Falling Up the Stairs

[Amazon Link]

I can recommend you buy this book using the link at right (no, your right), because the author, James Lileks, is a good guy, a fine writer, and amply deserves whatever slice of the low, low $2.99-for-Kindle price Amazon cuts him.

But I can't, unfortunately, recommend that you actually read it. Sorry. He's a fine writer now. Back in the 80s, when the book was written, not so much. (And there are other problems, see below.)

It starts out promising: protagonist Jonathan Simpson is a society reporter for a dinky local newspaper in Valhalla, Minnesota, the Lacs Standard. He is visited by Trygve, the servant employed by his rich Aunt Marvel from Minneapolis. Or, rather, his late Aunt Marvel, who has perished from—literally—falling up the stairs. (Involving getting her foot caught in the stair lift while simultaneously punching the "up" button.)

"I hope she, ah, died quickly."

"Not at first. But eventually, yes, she did."

Funny! Unfortunately, that's pretty close to the beginning of the book, and it's downhill from there. Simpson inherits his Aunt's mansion, and (not quite coincidentally) submits a column to the Lacs Standard slandering a good part of the community of Valhalla. So it's off to Minneapolis, where he runs into a dark conspiracy run by the Alimentary Information League, a radical group demanding an end to processed foods; their tactics involve mass poisoning. He also runs into a bunch of women, most of whom he manages to sleep with. I couldn't care enough about them to keep them straight. The tone gets uneven, the hero gets whiny and irritating, and the whole thing just drags on way too long.

The other problem is that the Kindlizing of the print edition did not go well. There are typos galore, and the paragraphs are consistently messed up so badly that it's often difficult to tell who's saying what. Even for $2.99, it's tough to tolerate.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:41 AM EDT

Pitch Perfect

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A decent little musical comedy. It's Maine (heh) attraction is Anna Kendrick, a very good young actress born up in Portland. She got an Oscar nomination a few years back for her role in Up in the Air. I forsee more, albeit not for this.

Ms Kendrick plays Beca, whose life ambition is to go out to LA and get into the music business, specializing in her mad DJ mixes. You can, in theory, make a living doing that, I guess. But her professor dad insists that she get a college education first, and she enrolls unenthusiastically at Barden College.

In addition to DJ skills, Beca is a decent singer, and she gets recruited into an all-female a capella group. Its leader, Aubrey, is a bit of a tyrant, obsessed with winning the a capella competition held yearly at Lincoln Center in NYC. (They were cruelly denied the previous year when Aubrey regurgitated impressively in the midst of their performance.)

So, yeah: it's like every other musical-competition movie you've seen. Or, for that matter, every other sports movie you've seen. Will the underdogs triumph?

But it's PG13-funny along the way, doesn't take itself seriously, and—see above—Ms Kendrick is always worth watching even when she's in a clichéd role in a clichéd movie. Also good is Australian Rebel Wilson playing Tasmanian "Fat Amy". (She calls herself that "so twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back.")

In addition, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks pop in on occasion as ESPN-style announcers for the televised a-capella competitions; their banter is hilarious. The competitions actually exist, although the finals weren't at Lincoln Center this year, and I can't find any evidence they are televised.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 9:40 AM EDT

The Adventures of Augie March

[Amazon Link]

Another occasional foray into reading Serious Literature; The Adventures of Augie March is on most Official Lists of the Greatest Novels Ever. It was a slog, though; I finally waded through it on my third checkout from the fine library at the University Near Here. The checkout period is 4 weeks, so it was "only" about 20 pages/day. But they are very dense pages.

Here's an example, the first paragraph of chapter XI:

Now there's a dark Westminster of a time when a multitude of objects cannot be clear; they're too dense and there's an island rain. North Sea lightlessness, the vein of the Thames. That darkness in which resolutions have to be made--it isn't merely local; it's the same darkness that exists in the fiercest clearnesses of torrid Messina. And what about the coldness of the rain? That doesn't deheat foolishness in its residence of the human face, nor take away deception nor change defects, but this rain is an emblem of the shared condition of all. It maybe means that what is needed to mitigate the foolishness or dissolve the deception is always superabundantly about and insistently offered to us--a black offer in Charing Cross; a gray in Place Pereires where you see so many kinds and varieties of beings go to and fro in the liquid and fog; a brown in the straight unity of Wabash Avenue. With the dark, the solvent is in this way offered until the time when one thing is determined and the offers, mercies, and opportunities are finished.

No, it's not Finnegans Wake. But it's not Lee Child either.

My guess is that the initial reference is inspired by one of these Monet paintings, probably the one housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, but I wouldn't even have gotten that if not for a dim recollection of paging through an art book years ago. But that's only the start of unwinding the paragraph. One could spend maybe an hour puzzling out the allusions and sussing out references. I didn't have time, and probably not the depth of knowledge required either, so I probably missed a lot.

Unlike the edition of Lolita I read last year, the library's copy of Augie was unannotated, and this is a book that could use annotations. But I muddled through, got the "good parts", and enjoyed it.

It starts out in early 20th century Chicago, with Augie's already-dysfunctional family: absent father, a simple-minded mother, a tyrannical scheming grandmother, two brothers, one "born an idiot". Augie has to scramble to make a living, and this causes him to interact with no end of colorful folks, some of whom rope him into "adventures" of varying legality. One of the more successful enterprises has him shoplifting expensive books and selling them to university academics. But another scheme, hatched by the clearly reality-challenged Thea, involves an odyssey down to Mexico with a young bald eagle, which Thea hopes to train to catch giant iguanas; Augie goes along because he's hopelessly infatuated with Thea. It winds up in post-WWII Europe, with Augie still doing borderline-shady stuff, with a wife hoping to break into film.

I don't disagree that it's a great novel. But I'm ready to read more fluffy stuff again.


Last Modified 2017-12-01 12:57 PM EST