Thursday, December 11, 2014

Funny Girl - Nick Hornby published by Penguin/Viking

"Funny Girl - the much-anticipated new novel by Nick Hornby, the million-copy bestselling author of About a Boy Make them laugh, and they're yours forever...It's the swinging 60s and the nation is mesmerized by unlikely comedy star Sophie Straw, the former Blackpool beauty queen who just wants to make people laugh, like her heroine Lucille Ball. Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are having the time of their lives. But when the script begins to get a bit too close to home, and life starts imitating art, they all face a choice. The writers, Tony and Bill, comedy obsessives, each harbour a secret. The Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, loves his job but hates his marriage. The male star Clive, feels he's destined for better things. And Sophie Straw, who's changed her name and abandoned her old life, must decide whether to keep going, or change the channel. Nick Hornby's new novel is about popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and teamwork. It offers a wonderfully captivating portrait of youthful exuberance and creativity, and of a period when both were suddenly allowed to flourish. Fans of Hornby will love this book, as will readers of David Nicholls, Mark Haddon and William Boyd" - Booktopia

Being a Nick Hornby, I already had my imagined soundtrack picked out to accompany this book.  After all, this is the creator of "High Fidelity' and 'Fever Pitch' and 'About A Boy'.  Why wouldn't there be some music humming away behind each character and each scene?  And I had the singles loaded up, with a stack of pennies ready to go.  Martha and the Vandellas, Duffy, Lulu, the them tunes to 'Bewitched' and 'The Jetsons', The Beatles (Mod Period), Gerry and the Pacemakers and even 'Housewife's Choice' (from the popular BBC radio hour). My selection was spot on. 

'Funny Girl' sets itself in post War-60's England, and opens at a Maplins style Blackpool and then moves to an emerging  Austin Powers swinging London. Flower Power has not hit yet but The Beatles are packing for America, the Ed Sullivan Show, and Elvis will be returning to tour soon.  But this book is not about music.  It's about Barbara.  A knockout, smashing girl, with a large chest, long blonde hair and a full, peachy bottom, ready to be pinched.  She's just won a bathing beauty competition and has been told of the wonders of a full year's programme as reigning queen - kissing babies, avoiding the gropes of the mayor and no doubt endless beauty parlour openings!  Ahhhh!  Trouble is, she wants not a bathing beauty.  Barbara wants to be a Lucille Ball and models her self, a least internally on the maverick comedienne.  She has a hard time believing herself, when she has the looks of Dian Dors and Marilyn Monroe.  In fact she often gets mistaken for Sabrina, a stunning page 3 beauty who makes her crusts on her ample bosom and aerated mannerisms.  Sabrina (aka Norma Sykes) actually existed in real life (Hornby includes a photo of her doing her best to distract our gaze from the product she's trying to sell in the poster - a slide projector I think?).  The book cracks along at the pace of a 60's sitcom. 

Barbara meets her agent appropriately at the jewellery counter of Derry and Tom's (where many young ladies can catch their future husbands).  But he's entirely distracted by her looks and doesn't believe she'll become a serious actor.  He  does his best to send her to auditions where she'll fail in a ploy to wear down any dreams and hopes she'll eventually yield to the dark side of glamour photography!  But has other plans.  In a chaotic scene she arrives at the read through of a new pilot on the new fangled goggle box.  She also meets two, rather insecure, but talented writers - one gay and one who's pretending, unsuccessfully not to be (after all he's married and this is still a country where gay men can be locked up for their sexual choices).  That fact alone seems to breeze over Barbara.  She may be her own woman but she's oblivious to the sexual revolution smouldering away underneath her feet.  Tom and Bill are the archetypical Swan and Flanders types - or perhaps duplicate copies of Tony Hancock - the famous BBC comic of the 60's and 70's.  You can imagine them squabbling away over various minor points, in their tight 60's flannel suits, skinny ties and brylcream come overs.  I loved their wonderful restrained campiness, offset by Barbara's enthusiastic, ambitious drive.  In one afternoon she turns their horrid little domestic half hour TV show into a whole 13 part series.  And becomes the lead, to boot.  She changes her name to Sophie Straw and a star is born.  The book wants her to success, and without spoiling the story too much, she does.  There are sojourns into romance and friendship, the value of work and the optimism of the new decade.  The pace is, like I said before at the speed of a half hour episode-per chapter.  And the contents of each I s just right, too.  Not too taxing, with breaks commercials and tea-cup refills.

