Book Review: THE BIG GOODBYE: CHINATOWN AND THE LAST YEARS OF HOLLYWOOD by Sam Wasson

Most of us have no idea about the years and agonizing changes a film script goes through to produce a really great movie. The person whose name you see on the screen as “Written By” is by far not the sole author. In the case of Chinatown, Robert Towne’s “darlings” were murdered left and right, mostly by Polansky. But the end result looked effortless and resplendent.

As a writer of fiction, I got into the habit of reading only fiction. Great fiction. So I could learn from my betters. But I am also a film buff, and when I saw that this book was about the making of Chinatown (for me, the greatest film noir ever made) I got on Book Finders and found a used hardcover copy for about $4.00. The shipping was more than that.

Mr. Wasson did his homework all right. The acknowledgements section at the end comprises fully a tenth of the pages.

Not only does he provide intimate portraits of the main players: Writer Robert Towne, director Roman Polansky, producer Robert Evans, and stars: Jack Nicholson and, to a lesser degree, Faye Dunaway, he also paints a vivid portrait of Hollywood in the mid-seventies and the changes the movie business underwent; from the demise of the studio system to the flowering of a new generation of Hollywood independent directors unfettered by big studio control (Polansky, Scorsese, Cupola, Lucas, Bogdanovich, and more), to the present-day Hollywood output, mostly based on comic book superheroes, and made for an audience with the mind of a twelve-year-old.

The writing is exceptionally good and kept me riveted throughout. As implied earlier, this book is for cinephiles. If you’re not one, maybe you won’t be as excited about it as I am. But, if you are, READ THIS BOOK. I remember the seventies renaissance of indie films because I lived through it. We went and saw these movies in the theater regularly. I even tried my hand at screenwriting, but with no tangible success. My adult son works in the camera department of the film industry. He has no such memories, so I gave him this book. It’s important to have an historical overview of your profession. So, for you oldsters, read it and pass it on to the next generation. It may be the only way American cinema can be resurrected.

Book Review: Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I ordered this after reading a popular blog that praised Annie Ernaux to the skies, but before she won the Nobel Prize. When I received the book, she had already won, so I patted myself on the back as being “prescient.” Those great expectations perhaps made me judge the book too harshly. It was good enough for me to read it through, but at 80 pages that’s not saying much. The writing was certainly competent, but I find with translations the word-craft often gets lost. If it was ever there, I will chalk that up to mediocre translation. My biggest complaint, however, was the lack of plot and through line. She just kept talking about her obsession with this man, but it did not give the relationship a dramatic arc.



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Book Review: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

A superb work of historical fiction. I’m sure there are plenty of reviews of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on Amazon and Goodreads, so I won’t dwell too much on plot. Suffice it to say the story takes place during World War II and tracks a blind French girl and a German boy, both in their teens, on their separate trajectories which we know will inevitably end in their meeting. There’s even a macguffin, but I’ll let you discover that mystery for yourself.

A lot of hard work, research, and a staggeringly profuse word pallet went into this book. It’s authors like Mr. Doerr with his high artistry and craft honed over years of dedicated learning who made me quit trying to write the Great American Novel (if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is). At the same time, the story is so engrossing and emotionally moving that I tore through it at record speed, all the while not wanting it to end.

Highly recommended for fans of fine historical fiction and great writing.

Book Review: ASHES IN VENICE by Gojan Nikolich

I haven’t read many crime thrillers. I guess I thought of them as pulp, and I wanted to fill my limited reading time with “great literature,” literature that would teach me something about writing, since writing fiction had become my new avocation.

But someone recommended Ashes in Venice as being exceptional, and so I added it to my Kindle queue. It grabbed me immediately in the way that some of the really well-made crime series on Netflix did (“Ozark,” “Narcos,” “Giri/Haji,” “Ratched,” “White Lines”). These I watched purely for entertainment value, not to hone my writing skills. But Ashes did both. I was bowled over, not just by the story, but also the writing craft and careful research that made the book so very authentic and enjoyable.

This is Gojan Nikolich’s second novel. I read his first one and it was very good; funny and charming in a slightly twisted way. But Ashes in Venice is a step up, his crowning achievement, so far.

I won’t say much about the plot for fear of accidentally letting slip any spoilers, but I will say that the “braided plot”―starting each chapter with a focus on a different major character―and tying it all up ever so neatly at the end was most satisfying. As it says right on the cover, this is a “vengeance thriller” and it features some very, very bad people―and a couple of good ones: one representing retribution, the other justice. I can say no more, except get it and read it!

Book Review: CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese

I’m sure you’ve all been sitting on the edge of your chairs, especially my friends at Goodreads, wondering when is he going to finish this novel already? Well, I just finished it, and I suppose you deserve an explanation. Here is my list of excuses: 1) It’s very long (almost 700 pages); 2) My ability to focus and concentrate my attention on any one thing is not what it used to be; 3) Therefore, I read this in short bursts, maybe a half-hour at a time, but almost every day. This was also partially due to my not wanting it to end. It was that good.

My doctor recommended this book to me, and I had it with me when I went to see another doc, and he knew it and raved about it too. Not too surprising, as this book is really a paean to the noble art of healing.

Mr. Verghese is in fact a surgeon, and if his surgery is as good as his writing, he can operate on me anytime. Cutting reads very much like an autobiography, and I read it believing that it was a hybrid memoir-and-novel. But, in the epilogue, Verghese insists that it is all fiction, all made up. Still, I have my doubts. The narrator tells the tale with such authority, such authenticity, one can hardly imagine it not being mostly true. It centers around twin boys, conjoined at the heads at birth, then growing up as identical twins. Their biological parents are an English surgeon and a carmelite nun from India who meet and work together in a small hospital in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. I won’t go into any more of the story for fear I might let a spoiler slip, as did one review I read when I was still just starting the book.

