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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 25


Here’s my book review of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

Retired British Army officer Major Ernest Pettigrew is a modest man with domestic tastes. Since his dear wife died, he’d like nothing better than to shut himself up in their cottage in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary and expire quietly while sipping tea. Not surprisingly, his main problem is not so much grief as loneliness. But his quietude is suddenly disturbed by other worries. His brother Bertie dies, and he must both console the widow and supervise the wake. The event brings an extended visit from Pettigrew’s son Roger, an overachieving wiz of London finance, who attends the funeral with his social-climbing fiancé.

Although Pettigrew must now take on another load of grief, his immediate challenge is the covetousness of family members. Bertie’s widow Marjorie remembers that the brothers inherited a matched pair of antique shotguns. Pettigrew has cared for one of them meticulously, knows how to use it, and Bertie had the other and allowed it to tarnish on a shelf. Marjorie wants the guns sold as a pair at auction. Pettigrew had expected he’d have custody of both guns as family heirlooms. Another claimant on Pettigrew’s worldly goods is son Roger, who expects his father to move into more modest digs and gift him the cottage. Pettigrew fears that either Jemima will gut the place and redecorate garishly, or the couple will turn around the flip the property and pocket a tidy profit. Both the guns and the house represent cherished traditions that no one but Pettigrew intends to honor.
In all this strife, Pettigrew has a growing friendship with and fondness for a widow, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, proprietress of the village shop. They are both shy people, and they court as awkwardly as a pair of pre-teens. Given her Pakistani heritage and Pettigrew’s stuffy pedigree, their love affair is one more indication that longstanding traditions don’t mean so much anymore.

You’ll come to love this crusty and affable fellow, and you may identify with his valiant attempts to maintain his pride and his values he begins to face the challenges of old age.

Toward the end of the book, author Simonson has inserted an episode of violence. In my view, it’s not organic to the plot. It’s as though her agent or editor told her to raise the stakes. Authors, please resist the temptation to smear icing on your freshly baked pound cake, and don’t put both lemon and milk in your tea! Some things are simply not done.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. You may also enjoy my humorous novel Mr. Ballpoint, about a man who said, if you want to do the impossible, you have to do it right away. And be sure to catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.

Postscript  Producers Paula Mazur and Mitchell Kaplan of the Mazur / Kaplan Company have partnered with Kevin McCormick of Langley Park Pictures to do the movie version and hired screenwriter Jack Thorne (Skins) to adapt the novel. So Simonson’s adding that nasty plot point may have been just the right choice – at least, commercially. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Major’s adventures become a franchise for a spinoff TV series. However, in my humble view, making him a detective would be an unimaginative and all-too familiar choice, especially if, as I further predict, it gets picked up by the BBC.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 24

Here’s my book review of Funny Girl by Nick Hornby.
British novelist Nick Hornby is best known for his books that have been adapted as movies and television series, including High Fidelity, About a Boy, and A Long Way Down. Many of his humorous novels fall into the genre they call in the UK “lad lit,” and I’ve called boychik lit, about young men on the make. Funny Girl is a departure. It’s about a young woman who is less concerned about men than becoming a comedienne on TV. Her role model is Lucille Ball and after her arrival in London from the sticks she takes the stage name Sophie Straw – Sophie for sophisticated and straw for brassy blonde.
Sophie fails rapidly upward and is soon the star of a new BBC sitcom. It’s the 1960s – in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. Yes, Funny Girl is about Sophie’s personal relationships and those of her mostly male colleagues. But it’s mostly about how hard it is to generate comedy, week after week. Funny Girl is sharply witty, and not so much funny as touching.
The writers, Tony and Bill, fret continually about what’s funny. And their gags run the gamut from potty humor to mature marital spats.
So, Funny Girl is not lad lit at all. And it’s not so much funny as witty, which shows up in the catty dialogue as Sophie and the guys argue over script notes, social gaffes, and their personal heartaches.
Nick Hornby describes his writing process this way: “I write in horrible little two-and-three sentence bursts, with five-minute breaks in between. It’s all pretty grim! And so dull!”
It’s routine, all right. The best writing advice I ever got was to get into a chair every day. But clearly Hornby is doing a good job of entertaining himself and us. I suspect that’s why he keeps going  back to his chair.
For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My series of boychik lit books is the Misadventures of Rollo Hemphill, and the most recent installment is titled, Farnsworth’s Revenge. Young men may identify, mature men will remember, and women of any age will delight in seeing poor Rollo go splat. Don’t forget to catch these podcasts at Boychiklit.com.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 23


