Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"sTORI Telling" -- Guilty Pleasure at Its Best

Ok, I know I am admitting here on this public forum, that I, a Librarian, have read the biography of Tori Spelling and thoroughly enjoyed it. Do I feel guilty about it? You bet. I know I should be reading the greats – Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens. They are heavy meals worthy of consumption. But then there are times when you just want to scarf down a dozen donuts – that’s what reading sTORI Telling was for me without all the nasty calories and only a little guilt.

On the remote chance you don’t know who Tori Spelling is allow me to enlighten you. She is the daughter of the late great television producer Aaron Spelling and played virginal Donna Martin in the television drama Beverly Hills 90210. Ok, I’ll admit it. I have seen every episode of 90210 – that’s 10 years of episodes! She’s gone on to do other things, especially made-for-TV movies (that even I wouldn’t watch!), but she’ll always be known as the daughter of Aaron Spelling who was on his show 90210 and who has been tabloid fodder ever since (I never read tabloids! Really!).

Though the book is touted as revealing all of the secrets of the goings-on on the set of 90210 and in her private life, it really is a book that reads like a conversation with a close girlfriend. It starts with Tori’s early years with the over-the-top birthday parties and Halloween costumes through the years where she had to struggle to overcome having such a famous name. Just to give you some insight into the book, there are chapters called, “They Hated Me at Hello”, “Strings Attached (or Why I Didn’t Notice That I Shouldn’t Be Getting Married” and my favorite “Is That a Knife in Your Purse or Are You Just Glad to See Me?”. You learn through reading the book, which some could see as just another “Poor Little Rich Girl” tale, that Tori’s a regular person with a really interesting life. She’s had problems with money and with her mother and with irrational fears. It was humanizing to read about her struggle with ODC. She loves her dogs and her second husband and, just like all of us, wants to be successful on her own without help from her parents.

I find the interactions between her and her mother especially intriguing. When Tori was 12 and all dressed up for a family portrait, she asked her mother, “Am I pretty?” Her mother responded with “You will be when we get your nose done.” Throughout the book there are plenty of other examples of her mother’s “sweetness”. To anyone that has watched 90210 with any regularity, you will know that Tori’s character on the program also had an uneasy relationship with her mother. Though Tori doesn’t say so in the book, it does leave you wondering if her real mother was the pattern the writers for the show followed. It is also notable that her father on the show was very sympathetic – did the fact that the producer of the show was Tori’s father have any bearing on this too?

I am in no way saying read this book and forget all about the Dostoevskys and James Joyces out there. But every now and then it’s nice to put aside the Lobster Newburg and opt for a donut with pink icing. That’s this book.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song by Ted Anthony

When I was a kid I remember poking around the 700's in the reading room of the old Carnegie library in Lafayette, Indiana. While there I found a book of sheet music with a red library binding that had the lyrics of "The House of the Rising Sun" in it. I knew the song. It was such a mysterious reflective song, about a life done gone wrong in New Orleans, and I wondered at that young age just what The House of the Rising Sun was. Later in life I pretty much had it nailed down that it was a brothel in Storyville, perhaps one with a round window under the eaves that looked like a rising sun ... but now I find out that no one really knows what "the House" refers to. The author of the book Chasing the Rising Sun examines the origins and meaning of the song. He's pretty obsessive about it. He collects recorded versions of it, and travels around searching for pretty much any reference of it. We find out that perhaps the "House" is a bar in England, or a long gone hotel/brothel in New Orleans, and that the author really doesn't really find the meaning of the House of the Rising Sun in the end. What he does find is the soul of America -- of who we are and how we got here. Which is stuff like families coming together to make music and eat BBQ with Pepsi poured over it, or an old guy who loves early American recorded music so much that he's got a better collection of 78's than the Library of Congress in his New Jersey basement, which is the same library that sent a guy and his wife out in the 1930's with a special vehicle fitted out to make recordings of the local folks making music in the hills of Appalachia, who just so happened to record a little girl singing the song the way we know it, which ultimately gave us the Animals version that we are familiar with.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

"In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years."

