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Monday, February 8, 2016

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

Reviewed by Gerti

My husband says you should never read a “New York Times” bestseller, because you’re bound to be disappointed. I’ve never followed that advice, and this book makes me thankful for it. I found John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas” to be a flat out delight, even if I didn’t get to read it till after the tree was already on the curb.

Now I’m a huge Grisham fan, but usually he puts out legal thrillers that have me trying to decide whether the jury is rigged or a judge corrupt. That’s why this is such a delightful change. It has all the advantages of a Grisham novel – his ridiculously original characters and brandy-smooth writing – with a whipped cream heavy plot, so it doesn’t require more thinking than say, whether to use bubble bath or not before you engage in a soak.

The principals are Luther and Nora Krank, and since they are sending their daughter off to the third world for Christmas, they decide to forgo their usual holiday rituals (which accountant Luther finds are costing them a fortune) and take a holiday cruise instead. Oddly enough, that will be cheaper by half than buying all the fruitcakes, trees, invitations and custom-made holiday cards and throwing the huge party they usually throw. What is thrilling, however, is seeing how it all goes wrong, for just as they are getting ready to leave, their daughter calls and says “surprise!” she is coming home for Christmas after all, and bringing her doctor fiancé who would really love to see an American Christmas celebration.

Luther has made a ton of enemies with his anti-Christmas stance, and it is heart-warming how his neighborhood, which has turned against him for his resistance to taking part in their theme decorating that year, bands together to bring his Christmas miracle to pass. Grisham’s sense of humor sparkles, and his mastery of clever plot shines as brightly as the lit up “Frosty the Snowman” meant to be mounted next to the Krank’s chimney. He leaves no omission without it’s consequences, and it’s wonderful to watch how all the plot elements gets knit together by the end as tightly as that holiday sweater your grandmother sent you when you were 12.

I loved this book, and felt like a child on Christmas morning that I’ve discovered it at last. Thank you, John Grisham, for giving me and your faithful readers the ultimate gift, tied up in a pretty holiday bow. I’m ordered the movie they made from the book matches the level of wit and merriment of Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas,” but (spoiler alert!) it does not. Read the book for real holiday laughs!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Where’d You Go, Bernadatte by Maria Semple

Reviewed by Gerti

In contrast to another book I just read by Dominick Dunne which deals with the lives of the rich and famous in New York City long ago, Maria Semple here deals with the lives of the computer nouveau riche, including the title character Bernadette Fox. She is married to a genius from Microsoft, but is a bit of a genius herself, something we don’t realize until about halfway into the story. At the start, Bernadette is simply a Seattle mom who is tired of dealing with the other mommies at her daughter Bee’s very special grade school, and that makes her character very approachable from this reader’s point of view.  

Bernadette is eccentric, and so is the unconventional format that Semple uses to present the story. She takes e-mails, letters, conversations, memos, etc. to tell us the story of this family: the brilliant-but-largely-absent father, the trying-hard-but would-rather-be-doing-something-else mommy, and the stuck-in-the-middle daughter, who is just trying to keep everyone happy. Part of the problem is that mom has a formidable adversary at Galer Street School named Audrey Griffin. Audrey is the Fox family’s neighbor, and she is hosting an event for the school, but is fixated and upset by everything Bernadette does. Among her crimes, Audrey starts a rumor (untrue) that Bernadette drove over her foot in car line, then sneaks onto the Fox’s property in order to remove some blackberry plants which she feels will ruin the party she is hosting. As fate would have it, removing those blackberries vines during the rainy season in Seattle leads to a mudslide which fills Audrey’s house and scares any number of children and parents.  

But other things are going wrong in Bernadette’s life as well. She thinks she’s been out-sourcing tedious jobs to a woman named Manjula in India, but in truth she’s been having her personal information stolen, including passport info and credit cards. By the time her husband catches on, law enforcement is also involved, and it all makes Bernadette look like she’s completely lost her mind. During an intervention at home, Bernadette flies the coop, and the search is on. 

