Monthly Archive for December, 2010

Total Control: The Monkees Michael Nesmith Story

Total Control: The Monkees Michael Nesmith Story (12/30/10) Biography (2005 **) Written by Randi L. Massigill. An update of his 1997 book, Massingill covers the ups, downs and general dickishness of “Papa Nez,” the man in the green wool hat. As a fan of Nesmith (his Elephant Parts video album served as model for the TV shows I produced in college), I would rather have not learned as much dirt about my hero as this book had to offer. I don’t dispute the facts, as many of them are a matter of the public record, but I was frequently put off by the amateurishness of the writing, and was surprised that Massigill didn’t smooth out some of the clunkier passages for the 2005 edition. Aside from all that, I did appreciate the book as a research effort, and much of the information was interesting to me and put some of what I knew into perspective, such as the fact that Nesmith didn’t participate in some of the Monkees reunion tours because he was otherwise occupied by multiple legal battles. In the end, Michael Nesmith remains an enigmatic figure, and I won’t be surprised if he still has a few tricks up his sleeves.

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Island of the Blue Dolphins (12/30/10) Novel (1960 ***1/2) Written by Scott O’Dell. When a 13-year-old native girl named Karana finds herself alone on an island off the coast of California, she learns to survive and thrive, both physically and spiritually. This book, nominally written for children, probably appears an odd choice for me, but it was recommended by my wife who loved it as a little girl. When I was halfway through I told my wife my plot prediction for the rest of the book. She just smiled and reminded me that the book had won the Newbery Medal when it was first published. Of course I was very wrong, and the book’s narrative took a much higher, richer path than the one I’d laid out. It made me question my own storytelling skills, not necessarily a bad thing. What was most amazing is that the book was based on an actual woman, though according to my wife the real Karana’s fate was far less upbeat than the end of her fictionalized story.

Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel: A Modest Bestiary

Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel: A Modest Bestiary (12/28/10) Short Fiction (2010 **1/2) Written by David Sedaris, with illustrations by Ian Falconer. This volume collects a set of short stories featuring animals acting very human. I recently watched Sedaris’ appearance on The Daily Show, and in his interview with Jon Stewart Sedaris acknowledged that the stories in this collection were written over the course of several years in-between book tours and other projects. Though the title story (its end, anyway) resonated with me emotionally, it was the only one. Most of the stories were disappointing and left me with the sense that the anthropomorphic conceit could have been exploited more effectively if the stories themselves had been stronger. I was also left with a sneaking suspicion that this lightweight (fast read) collection was a deliberate commercial attempt to cash in on Sedaris’ name.

Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed

Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (12/25/10) Nonfiction (2009 ***1/2) Written by Brian Cronin. Much of the material in this book was originally presented as a feature in Cronin’s blog,Comics Should be Good! Organizationally, the book was divided into three sections: DC, Marvel and “Other” Comics Companies. Being a life-long comics fan (and having read some of Cronin’s columns before), I was aware of about half the information presented. I admired Cronin’s clean, clearly-written prose. The bottom line with this book is that if you are a comic collector (possibly of a certain age…) this is the book for you. If not, then it will probably seem like a lot of nerdy gibberish.

Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story

Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story (12/24/10) Novella (2009 **1/2) Written by Wally Lamb. Fifth grader Felix Funicello must survive Catholic School and the dreaded Christmas pageant. I loved Lamb’s 1992 book, She’s Come Undone, but was disappointed by his 1998 follow-up I Know This Much is True. Wishin’ and Hopin’ was definitely a lightweight offering compared to those books. Unfortunately, though it was tonally comic, I never laughed aloud. I also kept waiting for Felix, the main character and narrator, to show evidence of change, something he never did. The book also suffered because its nativity play as dramatic climax territory was covered with far greater emotional impact (and humor) by John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). I can’t help but wonder what influence that earlier book had on Lamb, either consciously or unconsciously.

Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets

Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets (12/21/10) Essays (2010 ***1/2) Written by Dick Cavett. This book contains pieces that were originally published in Cavett’s New York Times online column. The subjects of the essays broke down into the following three categories: (1) Personal reflections; (2) Political commentary related to the 2008 election; and (3) Anecdotes related to famous guests on his talk shows. In the third category, nobody drops names like Dick Cavett, though it seemed Groucho’s was mentioned far more than the others. It was occasionally obvious (and self-indicated) that the columns were produced on a deadline. Some were meatier than others, but all were well-written and it’s too bad Dick Cavett hasn’t written more books. On a personal note, this was my first Amazon Kindle (e-book) purchase and read, and I found the experience to be very positive.

Dinner for Schmucks

Dinner for Schmucks (12/18/10) Alitalia Flt 621 (LAX to Rome) (2010 **) Directed by Jay Roach, starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis. Climbing the corporate ladder often requires you to do things you don’t want to do, like inviting a stuffed mouse artist to a dinner so your colleagues can poke fun. Some movies are best suited for viewing on an airline six-inch video display built into the back of the seat of the person in front of you. This is such a movie. Thing is, I like all the people in the film (well, not ALL of them, but you know what I mean) as well as some of Jay Roach’s other films. I think the reason this film didn’t work lay in the timid handling of the main character. Though I haven’t seen the original French version, I imagine it probably took the central idea much further and spent less effort keeping Paul Rudd’s character from being too unlikable early in the film.

My Name is Nobody

My Name is Nobody (12/18/10) Alitalia Flight 621 (LAX to Rome) (1973 ***) Directed by Tonino Valerii, screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, based (according to the credits) on an “idea” by Sergio Leone, starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. An aging gunfighter with a target on his back meets an uncouth, bean-eating fan with a lightning fast draw. I was delighted to see this film on the menu of our in-flight video system. It and its sequels were favorites growing up, as they were often the second and third features at the drive-in. Particularly evocative was the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Sergio Leone’s “idea” of combining a gritty Clint Eastwood-style spaghetti western with physical comedy wasn’t an obvious one, but it was inspired. I’m curious what role the “Trinity” films played in Italian culture. During our vacation in Rome I saw film posters for the series for sale in a street market.

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (12/17/10) Comics (2010 ***1/2) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert and various artists. Originally published in serial form in 1989, 1996 and 2009. Created in the mold of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, this collection of Gaiman-penned stories starts with a longish (two-issue) “final” Batman story, followed by several short stand-alone stories. Gaiman’s voice is strong and easy to identify, and it’s also a good match for Batman as a character, in stark contrast to the mismatch between Alan Moore and Superman I noted in the previously similarly-titled Superman collection. I couldn’t help but think that part of that reason Gaiman was so well suited to writing for Batman is that the Dark Knight Detective is so very similar tonally to Gaiman’s Morpheus (better known as Sandman).

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorow?

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorow? (12/16/10) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated by Curt Swan, Dave Gibbons and Rick Veitch. This book collects four Moore-penned issues of Superman, Action Comics and DC Comics Presents from 1985-1986. The 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths event fundamentally changed the DC Universe (not entirely for the better), erasing 50 years of restrictive continuity in exchange for a fresh start. That is an important context for reading the stories in this collection, which starts with the last pre-Crisis (Julius Schwartz) Superman story before John Byrne’s Man of Steel “reboot” in 1986. Of the three stories contained in this book, it was the strongest. The “point” of this book appears to be to capitalize on the popularity of Superman graphic novels and Alan Moore. In all honesty, Alan Moore and Superman made for a strange (far from perfect) union. Still, for comic nerds (like me), it was fun to see Curt Swan’s pencils inked by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, as well as seeing Moore’s writing illustrated by Dave Gibbons, a pair that worked together on Watchmen, also published in the mid-1980’s.