All I will say is the characters are so beautifully drawn and believable and the writing in general so superb I was transported to Verghese’s world throughout this long and wonderful reading experience. Highly recommended!

And speaking of vaccines…

In 1954 I was nine years old, and my entire fourth grade class at P.S. 40 in Manhattan was chosen to be the original guinea pigs for Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine. We all got the shot and a little button that proclaimed us “Polio Pioneers.” Then, a week or two later, a blood test to see if it had worked. The results of my blood test showed that the vaccine didn’t work on me. What followed over the next few months was an agonizing series of more inoculations and blood tests. I felt like a human pin cushion. No one knew why the Salk vaccine didn’t work on me. Maybe six months later, my mother told me they had figured it out: I was immune to polio all the time, naturally immune, a very rare occurrence. I was really pissed; I had to go through all those shots for nothing! #getvaccinated

BOOK REVIEW: GALÁPAGOS by KURT VONNEGUT

I thought I had read all the really good Vonnegut novels. Starting in the ‘60s I had read Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions, Welcome to the Monkey House, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and more. But I was wrong. Although K.V. has long been perhaps my favorite author, it wasn’t until a friend on Goodreads reviewed Galàpagos that I finally became aware of it and got my hands on a copy.

I must say, it didn’t disappoint. It gives a unique perspective on evolution, while always maintaining the unmistakable and always entertaining Vonnegut voice. I love his jaundiced and very funny take on humankind. And, as I get older, my views become closer and closer to his. Without giving anything away, the basic premise is this: Everything that’s wrong with the world can be attributed to the oversized, over-active brains of humans. Very highly recommended – if you like this sort of thing.

BOOK REVIEW: BONJOUR TRISTESSE by Francoise Sagan

I’d been hearing about this novel since I was in high school. It was written and is a first-person narrative by a precocious seventeen-year-old French girl, Cécile, by a seventeen-year-old author, Françoise Sagan. I was motivated to finally read it now because my latest novel, Paris Escapade, stars and is narrated by a seventeen-year-old American boy, Eddie, an aspiring author.

I buy a lot of books. I don’t read very fast, so getting them from the library necessitates my constantly asking for extensions. I can’t bring myself to pay $10 for a Kindle, so I bargain-hunt. My go-to bookseller is BookFinder, a huge database of new and used books. So I ordered the least-expensive copy of Bonjour Tristesse in good condition I could find. I couldn’t believe what I got. It appears to be a leatherbound hardback original 1955 edition of the English translation. It’s a skinny little book – only 128 pages, but the red cover is embossed on the front with Françoise Sagan’s initials, and the binding – though slim – is embossed and ornamented with gold lettering and designs. Unfortunately, I took this photo with my phone, so you can’t see the exquisite detail.

And now, the review: Bonjour Tristesse is the account of a teenage girl who lives with her widowed father, a bon vivant and ladies’ man. He treats Cécile as an adult and takes her along to all kinds of parties and dinners. She adores him and the life he allows her to lead, virtually without limits, discipline, or restrictions. They have taken a villa on the Côte d’Azur for the summer.

Then her father, Raymond, becomes engaged to Ann, an old friend of his late wife, a woman of forty – almost his own age. Although Cécile is fond of Ann, admires her poise and elegance, she sees her gradually imposing her values and lifestyle on her father and, by extension, on her.

So, Cécile schemes to get rid of Ann by dangling a glamorous young woman under Raymond’s nose.

Taking into account that this book was written in the early fifties, and so is not quite as sophisticated or shocking as it must have been in its time (I gather it caused quite a stir), I give this book pretty high marks: It kept me engaged ‘til the end, which is saying a lot, given my impatient nature, and I enjoyed the ambience of the South of France in the summer in the fifties, as I am a bit of a Francophile. So, if your tastes drift toward the retro and the Eurocentric like mine, I recommend it.

BOOK REVIEW – THE BOOK OF SKULLS by Robert Silverberg

If I really don’t like a book, I don’t finish it. Therefore, you will never see a review of less than three stars from me.

I guess my main problem with The Book of Skulls is that the premise of attaining immortality, unending life on Earth, has no appeal for me. And that is the main premise of The Book of Skulls. A precocious student, a young man of perhaps twenty, discovers and translates an ancient manuscript that’s been gathering dust in the bowels of the library of his prestigious Ivy League college that offers the reader access to eternal life. He shows it to his three closest buddies, all very smart lads, and they all agree to take a road trip during spring break to Arizona in search of an obscure monastery in the desert, wherein they believe lies the secret of immortality. Without giving too much away, of course, there is a price to be paid.

Silverberg is an accomplished and experienced writer, having produced a prodigious number of works throughout the sixties in the pulp science fiction genre. The Book of Skulls departs from this, in that it is fantasy rather than sci-fi. He does a good job of building the tension and causing the reader to speculate how it’s going to end. There is no single protagonist to root for. All four of the guys are pretty much neutral, each with his own quirks, each with his secrets. I should add that the book was first published in 1972, so some of the terminology and colloquialisms will seem quaintly out-of-date to most readers.

I neither recommend, nor discourage you from reading this one. If it was engrossing enough to keep me reading to the end, that’s saying something good about The Book of Skulls.