Review: Powerhouse/Guilty Pleasure

CAA bookOne of my favorite guilty pleasures is stories of Hollywood people having badly.  Love The Player.  Love Entourage.  Always a good time.

I was therefore naturally attracted to Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  This is the story of the founding of Creative Artists, the ground-breaking literary agency.  (I also read Miller’s book on ESPN).  Miller’s trademark is writing oral histories, and he is extremely good at it.  There is commentary when needed, but it is used sparingly.  He doesn’t re-invent dialogue (I’m looking at you Bob Woodward), but takes the actual quotes and puts them under the name of the actual person who said it.  (It’s a little Studs Terkelish).

There’s a huge amount of skill in how these things are assembled.  He lets the reader play along.  For example, he will juxtapose two recollections which are 100% divergent, and let you, first, gawk, and then second decide for yourself who is right.  ProTip:  When you are faced with an employee saying that the work environment is shit and a CEO saying it was collegial and supportive, believe the employee

Anyway, the book has more than its share of bat-shit crazy people, starting with Michael Ovitz.  There are certainly others–this is Hollywood–but Ovitz is the king of the bat house.  Someone calls him a “maniac” and that might be the most perfect word for it.

Not only are the agents included, but many of the clients as well.

The only thing I didn’t expect to find was good guys.  Ron Meyer, a co-founder, is just a 100% good guy.  In fact, there are numerous testimonials of performers who credit CAA for their very career–people like David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Eva Longoria–and do so in such an emotional and effusive way that it blows away the caricature of the agent we usually see.

CAA’s innovation was to work across the functional lines of the company, allowing Eva Longoria (for example) to develop a film career along with extending her into other businesses.  Letterman had a similar story and there are others.  And they made a difference in the lives of a wide variety of artists and performers in a wide variety of fields.

One other thing.  I don’t know what I thought, but the agents in this book work incredibly hard.  It’s a 24/7 story, at least for the ones who excel.  There’s no downtime and little sleep.  I am not sure I have ever met any single person who works as hard as ALL these people do.  It’s a lifestyle decision.  Yes, you will get rich but you have to live like this to get it.  Nothing comes without trade-offs.

My recommendation is that if you like stories of Hollywood, this book is for you.  And if you like business dramas, this book is for you.

Review: Red Sparrow

Should have been her, not Jennifer Lawrence

So while I was up North, my mother and step-father recommended that I read Red Sparrow.  They had both read it and they know I like the Americans, so it was kind of like a human Amazon-type thing….

People who like The Americans also liked Red Sparrow….

Anyway, I borrowed their copy and they were right.  It was really good.  It is written by Jason Matthews, a guy who lived that life, and I found it a little unfair for a guy to have been an accomplished spy and write this well at the same time.  It’s just very entertaining and a great read with great characters and a huge amount of tension.

Similar to Leaving Berlin, it is an incredible feeling to be transformed into a world where you are always being watched…where any slight deviation can expose you.  Where being seen somewhere you didn’t belong could unmask you. Where you have to execute a two-hour series of maneuvers to ensure you are not being followed.  It creates non-stop tension that makes for good reading.

The book has some tried and true elements, such as a drop-dead gorgeous Natasha type (Dommenika) who has some very special training from the Russians.  There’s some sex and there’s the classic storyline of two spies trying to spy on each other at the same time.

Even better, whereas The Americans was set in the Soviet era, this book is set in the more or less present.  Putin is trying to rebuild Russia’s intelligence and counter-intelligence to KGB-standards.  Even better than that is that Putin himself appears in the story a few times, including a meeting held in his basement while he lifts weights with his shirt off.

One last item which is either an additional enticement or a warning.  Like all the great books of this genre, Red Sparrow does not flinch from any of the gory details, from the training Domenika experienced to torture to murder to the experience of a self-inflicted pre-capture suicide.  You’re getting a full look at all of that in this book, which I believe is some readers of this type of book secretly relish.

Gave this four-stars for sure and I will be working my way through the next book in the trilogy.  For fellow Americans fans, this is a great read.

