• Mercury Pictures Presents *** (of 4) by Anthony Marra

    Anthony Marra starts off well enough. His lead characters Art Feldman, a 1940s B-lot movie producer and his plucky assistant, an Italian immigrant named Maria Lagana, together make crummy movies on a tight budget. The movies are worth paying attention to because Art and Maria both have relatives trapped by Nazis and Fascists in Europe so they see it as their duty to call truth to power. They battle wartime censorship and American fascists (America First members) looking to shut down a Jewish filmmaker by making schlocky films about the hypocrisy of American propaganda.

    At its strongest, Marra captures the patois of an indomitable, snarky Jewish director with six toupees, each toupee bearing its own name, and the Italian banter of Maria’s three aunts who communicate only in insults. Listening to the dialogue is as joyful as watching an old black and white movie.

    Then Marra introduces Art Feldman’s twin brother, Maria’s father entrapped in Italy, the village of San Lorenzo in Italy and all its villagers, a Chinese American actor, German refugees seeking work in the film industry, an Italian policeman and his ambitious sidekick, a Senatorial hearing on acceptable film making, a German American architect working as a miniaturist in a film studio who is later called up by the U.S. Army to build a painstakingly accurate, life size depiction of Berlin in the middle of the Utah desert to be used as target practice, and rebuilt each time it is burned, a Black prisoner wrongfully convicted and sentenced to fifty years in jail, an on again, off again relationship between Maria and her mother, an archaeological dig, and rapacious stockholders anxious to promote profit over art upon Hollywood.

    Mercury Pictures Presents is one of those books reviewers refer to as a sprawling novel, and most reviewers loved Mercury Pictures Presents. Alas, sprawl overtakes Anthony Marra as he tries too hard to cover too much. His story of a B-level movie studio comes off as a B-level book.

  • Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)

    Escapist fiction about an outbreak of Burmese pythons from their confines in the Everglades to the poshest of all Florida communities, Palm Beach. The book opens when the POTUS PUSSIES (matronly donors to an unnamed, but very recently impeached President, nicknamed Mastodon, whose winter White House mansion is nearby), are hosting one of their innumerable garden-party charity balls: Is this week the IBS Foundation?

    Unfortunately, the bejeweled, but not very large President of the POTUSSIES, Kiki Pew Fitzgerald, having imbibed more than a recommended number of cocktails is swallowed by a Burmese Python near the backyard pool. More pythons appear where they shouldn’t, the President blames Kiki’s death on illegal immigrants, tweets inappropriate commentary, his bored wife, code-named Mockingbird, bangs her secret service agent while the President shacks up with a not very talented pole-dancer, and a feisty wildlife wrangler must sort it all out between jobs collecting errant raccoons and overpopulating mice.

  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    This is the second book in the series, meaning it is the second set of murders that need to be solved by the four septuagenarians of the Thursday Murder Club: Joyce, Ron, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth. It is no small feat to present old people with so much grace and humor even though you can just tell that the author periodically has to yell at his characters so they can hear him, wake them up from time to time, even when they insist they are just resting their eyes, and urge them to get to the points of their digression-filled stories.

    The mystery and suspense in Book #2 are even better than they were in the first as are the quibbles and unspoken affections on display amongst the four friends who, enjoying the fortune and suffering the misfortune of having outlived so many of their loved ones, are discovering they are one another’s newfound family. Suffice to say that gossip in the senior center’s dining hall over whether the new, young waitress, Poppy, would look better without her nose-ring is a great opening scene for a book that will involve spies, the mafia, local drug dealers, and more than a little shopping for something for my daughter, who never really tells me anything, but I’ll get this for her, anyway.

  • Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman *** (of 4)

    A lightweight, droll novel about an aging grandmother with a penchant for shoplifting, her beleaguered son who is sandwiched between gnarly teenaged children, an overachieving wife, and his mother’s continuing scrapes with law enforcement, and one teenaged daughter in particular whose rebelliousness is insatiable. Grandma’s British snarkiness carries the story along even when her exploits teeter into the unbelievable making for, as the Washington Post review described it, a pleasant story when you need an antidote to today’s daily trauma.

  • Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)

    The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD.  In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected.  The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky.  The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books.  The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful.  The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans.  Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.

  • Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya ** (of 4)

    Panic_in_a_SuitcaseIn the first half of the book, Pasha, an intentionally depressive poet, because without depression there can be no decent poetry, arrives from Odessa to spend a summer month in Coney Island with his Russian Jewish family.  Pasha trips on the sand at the beach, gets lost on the subway, but doesn’t seem to mind, argues with his sister, and is babied by his Mama.  Every character is funny and wonderful and this young author’s style is reminiscent of her Russian forebears, Chekhov and Tolstoy, in that there is infinite amount of talking and pondering while almost nothing of consequence happens.  There are even several laugh aloud moments, but by the time Part II rolls around, and the story turns to Frida, Pasha’s niece, the desire for a plot, or even anything resembling a plot, overrides lovely sentences and exquisitely rendered scenes of Russian immigrants lost between two worlds.  If you are the kind that loved War and Peace this will be a delicious little morsel.  On the other hand, if Russian novels feel a wee bit tedious, Panic might not be worth the effort.

  • Talk to the Snail by Stephen Clarke *** (of 5)

    snailIt’s a standard genre.  Expat, in this case British, lives in France long enough to write an irreverent, comic, snarky account of French mannerisms.  He describes how the French eschew rules, scrum instead of queue, adore denying service to anyone and everyone, are hopeless romantics (at least with their mistresses), work fewer hours on job than any employees in the world, and insist that nothing — not war nor peace — interrupt their daily break for a two hour lunch.  Unfortunately, Clarke is neither sufficiently funny or nasty enough to be completely compelling.  On the other hand, my French cousins say his accounting of French behavior is spot on making it a worthwhile book for anyone who has been to France.

  • You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty by Dave Barry *** (of 4)

    fortyA series of slightly augmented columns from Barry’s newspaper gig smashed together in a very funny book.  Barry muses on grammar, sex, grammar and sex, Justin Bieber, air travel, what women think about (see grammar), and what men think about (see sex).  Interestingly, there is one long piece in the book.  Barry describes his 10-day synagogue tour to the Holy Land.  Turns out visiting Israel was sufficiently moving that there wasn’t much to laugh about.  I forgive him and so do God and the Israelis.

  • Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billie Crystal *** (of 4)

    foolinBilly Crystal is turning 65 years old and writing his memoir.  It’s one-third stand-up (far and away the best part), one-third autobiography, and one-third Hollywood hokum.  Really, every famous name he drops is his best friend and a wonderful human being.  His life is interesting enough.  He’s a hard worker and a nice guy.  You can’t help but think he would be a really pleasant dinner guest.  It is his comedy, however, that makes the book worth reading, or better still, worth listening to.  Several chapters are read aloud before a live audience and his take on the trials of getting old, at least for us oldsters, is painfully accurate.  We have hands that look like chicken feet, balls that hang to our knees, and urinate in morse code, and more if only we could remember what it was we were talking about.  Also, if you are listening, his impersonations of Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell and other legends of the air that our children never heard of are delicious.

  • That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx *** (of 4)

    That Old Ace in the HoleProulx spins a tall Texas tale about a loner named Bob Dollar sent to the mythical panhandle town of Wooly Bucket.  His objective is to scout sites for an environmentally devastating pig farm for an international conglomerate called Global Pork Rind.  Proulx has done her research leading readers rather forcefully to despise corporate agriculture and lament the loss of the good old days.  She is at her best when she is pushing her farce as far as it will stretch, loosening up enough to become laugh aloud funny by the book’s end.  Her descriptions of land, history, people of the earth, climate, even the buzz of insects before a thunderstorm are spot on and make the book worth reading.  A few of her polemics drag.  She lets oil drillers and the farmers who ran the regional aquifer get off the hook, too, in her single minded focus to give hell to businesses that raise pork units in deadly tight quarters.  Read Proulx for her sense of place and character rather than for politics and plot.