Archive for August, 2008

Sway: A Novel

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

By Zachary Lazar

The Short Take:

The Rolling Stones, the Manson Murders, a filmmaker devoted to death and the occult – sounds like a thriller, right? Not in Lazer’s hands. Alienation and angst hold sway in this novel, which revels in the dark side of the 60s. The degree to which you will like Lazer’s work depends on how you feel about that. Any familiarity with filmmaker Kenneth Anger makes this a must-read, however.


Consider this:

Bobby’s eyes were simply confused now. It was as if whatever he was trying to conceal from Anger had at last been concealed from himself.

If that short passage appeals to you, grab this book immediately. Eyes do a lot of talking in Sway, which is a good thing considering the characters also never want to talk about whatever actually is going on.

On one hand, this opens their motivations and actions up to your interpretation. On the other hand, it can leave you feeling as distant from his player’s as they are from you.

Powerful yet oddly cold, this is no historical novel. Lazer did do some research but admits up front that his work is a exploration of people who have disengaged from reality.

Bouncing through time and place, Lazer weaves together separate yet overlapping story lines into a darkened mirror vision of the so-called era of peace and love. The destruction of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, the seduction of Manson murder-minion Bobby Beausoleil, the erotic and startling films of Anger, the viciousness of Altamont all combine to paint a picture of mindless progression toward death.

Creating a background of more despair, frequent references to Vietnam, pollution, and the assassinations of the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds you of the fountainhead for people’s despair and disillusionment.

Knowing about Anger (the film maker, not the emotion – maybe) really adds to the power of the book. While you want to focus on the better -known story of the Stones, Anger is the central character around whom the darkness swirls. If you haven’t seen any of his work, a quick visit to YouTube will help and is highly recommended.

This is a book of great intelligence, but it’s not for everyone. As I finished, I found Anger’s supposed statement “but we all survived” to exactly echo my own thoughts. They did. And so did we. I don’t know which is more surprising.

Want Some Plot?

There are two main plot lines in this book, and one much smaller but pivotal tale.

One line focuses on Kenneth Anger, from his childhood to the very recent past. Most of the emphasis falls on his efforts to make several films and his relationships with his “stars.” He is the glue that holds the entire book together, as the ill fated Bobby Beausoleil is one of his stars, and he becomes involved with – and films – the Stones.

The other major plot line revolves around the gradual decline of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, as he loses control over his love, his band, and himself. Drugs, arrests, and the famous death in the swimming pool all play a part. Add to this, the Satanic influence over the Stone’s album Beggar’s Banquet and the horror and death at the Altamont concert.

Beausoleil’s involvement with Manson only appears at the beginning and end, but flavors the entire novel.

Not a lot of joy here. But still well worth investigating.

Book Club Books

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I’m in several book clubs and right now I’m reading a book for one of them: The Friday Night Knitting Club.

While there is nothing wrong with this book I just don’t get why it is a common pick for book clubs. It’s just another version of The Jane Austen Book Club, and so many others. Basically there’s always a group of women who lean on each other while going through cancer/divorce/affairs/pregnancies/etc. Been there. Read that.

With all the excellent books out in the world, why do these type of books keep coming up so regularly? Shouldn’t book clubs be about something more? Women make up almost all the members of the book clubs I belong to, and I suspect that is the norm everywhere. Are we — as women — saying we’re too shallow to read books of substance? Something is wrong.

The Learners

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

By Chip Kidd

The Short Take:

If you like Mad Men, look for this book now. This crisply written novel builds upon advertising circa 1961, but also incorporates perplexing questions about the responsibilities of advertising – and psychological researchers.


Chip Kidd is already a noted graphic designer: his groundbreaking work in book design is particularly well known, though strangely others are credited for the design of this book. Go figure.

Kidd’s familiarity with the ad world glows throughout this book, which gives it special appeal to people like me who are in the biz. His little “side lessons” in advertising thinking should be of interest to everyone, however. With thousands of ad exposures on any given day, aren’t we all advertising experts of some sort or the other?