The decade wears on, the British public fall head over kites in love with her, not realising that she's become a strong female lead at a time when women were only just emerging back out of the post war shadows.  I found the whole book just washed over me, e a comfortable, familiar re-run.  The kind you get out from the library on a cold afternoon, by the box set.  Hornby uses sweet images to illustrate point, but I still had to resort to Google occasionally to find out who he was referring to as his references were both familiar and obscure at the same time.  I did love the way he avoided too many cliché's.  If this ever becomes a film, then I'd caution directors to choose the more obscure or realistic images of this period.

Like I said at the start, the soundtrack was ever present.  And so are the voices.  Each character, especially Barbara/Sophie's is strong and eligible.  Her presence is also believable.  It would be much easier to portray an uglier Sophie trying to find her self confidence.  This is a revers: a Pretty, luscious Sophie has to battle sexism, bigotry and maintain her dignity.  This is Hornby's first book since Juliet, Naked, which was heavier than this one.  Think of this as a switch in channel, not to the BBC light programme but still to a happy place like Jones or UKTV. 

Hornby's books always conjure up a sweet cadence of music and relationships - not the crazy way out variety, but the familiar and the natural.  This time Barbara/Sophie is quite a calculated person, with a voice that defies her outward appearance.  She's the thinking man's crumpet and the literally dreamboat too.  But this is still that light-hearted touch that Hornby has, perfect summer reader, I'd venture.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More Blogging Good reads for the Holidays