Throw in other issues like her husband, Elgin Branch, being seduced by his new administrative assistant (a divorced mother at the Galer school who is one of the “gnats” bothering Bernadette), and Bee’s wanting to go to Antarctica on vacation, and you’ve got a hell of a quirky tale. I love Bernadette as a character, and admire the resilience of her daughter, who never believes for a minute that her mother would leave and not want to be found by her. I hate the husband for a while (who doesn’t hate a man who cheats on his wife?) but the e-mails etc. make clear how little he is really to blame for what happens with Soo-Lin. 

The final scenes will have you cheering as MacArthur prize-winning architect Bernadette gets her groove back building with limited resources in the frozen wasteland, and reuniting with her family. Strongly recommended roller-coaster of a tale that will have you laughing, crying and commiserating at every turn.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Bleak House (Special Edition)

Review of DVD: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

Reviewed by Gerti

The BBC is well known for its productions of the works of famous British authors like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. This 1985 production of Dickens’ “Bleak House” fits into that category, and is at its heart a condemnation of the legal profession and the people who make their living in it.

The story is a simple one. Two young heirs to the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce come to light, and while the case goes through Chancery (the court system in Britain) the pair go to live with a distant relation, John Jarndyce. Ada and Richard, although distant cousins, fall in love there, but are eventually torn apart by Richard’s obsession with the outcome of the case, as he is hoping when it is settled (in his favor) it will make him a wealthy man. The older Jarndyce warns him that obsessing about the case will only lead to madness and ruin, but young Richard can’t listen, and when the case is finally settled, it is discovered that all the money has been used up by the lawyers. Richard falls ill and dies, leaving his young widow, Ada, pregnant.

But the love birds are not the only one’s caught in the legal trappings of the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Also interested in its outcome are Lord and Lady Dedlock, who are already fabulously wealthy. Their lawyer is the evil attorney Tulkinghorn, who when he’s not pursuing the case, is trying to find out why Lady Dedlock fainted when reading the handwriting on a particular legal document. He eventually is able to show that she had a child out of wedlock with the writer of the document, a former army officer who has since died because of his obsession with her (and illegal substances.) He was, however, a kind man, and gave his money away to a street urchin named Jo, who is hounded to death by lawyers and police trying to find out what he knows about the dead man.

The title is ironic, because although John Jarndyce’s house isn’t bleak, the story is incredibly so. The only shining light is Esther Summerson, who much as her name indicates, brings light into the lives of those around her. She is the natural daughter of Lady Dedlock and this army officer, but only finds out her heritage right before Lady Dedlock runs away to avoid bringing shame to her husband and his noble house. The only shades of comedy in this piece come from the ridiculous names, like the landlord Mr. Krook, the Neckett family, and of course Inspector Bucket. The BBC production is also bleak and lacks color in many scenes, but it is the picture of London at this time in history that is the bleakest of all.

Monday, January 18, 2016

I Had the Right to Remain Silent… But I Didn’t Have the Ability

Reviewed by Gerti

This first print offering by comedian Ron “Tater Salad” White is the perfect thing to take to the beach, or to the bathroom. It takes about an hour to read in total, and while I never laughed out loud, many of the stories here were familiar from when we saw White when he came to the Star Plaza a few years back, only not quite as funny in print as in person. The illustrations, however, are quite good.

This book is filled with amusing and sometimes disturbing episodes from White’s life. While everything is viewed through the lens of his sharp-edged, Southern-fried comedy, it feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to hear how he tried to sleep with 3 different women in one night, or was fired from a comedy club chain for having dropped acid and been unable to perform. I suppose part of the charm of Ron White is that he does all kinds of things I would never consider doing, like making out naked in Bill Engvall’s hot tub, or running a failing pottery factory in Mexico, so it gives a perspective on a way of life that is both funny AND foreign. But for me it got to the point where the party-all-night lifestyle of White’s was a little sad.

