s likely literary influences, pre- and post-publication. Before: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. After: the Harry Potter books.  J.K. Rowling is the more entertaining, skilled writer, with stronger characters; L’Engle deals more overtly with adult themes.


  • I’m guessing that Wrinkle was (is?) more popular with girls than with boys. I mean, any story that ends with the heroine conquering evil by (spoiler alert!) declaring “I love you!” to her baby brother is going to be a tough sell to the mud-and-trucks crowd.


  • I believe I’ll pass on the upcoming Hollywood adaptation, mostly because it reportedly features the Queen of Smarm, Oprah Winfrey. (I might change my mind if Winfrey is cast as the dreadful blob of brain, but I’m guessing that’s not the case.)


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Agatha Christie Blue Train


The following sentence is from my 2013 review of Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds:


“My other complaint with Death in the Clouds is that, once again, Christie’s plot hinges on the failure of people to recognize, at close quarters, someone they really ought to recognize.”


I have the same fruitless grouse about The Mystery of the Blue Train. I say fruitless because it’s not as if the author, who died in 1976, might mend her ways. We just have to accept that, in many of her stories, witnesses tend to have poor vision and/or recall.

But it’s a Christie whodunit, and it’s got Hercule Poirot, and the ending fooled me. So there you go.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Joan C. Williams


Since November 8, there have been hundreds – possibly thousands – of published articles about that branch of humanity famously labeled “the deplorables” by Hillary Clinton. Many of these election postmortems are clueless and/or condescending attempts to dissect and explain (to liberals) the strain of American voter that supported and continues to support Donald Trump.

But some of these election analyses are insightful. Joan Williams’s White Working Class expands on a previously published essay and it’s mostly an evenhanded, enlightening study of the social gap between the country’s “Haves” (the elite) and “Have-a-Littles” (what Williams labels the “working class”).

Williams, herself a born-and-bred member of the liberal elite, occasionally slips into full-on Democrat mode (in praise of big government) and takes some unwarranted swipes at Trump (a pure racist, even when his supporters are not), but she also has the balls to lay most of the blame for our current House Divided at the hands of those who hold the most power: the elites.

It’s too bad she doesn’t stick to her strong point, the first two-thirds of the book when she concentrates on the evolution of class division. Toward the end of White Working Class, Williams cannot resist tackling a host of other societal ills: abortion, race relations, illegal immigration, etc., and allows her inner liberal to promote the usual progressive remedies. It’s almost as if, after hammering liberals on their class cluelessness, Williams felt the need to soften the blow.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by George MacDonald Fraser Flashman


Flashman chronicles the misadventures of a 19th-century cad who, through sheer luck and an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the right time, manages to emerge a national military hero in Britain.

Imagine James Bond as a racist, misogynistic coward, and you’ll have the gist of this series (begun in 1969) about Harry Flashman, an unapologetic jerk in 1840s Afghanistan who deflowers dimwitted country girls, fornicates with superior officers’ wives and, when things go badly, as they invariably do, pins the blame on someone – anyone – else. Bottom line: Flashman is amusing, albeit forgettable, fluff.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Molly Haskell Spielberg


I’m of two minds about Steven Spielberg. I share the general belief that he’s a brilliant showman. I think that Jaws, for example, might be the best adventure film ever made. On the other hand, I hold Spielberg largely – if indirectly – responsible for the sorry state of Hollywood today, with its glut of “franchise” movies and over-emphasis of special effects. Not to mention studios’ “will teenage boys like it?” marketing mentality.

The publisher was wise to assign this short-but-insightful Spielberg biography to Haskell, a renowned critic who appreciates the filmmaker’s talent and influence but is not, by her own admission, a die-hard fan. Haskell’s chapters are chronological, linking Spielberg’s personal life and evolution to the plots and themes of his movies. I didn’t always agree with her evaluations, but her prose is unfailingly thought-provoking.

To me, the book is most interesting in the chapters about early Spielberg, when the wunderkind was setting the world on fire with energetic, imaginative blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Later films like Empire of the Sun, Amistad, and Lincoln might hold more appeal for a serious analyst like Haskell, but I’ve always felt that when it comes to a Steven Spielberg movie, popcorn is more palatable than polemics.


© 2010-2018 (text only)

Share Aesop's Fables 

We can learn something from these ancient stories, which have been handed down from generation to generation since a Greek slave named Aesop supposedly compiled them. What can we learn? Humans have been passing down state-the-obvious drivel for a long, long time.

“The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – for every one of those legendary tales, which actually have a point, Aesop delivers ten more pearls of wisdom like this one:


The Gnat and the Bull

A Gnat alighted on one of the horns of a Bull, and remained sitting there for a considerable time. When it had rested sufficiently and was about to fly away, it said to the Bull, “Do you mind if I go now?” The Bull merely raised his eyes and remarked, without interest, “It’s all one to me; I didn’t notice when you came, and I shan’t know when you go away.”


Feel smarter now?


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Evelyn Waugh Brideshead


There’s no question that Evelyn Waugh was a gifted writer. You could open Brideshead Revisited to page 51, or to page 352, have no clue about the plot or context, and still enjoy Waugh’s prose. The man was smooth and entertaining.

On the downside, I was a bit disappointed by Brideshead’s plot, in which a Nick Carraway-like narrator is befriended by a family of wealthy Catholics in 1920s England. The most interesting family member, alcoholic man-child Sebastian, is the focus of much of the story until he is abruptly dropped about two-thirds into the novel. The other family members are just mildly intriguing. Also, Waugh’s themes of religion and the vanishing British aristocracy are somewhat dated. But if you simply enjoy good writing, here you go.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Kurt Vonnegut Monkey


I like short stories just fine, thank you. I like to read them and (gasp!) I like to write them. My favorite Stephen King story, for example, isn’t one of his famed novels; it’s a haunting little gem called “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” which can be found in the King collection Night Shift. But short stories have an obvious downside: They are often too short. Too … slight. It’s like having one bite of juicy shrimp and then being told you can’t have any more.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. The stories in Monkey are from his early years (1950s-1960s), so some of them feel dated, and others feel like the product of a young, unpolished writer. But none of them are dull and many of them are thought-provoking. They are the literary equivalent of a TV show of that same era, The Twilight Zone – stories with a moral, often humorous, and frequently laced with Vonnegut’s favorite genre, science fiction.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Gay Talese Voyeur


I’m thinking the title of this book should really be “Rationalization.” Its subject, a peeping Tom from Colorado named Gerald Foos, rationalized his perverted pastime by telling himself he was a sex researcher, in the mode of Masters and Johnson, documenting his motel guests’ sexual proclivities in the name of behavioral science. The book’s author, Gay Talese, rationalized writing about Foos because he’s a journalist and he thought the middle-aged motel owner was an intriguing subject. I rationalized reading The Voyeur’s Motel because Talese is a respected, renowned writer.

I assume you are reading this review because you wonder what I think about what Talese thinks about what Foos thought about his guests while he crouched in the attic of the Manor House Motel, peering through a ceiling vent and taking copious notes – and frequently masturbating.

Well … whatever. I’m afraid Foos’s lurid diary comes off as less Kinsey Report, more Playboy Report, as we read his descriptions of one sleazy motel-room encounter after another.

But I learned a lot. That’s my rationalization.


© 2010-2018 (text only)