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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ben Mezrich at Bryant Park

Authors AJ JAcobs and Ben Mezrich at Bryant Park
One of the most interesting things to do in summer in NYC is the Word for Word Author Series at Bryant Park. Every Wednesday from 12:30pm- 1:45, authors are interviewed and discuss their latest books. It's a beautiful setting, under shady trees, with people eating their lunches; it's just wonderful.

On July 13, AJ Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, interviewed Ben Mezrich, author of Accidental Billionaires, the book on which the smash movie The Social Network was based, and Bringing Down the House, the basis for the movie 21. 

Mezrich's newest book is Sex on the Moon which has been cleverly called "the Right Stuff Meets Catch Me if You Can". It's about a young man accepted into a NASA co-op program who ended up stealing a safe filled with moon rocks as a sign of love for his girlfriend. He was caught when he tried to sell them on the Internet, and spent seven and a half years in prison.

Jacobs said that Mezrich's genre is "the business thriller with a little bit of sex". Mezrich laughed as he recalled trying to talk Jacobs into helping him steal the C-Span bus. Mezrich talked about his somewhat checkered beginning: a movie script based on one of his earlier novels that ended up an Antonio Sabato Jr. movie on the SyFy network, a script for the X-Files TV series, and "a lot of trash".

Then he met the MIT students in a bar, who told him their story about how they could beat the house in blackjack. That became Bringing Down the House, and to this day, he still hangs out with those guys.

From that book, Eduardo Saverin emailed Mezrich because he was angry about Mark Zuckerberg cutting him out of Facebook, which he claimed they founded together. That discussion led to The Accidental Billionaires.

Mezrich called the Winklevoss brothers, (the brothers who sued Zuckerberg over Facebook, and whom Mezrich referred to as 'the Winklevii') "two of the greatest characters in history", and said that "when you meet them, you want hate them, but they are the nicest guys."

Saverin settled his suit against Zuckerberg, and one of the conditions of the settlement was that Saverin never speaks to Mezrich again. Saverin sent Mezrich a restraining order the next day. Mezrich said that he has never met Zuckerberg, but he would like to, and thinks that it may happen.

Mezrich also said that he thought the movie The Social Network was an accurate representation, and that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who won an Academy Award for his script) did "a wonderful job".

Onto his newest book, Mezrich calls Thad, the main character on the story, "charismatic, extremely smart, likable and very complex". He called him "the first geeky guy I wrote about who got laid", and "my most romantic character".

Thad saw The Social Network movie, and contacted Mezrich about his story. Mezrich said that he had a special dedicated phone line (like the Batphone?) installed so that people could contact him with their stories. He says that he gets 20 phone calls/emails a week; some legitimate, some not.

Mezrich said that Thad still wants to be the first man on Mars. He called Thad "a good kid who's gotta control his impulses." The girl Thad stole the rocks for didn't want to talk to Mezrich; she is a professor now and she did no jail time and dumped Thad while he was in prison. Mezrich was a bit conflicted about putting her in the book; he changed her name and said that he would "feel bad if it does something to her life, but the story needs to be told."

There is some controversy about the manner in which Mezrich writes his books. He recreates dialogue, but states that in a disclaimer in the beginning of the book. Jacobs was asked how he felt about that, and he started that he thought it was fine, as long as there is a disclaimer.

Jacobs said at the beginning that Mezrich talks very fast, and he certainly does. They got out a lot of information in the one hour talk, too much for me to write up here. I started reading the book, and it's good so far. Thad is a Mormon, and that may help, since Mormons are a hot topic, what with the HBO show, Big Love, and the Broadway smash hit The Book of Mormon.  It can't hurt.

I'll post a review when I finish.

There are a few more weeks left in the Word for Word Series; if you have the opportunity, check it out.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trance of Insignificance

Trance of Insignificance by Jennifer Rainville
Published by Rainville Books ISBN 978-0-615-46039-0
Trade paperback $16, 230 pages
Jennifer Rainville worked for fifteen years in politics and broadcast journalism, as an aide in the Clinton White House and a local TV news reporter. So it is no surprise that the protagonist of her debut novel, Trance of Insignificance, Jules Duvil, works as a TV reporter for a local New York news channel.

Jules becomes romantically involved with the handsome news anchor, Jack Culligan shortly after beginning her new job, on September 11, 2001. She jumped in with both feet on that fateful day, making a good impression on her boss and quickly learning the news business on a sink-or-swim day. I would have liked to have seen more detail of what Jules saw and did that day, a seminal day for anyone working in news in New York City.

Her romance with Jack is a stormy one; he has problems with monogamy and alcohol. The story jumps forward as Jules is married to nice guy Noah, but Jack's attempts to reinsert himself in Jules' life causes problems in her marriage.

The most interesting part of the novel occurs when Jules returns to her home in South Boston for her estranged father's funeral. This part of the story felt very authentic, as Jules struggles with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother and brother. Jules left Boston as soon as she was able, to escape her past and begin a new life, far away from her dysfunctional family.

Jules tries to hide her past, but her mother-in-law tells her that
"you may think from where you sit that your childhood was a burden. I'm telling you, it was a blessing. It gave you tools and a deep understanding of how to navigate this world. You can't teach that. The only way to learn it, is to go through it."
The book has a little Sex and the City feel to it; Jules spends time with her girlfriends, and there is a lot of label-dropping and fashion and relationship talk among them. There are also many New York geographical references- city dwellers will recognize the hotels, restaurants, streets, and landmarks mentioned throughout the book.

