Category: Books

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)


by Jonathan Franzen Corrections


Confession: I’ve resisted this book for years, in part because its author, Jonathan Franzen, has a reputation (deserved or not) for being something of a jerk. He’s not exactly Mr. Warmth and Cheer on his talk-show appearances, and then there was that little issue with Oprah Winfrey.

Also, reviews informed me that The Corrections’ plot concerns a middle-class family of five in the late-twentieth-century Midwest, with Depression-era parents and grown kids who flew the coop. I happen to hail from a middle-class family of five in the late-twentieth-century Midwest, with Depression-era parents and grown kids who flew the coop. I thought the book might hit a little too close to home, and so I took a pass.

My mistake.

Franzen is a spectacularly gifted writer. His insights and prose are endlessly inventive. He deftly mixes elements of Shakespearean tragedy with humor straight out of Kurt Vonnegut. He chooses the perfect word, the perfect phrase to illustrate his scenes. The major theme, in which members of The Greatest Generation and The Me Generation collide with societal change and with each other, is important to many Americans. National Book Award voters honored The Corrections in 2001, and justifiably so.

However … this was a novel that I admired more than I enjoyed. The characters, although fully realized and recognizable, are not what I’d call endearing, and the reader is asked to spend 566 pages with them.  Unless you grew up in a family much like the Lamberts – (ahem)The Corrections might engage your mind but not so much your soul.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Gaston Leroux Yellow Room


In her 1963 book The Clocks, mystery queen Agatha Christie gives a shout-out to this classic “locked room” novel, published in 1908 by the Frenchman Gaston Leroux. This is interesting because Leroux and Yellow Room protagonist Joseph Rouletabille were clearly on Christie’s mind when she created her most indelible character: the great detective Hercule Poirot.

Other than age and occupation, Christie’s Poirot and Leroux’s young hero have a lot in common. (Rouletabille is an 18-year-old journalist.)  Like Poirot, Rouletabille is brilliant, underestimated by nearly everyone, and takes an almost malicious delight in withholding crucial information from his clueless associate, who also serves as the story’s narrator. At one point, the eccentric Rouletabille even refers to his little grey cells – although not in precisely those words.

As for the mystery itself, Yellow Room features other Christie-like qualities: suspects who harbor secrets, dark doings at an isolated estate, and disguise as an important plot point. Leroux, who also penned The Phantom of the Opera, was especially skilled at misdirection. 


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Edvard Radzinsky Stalin


Stalin is a historical biography that I admired but … did I enjoy it? Let me put it this way: Reading this 600-page beast often felt like being banished to Siberia with nothing to do but page through the telephone directory. I do respect the blood, sweat and tears that must have gone into the research and writing of this massive tome about the 20th century’s greatest villain, Joseph Stalin (yes, I’m including Hitler), but the result is mostly a plodding bore.

In addition to presenting the usual agglomeration of unpronounceable and confusing Russian names, Radzinsky’s book demands a basic knowledge of Russian history and the major political players of the time. If you are unfamiliar with the historical relationship between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the troubled history of Ukraine and Russia, etc., well, too bad for you. Radzinsky simply offers a chronological survey of what Stalin did and to whom he did it. Stalin himself remains an enigma. So many details, so little insight.

It’s a shame, because if we know one thing, it’s that history repeats itself, and if a genocidal despot like Stalin could place an entire country under his malevolent spell, then understanding the factors that created such a monster is something we all need to know.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by John Dunning Booked to Die


I had modest expectations for Booked to Die, Dunning’s debut novel about Denver cop-turned-bookseller Cliff Janeway. From its synopsis, Booked appears to be like any of a thousand other detective stories you might have read – hard-boiled, hard-drinking, lady-loving, smack-talking shamus investigates a murder – and in many respects, it is.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Dunning’s asides about rare books and bibliophiles are diverting, the Bogart-and-Bacall banter between Janeway and a femme fatale is engaging, and Janeway’s wry, first-person narration wears well.

I have one quibble: It has to do with a Dunning punctuation quirk: The man is positively obsessed with the colon: It’s bizarre.


© 2010-2018 (text only)


by Bill Bryson Dribbling


Bryson’s latest book is half travelogue, half opportunity to dish on British history, pop culture, and modern denizens – which is a good thing, because that dishing is where Road mines its abundant humor and charm. The book is a follow-up to Bryson’s 1995 hit, Notes from a Small Island, in which the author crisscrossed the United Kingdom, taking notes and offering an American expatriate’s observations.


Pros:  Bryson’s encounters with locals, especially rural locals, are often laugh-out-loud funny, particularly the dialogue as he recalls it. And his enthusiasm for English landmarks and historical figures is contagious. I’ve never been to England, but this book makes me want to visit – and walk everywhere once I’m there. Man, does Bryson love to walk.

Cons:  Bryson occasionally succumbs to “Get Off My Lawn!” syndrome, in which the grumpy geezer believes everything and every place was better years ago, during his youth, and isn’t afraid to say so. In modern Britain, Bryson carps, litter is everywhere, youth are increasingly boorish, and government projects are misguided. All of that could be true, but I sometimes got the feeling that what Bryson misses more than the England of his youth is the Bill Bryson of his youth.


Inexplicably, toward the end of the book, Bryson feels compelled to vent about his country of origin, decrying the “stupidity” of Americans in general, and conservative Americans in particular. Out of the blue, the author also decides to share his feelings about hot-button political issues of the day.

Am I interested in Bryson’s take on gun control and immigration? Sure, why not. But in a book in which 99 percent of the grumbling is about irksome potholes and overpriced cups of coffee, switching gears to Bryson’s political convictions is out of sync and leaves a sour taste in an otherwise delightful read.


© 2010-2018 (text only)