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Thoughts on “Salvation Boulevard” by the Amazing Larry Beinhart

Salvation Boulevard

Salvation Boulevard

For some time now, I have been an evangelist for Larry Beinhart.  I’ve walked into bookstores to introduce myself, and wound up pitching his books.  The conversation usually starts on the subject of political satire and who actually writes them anymore.  Christopher Buckley’s name is usually mentioned, and then I say something like, “but, who I really like is Larry Beinhart,” which is grammatically incorrect but conveys my message.  If the bookseller is young or inexperienced, the response is usually: “Who is he?”

If you’ve heard about Larry Beinhart, it’s probably because he wrote the novel American Hero, which served as inspiration for the film Wag the Dog (one of the few modern political satires with which most people seem to be familiar).  Beinhart started his career writing mystery novels, and his 1996 guide to the genre entitled How to Write a Mystery, is a useful and highly readable book.

His more recent novels, American Hero, The Librarian, and now Salvation Boulevard mix politics and elements of mystery, borrowing heavily from mystery’s close cousin: the film noir.  These books feature detective-type characters going up against powerful, sinister, and shadowy organizations.  There are conspiracies to uncover and femme fatales to complicate the journey.  Beinhart sets these dark dangerous tales in worlds of political and moral upheaval, using plots ripped from the newspaper stories that never made the front page, the articles you probably didn’t bother to read but should have.

Beinhart is a champion of these lost newspaper stories, and has also written a wonderful non-fiction book on what he calls “fog facts”: facts that are out in the public record but invisible to most of us, like water droplets on a foggy day (Example: Al Gore actually did win more votes than Bush in Florida).   Beinhart has an uncanny ability to get to the crux of a complicated political issue and explain it in a way that strips away all pretense and spin.  In Fog Facts and his editorializing on the Huffington Post, Beinhart is an illuminator and provocateur.

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Thoughts on “Supreme Courtship” by Christopher Buckley

Supreme Courtship

Political satire is a small genre in the book world: so small, in fact, that when most readers are asked to identify a modern practitioner of this dark art, they are hard pressed to come up with a single name, save that of today’s subject: Christopher Buckley.  Mr. Buckley is the author of such works as No Way To Treat A First Lady, Florence Of Arabia, and Thank You For Smoking, and he made headlines this fall for his endorsement of Barack Obama for president (a move that led to his resignation from his columnist post at the National Review).

His latest novel, Supreme Courtship, is an enjoyable read. It will not rock your world, lead you to new heights of ecstasy, or force you to reexamine your view of modern American democracy. To be fair, I don’t think its intentions are so lofty. It will, however, take you on a pleasant journey through a wacky-yet-familiar version of our country, one in which a folksy TV judge becomes the newest Supreme Court Justice and a renegade Congress changes the Constitution to prevent the re-election of an unpopular President.

Without a doubt, the most rewarding element of Supreme Courtship is the character of Pepper Cartwright, the straight-talkin’ wise-crackin’ TV judge who is nominated to a post well beyond her expertise. Released on the heels of Sarah “You Betcha” Palin’s VP nomination, the character of Pepper seems fresh and prescient.

In interviews and in person, Mr. Buckley comes across as a witty jovial chap, and, indeed, this is a witty jovial book. While I confess I only laughed out loud a few times, I did enjoy myself for the entire ride.  The book does not thrill, but it is good fun, something we all need at this time of year.  Is it hard to put down?  Not exactly.  But Supreme Courtship is very pleasant to pick up, and it is a political novel that can be enjoyed by readers on both sides of the aisle.

Thoughts on “The Book of Lies,” (or: How Brad Meltzer kept the Folmans up past their bedtimes)

Book of Lies

Brad Meltzer is the man.  I say this not only because he gave me an amazing blurb for my book.  I say it not only because he’s a terribly nice guy in person.  I’m saying it because the he has skillz (yes, the kind with a “z”).  Brad Meltzer knows how to tell a good story.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard the pitch for The Book of Lies. It was something about how the Biblical murder of Abel was connected to the 1932 murder of Mitchell Siegel, father of the boy who would grow up to create the comic book hero Superman.  Weird premise.  Was thriller writer Meltzer about to take an avant garde detour with this one?  Was this going to be The Hours for comic book geeks?  A misguided time travelling tapestry of nerdiness and religious revisionism?  I cracked open my limited edition autographed Book Expo galley with a mixture of fear and excitement.

And then, I never closed it.

My fears were quickly allayed once I realized the book was set in present day.  Yes there was the background religious/historical mystery about Cain and Abel, Mitchell Siegel, and undiscovered murder weapons.  But at its heart, Book of Lies is really just a MacGuffin story — and a darn good one at that.  What is a MacGuffin, you ask?  “MacGuffin” is a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a mysterious thing that everybody wants.  It is the Maltese Falcon, the secret plans, the magical ring, the stolen breifcase, the Holy Grail, or, for that matter, the thing Indiana Jones tries to steal from the bad guys in every movie.  It doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is, so much as it matters that everyone wants it, that heroes and villains will kill each other to get it.  The MacGuffin is one of the oldest and most reliable plot devices around (to read more about MacGuffins, click here).

