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Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

Some time back I sang the praises of libraries here. To me, not only do they allow one to cut back on your expenses a little (obviously, by borrowing rather than buying books and other media) but they also widen my interests considerably, by making me “take chances” on books or records I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. I’ve always been “working class”, so it can be a big deal to put out $15, 20 or more on a book only to find a few dozen pages in it’s boring or unreadable. But, if it’s checked out of the library, all I’m out is an hour or so of time finding that out and a return trip to drop it back. Which leads me to the latest book I read.

Actually two out of the past four or five. Paul Goes Fishing, and its predecessor, Paul Moves Out. They’re graphic novels by Canadian Michel Rabiaglati, a Montreal-born and based graphic artist who began drawing fairly autobiographical accounts of his life about 20 years back. We see his alter-ego Paul growing up and dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the lens of the Canadian (and more specifically Quebec) ’80s and ’90s. “I’m from Montreal and I don’t travel a lot,” he told the Toronto Star, “so my stories are rooted in Quebec… the best way to have international success is to stay local.” Which he does, as well as living up to the famous writing adage “write what you know.” “It’s not pow-pow violence,” he points out, “it’s normal relations…it’s a normal guy. ‘Mr. Everybody’.”

Which is just where the charm of it lies. In Paul Moves Out, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat event is simply a gay professor hitting on the very straight Paul. We see a snippets of his coming of age, moving away from home, finishing college, getting an apartment with his new girlfriend, babysitting relatives kids. Nothing entirely unique nor thrilling, but thoroughly interesting and story-driven enough to have you rooting for him (and his gal Lucie). In Paul Goes Fishing, he’s a bit older and having a few more adult problems…secretly envying his richer friends, Lucie having difficulty getting pregnant. All while set against the sanguine backdrop of a weekend fishing trip in the country. Again, you’re rooting for them because, as the author says, Paul is “Mr. Everybody.” The illustrations are black-and-white cartoons, realistic enough to be compelling while lacking excessive detail that would be distracting.paul art

The books really speak to me, since Rabiaglati is only a bit older than I am and is depicting growing up in my old homeland, albeit a different section. It’s relatable. Call me crazy but I secretly cheer a little inside to see a little depiction of quintessentially-Canuck things from my youth like Molsons beer or Canadian Tire stores; or that reflect my own life – a picture of a Stranglers album cover at a party he went to, for instance. It puts me in mind of another Canadian author a little – Douglas Coupland. The Generation X guy likewise has fashioned a career, which at its best is merely creating interesting stories about very ordinary and relatable people. Perhaps the somewhat low-key national identity we’re known for helps us excel at noticing interesting little things and eschewing the big, blockbuster blow-’em-ups Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) seem to fall in love with.

I brought up libraries in the beginning because generally I am not a “comic book” guy. Didn’t read them as a kid basically, so sure not inspired to do so now. I, perhaps unfairly, tend to lump graphic novels in with them. Were it not for one of the “Paul” books being prominently displayed on a front table of my local library years ago, I would never in a thousand years stumbled upon the tales. And would have been a bit poorer for the absence of them. So, two messages to take from that perhaps.

One, to be more open to new experiences…something I admittedly am not great with. But just because I might find Superman or Aquaman ridiculous wastes of time, it’s silly to write off the whole genre of comics and things only remotely like them. And two, stories don’t need a lot of “pow” and flash to be compelling. Mr.Everybody probably leads an interesting life once you stop and consider it all. You and I have stories to tell as interesting as any Caped Crusader. Perhaps not quite as exciting but more compelling, since they’re real.

I’m looking forward to getting the next instalment he wrote. Maybe he and Lucie will have a kid. And I hope the rat doesn’t show back up in their bathroom! One encounter with it is “pow-pow” enough for anybody.

