Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin

I was introduced to stand-up comedy by finding my father’s old LPs of the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby. I wore out a needle (there is a reference that won’t be around for another generation!) listening to these; the memory of Cosby’s plaintive wail, “But Dad, I’m Jesus Christ!” still brings a smile to my face after all these years. Steve Martin was the first comedian that I found on my own when I bought A Wild and Crazy Guy, admittedly because I liked King Tut. I discovered Saturday Night Live not long afterwards and that cemented Martin’s spot as one of my favorite comics. When his autobiography was suggested as the book of choice for my book club I was quite pleased.

Martin is an excellent writer. He admirably conveys both the difficulty of performing and the exhilaration one feels when it goes well. The stories he tells of his shows before he was a superstar are amazing; I would have loved to be in the audience when he took everyone outside the nightclub in which he was performing, hailed a cab, and then left to end his act. (This was a huge hit, although the club owner made sure the audience had all paid their tabs before Martin tried it again the next night!) It isn’t all about the comedy, however; he touches on his weak familial relationships and occasionally waxes philosophical as well. “All entertainment is or is about to become old-fashioned” is one of the lines that struck me as fairly insightful; clearly it was important to Martin as well looking at how he continually reinvents himself: magician, comedian, actor, writer, and producer to name a few successful careers he has tried. The closest I’ve ever been to Martin is once seeing his art collection on display at the Bellagio in Vegas; this book paints a much more complete picture of him.

First Sentence:
I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Getting Things Done, by David Allen

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

I suppose if you are in the business of telling others how to organize their lives a high degree of arrogance is to be expected. While the author certainly has this in spades, there is still a fair amount of useful tips here. The most useful technique (albeit not exactly earth-shattering) is simply this: if you have little jobs you can do quickly, do them. I tend to prefer to go through everything on my list to get a feel for scope and priority, but in the past week I’ve used the rule of immediacy to a positive effect. Unfortunately I plowed through 250 pages to get this one tidbit!

As an example of the arrogance, Allen acknowledges that there is rampant skepticism about systems like this, but dismisses it as originating from people that haven’t executed properly. Nothing like countering criticism with the old adage, “You aren’t smart enough to understand it!” Besides the arrogance I found several other things annoying about this book. There are quotes and call-outs scattered throughout the margins that bear only a passing relationship to the nearby text. “Plans get you into things but you’ve got to work your way out.” “There is no reason ever to have the same thought twice, unless you like having that thought.” “Leverage your computer as a think station.” I love quotations, but these banalities were simply distracting. Coupled with the constant reminders that the author is both important and successful (“I have had several sophisticated senior executives tell me that installing [GTD] changed their culture signifigantly and for the better.”) I really didn’t care for this. Interestingly a good friend of mine had a very different reaction, and is planning to incorporate the system into his daily life. Follow along and see how it goes!

First Sentence:
It’s possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control.

Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for the New York Times during most of the 1990’s; this book tells the story of her experiences during that time. I have had only a few truly great meals (K-Paul’s, Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House, and the Mansion on Turtle Creek come to mind), but nothing like the feasts described here. “Crisply coated snapper arrives in a shallow bowl of broth. The first taste is tarragon. It is replaced by fennel, which gives way to something that is definitely Chinese. You taste again. The tarragon is gone ans what comes through is the elusive flavor of five-spice powder. In a minute all of these flavors have come together so that you cannot separate them. You take another bite, and then another. Suddenly, disappointingly, the fish is gone.” Much of the book is like this, both haughtily pretentious and deliciously mouth-watering at the same time.

I find journalists to be largely self-important, and critics doubly so. I picked this up expecting to roll my eyes a lot but found it surprisingly compelling. Reichl made heavy use of disguises to avoid being recognized by the various establishments and to get a feel for how the meals and atmosphere appear to the average diner. A typical chapter started with a description of the origin of a typically elaborate costume, segued into the experience at the restaurant under scrutiny, and ended with the actual review as it appeared in the Times. Often she got a bit enthralled with her adopted persona, at times seemingly threatening to become a modern-day Sybil! Along the way we are entertained with amusing glimpses into the life of a critic, including jealous colleagues and overzealous readers. Instead of pictures or illustrations, recipes acted as page filler, varying from scalloped potatoes to moules marinières. All in all, a unique and tasty read.

First Sentence:
“You gonna eat that?”

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout

My first Nero Wolfe novel! With one-dimensional characters (making a notable exception for Wolfe and his right-hand man Archie Goodwin), a dated story, and plot devices that only work on the page this novel is a failure in every possible way except that I loved it. (I stole that line from Roger Ebert so I’ll try and stick to movie references from here on out.) Wolfe is described as corpulent and homebound, with a deep voice and controlled emotions: I couldn’t help but picture Orson Wells at the close of his career. Goodwin is both a man of action and fairly emotional; for him William Hopper is the man, but as he is best known for playing Paul Drake, Perry Mason’s confidant and investigator, it could be the similarity in roles rather than the imagery that brings that to mind. The rest of the cast were extras at best: a crippled writer, an ugly maid, a drunk newspaperman, a haughty lawyer or two, a plucky private eye, a bitter taxi driver—you get the idea.

The League of Frightened Men wasn’t in the Plan 9 from Outer Space “so bad it is good” category, but instead more like Smokey and the Bandit or Flash Gordon. Neither of those are Casablanca, but seem fairly universally loved—Stout grabs that same magic here. If you want clever writing and thoughtful characterization then look elsewhere, but if you enjoy spending an afternoon watching The Thin Man or Charlie Chan then I suspect you’d like curling up with a Rex Stout novel.

Off topic: Dogfish Head Brewery night at the Alamo Drafthouse

Dogfish Head Off-Centered Film Fest

I went to the opening night of the first annual Off-Centered Film Fest this past week and had a tremendous amount of fun. Sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse and the Dogfish Head Brewery—my favorite movie theater and my favorite brewery—this was an evening of beer tasting and funny stories. Dogfish brought twelve beers, several of which aren’t available in Texas. Central Market participated as well; they brought various cheeses that paired well with the beer. Each beer was introduced by Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish; I’d read his first book and he was as funny and honest in person as he was in his writing. The crowd was a lot of fun, and everyone clearly had a great time.

Calagione’s stories about the various beers is what really made the night special. My favorite tale was the one about Immort Ale (brewed with peat-smoked barley, juniper berries, vanilla, and maple syrup and aged in oak). Before it was in production, Sam was very excited about the beer and looking forward to how it would be received by the general public. On debut night at his brewpub, Sam sat at the end of the bar and eagerly awaited the comment cards. At the end of the evening when they were finally collected, he pulled one out of the stack at random and read the first review: “Tastes like trees, but got me fucked up!” Not exactly the reception for which he’d hoped, but a success in his eyes. That story pretty much sums up the entire event; I can’t wait for next year!

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