In Meltzer’s novel, the eponymous Book of Lies is the MacGuffin.  Does it really matter what the Book of Lies is?  Not really.  But it’s a lot of fun to see who’s going to chase it down first.  The guy we’re rooting for is protagonist Cal Harper, a down-on-his-luck former customs agent.  Cal gets swept up in the action when his long-lost father is shot with a gun that traces back to Mitchell Siegel’s 1932 murder.  There are some father/son issues in the book, some “who do you trust” drama, some mysterious bad guys, a little philosophizing, and some interesting Superman stuff.  I’ll let you decide whether all these elements work for you or not.  For me, they did — at least most of the time.  But what kept me turning pages was the chase.

Simply put: the book is hard to put down.  My wife and I both lost a fair amount of sleep reading it.  You will too.  It may remind you of The DaVinci Code, another MacGuffin story, in terms of pace and structure, but it’s written with a sense of humor that DaVinci lacks.

It’s a fun read.  And addictive.  Definitely addictive.  So, check it out, folks.  And read at your own risk.

The perfectest holiday gift

Do you know what the perfect gift is for these troubled times? Yes, dear readers, tis a book. The publishing industry is hurting this holiday season, and it needs your business. But more than that, books really do make wonderful, inexpensive, and personal gifts. While I would recommend THE SCANDAL PLAN as an ideal stocking stuffer myself, your local bookstore has a plethora of other options. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on some of the books I’ve read recently in case you want to add any of those to your list. For now, I’ll leave you doubters with the following list I found which explains why a book is the gift that cannot be beat:

* It comes fully charged
* Costs less than a bottle of champagne (the real stuff)
* You can buy at least 10 hardcover books for the price of one iPhone
* Costs less than a movie (with popcorn)
* Around the same price as a DVD, but the experience lasts much longer
* It can change someone’s life
* It can make someone laugh
* Batteries are not required
* It’s a thoughtful gift
* A personal gift
* One-stop shopping-your bookstore has the right gift for everyone on your list
* It weighs much less than a fruitcake
* It’s more original than a tie or a sweater
* It’s a gift of escape, fun, romance, adventure
* It’s easy to find
* It’s easy to wrap
* And you can never have too many

(one slight disclaimer to any of my relatives who might be reading this: I will be in hot water with my wife if I try to bring any more books into our over-crowded apartment, so perhaps this isn’t the best gift for me this year. For other people, however, it’s a perfect gift. I certainly plan on giving a few book gifts myself this year.)

Initial Reaction to Presidential Debate #3

Best debate yet.  Bob Schieffer rocks me. Incidentally, if you ever happen to be driving across the country and are looking for a good book on tape, I highly recommend Schieffer’s memoir, This Just In : What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV.  Schieffer has been in the trenches, reporting on many of the biggest stories of the last forty years, and he has lots of juicy stories to tell.

Barack got a slow start again tonight, but finished strong.  He was evasive during the question about Joe Plumber’s taxes, and McCain scored big points there.  In debate #3, John McCain finally managed to sustain a consistent message for the duration of the evening.  It certainly wasn’t original, but McCain’s classic “this liberal will spend all your money” attack was hammered home repeatedly throughout the 90 minutes with some success.  McCain may have gained a little ground tonight, though I doubt he gained much.

Obama started to come alive again once the question of negative campaigning was raised. Here he found his footing, and from this point on, the debate was all his. McCain seemed petulant, angry, cranky, and downright curmudgeonly, while Obama was Mr. Cool: eloquent, reasonable, and thoughtful.  Every attack of McCain’s after that first 30 minutes was effectively defused by Obama, while many of Obama’s attacks were rebutted with less skill.  Obama continued to be effective at addressing his answers to the middle class, looking deep into the camera’s eye, and oozing presidentiality.

I continue to be amazed by McCain’s obvious contempt for Obama.  He so clearly hates him with every fiber of his being.  At this point, I find myself watching and just wondering when John McCain’s head is going to spontaneously explode.  The Arizona senator has one of the world’s worst poker faces.  My wife has a better poker face, and trust me, you would love to play poker with my wife.  (On a side note, I’ve just realized that, as a married man, I can now tell “my wife” jokes.  Oh, I know someone in the next room who is going to be thrilled to find this out!)

On the whole, another fun night for us political junkies.  To put this in CNN speak: a red-meat night, all about Main Street, but no game-changers.  Ah, CNN, how I tire of thee …  And yet I continue to watch.

More soon, my friends