Books : Crawdads Sing A Winning Record

About 20 or 25 years ago, I spent many a night trying to write my first novel. It had quite a bit going on. There was a Generation X-like theme about young people working in “McJobs”, an environmental message, some romance, some intrigue that led to corruption in the corridors of power, even a nod to whispers of terrorism… months before 9/11 as luck (bad) would have it. I say that not to toot my own horn. Although, to my perhaps biased eyes, there were some great passages and wonderfully descriptive bits I came up with, the story itself plodded along with the components not really fully meshing and over 100 pages in, neither I nor any potential reader really had a clue as to where the story was leading. It’s tough to stray outside the boundaries of one specific genre in a book. I say that to preface my latest book read, which somehow does mix together several genres and does it well. No wonder Reese Witherspoon liked Where the Crawdads Sing.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the acclaimed first novel by biologist Delia Owens, whom apparently has written non-fiction about ecology before. It was picked by Reese for her “book club” and quickly rose to #1 on the best-sellers list. It’s being made into a movie which is due to open this summer, and if it holds true to the book, should be a blockbuster. Because while romance stories are common, and murder mystery books are common and historical pieces dealing with the troubles of the American South are common, getting all three in one is not common. Getting all three in an interesting story, downright rare. Plus, it has a modest yet sexy girl the story revolves around. Can’t go wrong there.

The girl is Kya, a girl who grew into a woman essentially on her own in the marshes of North Carolina after her drunk and abusive father drove the family to abandon the home. She lives near a town, but wants no part of it since they make it clear they want no part of her or her “white trash” type family. She has to fend for herself with only one or two real friends… besides the birds and other animals living around her that she totally connects with.

The second focus of the book is Chase, a few years ahead of Kya’s back story. Chase is one of the town’s popular young men, a star football player as a teen, now a handsome playboy about to take over his family business. We don’t get far into the novel before he turns up dead. Figuring out what happened to him, however, takes much longer. Eventually the two storylines intermingle, rather intriguingly.

Coming from a naturalist writer, it’s no surprise it paints the marshy coastline in wonderful and loving detail. Arguably more of a surprise is how well she captures the different personalities of the people around the area and reflects how some can change and better themselves while others stay stuck in their mental ditches no matter what.

The book wins as a biography of an interesting, albeit fictional person and those whose lives intersect with hers and as a compelling crime story… although we really don’t even know if there was a crime committed. It’s sad in places and uplifting in others. I will say though that to me, the ending wasn’t as good as it could have been. I won’t give it away with spoilers, but if you’re interested, I’ll give you my impression of how it should have played out. To use a sports metaphor Chase might understand, the book is like a pitcher sailing along with a no-hitter into the 9th inning who dishes up one bad pitch that gets hit to the wall for a double. It ruins the no-hitter, but they still win and it’s still impressive. And that’s what Where the Crawdads Sing is – impressive, but just a wee bit shy of perfect. I give it 4.5 flying egrets out of five.

Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

A Steinbeckian Tale For The Tinder Age

Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love – could be a little tedious to read. Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love and traveling all across the country …that’s something more memorable. And so we have my most recently-read book, Leave Only Footprints, by Conor Knighton.

Knighton managed to blend two parts of latter-day Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and one part male Bridget Jones Diary with quite compelling results. A TV news correspondent called upon sporadically by his network, he found himself dumped by his fiancee. Heartbroken, bored and tired of seeing all the places they used to go to in Phoenix, he decided to take a year off and travel. His plan – visit everyone of the national parks in the country. There are over 50, from Atlantic to Pacific, Maine to California, plus ones above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and out in the lonely ocean in Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Cleverly, he sold his network on the idea of having him do it as a regular segment for their morning or news shows, so as to get a bit of an expense account to cover the thousands of miles by road, air and sea.

He begins the year wanting to see the first sunrise of the year before anyone else, so he visits Acadia National Park, just off the Maine coast on a frigid New Year’s morning. 364 days later he finishes up watching the sun set into the Pacific at the Point Reyes National Seashore (technically not a national park) in California. Along the way he developed a profound and newfound love of his country and its nature, as well as the people who’ve worked to preserve it. He describes all the parks he went to, and adds a little history, but the book moves along swiftly, as he had to himself, not lingering too long on any one site or sight, and introducing us to a range of interesting personnel at the parks. In an unusual but effective writing twist, he avoids making it a chronological recounting of the year, and lumps parks together by “theme.” Crater Lake and Congaree were “mysteries” as I mentioned in the previous blog. Big Bend, on the Tex-mex boundary, and American Samoa, in the middle of the ocean were “borders.” Joshua Tree and Sequoia were among the ones he labeled “trees” for obvious reason. He comes to some great insights, like how many of the people who worked hardest to set up and protect the scenic national parks came from Kansas and other similarly geographically unremarkable places. “If Dorothy had grown up in New York City rather than on the Prairie, Oz may not have looked as spectacular,” he points out. The non-linear approach worked well, keeping us a little off-balance and wondering what would be his next category.

