From the Vine

Latest picks from Amazon Vine:

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

A mystery set in the time of the Borgias: "Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci come together to unmask an enigmatic serial killer."

I'm pretty sure this is the episode that inspired Machiavelli to coin the phrase: Let the good times roll. That Leonardo, he really knew how to be in the right place at the right time.

My Samsung Galaxy Tab By Eric Butow, Lonzell Watson  

Yes, the book on how to use it is bigger than the tablet itself. Maybe that's a good thing - it's SO powerful and versatile it takes an encyclopedia! I've had my Galaxy for a year but there are still things that I'm probably doing the hard way. 

The Redgraves: A Family Epic by Donald Spoto

I foresee "The Redgraves: The Movie" in the offing. No matter. Donald Spoto is the one that claims Laurence Olivier had an affair with Danny Kaye so the gossip should flow like water. Preferably including juicy tidbits about Timothy Dalton and the family's reaction to Lynn's portrayal of The Happy Hooker. 

I Say, Would You Shut Up Already?

One of the enjoyments of a mystery series is meeting familiar characters. Sometimes they evolve over time, sometimes its all about how they don't change. Jill Paton Walsh stays very close to the spirit and the form of the Dorothy L. Sayers characters in The Attenbury Emeralds. Perhaps too close.

I read Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series when I was a teenager enthralled by Golden Age mysteries. Sayers' mysteries were always less whodunit than howdunit. How did the one of the small group of suspects (the guilty one being easy enough to guess for any self-respecting mystery fan) manage to commit the crime? Another notable aspect of the series was the reliance on dialogue. The books read more like plays with very little non-spoken exposition which means that characters have to deliver often tremendous amounts of background information in the guise of witty repartee. It can get on your nerves.

What can really get on your nerves is Lord Peter himself. If you didn't like the original series you won't like this book. Sure Lord Peter is married with children now but that's never been a very convincing arrangement. Anyone who read the first Wimsey books would be forgiven for assuming that the monocled son of a duke was Out, Loud and Proud. (He still seems better paired with the loyal Bunter but I guess Harriet is a bit masculine so I'll play along.) Walsh tries to update the series by referencing the changes in society - they don't eat in the formal dining room now! - which is fine in small doses.

But she takes is too far. How far? Somewhere around page 80 Walsh blithely mentions that sometimes Bunter the butler and wife sometimes sit down to dinner with the Wimsey family. I'd sooner believe that Harriet and Peter were committed Maoists.

The story is a bit blah. Starting out by having Peter recount his famous first case might not be a bad idea but its told in dialogue form with Harriet making witty comments and Bunter chiming in lugubriously to add an important detail and Peter losing the thread in his usual slapdash way.

It made me want to smack them. Yack, yack, yack. By page 40 I was praying for a murder. By page 50 I was willing to settle for the delayed detonation of a World War 2 bomb somehow left unnoticed in the Wimsey living room. Instead they went for a stroll to look at flowers while Peter kept telling the story and no one emerged to drown them in the Serpentine. There is eventually a murder which let's Peter and Harriet do their stuff: solve the murder while bouncing bon mots back and forth. The Wimsey family encounters a few significant developments, too, which does surprisingly little to dampen the witty repartee.

In summary, I didn't enjoy this book. Walsh is a talented writer but Lord Peter is best left in the inter-war years where class consciousness explains why no one throttles him and everyone can pretend that he isn't as gay as a spring day. If you're a huge fan of the Wimsey series this book might be for you. If you've never read any of Sayers' books then read a sample chapter first. Without the back story this might be an enjoyable mystery.

Censor the narrator

David Bianculli's love for the Smothers' Brothers Comedy Hour fuels Dangerously Funny so it's no surprise that this a 400 page admiration of the 1960s variety show rather than a critical assessment or a dispassionate history of the show. You'll find a mini biography of Dick and Tom, details about specific shows, and play-by-plays of the shows battles with the CBS censors.

Tommy Smothers emerges as a canny businessman and spotter of talent, committed to his beliefs but also surprisingly driven to propel small disagreements with his bosses into scorched earth battles. Those battles have become part of TV lore. Bianculli's research shows that CBS's censors weren't part of a well-oiled machine trouncing any hint of expressed opinion contrary to the network's own. The censors come across as behind the times and behind the eight ball on most occasions, playing catch up to avoid angering the affiliates. Unfortunately Bianculli doesn't present any information directly from the affiliates, who seem to the be ones who had the biggest problems with what the Smothers' Brothers were putting on screen.

What was on screen combined old-fashioned showbiz stalwarts like George Burns and Bette Davis mixing with the likes of Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Donovan and the Who. Some of it sounds hilarious  (the Honey House, dedicated to the dead wife from the Bobby Goldsboro hit), some of it ground (and guitar) breaking, some of it woefully dated (Tea with Goldie) and quite a bit involved the bane of my existence, folk music. But that's the challenge of variety shows, not everything scores. The mix of old and new was both the strength of the show and a source of discomfort - viewers who watched for Bette also saw Pete Seeger and were, or the network feared would be, offended.

This is an interesting story and Bianculli tells it well. I wished he'd spent more time exploring why Tom Smothers felt the need to fight CBS over the small stuff rather than save his chits for the bigger battles. It became clear, to me at least, that CBS ultimately fired the Smothers Brothers for being more trouble than their ratings were worth but why Smothers maneuvered himself into a corner where CBS felt it had to fire them to save face it still a mystery.

Prior to reading this book I'd never seen a full episode of the show for various reasons: it was before my time, variety shows frighten me and self-congratulatory Baby Boomerism makes me nauseas. I had heard about the show, mostly in the context of the censorship battles and it being canceled for allegedly nefarious reasons. It's a tribute to Bianculli's infectious enthusiasm for the show that after finishing this book I went in search of episodes to see it for myself. I still think Mason Williams' Classical Gas is more gaseous than "a gas!" and I'd still rather redo the grout in the guest bathroom than have to watch Harry Belafonte or Peter, Paul and Mary. Bianculli's a good writer, not a miracle worker.

I also take issue with Bianculli's contention that nothing on TV has tackled on since the Smothers' Brothers lost their gig, other than David Kelly's Boston Legal. Everything from Chappelle's Show to Law & Order have tackled tough topics in prime time; even Saturday Night Live manages something trenchant once in a while.

A word about the audiobook version. The narrator, Johnny Heller, and the producer of this production should be sentenced to hard time. Heller is fine reading the straight passages but for some reason known only to him, the producer and I presume, Satan, he felt the need to provide an imitation of every single quotation from anyone even the slightest degree of fame. And not a particularly good imitation. It's ok when Heller is imitating Tommy Smothers' halting stage delivery, I guess that helps the listener get the joke. A lame LBJ imitation doesn't help sell the meaning of "I will not seek my party's nomination" and there is absolutely no occasion that calls for an imitation of Harry Belafonte or David Steinberg's speaking voices. None. By chapter five, every time a quote seemed in the offing I cringed in  anticipation of another embarrassing impression by Mr. Heller.