Edge of Eternity - Ken Follett - Published by Macmillan
For a rainy day at the batch I recommend this huge tome of a novel.  Follett never does anything small.  Entire forests fall to serve his imagination!  Dig in for a book that covers 1003 pages of newsprint! 
On the night of Aug. 8, 1974, many Americans gathered before their television sets to watch Richard M. Nixon announce his intention to resign as president of the United States. That moment is part of “Edge of Eternity,” the last and fattest instalment in Ken Follett’s 20th-century trilogy. And for him, the political is always very personal. So a man and a woman sit watching Nixon’s fall. They have been platonic friends for years. They cheer, and then they start kissing, and wind up having fantastic sex. (Duration: half a page out of 1,098.) This is Follett’s favourite way to keep history interesting
He has a limited line-up of other methods. And yet he has already drawn readers through the trilogy’s first two instalments of global upheaval. “Fall of Giants” swept through the Russian Revolution, the struggle for women’s suffrage, the upstairs-downstairs outrages perpetrated by Britain’s male aristocracy, the verboten love affair between an Englishwoman and a German spy, the new world opening to immigrants fleeing Europe for the United States, and President Woodrow Wilson’s worries about bringing America into World War I. That was tricky business, since “He kept us out of war” had been Wilson’s 1916 second-term campaign slogan.
To illustrate all this, Follett creates five families — Russian, English, Welsh, German and American — whose fates personalized historical events. Some of these fictitious characters had a way of being conveniently positioned very, very close to power; one American is on hand to awaken President Wilson during a night-time crisis and see him emerge from his bedroom wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown. Throughout the series, real leaders of nations and movements have had an uncanny way of confiding their most personal thoughts to Follett’s handy aides and flunkies.
The first book was the most satisfyingly soap-operatic, with empires at stake and readers close to the action. The second, “Winter of the World,” covers World War II, and is necessarily more shocking. One of its most indelible scenes involves two Germans, Rebecca, 13, and Carla, a generation older, surrounded by vicious Russian troops. In an act of terrible courage, Carla persuades the soldiers to gang rape her but leave Rebecca alone.
Carla and Rebecca are alive and well as “Edge of Eternity” begins, in the year of  1961, living in East Germany - yet un-walled off from the West. Rebecca’s life takes an early gut punch when she learns that her husband, Hans, is a member of the East Germans secret police and married her only to spy on her family. Since people in these books tend to be either very good or very bad, Hans will pop up during the next thousand pages to torment Rebecca’s relatives now and then.
Follett quickly equates a loss of freedom in Germany with the situation of blacks deprived of civil rights in the American South. Whatever else one might make of this comparison, it introduces George Jakes, the mixed-race Harvard student whose grandfather, Lev, fled Russia in the first volume (and whose father, a white senator, likes George but doesn’t acknowledge paternity). George is a terrific character, and it’s not even a stretch when Follett makes him central to truly important historical moments. This book’s description of what happens to a bus full of Freedom Riders (George among them) in Alabama is authentically terrifying. Its descriptions of George’s heroism sounds credible, too.  It's an epic read all round, but worth it, like all Folletts.  An English master at work!
The Escape (John Puller #3) - David Baldacci - Published by Macmillan
I must confess I haven't had time to read this one yet but I need too.  Over the holidays I'm going to be under a tree with a G&T and this.  David Baldacci’s blockbuster #1 bestselling thrillers Zero Day and The Forgotten introduced readers to John Puller. A combat veteran and special agent with the U.S. Army, Puller is the man they call to investigate the toughest crimes facing the nation. But all his training, all his experience, all his skills will not prepare him for his newest case, one that will force him to hunt down the most formidable and brilliant prey he has ever tracked: his own brother.
It’s a prison unlike any other. Military discipline rules. Its security systems are unmatched. None of its prisoners dream of escaping. They know it’s impossible . . . until now.
John Puller’s older brother, Robert, was convicted of treason. His inexplicable escape from prison makes him the most wanted criminal in the country. Some in the government believe that John Puller represents their best chance at capturing Robert alive, and so Puller must bring in his brother to face justice.
But Puller quickly discovers that his brother is pursued by others who don’t want him to survive. Puller is in turn pushed into an uneasy, fraught partnership with another agent, who may have an agenda of her own.
They dig more deeply into the case together, and Puller finds that not only are her allegiances unclear, but there are troubling details about his brother’s conviction . . . and someone out there doesn’t want the truth to ever come to light. As the nationwide manhunt for Robert grows more urgent, Puller’s masterful skills as an investigator and strengths as a fighter may not be enough to save his brother—or himself.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig - Published by Macmillan

“'The pill' is that rare invention that transforms the world. In this gripping book, Jonathan Eig tells how an unlikely group—Margaret Sanger, Katherine McCormick, Dr. Gregory Pincus, and Dr. John Rock—came together to achieve a scientific breakthrough and win acceptance for it in the face of intense opposition. The Birth of the Pill is vivid, compelling, and important.” (T. J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt)

This is an excellent, well-rounded look at the development of the oral contraceptive pill,  If anything be could be labelled the most controversial and revolutionary artefact of recent woman's history - then this would definitely be it!.  "The Pill,” author Jonathan Eig covers the political and social atmosphere of the era. He also delves into the backgrounds and lives of the major players. While there is not a lot of science in the book, what there is, is well explained. This isn’t predominantly a book about science, it is about history. Eig’s overall tone is conversational and the book should be accessible to those with no science background.   The larger than life characters pushing societal and scientific boundaries make the book a fun, fascinating read.  Books are written with a purpose in mind. Some books attempt to bring cold hard information; cut and dry. In such cases one might consider talented and obsessive lexicographers. On the other hand there are word-smiths with unyielding imaginations.

Revolution - Russell Brand published by Century

"You are all going to die anyway" - claims the blurb in black and red cowboy font  - "So join the Revolution!"  "Revolution is change and I believe in change"  I can hear Brand's squeaky cockney voice trying to make all that convincing, like Anthony what's-his-name the self improvement guy.  Is that what Brand is trying to do, I wonder?  Nah!!!  