As for love, we never really know if he found it. He used the modern apps to find dates in many cities and described one promising relationship cooked up in the fogs of Washington’s Cascades, but it never seemed to entirely take off. Then there was the nice gal who helped him when his car skidded off the road in Wyoming; he sought her out only to find she was engaged. He does a lot of self-evaluation and personal growing through the year and his recollection of his failed engagement that led to the journey. In one or two places, this side-story became a little distracting and slowing, but all in all, it helped us see him as a human on the road to somewhere… just not somewhere he had mapped out quite yet.

All in all, an interesting and at times endearing look at the United States. I give it 3.5 Smokeys out of 5.

From Bugspray Pitch Man To Shaper Of Minds In 430 Pages Or Less

Good is good, bad is bad, black is black and white is white,

But the lines are not that clear to see, try as we might!

So people refuse the gray, and of the good lose sight…

And miss the ways grays bring light and do what is right!

With apologies to the late Theodor Geisel…my latest read is a bio of an American hero who’s fallen on hard-times, image-wise of late – that same Geisel, better known and loved as Dr. Seuss. Becoming Dr. Seuss, by Brian Jay Jones looks at him in detail, in the good, the bad and the ugly. Actually, like good journalists are often going to do, I daresay Jones does so in a manner that may end up annoying both the left-wing and right-wing segments of his readership. Based on his author photo, he’s young enough to be of the modern politically correct revisionist opinions of history, but he also is evidently full of respect for his subject’s better achievements. His well over 400 pages give us readers an ample understanding of the acclaimed children’s author, warts and all.

Geisel is beloved for creating children’s classics like The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. But he didn’t start out trying to change the world – or how kids learned. He grew up in early-20th Century New England, the son of a German immigrant who was a successful brewer, the family running one of Massachusetts most popular beer companies. Which led to two pivotal events in his early life. First, when WWI happened, he felt the sting of discrimination and prejudice, as locals suddenly turned on anyone vaguely German, no matter how well-loved and respected they may have been until then. Secondly, prohibition shortly thereafter caused his family hardship and devestated his family business, embedding in him a deep resentment of government meddling and the sanctimonious types among us.

For a man so intrinsically tied into educating in our minds, Seuss wasn’t all that good a student, although he did earn a degree. He didn’t care much for studying and preferred doodling. This led to his first career, as a successful ad man, back when many newspaper and magazine ads were hand-drawn. At the height of the Great Depression, he got a contract from Flit, a bug-spray company, to do a dozen ads for them at $100 a pop – good money for the age, and for a young man with a new wife. Not very much changed for him, in fact, until WWII came along, and he was drafted… but sent to California to work on films for the troops working under the guidance of Frank Capra. There he began to really understand the power of his cartoons and effective wordplay. Eventually, as we know, he found his way into writing and illustrating children’s books, full of his interesting make-believe characters who seemed every bit as real as, if not more so, than many people, and his clever rhyming prose. Even though he and his first wife Helen never had children, he became more and more impassioned about them being the future and more and more convinced that the conventional reading material for kids turned them off reading rather than encouraged it. He particularly hated the drab, boring “Dick and Jane” readers that most schools used extensively in the junior grades, with their simple but boring as mud sentences like “See Dick run. See Spot. See Dick run with Spot.” It became his passion – obsession even – to write books kids would like to read, learn from and that at their best, make adults stop and think a little too. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lorax. Horton Hears a Who. After a few semi-popular titles, he finally hit paydirt in the late-’50s with the Cat in the Hat (written with a highly restricted list of words the publisher felt kids could understand) , soon becoming one of America’s best-loved writers, going on to sell over 600 million copies of his 60 or so titles.

