December 28, 2015

Book review: “Be Cool” by Elmore Leonard

I want to talk about Elmore Leonard as a practitioner at that high altar of modern literature, metafiction, but first… In Leonard’s 1999 novel Be Cool, Chili Palmer is explaining some insights he’s gathered about his new career in the music industry: The label, the manager and the lawyer are the tree and its branches. They nourish the fruit, the fruit being the artist. The tree has to be healthy to bear good fruit, or else the fruit falls to the ground and rots. Elaine Levin, a movie studio executive (and, eventually, Chili’s love interest), asks, “Why does that sound familiar?” There are a great many people who would say: Of course, that’s familiar. It echoes the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 17-19, which begin: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” as well as a parable in the 13th chapter of that gospel which starts: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they […]
December 21, 2015

Book review: “Get Shorty” by Elmore Leonard

As Elmore Leonard showed in his early novels and short stories, he could write a straight-ahead tale with a tight plot that unfolded step-by-step-by-step to a climax. In most of his later work, though, Leonard employed a much different approach. What there is of a plot, even if it involves danger and violence, isn’t very pressing. It is simply a flat stage on which his characters move. It is his characters who have his interest — and that of his readers. Get Shorty is one of these later books, published in 1990. Chili Palmer is a Miami loan shark who’s getting out of the business. Well, he’s being chased out by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a mobster he once cold-cocked and who’s had it in for Chili ever since. Anyway, Chili ends up in Hollywood. He hooks up with longtime schlock film producer Harry Zimm who, for the first time in his life, has a high-concept project to push. Also moving in and out of the story are Karen Flores, a former starlet famous for her full-throated scream in various Zimm movies; rich wastrel Ronnie Wingate and his savvy partner in a limousine-drug operation, Bo Catlett; and three-time Academy Award-winner Martin […]
December 15, 2015

Book review: “The Summons” by John Grisham

I was looking for a page-turner, and, for its opening chapters, The Summons by John Grisham supplied that. Ray Atlee, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia, gets a letter addressed to him and his younger brother Forrest from their father. It reads: Please make arrangements to appear in my study on Sunday, May 7, at 5 p.m., to discuss the administration of my estate. Sincerely, Rueben V. Atlee It’s a letter that gives an immediate insight into the relationship — and lack of one — that Ray has had up until now with his father, a retired judge who, until being unseated in an election nine years earlier, had been a major figure in Ford County, Mississippi. Forrest, a wastrel, lifelong addict, has had an even more tortuous connection with the Judge. Ray knows that his 79-year-old father is dying of cancer so he is shaken but not completely surprised when he arrives at the family home for the appointment to find his father dead with a packet of morphine nearby.   Neat packets of hundred-dollar bills What does stun him, though, is his discovery in dozens of boxes in cabinets in […]
December 8, 2015

Book review: “Women in Clothes” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others

Women in Clothes is a wonderful book, a cornucopia of insights into the ever-so-complicated feelings that women have about clothing. Although I like the idea of fashion as a kind of practical, everyday art, it’s an art for which I am without aptitude. I do love, however, to study the way human beings think and act, what makes us tick, especially human beings in groups that don’t include me. This book provided me with a delightful and ever-surprising glimpse into the psyches of women as reflected in their clothing and their emotions about their clothing. It allowed me to listen in on literally hundreds of women as they took part in a conversation about a subject that, clearly, is of great import to them. For a guy, reading the book might be called voyeuristic, yet I’m a human being who wears clothes, so none of this is completely foreign to me. While men in Western society aren’t as into fashion and clothing as women (except a small percentage that includes my son David), I’m sure any guy who reads Women in Clothes would feel resonances. Guys have their own clothing issues, and all of us are close to women who […]
December 7, 2015

Book review: “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

The Vermont doctor, successful and respected, is with friends, listening to the radio as Senator Buzz Windrip is nominated by the Democratic Party to become President of the United States. Windrip is a shoo-in in the 1936 election, and some of the friends around that radio fear that, given his proposals and the sorts of people he has gathered around himself, Windrip will become an American dictator. Bosh, the doctor says. Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here! Yet, it does. And the doctor is one of the first to be marched out behind the courthouse and summarily executed by a firing squad. The book, written in 1935, is by Sinclair Lewis. Its title is: It Can’t Happen Here. And it’s all about how it can and, in this story of the then near-future, it does. Throughout the book, one character after another says, one way or another, says, “It can’t happen here.” And yet it does.   Alarming vision Windrip is a version of Louisiana Senator Huey Long, a demagogue, who was gearing up […]