Jules leaves news gathering and ends up working as a public relations advisor, with one of her clients being the mayor of New York, a friend of hers. There is the beginning of an interesting scandal there, but that is not explored much before the end of the book.

Jules also writes a novel, a roman-a-clef about her time at the news station and her affair with Jack. The end of the novel has Jules torn between her husband, Jack and maybe a new man, one better suited to her.

The character of Jules is a complex one, one who makes some puzzling decisions. Those decisions made it difficult for me to identify with her, but I think many other readers will. I would say it's a good beachy-type read, with Jules' exploration of her past bringing it a notch above the standard Sex and the City-type books.

rating 3.5 of 5 stars

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Broadway at Bryant Park

Today began Broadway at Bryant Park, a summer series that offers free performances from Broadway and off-Broadway musicals every Thursday during July and August.

It's always a good time and this season's first show featured performances from Sister Act: The Musical, Baby, It's You, STOMP and an introduction from Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana.

I got a front row seat, but boy was it hot. I'm glad I picked up a bottle of Vitamin Water and the complimentary Bank of America fans were in heavy use by the audience.

The colorful characters from Zarkana wandered through the crowd 

The show began with performers from Baby, It's You, a jukebox musical about the life of Florence Greenberg, the founder of the Shirelles girl group. I saw that show and enjoyed it; my review is here. The "Shirelles" sang a medley of hits including Soldier Boy and Mama Said.

Next up, the wonderful Geno Henderson as "Curtis Jackson" sang You're So Fine, the group ended with a rousing rendition of Rockin' Robin that had the crowd clapping.

The guys and gals from STOMP always put on a fabulous show, and this year was no different. They really get the audience involved, and when they bring out a little guy banging on a mini garbage can, the crowd loves it.

Sister Act  closed out the show with the gangster's henchmen (Caesar Samayoa, John Treacy Egan, and Desmond Green) singing their humorous song, Haven't Got a Prayer. 

Next up, "Delores VanCartier" and the girls sang I'm Fabulous.  I was bummed that Tony nominated Patina Miller did not perform as Delores, but understudy Rashidra Scott really belted it out.

The last song was the showstopper, Take Me to Heaven, sung by Delores and the nuns. I saw Sister Act with my husband, brother-in-law and his wife and we all loved it. The music has a lot of 70's Motown and disco style songs and if you are in NYC, it's a good show that all will enjoy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Seal Team Six

SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper by Howard E. Wasdin & Stephen Templin
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 978-0312699451
Hardcover 328 pages, $26.99

SEAL Team Six made headlines recently when they killed the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan. Everyone wanted to know more about this elite team of the miltary's best men, and luckily former team member Howard E. Wasdin, along with Stephen Templin, had written SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper.

The book succeeds because it shares Wasdin's personal story, from his difficult childhood with a stepfather who beat him frequently to his success as a sniper, moving quickly up the ranks in the Navy SEALs. Wasdin tells the story of his stepfather forcing him to pick up all the pecans that fell to the ground from a tree in their yard. If his stepfather came home and found just one pecan on the ground, Wasdin would be beaten. (Never mind that the pecan could have fallen just before he came home.)

From this, Wasdin learned to be thorough and that no excuses would be sufficient. He believes that this upbringing helped prepare him for the rigors and challenges of Navy and SEAL training. This insight brought to mind Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle. She had a difficult upbringing with parents who did not know how to raise children, yet she survived and became successful in spite of the way she was raised. The resilience of the human spirit always amazes me.

Wasdin brings the reader right into the middle of his training, which is fascinating. The trials that these men undergo is unbelievable, and many do not make it through. His story of medical training on goats under simulated battle conditions was incredible.

During his time with the SEALS, Wasdin served in Iraq during Desert Storm. When 14 starving Iraqi soldiers surrendered to him and his partner, he had a revelation.
"They were human beings, just like me. I discovered my humanity and the humanity in others. It was a turing point for me- it was when I matured." 
Wasdin also served in Somalia, and was involved in the Battle of Mogadishu, which was made into the book and movie, Black Hawk Down. His description of his role in the pursuit of warlord Aidid and that battle are tense and made me hold my breath as I read it. Wasdin was seriously injured in that battle.

His most successful operation in Somalia involved saving a young boy. Next door to the house they were using as a secret base was a young boy who had stepped on a land mine and had a bad case of gangrene. The smell was awful and after being refused permission to help the boy and endangering their operation, Wasdin and his partner broke into the house next door, tied up the family, cleaned the boy's wound and gave him IV antibiotics.

They returned two more times to help the boy and save his life. The once frightened, now thankful, family offered them tea on their last visit. He could not let that boy suffer needlessly.

Seen from his perspective, Wasdin was very angry at the politics that he felt exacerbated the Somalia situation. He has some very harsh words for upper command and the Clinton administration. He believes that Aidid could have been captured, they had him sighted, but the plug was pulled.

Wasdin's words on Somalia echo our current situation in Afghanistan.
"We shouldn't have become involved in Somalia's civil war- this was their problem, not ours- but once we committed, we should've finished what we started ; a lesson we are required to keep relearning over and over again."
SEAL Team Six will appeal to many readers; those who like military books will appreciate the in-depth look at SEAL training, and those who like a more personal story will enjoy reading Wasdin's journey from small town Southern boy to Navy SEAL to badly injured soldier to the man he is today.

rating 4 of 5 stars