White draws hysterical portraits of other people, including his various wives, girlfriends and pets. But my favorite stories come from before White was famous, when Jeff Foxworthy helped him out in his career and in his life. White makes Jeff sound like a true Christian with comic talent and a generous heart, and White himself suffers in contrast. I love White’s comedy, and would see him perform again, but this book shows him in a troubling and unfavorable light. In short, prior to reading this, I liked him, but because of this book, I don’t. He seems very selfish and self-destructive, and that’s not a lovable combo.

If you haven’t seen him, I would say go ahead and read this book. But White’s writing style is far less funny than are his live performances, and so much humor is imparted by his charming drawl and his impeccable timing, that I would much rather pay the big bucks and see him live. I also plan to rent one of his DVDs, which are listed several times in the book (even though I’ve seen them before on Comedy Central). Ron White is truly one of the funniest people on the planet, but I worry that his errant life-style choices will put him in the same category as comedians John Belushi and Sam Kinnison, brilliant artists who died before their time. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The House of Mirth

Review of the movie “The House of Mirth” 

based on Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name

Reviewed by Gerti

With a title like that, you would think the movie would be filled with light moments, a breezy comedy perhaps, and nothing at all like a movie titled “Bleak House”. Think again! “The House of Mirth” is a humorless tale with a very sad ending for the film’s protagonist Lily Bart, played by Gillian Anderson of X-files fame.  

Anderson must have felt as though she were in an episode about other-worldly happenings while making this film, because the costumes and sets are gorgeous, and definitely evocative of the early parts of this century. The story ostensibly starts in 1906 New York, where Bart visits a man she loves, and hopes to marry, played by Eric Stoltz. She is one of those penniless young women of any time who are on the prowl for a wealthy spouse, and yet the man she loves has to work for his money (as a lawyer, though!) and so he would be a bad match for her. As if he’d ask her! He’s a gorgeous creature, and has already seduced Bart’s married friend, Bertha. When Bart buys their love letters from the cleaning woman, the viewer thinks she will use them to her advantage. 

But Bart does not, even after being advised to do so by a male suitor, Rosedale. He’s in love with her beauty and charm, but she won’t consider his proposal, despite the fact that he’s very wealthy, because he’s a social climber and not one of her kind. Those of her own social circle, however, use her quite badly. Friend Bertha takes her on a cruise, but Lily finds out it is only to distract her husband while Bertha carries on with yet another younger male conquest. Bertha then publically disrespects Lily by throwing her off the yacht, and the conclusions that society draws are obvious – Lily has been trying to seduce husband George. While it’s not true, Lily foolishly won’t use the letters proving Bertha’s infidelity to save her reputation. And that noble choice begins her descent .

When her wealthy aunt, from whom she was expecting to inherit, learns of Lily’s alleged escapades, she practically cuts her out of the will, leaving everything to a meek cousin who’s been gossiping about Lily to her. Lily tries to appeal to both women, but they will not relent and give her money, or even shelter her when things go sideways. Lily is forced into a flat of her own, and forced to find a job, first as a social secretary, still on society’s fringes, but then as a milliner’s apprentice. She is not suited for such work and is soon fired. Lily makes one final appeal to the man she loves, before leaving him the love letters that would open him to ridicule. He finds them and runs to her, but it is too late. She would rather die than blackmail him, or have his playboy character revealed. 

This story is a bleak portrayal of the choices a woman has and the perils she faces when she plays the game of love. Because she won’t compromise her morals, her social snobbishness, or her romantic but doomed love, Lily is a tragic character ill-suited to the game she has tried but failed to win. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner

Reviewed by Gerti

For those who don’t know, Gilda Radner was a famous comedian from the early days of the television show “Saturday Night Live,” which has been a staple on TV for decades now. As such, the reader might expect this book to be a comedy riot, along the lines of written offerings from other comedians like Ron White or Chelsea Handler. But it is not, yet that doesn’t make it a bad book.