Advertising plays only one role in this engrossing story, which also focuses on the Milgram experiments and the repercussions on its subjects. Main character (and budding designer) Happy not only creates the ad that attracts people to participate in this disturbing study, he finds that his whole life becomes wrapped up in the results.

While that might sound forbiddingly dark – and there certainly is a degree of darkness to this novel – the animated portrayal of the characters in a small ad agency, along with a certain major potato chip client, provide just the right counterbalance.

In fact, I like this one so much I’m going to order Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys right now.

Want Some Plot?

New college grad Happy wants to start his career at the same place as his favorite college professor. And he does. The small family-owned agency in New Haven, Connecticut, relies heavily on the Krinkle Kutt snack food account, represented in detailed cartoon advertisements by hero chip, Krinkle Karl.

Happy reconnects with the would-be love of his life, and learns the challenges of living in a college town as well as the gothic ins-and-out so his new company.

The turning point comes when Happy creates an ad for a study about learning and memory for Yale University (a real and controversial experiment, by the way). Ultimately this ad leads to destruction in more ways than one. But to tell you more would be to ruin the book.

In a parallel plot line, the Krinkle Kutt a sales manager joins the usual marketing manager in meetings with an agency. Disaster lurks on the horizon.

Snappy character portrayals, a fast-moving plot, and delightful language make this short book seem even shorter.


Fear Not Faulkner

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Somehow my education did not include the usual required reading of many respected writers. In fact, I only recall having to read The Scarlet Letter and some Shakespearean plays. Very sad.

So, I tackle one of those missed books every once in awhile. The latest was William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

I kept hearing how hard Faulkner was from everybody — including people I knew were well educated and bright. So I was very nervous.


Basically the book was a beautifully written melodrama unveiled in mystery form. It wasn’t hard at all. Honest. That said, you can’t sit down and read it in five minute snatches. Shoot, it takes longer than that just to finish some of Faulkner’s sentences. But the reading wasn’t hard. In fact, it was pleasurable.

Faulkner (at least in this novel) tends to reveal part of something and wait several paragraphs, or even pages, to reveal the rest of that something. That’s why it’s best to read for extended periods at a time. Otherwise you may not get the whole thought or meaning.

I found this created a level of tension beyond with events in the book. It added drama just to the process of reading.

There will be more Faulkner in my future. And no more fear. Now I’m ready to tackle James Joyce!

The Monster of Florence: A True Story

Friday, August 15th, 2008

By Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Short Take:

Douglas Preston and his oft-time writing partner, Lincoln Child, are known for their gripping thriller/mysteries. This non-fiction account of the investigation into a series of gruesome murders in Florence has just as much tension. Even if you don’t normally like non-fiction, you’ll find Preston’s writing style totally approachable and the story amazing – all the more so because it is true. That makes it really, really scary.


Start with a series of murders in beautiful Tuscany, all involving young lovers parked in the night for privacy and passion. Add a labyrinthine investigation with secret indictments, bizarre interpretations of evidence, and police conclusions that defy imagination. Give the elusive killer a catchy moniker like “the Monster of Florence.” Then make the authors (Preston and Spezi) part of the story: Not as brilliant investigators but as suspects.

Who needs fiction when you have this reality to work with?

Preston and Spezi do an excellent job of unveiling the crimes, explaining the evidence, portraying the suspects and investigators, even capturing the impact these horrific crimes have on all of Italy. The writing style is closer to what you expect in a fiction book, making the story simply zip along.

In less deft hands, you could become overwhelmed by the number of characters in this book. The investigation alone involves several different organizations as well as a number of different people. However, this duo keeps everything clear without sacrificing the pacing of the plot.

It’s when things get personal that the tension kicks up several notches. Simply by conducting a few interviews in order to write their own (this) book on the Monster, Preston and Spezi find themselves accused of crimes, maligned in the press, and in fear for their future. To go further would ruin the second half of the book. Let’s just say that, with all its faults, the American justice system looks like a romp through Disneyland compared to the reality in which Douglas and Spezi found themselves ensnared.

