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"Manhattan Beach" by Jennifer Egan.

This is a good book - a solid read - that I enjoyed, but I'm really surprised it has won awards and received so many accolades and so much positive press. Every year, I try to read a few books that are highly regarded new(ish) fiction in hopes of finding a gem and to stay connected to what is currently in vogue.

In years past, doing this, I've found books that have lived up to the hype and some that have greatly disappointed, but this one - like so many - is simply a good book that left me amazed that it is an award winner and considered an outstanding literary achievement (yes, I'm also talking about you "The Goldfinch").

"Manhattan Beach" is a solid WWII historical novel about a Brooklyn teenage woman shaken by the disappearance of her (unknown to her) mob-employed father who helps her mother care for her severely disabled sister while forcing her way into the (at the time) man's career of diving at the Naval Yard.

Probably obvious, but yes, like almost all modern historical novels, it feels reverse engineered to advance today's political pieties. And here's the thing, I support most of the political views, but can't stand the transparent pandering and politicking. Sadly, maybe it's because of that political obeisance that these good books become award-winning best sellers.

Away from the forced messaging, the book does a very good job of weaving its heroine into the well-drawn 1940's worlds of her Brooklyn neighborhood, the crucial-to-the-war-effort Naval Yard and the mob-controlled docks and NYC nightclubs. Egan also builds out some complex characters: in addition to our heroine, she connects you to - almost has you rooting for - an atypical and thoughtful mob boss.

And it's a page turner - you want to know what happens next. Where it fails at greatness is that you can see the seams - characters are introduced too close to when they'll be plot-critical and guns are so obviously hung on the wall that you are just waiting for them to be used. That said, read it with moderate expectations and you'll enjoy a trip to the '40s as seen through modern eyes, but I doubt you'll think you're reading a modern classic or found a lost book from the period.
 

LizzieMaine

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"Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy," by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seely.

There are few people who ever worked in show business who were more universally liked than Jack Benny, one of the few genuinely nice guys to make his living as an entertainer. And this fact has often been a problem when it comes to writing an interesting biography of the man -- his life, really, wasn't all that interesting. He was born, he grew up, he became an entertainer, he lived, and he died. Several biographies have come and gone, but aside from the occasional humorous anecdote, there isn't really a lot for biographers to sink their teeth into. Far more interesting than the man himself is the radio program that made him famous -- and that's what Fuller-Seely focuses on in this book.

It's hard for people today who don't really know anything about radio to understand just how seminal "The Jack Benny Program" was in the creation of comedy formats that are still popular today -- there is a direct line from Benny to "The Big Bang Theory." He didn't invent situation comedy by any means, but he did raise it to a high art -- and in doing so created a self-reflexive comic character that didn't need to do anything at all to get laughs: Benny was the only performer of his time who could convulse an audience with absolute silence. But Benny himself didn't create that character on his own -- and it wasn't created without diffiiculty, as Fuller-Seely documents thru a careful and exhaustive study of what went on behind the scenes at the Benny show, from the early thirties to the mid-fifties. Benny's relationships with his supporting cast and his writing staff are central to this study, with due credit going to his first radio writer, Harry Conn, for creating the broad outlines of the "Jack Benny Character," and to Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin for pioneering the more surreal elements that came to dominate the show in later years. There is also a careful examination of Benny's relationships with his sponsors over the years -- revealing that The Boys who supervised the program could be remarkably unaware of what they had in front of them.

Seely devotes two chapters to the most interesting member of Benny's supporting cast -- Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Rochester the character and Anderson the man became so intertwined during the 1940s that many people believed Anderson really was Benny's valet in real life -- and it was this blurring of the lines between fiction and reality that put Anderson himself into a highly conflicted position thruout his years on the program. The common image put forward in modern-day studies of Benny and his work is that Jack himself was a strong defender of Anderson, and stood up to racist attempts to bar him from hotels and the like -- which is true as far as it goes. But Seely also notes that Benny could be surprisingly tone-deaf on the matter of racially-tinged comedy material that African-American groups of the time were quite vocal about finding offensive -- putting Anderson in the uncomfortable position of wanting to do his job but not wanting to betray his people. Seely doesn't take a finger-pointing tone in discussing these issues -- but neither does she sweep them aside with "oh, the context of the times," making a careful effort to document that even in "the times" under discussion, the material was highly charged and quite controversial. All this came to a head in 1950, when the program re-used a ten year old script full of dice-and-razor jokes, causing a public uproar that shook both Benny and Anderson to their core, and Seely's exploration of the backlash is the most detailed discussion yet of an incident that has been touched on but soft-pedaled in earlier works on Benny.

This isn't a lightweight book, and those who aren't interested in the nuts and bolts of comedy and the behind-the-scenes elements of broadcasting might find it dry. But it's exactly the book that students of those topics have been waiting for, and it's well worth their time.
 

AmateisGal

I'll Lock Up
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6,029
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I haven't visited the Lounge in awhile...missed you all!