“It’s Always Something” is more the story of how Gilda Radner went through ups and downs during her eventually losing battle against ovarian cancer. It is one of those books where even though you know how it ends (she is dead, after all), the glory is in the struggle itself, and here Radner lays out her fight against the disease in sometimes agonizing personal detail. She talks about her moods, the doctors and nurses who helped her, her husband, fellow comedian Gene Wilder and HIS struggles with her and her disease, and well as what many of these medical procedures and treatments felt like to her. She shows each stage of the process unflinchingly, laying herself open to criticism even while she talks about her mad search for alternative treatments and her evil and depressive moods.

Yes, she does talk about her unconventional upbringing and her early career, and finally the triumphs that made her a household name and a recognizable face while she was on TV. But that is a small portion of the book. More often, she talks candidly about people from The Wellness Community, the cancer support group she meets with, and her hero worship of the man who founded it, and her relationship with Gene Wilder. She is frank about her lengthy struggle to get Wilder to marry her in the first place, and then about their struggles to keep it together when they have alternate ideas about her cancer treatment modalities. Gilda is beyond honest, always leaving herself painfully vulnerable to the prying eyes of the casual reader. But how can anyone read this story and not be sympathetic to the person who went through so much pain and yet brought so much laughter to the world? It is heartbreaking to see her go through this.

“It’s Always Something” is not a funny book, although there are funny scenes in it. I think it should be read rather by those going through cancer treatments, or the family members and friends of those people, than a typical SNL fan looking for a laugh, as it is more informative than funny. My father died of cancer a few years back, and this book explains in detail what he and other cancer patients experience. Reading it was helpful and healing to me because he never talked about what he was going through at the time. In the end, I’m sorry Gilda Radner died, because even though she succumbed to this terrible disease, she goes on helping people not by sharing laughs, but by sharing the story of her struggle with cancer so candidly.

Friday, January 8, 2016

At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks

Reviewed by Gerti

“At First Sight” is the first Nicholas Sparks novel that I’ve tried to read, and it has its good and bad points. On the positive side, his writing goes down as easily as cool water on a summer’s day. I like his descriptions of people and places, and his characters seem lively and fresh.

On the negative side, I really disliked the character with whom the protagonist, Jeremy Marsh, was in love. Her name was Lexie Darnell, and she’s from a small town in North Carolina. Jeremy was a writer in the big apple, and had come to Boone Creek in order to do a story for the magazine “Scientific American” on strange doings in the town cemetery. Lexie was his tour guide of sorts, and he found her irresistible. For her, he leaves NYC, and comes down to NC in order to marry her. His friends and large family adore her, or so Jeremy thinks at first, but the couple’s best friends are actively working to sabotage them.

Not that Jeremy and Lexie aren’t doing enough to sabotage their own relationship. Lexie is still actively engaged with her old boyfriend, and while she claims it’s all innocent when Jeremy confronts her about it, the simple fact that she’s lied to him at all leaves him uneasy. Next he finds out that she was pregnant before (by someone else who just drifted into town) and lost the baby. She hadn’t told him that either. She is supposed to be pregnant now with Jeremy’s child, although he had been tested in the past when his ex-wife wanted children, and found to be sterile. Yet somehow he buys Lexie’s story that the baby is his. He keeps getting mysterious e-mails which tell him to watch out for Lexie, and that has him worried as well, but to my mind, not worried enough. Wouldn’t a man previously found sterile by an MD find the fact that he’d impregnated a relative stranger after a few days together unlikely? 

And every interaction the pair has makes me like her less. They are going out to eat and she dominates what he orders. They are shopping for baby clothes and she wants to go out of town (where no one knows her) to shop. She rushes him into purchasing a house and a car that she likes, totally disregarding his feelings in the matter… In short, I was not at all sad when the surprise ending happened, and was in fact glad that he had seen the last of her. I won’t give away how it happens, but let me say that I saw it coming a mile off. 

Some people call this book a tearjerker, but the only thing I find sad about it is that a smart man like Jeremy would fall for a little manipulator like Lexie in the first place. I know most people probably don’t have that reaction, but I did. And it means the book is a miss for me. But because of his easily digestible writing (if not his likeable female characters), I might consider reading another of Sparks books.