Here’s my book review of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
There’s a saying in show business: Give them a new story that’s stood the test of time. Anne Tyler, who is possibly America’s most revered living novelist, has done just that. She’s presented us with a new, fictional extended family with all their foibles and melodrama, and placed them in the setting we know well from so many of her books – in the community of Roland Park in North Baltimore and in a hand-crafted old home with varnished hardwood floors, meticulously hung pocket doors, and vaulted ceilings. The Whitshanks are a quirky, close-knit family of builders, craftsmen, and nurturers. And this house is their pride and joy. Its stately endurance through a family saga of three generations lends a sense of timelessness – but Tyler’s story is all about the passage of time and the influences our short lives have on each other.
Another time-honored Hollywood maxim: The main character grows stronger as his villain opponent becomes meaner and stronger. To her credit, Tyler not only ignores this rule, she defies it. This story has no single main character – unless it’s the house. And, as in all of her books, there are no vicious opponents. The engines of conflict whir almost entirely within the family. Adversaries that seem the most obnoxious, inconsiderate, and spiteful ultimately show us their redeeming qualities.
In every Anne Tyler novel there’s a conspicuous bad boy. In A Spool of Blue Thread, Denny shows up on the first page. And throughout the story, he’s obnoxious, inconsiderate, and spiteful. And he’s the one his saintly mom loves best, and eventually, we do, too.
Authors, your Hollywood agent or your book editor will tell you to raise the stakes to life and death. The dreary result is on-screen violence – shootouts, and fiery crashes, and bloody mayhem. But Anne Tyler quietly and bravely won’t go there. She gives us a no-fault auto accident and a sibling quarrel that ends with punch in the nose.
So how does Tyler do it? How by defying the rules does she engage us? Her narrative slows down to the pace of daily life. She gives us none of her own opinions, but a stream of meticulous detail about meals, clothes, woodwork, plants, weather, money problems, idle thoughts, and petty grievances. And in focusing the marvels of the mundane, she helps us appreciate the joys of living our own ordinary and wonder-filled lives.
For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My book written for Anne Tyler fans is Christmas Karma, about a dysfunctional family coping with the holidays, narrated by an angel with a wacky sense of humor. Catch these podcasts at BoychikLit.com.
These book reviews are syndicated on LASplash.com.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 22


No spoilers here. This is the behind-the-scenes story of a small anti-terrorist black op  - secretly sponsored by a Member of Parliament - that might or might not have happened. Problem is, its very existence - even as a plan - is so politically incorrect as to be a profound embarrassment if anyone involved decides to break silence and go public with the few facts they know. So the trendy topic of whistle-blowing is very much at issue.
I find two things remarkable about this novel.
First, the dialogue is almost entirely and deliberately off-point - more than in any other Le Carré book I've read. The words are about everything but the topic at hand. Everyone speaks, not just in trade jargon and code, but in hints and innuendos and metaphors. It's annoying. And real. And perhaps an angry commentary on a societal lack of not only frankness and honesty but also an unwillingness to face any real facts at all.
They might be discussing murder, but all you hear are acronyms.
Second, you won't have a clear idea of who the main character is until fairly far along. He will grow on you, as he will become bolder in his own estimation of himself. But he's a bureaucrat (as are most of the rest of them) and in many respects lackluster. Totally absent are the mythic proportions of James Bond. And he has nothing like the cunning wit or the cleverness of George Smiley.
He does, however, eventually realize he has a conscience and a loyalty to ideals that are both naive and reckless.
Master spy novelist Le Carré often refers to intelligence operatives as close observers. Of course, that’s just what a reader is. His narrative technique is to immerse you in detail, much of which may be irrelevant to the plot – just the way we experience reality every day, from one perception to the next.
In training you to think like a spy – like a close observer – Le Carré makes you a better reader and a more critical thinker.
A Delicate Truth is very much about today. And there is much to learn, if in those cryptic conversations you also learn to listen between the lines.
For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My humorous novel Farnsworth’s Revenge merges the intrigue of Le Carré with the improbable logic of Woody Allen. You’ll learn how cold fusion works and international money laundering mostly doesn’t. And don’t forget to catch these podcasts on BoychikLit.com.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam's Firebase Kate by William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 21


Here’s my book review of Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Firebase Kate by William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf.

In 1969 Bill Albracht was the youngest, greenest Green Beret captain in Vietnam. One night, six thousand of the enemy attacked his 200 troops. They held out for five days through heavy fire, sporadic aerial support, and hand-to-hand fighting. Given up for dead by the brass, Albracht led survivors through enemy lines under cover of darkness. He went on to become a Secret Service agent, and served four presidents.

Just three years earlier, Bill had passed the officer candidate exam by one point. His best friend Joe failed – also by one point. Albracht told Joe he might be the happier guy. Bill wasn’t sure he wanted the responsibility.

Abandoned in Hell is not a Hollywood action-adventure story. It’s the real deal. Veterans know war as years of tedium interrupted by short periods of pure terror. In the case of Firebase Kate, those horrific moments stretched into five seemingly endless, bloody days, then a harrowing escape trekking through the jungle and open-field running in almost total darkness.