Last night I finished British historian Roger Moorhouse's book, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin.

It's very well done. Easy to read, full of first-person accounts, and lots of fascinating details. This subject is oft-overlooked in the study of WW2, but it was a pivotal moment of the war - and the ramifications have been massive.

Next up: Hitler's American Friends: The Third Reich's Supporters in the United States by Bradley Hart.
 
Messages
15,934
Location
New York City
I haven't visited the Lounge in awhile...missed you all!

Last night I finished British historian Roger Moorhouse's book, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin.

It's very well done. Easy to read, full of first-person accounts, and lots of fascinating details. This subject is oft-overlooked in the study of WW2, but it was a pivotal moment of the war - and the ramifications have been massive.

Next up: Hitler's American Friends: The Third Reich's Supporters in the United States by Bradley Hart.

You have been missed as well. Glad to see you posting again.
 
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AmateisGal

I'll Lock Up
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6,029
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Nebraska
Outstanding review - has me wanting the book. Tiki, as an aficionado of book reviews, you want to read this one (and all of AmateisGal's reviews) as she's got a real talent for making them into little stories, not stodgy reviews.

Thanks so much, FF!!! I enjoy doing them. This one took me awhile as it's been several months since I've written a review. Plus, the topic is a tough one to tackle.
 
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Thanks so much, FF!!! I enjoy doing them. This one took me awhile as it's been several months since I've written a review. Plus, the topic is a tough one to tackle.

Not at your level of professionalism, but I know what you mean as sometimes, just to describe a book here, a few paragraphs can take some real work. It's hard to boil three-hundred pages of a complex topic or plot down to just a bunch of paragraphs.
 

AmateisGal

I'll Lock Up
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6,029
Location
Nebraska
Not at your level of professionalism, but I know what you mean as sometimes, just to describe a book here, a few paragraphs can take some real work. It's hard to boil three-hundred pages of a complex topic or plot down to just a bunch of paragraphs.

Thanks! I used to write back cover copy for books of every genre, so that helped me to learn how to describe a 100K book in less than 200 words. It was great practice for book reviews (plus I made decent money!).
 

C.M. Albrecht

New in Town
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Years ago, before the movie appeared, I read First Blood by David Morrell and really liked it. Now, lo! these many years later I got my hands on a copy of The Protector. I thought this would be great, but I was disappointed.
It has its good points and its bad points.
The good was a decent story involving the usual ex-CIA operatives who have to be eliminated because they know too much, and the bad (depending on how you look at it) was that much of the book reads like a CIA "how to" handbook. You can learn a lot about weapons, along with useful hints for a guy without weapons and miscellaneous information. Informative, yes, but it slows the story down. In Moby Dick, the story came to a halt at times to write a dissertation on whaling before getting back to the tale. In those days that was probably okay because reading was much more important then since there were no movies, TV or other home entertainment save for Cousin Mable who sang off-key while Aunt Jane played the old piano.
Well, as the Russians say, "drinking tea isn't getting the wood chopped." So it's back to work.
 

LizzieMaine

Bartender
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31,296
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Where The Tourists Meet The Sea
"The Artist Behind Superman: The Joe Shuster Story," a graphic biography by Julian Voloj and Thomas Campi.

If there's a sadder sack in American popular culture than Joe Shuster, I'd be hard pressed to name one. The story of how "the boys from Cleveland" created, sold, and tried to regain The Man Of Tomorrow is the Secret Origin of the entire comic book/superhero industry, and Joe Shuster has always sort of been the other guy who comes after the "and" in "Siegel and Shuster." Jerry Siegel was the ever-flapping mouth at the front of the combination, and in studies of their work it often seems like Shuster is just along for the ride, a footnote, a cipher. So to see a treatment of their story told from Joe's point of view is something new -- and to see that story told in comic-book format is a brilliant stroke.

This is a beautiful book to look at. It's told in flashback format, as Joe's memories as he huddles on a park bench in Queens in the 1970s, alone, broke, and homeless, waiting to die -- scenes drawn in a scratch, wobbly, blotchy style that evokes Shuster's deteriorated eyesight. But when he begins telling his story to a sympathetic cop, the images shift to lovely, soft watercolors that recall Shuster's own deceptively simple art style without ever actually attempting to imitate it. The effect is dreamlike -- sure there are details that are "period incorrect," but these are the memories of a lonely, broken, forgotten man and not a documentary, and I get the sense that these errors of visual detail are deliberately made to underline that. It's a very subtle and effective technique.

As for the story itself, everybody knows the basic outiline of how "the boys" were given the runaround by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, how they made several fatal mistakes in their negotiations and attempts to regain control of their creation, and how they finally regained a shred of dignity and recognition. But telling the story from Joe's point of view makes it evident that Jerry Siegel wasn't always an entirely sympathetic character himself -- and that there were many occasions where he took advantage of his partner just as the suits at DC were taking advantage of both of them. Shuster comes across as a guileless, tragic figure whose greatest weakness was his loyalty to a partner who on more than one occasion betrayed that loyalty.

