Been reading a slew of books by comics lately, because there are a number of them coming out, and who couldn’t use a laugh these days? What surprised me most — and probably shouldn’t have — is how uneven they have been.
Why should I expect funny guys and gals to be able to write sustained comedic prose? That’s not what stand-ups or sketch comics do; they tell a funny story then move on the next gag or anecdote. Without an overarching theme or connective narrative thread, pacing can be a problem: When books are written as a string of self-contained stories or anecdotes, it’s easy to put them down for a while after you’ve finished a chapter.
Such has been the case for three of the four books by comedians I’ve read, wholly or partially, the past few months. The exception? Kathy Griffin’s unexpectedly soulful memoir, “Official Book Club Selection.”
The brassy comedienne, who wrote the book with the help of journo Robert Abele while filming her reality show, writes candidly about growing up the youngest in an Irish Catholic family, her struggles to make it in L.A., plastic surgery and marital travails. She also tackles an extremely difficult subject – her brother Kenny’s incest and drug problems – with sensitivity and grace.
Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek calls “A Gate at the Stairs” exhausting and unsatisfying in a review posted today. Her theory: Author Lorrie Morre’s aggressive cleverness works better “when diced into smallish bits.”
In other words, there’s a reason why she’s so acclaimed as a short story writer, less accomplished as a novelist.
Which isn’t to say Zacharek doesn’t like parts of “A Gate at the Stairs.” Like me, she has a mixed view, although her criticism takes a different form. In a nutshell:
“Moore isn’t lazy,” Zacharek writes. “She has the exact opposite problem: This is a case of a writer’s working too hard. She doesn’t allow enough air around her sentences — there’s no space for the gags to breathe, and her brainy contemplations continue to stack up until they resemble piles of clutter.”
The critic doesn’t address Moore’s awkward plotting, which actually speaks to the same problem. Another reminder that novels are a different beast than short stories.
Oh how I love it when the New York Times serves up decidedly different takes on the same book in its daily and weekly pages. Michiko Kakutani delivered a tough but largely positive review of Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs” in Friday’s paper, whereas Jonathan Lethem out and out raves about it in the paper’s Sunday book review section, suggesting that doubters ought to have their head examined.
So which is it? I have an even more mixed take on the book. There was much to love in “A Gate at the Stairs” — narrator Tassie Keltjin is affecting, as is her quirky family — but its weaknesses bugged me long after I finished reading. The plot, tied to fallout from 9/11, begs credulity. And I generally find it annoying when authors withhold key plot information under the guise of character obliviousness or diffidence, as was the case here. Killer closing lines couldn’t quite make up for those deficiencies.
Kakutani notes Moore’s clumsy job orchestrating certain revelations and an unfortunate tendency toward wordplay, but forgives those weaknesses, judging “A Gate at the Stairs” the author’s best book yet.
“If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters’ daily existences,” Kakutani writes.
Many a foodie would kill for the job that Frank Bruni is leaving voluntarily. But how many of them have as complicated a relationship with eating as the outgoing NYT restaurant critic? In “Born Round,” Bruni chronicles his love for food, and battle to control his appetite, which he had finally gotten under control by the time he took the job. Few writers would be able to pull off these stories the way Bruni did. Read my review in today’s LA Times.
Many of the big bang explosions of 1960s were rooted in little bangs from the previous decade, notes Patricia Cohen in today’s NYT, making Fred Kaplan’s decision to cram as many of them as possible into 1959 problematical. “What becomes increasingly clear with every chapter, however, is that nearly any one of that decade’s other years could serve equally well, if not better, as a turning point,” she writes in her review of “1959: The Year Everything Changed.” “History rarely adheres to the Gregorian calendar, and the need to squish everything into the self-imposed 365-day timeline causes Mr. Kaplan at times to treat his argument like a gerrymandered district, stretching it beyond its natural shape.” Read the review