He has a very big topic: "We all know the system isn’t working. Our governments are corrupt and the opposing parties pointlessly similar. Our culture is filled with vacuity and pap, and we are told there’s nothing we can do: “It’s just the way things are.” Exactly what system is this?  Oh, humanity.  Well, yeah - probably not!
Lawrence O'Donnell's clarion, insightful interview with Russell Brand about his new book "Revolution" underscores an inescapable reality. The oligarchic "way things are" is a done deal. The apparatus to dismantle the "military-industrial-[congressional] complex" (Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address) has been long since neutered. The usurpation is complete and irrevocable, leaving but one option. Drop out as completely as possible. The understanding, tolerance and love Brand rightly promotes is wholly intolerable to the merchants of greed, class hatred and proxy theocracy. If you don't like having this fascist agenda crammed down your throat, stop voting, stop shopping at WallyWorld, stop gorging at McDonald's, stop buying useless crap, stop subsidizing the very forces that hold you in their iron grip. In short, stop being an instrument of your own demise. Get out of the stock market. Hit them where it really hurts, in bank assets. Now more than ever, less is more. What if they held an election and nobody came? I don't know. Let's find out. It's the only viable option left.

No nonviolent revolution has ever fully succeeded. Sooner or later all came to violence when the rapacious powers that be could no longer coerce belligerent peasants. Both Gandhi and MLK were assassinated. Does that tell you anything? Yes, people will again be brutalized and die. Many more will live marginal lives without the purported blessings of plutonomy and freedumb. That's the price we pay to cast off brutes. In the end it's the only thing thugs understand because brutality is their preferred weapon. Remember Kent State. We of the '60s well understood this during the Vietnam/Civil Rights era and were ultimately suborned by banking interests empowered by creeping totalitarianism.  But I have to wonder - does anyone give a monkey's these days?

Quick notes: Books to Check out as well.

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 - Auckland University Press
On the web and the wireless, in magazines and journals, at prizegivings and pōwhiri, New Zealanders are talking and writing about the world right now. We’ve been producing essays and articles, speeches and submissions, tweets and travelogues – nonfiction, in other words. This book collects some of New Zealand’s best true stories from the past year or so together into an anthology.  Read more:

Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold - published by Penguin
The riveting true story—soon to be the subject of a high-profile film—of Olympic wrestling gold medal-winning brothers Mark Schultz and Dave Schultz and their fatal relationship with the eccentric John du Pont, heir to the du Pont dynasty.  The book was an entertaining read for those interested in the personality of John Dupont and what led to the crime. The first two thirds of the book, which dealt with the Schultz brothers wrestling careers, was mildly interesting but only wrestling or Olympic fans would find this stuff worth reading.The final chapters give an interesting look into schizophrenia, more than anything else.  Shultz  is not without faults. He had poor interpersonal skills growing up, and was too close minded about many things. He acted like a typical dumb jock. His brother and wrestling helped him to connect to the world in a healthier manner. Much of the book deals with his wrestling matches which many will find tiresome. There were a few interesting nuggets, such as his winning the gold medal in the Olympics.
He'd gone through a religious conversion (Mormonism) and several divorces where he admits to have lost his kids.  The book will give anyone who is interested in the movie, a deeper look into the reasons why the murder happened. It's a quick read, a real page turner at the end.  No doubt the movie will have to live up to the reputation!  

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid Published by Hamish Hamilton

Remember the famous 'Letter From America" - Alistair Cooke.  Well, this is a sort of update to that.  From “one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers” (The New York Times), intimate and sharply observed commentary on life, art, politics, and “the war on terror.” 


His writing has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, selected as winner or finalist of twenty awards, and translated into more than thirty languages.

He was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.

Hamid provides a unique perspective as he explains Pakistan to Americans, and illuminates Pakistani attitudes toward the United States. In this collection of brief essays written between 2000 and 2014, Hamid also sought to effectively bridge the U.S./Pakistan divide by presenting suggestions for a path of action which would increase understanding and cooperation between the peoples of these two countries.

Hamid divided this highly readable anthology of brief articles into three sections – Life (with subjects including "Avatar in Lahore" and "On Fatherhood"), Art (with subjects including "How do E-Book s Changes the Reading Experience?" and "My Reluctant Fundamentalist") and Politics – the latter encompassing nearly half of this small, 225 page book, and providing the most substantial insight.