The comic book industry of the 1930s and 40s was the worst possible place for a man like Shuster -- as the book depicts it, it was an industry full of crooks, shysters and gonifs, all out for the main chance, and ready to stab anyone in the back if it meant a buck or two. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, emerges as a particular piece of work here -- and the artists find a brilliant conceit to portray this, literally morphing Kane into The Joker as he sells out Siegel and Shuster to secure a contract advantage for himself. And Shuster's descent into the humiliation of drawing S&M porn for a living is brutally depicted here -- along with his terror as he realizes that his work ended up inspiring the infamous "Brooklyn Thrill Killers."

It's painful to see a man shown as an utter innocent being kicked in the face over and over again by fate and life, and there's times when you just want reach into the page and give the poor guy a hug. The story as depicted here doesn't even tell all of the indignities he faced -- when he finally married, late in life, his wife got involved in a weird religious cult and it didn't end well -- but enough is shown to cause any reader to tear up a bit when The Boys get a bit of justice at the end.

This comic could easily make for a fine animated treatment of the Siegel-and-Shuster story, and if somebody doesn't make one they're missing the boat. Highly recommended for anyone who cares about comics, American pop culture, or just the story of a poor soul who finally got a happy ending.
 

Harp

I'll Lock Up
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8,508
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Chicago, IL US
Ran EngProf's Case Western law cite; and printed several Atlantic impeachment articles that look more
emotional grist than scholastic substance. The Americanization of Emily sits inside my local UPS store,
but tomorrow a storm may scratch Saturday altogether.
 

LizzieMaine

Bartender
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Where The Tourists Meet The Sea
Continuing my comics kick with "The MAD Archives: Volume 1."

I've always been a fan of the original four-color comic book "Mad" that preceded the black-and-white magazine format familiar to Boomers and their progeny, but I've never been overly impressed with the various attempt to collect these twenty three issues, attempts which have been too spotty, too shabby, or too expensive for my tastes. But I stumbled across the first volume of an officially-sanctioned hardcover reissue published in 2005, and after a quick glance snapped it right up.

DC Comics now owns the whole fershlugginer MAD operation, and that did give me pause -- their "Archives Edition" hardcover program has not particularly impressed me, with poor reproduction of the line art and oversaturated recoloring efforts having pretty much put me off the series. But this MAD reissue is done right -- the pages are reproduced at the full size of the original published issues and are shot from original negatives. I'd have preferred a less bright-white paper stock, but it's not that awful glossy stuff other DC Archives books have used, and the coloring isn't overly aggressive. So it's a nice book to look at, and it doesn't get in the way of appreciating the drawings.

And that's absolutely essential, because the comic-book MAD had extremely dense, detailed art. Will Elder and Wally Wood, in particular, crammed their panels with hidden gags, non-sequitirs, one-liners, and background weirdness that demand close examination for full impact. I've always loved Elder's MAD work, because it's art that could not possibly have been done by anyone else, anywhere, ever. He was a singular talent, and his MAD pieces are the very essence of nose-thumbing, up-yours aggressive satire directed straight at the overripe, slopped-over buttocks of Early 1950s America. Wood, too, is a genius in his own way, but while Elder is a loony madman on a rampage with a pencil, Wood is a craftsman, whose pages are as carefully and intricately designed as they are funny.

The thing I never knew about the comic-book MAD is that the entire run -- all twenty three issues -- were written by one person, the extraordinary Harvey Kurtzman. He was the odd man out at EC -- he hated the horror comics that gave the company its reputation, and preferred to work on the company's line of war comics, magazines that were explicitly *anti* war at a time when pacifism was not, as they say, politically correct. Publishing pacifist war comics at the height of the Korean conflict was not a growth field -- except among actual soldiers, who by all indications loved them -- and EC ended up cancelling the books and giving Kurtzman MAD to keep him busy. He more than carried the load, filling the issues with genre parodies, social commentary, and trenchant satire. This first volume contains full reproductions -- minus paid ads -- of MAD issues 1 thru 6, from late 1952 into 1953, and you see Kurtzman starting out unsure of quite what he wants to do with the platform he's been given. But by the time "Superduperman," a vicious swipe at you-know-who, appears in issue 4, the gloves are off and MAD is well and truly launched.

I'm not at a time where I can throw a lot of money around on books, but I'm going to be grabbing cheap copies of the remaining three volumes as soon as I can. We need to laugh right now, and it's a shame Harvey Kurtzman isn't around anymore to make it happen. But his work, as insane as ever, lives on in these volumes, and I'm looking forward to the rest of them.
 
Messages
15,934
Location
New York City
Ran EngProf's Case Western law cite; and printed several Atlantic impeachment articles that look more
emotional grist than scholastic substance. The Americanization of Emily sits inside my local UPS store,
but tomorrow a storm may scratch Saturday altogether.

Excited to have you start TAOE.
 

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