Ah yes, but there was the negative to him as well, as many are quick to point out. As most men from his age, he loved his cocktails and nearly chain-smoked, despite a few attempts to quit. Some of his early works depict what now seem like “racist” portrayals of people of foreign cultures and even use words like “Chinamen” which seem less than tactful these days. Jones rakes him over the coals for these offences, but does at least put it in context of the times he grew up in; when the “Orient” was exotic and strange and Black people at home were the subject of many jokes and now-offensive portrayals by Whites in blackface on stage were considered high comedy. He does point out that as time went on, Theodor’s sensibilites changed as well, and notes that while he seemed suspicious of his own German people after the war, he was horrified by the bombing of Japan and went out of his way to get to know Japanese people and befriend them.

Many of my happy memories as a very small child involve having Seuss books read to me. They made me laugh every time, and want to pick up books, want to read them myself. Christmas to this day isn’t really Christmas for this 50-something until I’ve seen the animated TV version of his Grinch. It’s not a far stretch to say that I might not have liked school nearly as much or have been writing books (albeit entirely less successful than Geisel’s) as an adult had I been restricted to the merry adventures of Dick and Jane as a small child. For that, Seuss/Geisel seemed a friend to me. And after 430 pages of his life in print, when we arrive at his passing in 1991, it seemed again like saying goodbye not just to a creative sort, but to someone very close.

Thankful Thursday XXII – Freakonomics And Thinkers

I just finished reading a book with the provocative title When to Rob a Bank. It was written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the pair who became famous with the book Freakonomics. This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Freakonomics pair… and by extension, any books that make people actually think about things and why they are they way they are.

Freakonomics was a 2005 book which became a surprise smash hit, with over four million copies selling in quick time. It looked at a range of social issues and problems, and in some cases turned them on their heads. For instance, it looked at the problem of cheating on school tests and focused on how to catch teachers who helped their kids cheat (which in itself is quite a concept) in order to make their own performance seem better. Among the things they looked for was rooms where children suddenly jumped ahead in their marks one year then reverted back to previous low grades after moving to another class. Most controversially, they put forth the idea that the biggest reason for a sharp drop in violent crime rates in the ’90s wasn’t cities hiring more police, getting them involved more in community events nor tougher jail sentences for criminals but the Roe vs Wade decision in the ’70s which made abortion legal and comparatively easy to access. They hypothesize that many abortions, if not performed, would have led to babies being born to women who already knew they wouldn’t be good parents… drug addicts, ones who hate kids, ones living risky lifestyles etc. In turn these kids wouldn’t be given good supervision or role models and would be likelier to turn to crime at a young age.

Whether you agree with their assumptions or not, they were thought-provoking and interesting, and a great way to start a lively debate at a dull dinner party. When to Rob a Bank is similar but was essentially a compilation of short blogs and articles the pair had written, resulting in a book with far more stories but less in-depth looks at the topics. They tackle things like are doctors over-stating the risks of being overweight, if gun bans actually work, why the U.S. keeps making pennies that cost more than a cent to produce, how the Endangered Species act might work against the interests of the rare animals it’s supposed to protect, and improving your odds in poker. Apparently both writers are avid poker players and they devote an entire chapter to posts on improving your game by logic and math. I think, I must admit I, being a person who plays cards very rarely, got a bit bored with those stories and skipped over many of them. Now, I will say that I didn’t agree with all their assertions or premises, but I did find myself questioning conventional wisdom and at times, my own beliefs. Which is never a bad thing. Questioning those will lead to one of two likely outcomes – finding you were probably wrong, and thus being a bit wiser , or reinforcing one’s existing beliefs. Seems like either is a desirable occurrence and something encouraged by the best teachers, clergymen and even politicians. Beware those who claim to have all the answers and not to question them is my philosophy.

Levitt and Dubner are similar in their writing to another author I like and respect, Malcolm Gladwell. They take problems and dull studies and find ways to make them interesting and relevant to the masses. They also seemed to create a new niche in the publishing industry, books about intellectual topics geared to ordinary people. People who make us think and keep our interest in doing so. I’m thankful for them!

By the way, their book title, When to Rob a Bank? They say “never”. The risk of a person being caught is great and the “haul” most get far smaller than most people imagine.