Truth truly is stranger than fiction. And every bit as interesting to read (if not more so) in this case.

Want Some Plot?

Real life thriller writer, Douglas Preston, moves his family to the Tuscany area on a whim. He soon meets the intrepid reporter (Spezi) who has followed the Monster of Florence crimes, the investigations, and all its associated foibles for decades. The two decide to write a book together about the Monster and the on-going investigation. That’s when their troubles begin.

The book is wisely divided into two parts. The first covers the murders (16 in all) and all the investigations, accusals, and imprisonments that takes place before Preston and Spezi team up. This was probably meant to be the entire book originally – it’s a powerful story on its own full of sex, murder, mutilation, incompetence, lying witnesses, satanic cults, and more.

The second part describes the bizarre happenings when the writers unwilling become part of the plot: Phone taps, interrogations, you name it. It’s a Kafkaesque world where anything can happen.

The only problem is that this book ends in 2006, yet the investigation was still grinding on, finding other victims (and I don’t mean of the Monster). Mr. Preston told me that events are still unfolding and hopefully he’ll find time soon to add that information to the website he shares with frequent collaborator, Lincoln Child. Click here to visit and see.

Silver: My Own Tale As Written by Me with a Goodly Amount of Murder

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Edward Chupack

The Short Take:

Pirating was never so fun — or foul — as in this “autobiography” of Long John Silver. If you ever enjoyed a pirate movie, book, or song, this will be smooth sailing and fair skies for you from cover to cover. Aargh!


Ahoy, Mateys! What a rollicking yarn this tale be. All concerning the adventures of one Long John Silver, commencing with his earliest days to his ultimate journey. Aye, and all written in colorful pirate talk it be, too.

Yes, I know pirates were horrible people. Yes, I know we shouldn’t enjoy reading about their mayhem and murder. Well, too bad. This book was great fun and I enjoyed every page of it, murder or no. And, a goodly number of the pages did include a murder to two.

Of course, there is no real Long John Silver outside the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Treasure Island. And while some other characters from that book also make an appearance, little of Stevenson’s book survives in this one.

In this first novel, Chupack expands upon the wily pirate Stevenson invented to create a true terror of the sea. But the writing style is so whimsical, you find yourself laughing rather than cringing… at least most of the time. Treachery and double-dealing abound. Not even Silver’s brief love interest is what she seems. And even that changes several times.

The pirate-style language is what makes this novel so delightful. You can hear the voices (mainly Silver’s) in your head as you read the words. Whether accurate for genuine pirate talk or not, it’s the style we have come to expect from our pirates, be they played by Johnny Depp, Douglas Fairbanks, or some other swashbuckling hero.

But Long John Silver — now there’s a pirate worth knowing and a tale worth telling. The story of his education, becoming a pirate, and rising to one of the most feared captains of the seas is wrapped in the mystery of a hidden treasure. Mysterious clues lead to various ends — false and otherwise. But it’s the boat full of adventures and the fleshing out of the most popular pirate in fiction that makes this book seaworthy.

I’ll be thanking Master Chupack for bringing us Silver’s true story. Long John always was my favorite part of Treasure Island. I bet he was yours too.

Want Some Plot?

The book opens with Silver held prisoner on his own ship. Confined to his cabin, he begins to write the story of his life. Pages are passed along to a cabin boy in bits and pieces, starting from his earliest days as a street urchin in Bristol, England.

Alongside the story of his life, Silver teases his captor with hints to the location of an immense treasure. Clues come from an old Bible Silver obtained early in his pirating career. Over the course of the novel, the meaning of these clues are revealed and revised, with Silver claiming to have solved them all and using that knowledge to torment his captor with dreams of unreachable, unbelievable riches.

Between Silver’s life story and the treasure hunt, this book is packed with adventures aplenty. And, while you might think you have it all figured out — don’t count on it. After all, we’re talking about Long John Silver here.

Interested in more about pirates? Look to the left and click on “More About Pirates from Chupack.” And, thanks to Chupack for letting me include them here.

Visit Chupack’s site about Long John at


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August 2008