Karamazov Brothers Book Five: 2 for 1 Post

breakfast club

I am behind on my blog posts on our Karamazov reading project. In my defence I started a new job and life generally got in the way for a couple weeks. Probably not a great excuse, but it’s the only one I’ve got.

Originally BJ and I agreed to do two posts about this part in the book. Because my husband is on top of things, he posted and followed the plan (you can see those here and here). On the other hand is me…so I am going to combine mine since you know, I like to break the rules.

What was cemented for me in this section, is that each character, especially the brothers, represent a part of humanity. And for some reason it reminds me of the Breakfast Club. (Maybe there was something about it on social media about it when I was reading this section that jogged my memory.) You know, the 80’s movie….Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald. There was the “a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal”…..and they all represented one segment of the high school population.

I am not equating John Hughes to Dostoevsky. Although…I guess I could make the argument that they both had the ear of the people in their respective times. I think both used these characters as an allegory for some bigger message. However…

The big bang for the buck part of this section is ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Apparently this is the crux of the novel and what the book is known for. (I only knew this because BJ told me.) According to Wikipedia: “The Grand Inquisitor” is an important part of the novel and one of the best-known passages in modern literature because of its ideas about human nature and freedom, and its fundamental ambiguity.

Basically this “poem” is recited by Ivan to Aloysha. Ivan starts off by saying

‘WELL, first of all there has to be an introduction, a literary introduction, that is.’ Ivan laughed. ‘God knows, I’m no author!

This cracked me up. Obviously this is written by Dostoevsky so I feel like it’s a little wink and smirk at the reader.

So the story is basically that Christ comes back to life in Seville and performs all these cool miracles. But, the people turn on him and he gets arrested and put in jail. He is then interrogated by the ‘The Grand Inquisitor”. The Inquisitor dude basically says that people don’t need Christ anymore because they have the church and church has basically replaced him. Also, people, if left to their own devices will always make the wrong decision and it’s up to the church to guide them in the right direction.

The key to happiness, according to the Inquisitor, is for man (in the global sense) to turn over all decisions to the church. Because basically free will is the cause of suffering.

They will bring us their most tormenting problems of conscience—everything, they will bring everything to us and we shall resolve everything, and they will accept our judgement with joy, because it will spare them the great burden and terrible torment of personal and free choice that they suffer today. And everyone will be happy, all the millions of beings, except the hundred thousand who govern them.

Right. I guess I can see his point. But. This basically cements the view that Ivan is not a huge fan of organized religion. And the fact that he is talking to his brother, who happens to be a man of the cloth is what makes it….even more interesting. Aloysha interrupts once in while to give the opposing view. This is the one that struck me most:

Your Inquisitor doesn’t believe in God, that’s all there is to his secret!

And that, folks is the secret. So I guess this brings the whole Breakfast Club thing (kind of) full circle: you have the man of the cloth (Aloysha), the man of intellect (Ivan) and then the man of earthly pleasures (Dimitry).

On a side note, one of the funniest things I have read in this book so far….the father Karamazov writes a note to Grushenka and adds this:

“For my angel, Grushenka, if she comes to me,” and that two or three days later he added, “my little chicky-bird”.

Chicky-bird! I don’t know if it’s a translation thing. But I found that extremely funny.

Alright, now that I have fulfilled my blog post….onward to the next part!



Less: A Review

lessBarb bought me Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last month, and it has been waiting patiently until I had a chance to pick it up about a week ago.  Less comes with obvious recommendations, having won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was looking forward to reading it.

It is a great book, certainly deserving of all the praise.  The essential story is that Arthur Less is an author about to turn 50 who goes on an around the world tour after having his heart broken.  It’s funny and charming and sad and funny and ultimately the kind of book that stays with you.

Reading Less was a very interesting experience.  I enjoyed the entire book.  As I was cruising through the first 90%, I was entertained and very satisfied.  The story moves along well and was constantly compelling.  Note that the trip-around-the-world frame is almost unbeatable because it provides access to a wide selection of exotic locales and people, because it by nature gives the story momentum, and because it is the perfect backdrop for a character whose deeper voyage is to explore himself.

So the first 90% was really good.  I was, however, reading it and thinking in the back of my mind that as good as the book is, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that wins Pulitzer Prizes.

