Tuesday, December 11, 2007


As is so frequently the case, I'm about halfway (or a little past halfway) through several books right now, including The Iliad, Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, and William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire. I've been slow to crunch through all of those because I've been reading mainstream fiction lately, too - a couple/three books by Harlan Coben (subject of a fascinating Atlantic profile a few months back), and Michael Crichton's Next. The latter intrigued me more than I thought it would. Crichton's prose is...well, to call it "serviceable" would be over-generous. It's crude, so much so that I found myself re-writing it in my head as I went. The book's structure is initially episodic, only congealing into a single narrative thread in its final quarter, and I had the feeling he was aiming for Burroughsian fracturing รก la Naked Lunch - a series of incidents that make a larger point - but eventually it became just another techno-thriller, albeit one soaked in nerdy irony. Gawrsh, you mean DNA mapping technology could be used to venal ends by the creatively unscrupulous? Wowzers!

Anyway, this weekend, I grabbed up another book I figured I could pound through quickly - Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, a well-reviewed memoir of his early life and stand-up career. It's a short 200 pages or so, and Martin's style is clear and concise. Only a few lines seem like he thought they were funnier than they are, in the manner of his New Yorker essays. When he sticks to fairly straight storytelling, it's fascinating, and when he talks in relative depth about the carefully considered development of his stand-up style, it becomes very much worth the purchase price.

I should be clear: I don't find Steve Martin funny very often, and the only bit of "serious" acting he's ever done that I liked was his role in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. The less said about stuff like The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Grand Canyon, never mind Parenthood or the Father Of The Bride movies, the better. But I greatly enjoy showbiz pros talking about the effort that goes into the generation of what seems effortless onstage. I love Penn and Teller and Ricky Jay for doing this for magic and sleight of hand, and in Born Standing Up, Martin puts his own comedy under the microscope, explaining how and why he arrived at the persona and style he rode to great success in the 1970s. There's very little repetition of actual jokes he performed - this isn't one of those comedians' books that consist of a transcription of the stage act. It's not a comedy book. It's a book about comedy, and a comedian's life. So if that interests you, by all means check this book out.

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