-- Steve Martin in "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life"

Though the name of our blog is Novel News, I am guessing that a non-novel would be ok. "Born Standing Up" is the candid autobiography of comedian/author Steve Martin that showcases his early years as a stand-up comic. The book reveals the fascinating journey of a kid who once sold guidebooks at Disneyland and later worked in the magic shop there and then went on to command audiences in stadiums that comedians had never seen before him.

As a big fan of Martin's published works, "Shopgirl" and my favorite, "The Pleasure of My Company", it was no surprise to me that Martin's story would be written beautifully and with humor. But the book also reads kind of sad -- the kind of sadness that comes when you look back at your long gone "salad days" before life made you jaded. So while you enjoy the ridiculous photos of Martin that are interspersed throughout the book (instead of having all of the photos crammed into the center of the book like most biographies) as a hippy-wanne-be or with ballons on his head, you also feel the sober whimsy behind the photos as you read about his loneliness and estrangement from his parents and sister (though he did eventually reconcile with them). You get the sense that being a comedic avant-garde genius isn't all that it's cracked up to be and that to get to the top took a lot of struggle not to mention fine-tuning of an act that often people didn't quite get.

On a more personal note, as I read this story I couldn't help thinking of my brother, also named Steve, who like Martin got his start in entertainment at a Disney property and went on to become a professional juggler. I felt compelled to share this book with him and just as I hoped he found a lot in the book that felt familiar, especially dealing with audiences who don't quite appreciate what you do. Just as a juggler has to qualify a trick (doing the trick without a drop a certain amount of reps), so Martin had to qualify his act through hard work, repitition and fine-tuning. The message of the book was not a blueprint for fame -- at time the regret that's implied in the book would be a discouragement to would be comedians. I found it more of a cautionary, "be careful for what you wish for" tale. In the end, fame would cause Martin to lose his desire to do stand-up but the struggle for the fame would make him a comedic juggernaut for years to come.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ask The Dust by John Fante

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in
the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life,
because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I
got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my
door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by
turning out the lights and going to bed.”

So reads the first paragraph of John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust. When I first read this in the preface of Brett Easton Ellis’s The Informers, I was immediately drawn to the simplicity, the frankness, and the desperate nonchalance that even a few sentences brought out. So I said to myself, “Who is this John Fante, and where can I get a hold of his book Ask the Dust? It wasn’t anywhere. I couldn’t even buy it locally.

Eventually, I found a copy and read it. It was written in first person. The situations were real. There was both a human and animal element to it. The story was about a young displaced writer in 1930’s L.A., facing poverty and unrequited love while trying to make a name for himself in a rented room. Actually, the story wasn’t necessary. You see, when I had finished reading it, I barely remembered the plot. It didn’t matter. The author had opened up the private thoughts of the human mind. He had not spared embarrassing, awkward situations, and had written about the details of life. This was what most impressed me -- that a guy could be this honest about himself, and that he could truly know himself this well to put it all down on paper.

So after that, I read everything by Fante I could get my hands on. It was more of the same. Situations more honest than before – even his domestic writing that was done in the 1950’s like Full of Life, a story about the birth of his son, had that edge. Well, come to find out that Ask the Dust was heavily influenced by another called Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I picked that up too, and started reading it. It was even more desperate, and more spiritual. I sort of felt gyped -- like Fante had simply popped himself into Hamsun’s book and taken out some of the more desperate elements. But I’m still glad he wrote it, they say he is the father of the L.A. novel, and probably one of the more underappreciated writer’s of American Literature. Fante eventually ended up making big bucks writing for the movies, and he always said it finished him as a novelist.

Fante would have pretty much been lost as a writer, had he not been rediscovered in the early 1980’s by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski had a huge following and called Fante “his god” after having discovered him the reading room of the L.A. Public Library. While Fante’s stuff is more toned down than Bukowski’s, you can still see the influence there. That wonderful raw edge of humanity.