And then in the last 10%, Greer gives us magic.  I’ve read books like this before, though I can’t remember an example.  The last ten pages of Less are a literary explosion.  They open your head up and you see vistas of open water and you hear cool breezes.  The previous pages, where the reader was on a pleasure cruise down a canal, now come back to life and are experienced again in a single burst.  The book is transcendent.

When you are finished, you understand the awards.  The writing is brilliant.  The ability–the control–to carry a reader along with a deft touch, entertaining and even delighting them while resisting the urge to unleash the crescendo, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling.  It’s a huge gamble.  If the end isn’t a crescendo, the book is merely good or even worse.  The mastery to set that trap for yourself and then escape is brilliant.  It’s a gift to the reader.

A couple other notes.  One thing that literary fiction often loses is the idea of a story.  Greer succeeds here.  Less is, above all, a story.  Even better, it is a simple story.  One main character and the moons around him.  There are flashbacks, but natural, like you would use if you were telling a story verbally.

Lastly, Greer has a world-class grasp of language.  He has a writer’s grasp of detail and the ability to create a sense of place.  His visual metaphors are just perfect–novel and accessible at the same time.

This book deserves to be read.

Bonus Post: The Grand Inquisitor

There does not seem to be any doubt that The Grand Inquisitor is the most famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov.  It is in the part of the book we just finished, and both of us thought it deserved its own post.

It is a section of the book which consists of a story that Ivan wrote and is telling to Alyosha.  Remember, Ivan is the intellectual among the brothers, the kind of insufferable guy you end up talking to a party as he describes the big controversy he got into at his department chair’s meeting last week.  Even in this case, he fatuously states that he doesn’t think he’s a very good writer before starting the story.

The basic idea is that Jesus comes back to earth and meets the Inquisitor, who tells Jesus that he failed because he gave people freedom and that people are incapable of being free and happy.  He further goes on to say that Jesus erred in resisting the three temptations Satan offered because he threw away the things that could have been used to manipulate the people into being happy–more or less, bread and circuses.  There’s also a rich helping of the Book of Revelations, which is an eye-opener if you are not familiar with it.

At the end, after the Inquisitor has spent pages berating Christ (CHRIST!) while Jesus says nothing, Jesus does what I think you would expect.  He kisses the inquisitor and walks away.

It’s quite a read.  I think you might be able to spend your life unpacking all of the meaning embedded.  In fact, some people probably have.  It covers ideas and debates that Dostoevsky had been thinking–hard–about for his entire life and about which he cared deeply.  When it came time to write this passage in his last book, he had a lot to say.

This debate is something that had been ringing through Christianity for centuries.  It is, in fact, a dark ages concept.  After the fall of Rome, the judgment was that a free society was self-destructive, and you went through the middle ages and then really ramped it up during the Reformation, when people literally had the ability to choose their church.

What Dostoevsky does so effectively in this book is present you with the inherent conflicts of any lifestyle.  You can be pious and then you’re standing in front of the starets looking for spiritual healing.  You can be licentious and tormented—see Dmitry.

In this section, we see the gothic inquisitor, full of grandeur and arrogance and we can contrast it to Zosima.  We see two methods of persuasion–providing shock and awe mysticism directed at the unwashed and then the presentation or truly divine miracles.

To me, the ultimate question is one of faith.  We’ve all heard the old logical puzzle that if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in him and he doesn’t exist.  To me, that doesn’t seem like faith.  Similarly, if you are forced to believe in God, that doesn’t seem to reach the transcendence of a true faith.  Rather, to have your freedom and choose to worship…that seems to me to be the kind of thing you’d be looking for.

Finally, we can’t leave this section without seeing how Alyosha reacts to this.  Aloysha is the pious brother–if a little naive now and again.

Aloysha is sad that his brother’s heart is with the Inquisitor.  Ivan tells him the whole thing is “muddle-headed,” and that of course, he isn’t becoming a Jesuit.  He just wants to live for 30 years and be done with it.

Alyosha asks him how he can have “such a hell in your heart and your head.”  (He’s right…there’s no other word for what’s between that man’s ears.  He’s as messed up as his brother and his Father, just in his own way).