The More Things Change…

Things have changed a lot in my lifetime, so imagine how much things have changed in the last hundred years. Turns out, for all the computers, internet, rap music, women’s lib and online porn of our time, the answer just might be “not as much as you’d expect.” Or at least that was my takeaway from my most recent read, Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells. It was a book I picked up at a dollar store recently, a compilation of articles from Vanity Fair magazine in the early-20th Century.

Vanity Fair at the time seemed to be one of several eclectic magazines which published serious articles, short stories, poetry and I believe photography, though that aspect was missing from the paperback. The book presents a selection of all of the above that were published between 1914 – 1936. As such it gives an interesting time capsule look back from the time of my grandparents. It features some big names, before they were big names – the first published works by Dorothy Parker, essays from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. Cocteau can be found in the pages within as well as DH Lawrence, pondering “Do Women Change?”. Of course the current events dictate a fair bit of the content – Leacock ponders somberly on the human cost of World War I (to them, just “the Great War”) ; several stories chronicle the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression.

Now, I will say that humorous senses were a little different back then. Some of the articles clearly meant to be laugh-enducing satires like Pooh-creator AA Milne’s “Autobiography” left me bored and a bit weary rather than rolling on the floor guffawing. Likewise Dorothy Parker’s series of poems (“Actresses – A Hate Song”, “Our Office – A Hate Song”) and her short story about why she chose to remain single left me thinking she was a great * cranky self-centered person who might possibly rhyme with ‘witch’ * rather than a tremendous wit. But for all that, the one thing which stood out to me was how seemingly current some of the topics were a hundred years later.

In our age of the War on Drugs, British poet Arthur Symons ruminated on the effects of hash and opium on one’s senses. Several stories looked at how to get around prohibition when alcohol was taboo. Those who figure that “Women’s Lib” started with the Pill and burning bras in the ’60s might be surprised to read the Anne O’Hagan story from 1915 entitled “New York Women Who Earn $50 000 A Year”, a description of the many women she knew making that amount or more annually (in excess of half a million dollars in our money) stressing how women don’t have to rely upon men for their keep. And of course, there’s fashion. Sure, women in 1920 didn’t dress precisely like today’s gal-on-the-go, but the changing fashions and in particular the length of skirts was an issue as far back as 1923 – the writer liked the short skirts (which one might guess would be quite modest by today’s standards) – “what the feller in the streets wants is legs” he comments, but he noted how the industry seemed to change the in vogue style from year to year forcing ladies to buy more clothes. Sound familiar?

Likewise, the Wall Street crash led several of their writers to question the wisdom of the “system”, noting among other things bankers always make themselves rich even when their firms bankrupt the masses and how those playing the stock market who get rich point to their acumen and intelligence while those who went broke blame “bad luck.” Not unlike columns we would have read only a dozen years back. Another man tells the story of being an Afghan fitting into American society, something he accomplished but with a stumbling block or two along the way.

Of course a few things are different. There are articles about the wonder of the new form of entertainment known as “moving pictures” and a long essay on that new kids fad, Jazz music, “the only distinct and original idiom (Americans) have”. Even there though, one imagines a twenty-something kid from the city today might write a similar piece about Rap.

I didn’t find the book to be all that entertaining, yet I did read through it though with interest. It presented a good look at life a century back and left me thinking “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In today’s climate, I can’t make up my mind as to whether that is comforting or terrifying.

The Beatles From An In-house Observer

I love music and love reading, so no surprise that I love well-written books about the music that I like. I just finished one such volume – The Beatles From A To Zed , by Peter Asher (and yes, he makes a point of it being “zed” since they’re British!). It seems it was written as a companion or erstwhile script to a satellite radio show he has, thus it reads rather conversationally but it’s fully enjoyable as a standalone book.

Asher, as many fans of the Fab Four know, was a musician that knew the Beatles when they were just starting out. His sister dated Paul McCartney for several years and in fact, Paul even boarded at Asher’s house for awhile while young. McCartney wrote “A World Without Love” which John Lennon didn’t like so he offered it to Asher, who recorded it as part of the duo Peter and Gordon. He kept in touch with Paul and the others, joined Apple Records as a talent scout and producer and eventually moved to the States to spearhead James Taylor and then Linda Ronstadt’s careers. So he has a lot of interesting stories to tell about the Beatles and the music world of the ’60s and ’70s in general, and relates some of them in the book, including quite an in-depth look at how “A World Without Love” came together and how in awe of Paul’s writing abilities he was as he seemingly came up with a bridge and fixed the chorus spontaneously when he knew his friend wanted to record it.