Albracht shielded the bodies of soldiers with his own. He carried fallen comrades through firefights – into a waiting chopper at the best of times, or just into a protective ditch.

This book is about what’s most inspiring about bravery under fire. It has little to do with wanting to fight or why you’re there. It’s doing the right thing by your friends, from one desperate moment to the next.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should … be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I’m Gerald Everett Jones, author of Mr. Ballpoint about another man, who said, “If you want to do the impossible, you have to do it right away.” You can catch these podcasts at Boychik Lit.com.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Map and the Territory" by Michel Houellebecq

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 20


Here’s my review of The Map and the Territory by contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq.

This author is unabashedly and unashamedly literary and intellectual. Those of us on this side of the pond who fret about novels and commercialism and fads and attention spans and the general lack of receptiveness for ideas can only envy the opportunity to wax philosophical and not only get away with it, but also actually sell books.

This is the story of a fine artist, Jed Martin, and the rationale behind various distinct phases of his work. It is also a police procedural about a ghastly murder. One connection is that the murder was performed in such a way as to create a work of art. This second story has very little to do with the main plot line of Jed's work life. Jed's difficult relationship with his aging master-architect father is a subplot upon which many heady sub-themes are hung, including the history and philosophy of architecture, the relationship between habitation and quality of life, and no less than the fate of civilization.

In perhaps the most stunning stroke of hubris in a work chockfull of it, occurring some way into the narrative so it's a surprise when it comes, Houellebecq makes himself a principal character. By name. The relationship between life and art is open to question - that is, between the physical description of the French novelist, his eccentricities, and his volatile temperament. The Houellebecq in the narrative is not what you'd call a nice person – and certainly not someone you'd probably consider taking on as a friend. The author seems proud he's alienating you, else why talk so unashamedly of his body odor and atrocious manners?

Main character Martin's life is well-to-do Parisian, but mundane. He has an extended affair, off and on, with a Russian media executive named Olga. She is one hot babe, apparently, but even she can't hold his interest. She did abandon him for a time, and perhaps an infantile ego can never forgive the ultimate insult of abandonment.

I'm somewhat mystified. I may reread it someday to study what I missed on first reading, which is probably a lot. I do know that, based on his descriptions of Martin’s paintings, I’d love to see them. I expect they would be photorealistic and iconic – like the old Chinese Communist propaganda posters. One of the delights of the book is imagining what these fictional works would look like.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. My recent novel is Mr. Ballpoint, about an outrageous huckster and his mild mannered son, whose marketing of the first ballpoint pen triggered the wacky Pen Wars of 1945. It’s a humorous tale about the joys of entrepreneurship, and the bad guys don’t bite the dirt – they drown in their own red ink. Mr. Ballpoint, capitalism can be fun. Oh, and be sure to catch these podcasts on BoychikLit.com.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"An Object of Beauty" by Steve Martin

Boychik Lit Book Review - No. 19

Here’s my book review of An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.

You may already know that actor-comedian Steve Martin not only writes gags and skits, but also screenplays, plays, and several books. (He’s also a talented five-string banjo player!) An Object of Beauty is a humorous novel about a scheming young woman making her way in the aristo world of New York art galleries. Oh, and you can add art connoisseur, historian, and collector to Martin’s credentials. He has his own multimillion-dollar private collection, so researching this book probably took little more effort than looking around the walls of his home and remembering details of those transactions.

Main character Lacey Yeager is a looker with brains who has no qualms about sleeping her way to the top of the art-world rat heap. She is sexy, clever, manipulative, shameless, and almost totally heedless. And in this story she goes from being a newbie intern to proprietor of her own trendy gallery. And along the way she goes through boyfriends almost as often as the Manhattan fashion trends shift. There’s the serious, caring metrosexual journalist, a gallery owner or two, a pop artist, a rich playboy broker who may be a scammer, and an FBI agent.

You’ll learn a lot about art – how it’s made, how it’s valued, and what’s in and what’s out. Lacey is one of those characters whose outrageous attitudes don’t fail to fascinate. She’ll hold your attention and keep you guessing what clever ploy she’ll try next. But, oddly enough for a book so well crafted, there are several major plot threads that simply go nowhere or are resolved in uninteresting ways. Did Martin get bored with them? Or did he decide those yarns would be too much of a hassle to spin out or explain? Or is he somehow saying – that’s life – that situation you’re worried about might not turn out as you expect – in fact, it might not go anywhere at all!

For example, I’m dying to know whether there’s a Rembrandt under that Russian painting. So if you happen to run into Steve in the grocery store, please ask him for me.

For Boychik Lit, I’m Gerald Everett Jones. I wrote The Misadventures of Rollo Hemphill, about a young man on the make in Hollywood, who keeps failing upward. Young men will identify, mature men will sympathize, and women of any age won’t help giggling at male foolishness. And for reviews of other books you can put on your list, check out these podcasts at boychiklit.com.