Ivan tells him he has a special strength, what the kids today would call a superpower:

“The Karamazov Depravity”

No one can argue with that.

Review: French Exit by Patrick deWitt

french exitI was super pumped to get approved to review this book. First, he is Canadian! Second, I read, and loved his novel The Sisters Brothers.

I will say that his style, for me, is reminiscent of Christoper Moore (ish) – kind of dark humour (I mean humor), a little absurd, and a little quirky. I happen to like those things in a novel.

This book is about Frances and her adult son Malcolm. They used to be part of the upper crust of the Upper East Side, but through scandal and bankruptcy they have fallen from grace. They make a hasty exit to Paris to live in a friends’ apartment there.

I don’t like to give too much of the plot away, so I won’t. (You are capable of reading the synopsis of the book on Goodreads.)

I like that this is different. It’s not the same old cookie cutter narrative. It’s funny (I was laughing out loud at many parts), and it’s also poignant and sad. I think that is a tribute to the author’s skill to be able to paint those emotions so well – and not have it be sappy or morose.

This book is about families – the ones you are born into and the ones you choose. And finding your tribe. Not to give too much away, but at a late point in the book a bunch of misfits are basically living in the French apartment – collected like stray cats. And they all seem to need something from each other. Not in the material sense, but companionship.

I really enjoyed this book. If you like your books a bit off the wall then this is a great read for you. And, if you like his other novels, you will for sure like this one.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)

Book Five: Euclidean Geometry

euclid2First, and foremost, the key event in Book Five is also the most commented-on facet of the entire book, and that is “The Grand Inquisitor” section.  Barb and I have agreed to look at that in a separate post.  As the cool kids say today, “it will take a while for us to unpack that.”

So let’s look at the other highlights of Book Five, which is like watching the consolation game at a basketball tournament….but there you go.

For me, the consolation highlight of Book Five was the David-Foster-Wallace style footnote on Euclidean Geometry.  It was more than two pages and thanks to good therapy did not bring on the howling fantods.

So, Euclidean geometry was created by Euclid in the 4th Century BC.  The last theory of Euclid’s was that two parallel lines would never intersect, something which seems logical but which centuries of geometarins have been unable to prove, (I recall that proofs are important from 10th grade geometry and also I got a D).

So, contemporary with Dostoevsky, they were debating non-Euclidean geometry, which differs from Euclidean geometry only in the sense that they think two parallel lines do intersect due to the curvature of the earth, or something like that.

cliff-clavinIn terms of relevance to the story, this stuff comes (and could only come) from the mouth of Ivan, the Cliff Clavin of 19th Century Russia.  His point is that if you can’t understand non-Euclidean geometry, how can you pretend to understand God?

That’s a novel argument, one I would be able to apply.  Of course, the broader theme is a question that keeps recurring in the book:  whether a pure and simple belief in God can survive meeting a “terrestrial” world built on reason and intellect.

Or, there’s this part from later in the same speech.  I actually know someone who has been told that God must exist because animals don’t know murder is wrong.  Of course, animals don’t murder.  As Lou Solverson said on Fargo, “animals only kill for food.”

Ivan has a similar sentiment.

We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.

Indeed, I think that’s probably the right argument on points, but then again we used to have a cat that literally tortured a mouse for hours and showed no interest in turning it into a meal.  Maybe not with artistic refinement, though.

Here’s a last philosophical nugget.

Clarity in absurdity. Absurdity is direct and guileless, whereas the intellect is evasive and illusive. The intellect is a blackguard, but absurdity is undeviating and honourable.

Which is another brain twister.  Obviously, absurdity and intellect would be polar opposites based on common meaning…and with intellect the preferred choice.  But, taken back to our Euclidean metaphor….what’s more absurd than the beliefs at the foundation of any faith.  Immaculate conception?  Rebirth?  The Book of Mormon?  And what is more evasive and illusive than whether two parallel lines lines that intersect or don’t.

This gives us the chance to view the idea of absurdity in a new light.  The belief in these ideas is–has to be–a matter of pure faith, “direct and guileless,” and on a higher plane that human reason.

Next:  The Grand Inquisitor.