Pakistan is less than 1/12 the geographical area of the United States, but has almost 2/3 of the population that the U.S. has. The alliance between the U.S. and Pakistani military has resulted in undue hardship for millions of ordinary Pakistani citizens, increasing the casualty rate and homelessness resulting from terrorism/counter-terrorism attacks. The lack of a clearly defined border between Pakistan and Afghanistan contributes to the problem; the on-going conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir also feeds Pakistani instability and violence.

His articles are very short.  Economy of words and of time creates enough urgency to get your attention.  Written in a fairly informal, almost conversational style - illuminate the highly diverse, contradictory facets of Pakistan.If you choose to watch Al Jazeera instead of Fox News, then this is your cap of Char!

George, later a lawyer, winds up as the obligatory black face (or so he sees it) in Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s inner circle. Meanwhile, another of the book’s black characters winds up as one of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite girlfriends. The details of the president’s romancing come straight from Mimi Alford’s 2012 tell-all, “Once Upon a Secret,” right down to his fondness for rubber ducks in the bathtub. But it is one of Mr. Follett’s trademark maneuvers to link George’s destiny with this woman’s heartbreak on the day she has to be told that “my Johnny,” as she thinks of him, has been shot.
Mr. Follett is harshly critical of the Kennedys’ true commitment to civil rights, especially when that commitment became a political liability. But he never lets a political discussion bog down for very long. Over in the Kremlin, the highly placed Dimka Dvorkin (grandson of the first book’s firebrand Bolshevik) manages to be at the side of Nikita S. Khrushchev and every Russian leader to follow him, keeping readers informed about how Communist policies are working out. But he, too, has oft-described troubles with women to break up all that Politburo chatter. And he has risen to the role of mentor by the time a bright young reformer named Gorbachev comes along.
Also touched on here, pretty feebly: the evolving youthquake culture that began in the mid-’60s and peaked by the end of that decade. This book distributes space so unusually that Mr. Follett is nearly halfway through it before he gets past 1963; he devotes almost 200 pages to that year alone. But two cousins, a German and a Briton, form a rock band that’s supposed to be good, and there are unconvincing observations about the Hamburg club scene. Beatles albums are also dutifully mentioned. A long chapter on 1968 covers the tumultuous events of that year, which are enough to jolt George out of politics, at least for a while; the Vietnam War is seen at its worst. The Nixon flameout, the stirrings of a new conservatism and the Iran-contra fiasco all get their due. Mr. Follett makes a point of treating Ronald Reagan’s rousing statement “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” more as a grandstanding aside than a moment of glory. The book has strong opinions about why Communism collapsed, too.
“Edge of Eternity” does end on the brink. Its 2008 epilogue has the same people who watched so much other history unfold on television now watching Barack Obama’s election-night victory speech, which makes perfect sense in terms of the timeline Mr. Follett has chosen. A child asks: Why is an old man in the group so moved? The simple truth: “It’s a long story.”

Michael Cooper's Buyer's Guide 2015

This will be a difficult book to review if you're not a seasoned wine buff.  Yet Cooper's pedigree in the industry is probably enough to instantly demand this is on your Xmas list.  As always he covers all the bases - reviewing the upcoming releases in every varietal and Cellar offering.  Wine is, I think, a very personal thing so it would be a challenge to criticise his palate and his knowledge without a real cannon of knowledge behind me.  That said I really enjoyed poking around in my local supermarket with this book, trying to determine which Sav or Chardonnay I should bring home.  But, let's face it, that is a boring approach.  The real joy is in checking all the new varieties on the horizon - the new stars to shine - like Wurtzer or Zweiiget or Marzeminc - all old world names looking for a new spot in our sun.  The book can be used in a multitude of ways: You can surf the good years in the Vintage chart, or check out each region and explore the surrounding vineyards, or you can just look up that bottle you gt for Xmas.  Cooper is a permanent fixture in our Vintner landscape for good reason.  Put this one on the list:  And don't forget to surf his website, too!