Anyway, the book is set out, as you might guess, in 26 chapters, one for each letter. For each he looks at songs which start with the letter in question, or other things related to the Beatles (for example, a section on “oboes” for the letter “O”); in most cases picking a Beatles one as well as one from each of the four post-Fab Four. Of course, some letters are more challenging than others… for “U” for example, he substitutes the word “You”, and for “X” he looks at “ex-Beatles” like Pete Best. Along the way he talks about everything from hearing “Hey Jude” for the first time to impressing friends by playing “Help” to them before it was officially released to watching TV evangelists on late-night stations in the U.S., and how that actually inspired a #1 hit. He points out he’s not an expert in either the Beatles nor music, so most of his choices are personal recollections or opinions – which songs he likes the best and why – although, as a musician, he does give some pretty detailed explanations on some things musicians will love. How the pairs of strings are tuned differently on a Rickenabacher 12-string guitar; the rapid-fire time signature changes in “Here Comes the Sun” for instance. But more of the content is his memories of hanging out with Paul (and the others to some extent) and his own reactions to hearing some of the great music for the first time.

It’s a light read but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It left me with an added appreciation for all four of the Liverpool lads and a yearning to go listen to some of their records all over again.

I give it 3.5 Yellow Submarines out of five.

Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.

Imogen Developed Good Book For Poor Photographers…

Poor as in “not rich”, although a poor as in “not good” photographer might benefit as well!

I’ve been reading a rather lengthy book of late, so we’ve not had any book reviews here for a bit. But in the last couple of weeks, I did squeeze in an interesting, albeit specialized book, Photo Hacks, by Mark Wilkinson and Imogen Dyer. The book would be of interest to people interested in photography; if that’s not you, there’s little point in even trying to remember the name.

Dyer is a young British gal who years ago started a YouTube channel, originally it would seem to basically document her life, like so many… so very many… others who figure their lives are enthralling to people far and wide. But over time, the attractive woman who did some modeling, did more and more of her videos about her modeling. Generally they were with photographer Wilkinson. In time the channel and website that followed became a photography hub, dealing far more with photo shoots and techniques than what teas Imogen liked or her shampoos of choice. A couple of other cute and personable models, Emma and Caitlyn, got involved and Weekly Imogen came to have thousands of subscribers and make something of a star out of photographer Mark. And deliver a steady dose of the best,worst “dad jokes” you’ve ever heard.

So when they decided to venture into publishing, their paperback Photo Hacks caught my eye. It’s much more a “how to” than a gallery-style coffee table book and the thing which makes it really stand out to me is that it is all about tips for making your photography better on a budget. Anyone with a bit of knowledge and a lot of cash … a lot … can get great photo equipment like macro lenses that will focus down to an inch (for instance, a Canon 85mm f1.4L lens would be nice gift for your dearest photographer… at $1599 in most large NYC shops), or rent you great professionally lit studios. Getting similar results with little money is a challenge, and the pair rise to that challenge in the book. It gives you page after page of idea for adding to your photo repetoire spending very little money. Some are obvious – use bed sheets for backdrops, use windows for a nice side lighting for portraits – others are far from. A cut-up cardboard box and aluminum foil to make a pro-quality lightbox? Paper plates to diffuse lights? An old Pringles chip tube for close-up shots? Genius. It also gives you some basic tips on finding good, free locales for photo shoots, how to prepare so one can work quickly and a range of other things useful for a learning photographer. While most of the tips are for those using SLRs, many could be adapted for use with any old digital camera or even your camera phone.

Once again, this is a book which would only interest you if you are at least a somewhat serious photographer. But if that’s you, and especially if that’s you and you’re without the bank account of an Annie Leibovitz, this book is highly recommended, and quite entertaining. I got my copy fairly cheaply online, but as it is British, you’ll probably need to find it that way if you’re here in the land where people selling things on their front lawn are having “yard sales” not “ boot fairs”.