“The Martins” by David Foenkinos Translated by Sam Taylor

Genre: Family/Comedy
Published:  France 2020  English translation 2022
Publisher: Gallic Books

Mini-ReviewThe Martins

A Parisian author trying to overcome his writer’s block decides to write a novel about the first person he sees outside his apartment: an elderly woman. She agrees to an interview, so long as she can put away her groceries first. Making his way into the life of the octogenarian and her family, he finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into their story, with unexpected consequences. At first, aiming to be a neutral observer, he finds himself helping his subject hunt down an old love on Facebook, interrogating a prospective boyfriend of her granddaughter, and otherwise doing the bidding of his would-be characters. Despite its wit and quirkiness, the novel boils down to everyday hopes and fears. Am I going to lose my job? Does my spouse still love me? Are my teenage children normal or future delinquents? It is fair to say that this is a story about art imitating life, while life is, imitates art. Though it can lag in places, Foenkinos provides an entertaining read that I recommend.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Italian Party” by Christina Lynch

Genre:          General FictionThe Italian Party
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:    March 20, 2018

Mini-Review

I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but it turns out that I did.  What I find so interesting, is that I never pay attention to book covers.  I know many do.  But, for once I did.  Since the cover of this book looks like a romance read (which I am not a fan of) I didn’t intend to read it.  However, one day when I was bookless I clicked it open, and lo and behold, I was won over.   This is a hilarious comedy about a young newly married American couple who move to Italy in the 1950s.  The book is a love letter to picturesque Italy.  You will be able to imagine the views and smell the aroma of the cuisine, while the author simultaneously pokes fun at Italian politics.   As for romance, that is not this genre but there is forbidden sex in the tale.

The couple marries keeping secrets from one another.   The wife is pregnant with another man’s child.  The husband is a CIA agent, with another secret that I cannot share without it being a spoiler.  There is also a teenage Italian boy, who the husband hires to teach his wife Italian (he can already speak the language).  However, the real reason for the boy’s employment is to help the husband spy on the local Communist Party, which is the real reason for their move to Italy.  The wife is clueless and thinks they are there for him to sell tractors.  Of course, being a comedy, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.   The husband turns out to be a bumbling spy and the wife falls for another married man.  I didn’t think that the story needed to add in an affair, it took away from some of the fun.  Still, all in all, I did a lot of chuckling. There is a surprise ending that reminds me a bit of the film “Marriage Italian Style.” The whole book is pure fun.  And for me, it is a lesson in that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff

Genre:          BiographyRobin
Publisher:    Henry Holt & Company
Pub. Date:    May 15, 2018

The author, Dave Itzkoff, is a culture reporter writing about film, television, and comedy for The New York Times. Itzkoff writes this book as a combination of straight reporting and insightful analysis.  This is a bittersweet biography; the author portrays the artist, Robin Williams, not as a tormented soul who ends his own life, but more as a tender man desperate for talent validation.

We all know that Robin was a comic genius.  But not many, including myself, know that he had a great memory (some would say photographic).  He could show up on sets, late and hung-over, often in the same clothes from the night before, to discover that the writers made major script changes while he was out partying.  While other actors struggled and fumbled to remember the new lines, Robin would just glance it over once and proceed to nail it.  This skill flabbergasted many over the years.  From his breakthrough television role on “Mork and Mindy” to his long movie career, his stage shenanigans fascinated his audiences, especially when he switched characters on a dime.  He was the king of improvisation.  In the author’s (and my) opinion no other stand-up comedian came close.  Just watching him perform, the man could exhaust you.

Like most biographies, the book begins when Williams was a child.  The son of a well-to-do executive who had two older half-siblings who did not live with him growing up, Robin had a somewhat isolated youth, especially since his family frequently moved.  He spent hours alone creating imaginary characters in his mind.  It was in his teen years when the family moved to California, that he found acting.  Over the decades, he learned to harness his manic talents and became a household name to be endeared by all.   The author left me sadly wishing that Robin could absorb that his audience truly did love him.

According to the author, Robin was actually a sweet and shy man known for his caring nature.  He was kind to people even while he fought his own darkness.  He met Christopher Reeve when they both were studying acting at Julliard.  Robin was politely asked to leave the school because there was nothing else that they could teach him.   His style of improv was simply too bizarre for his teachers to understand.  After Reeve’s accident, Robin helped pay for his medical equipment.  He remained a loyal friend.  When the Reeve family went on their first vacation with Chris in a wheelchair, Robin joined them just to keep his dear friend’s spirits from spiraling downwards as they often did.

Robin was also consistently honest about himself.  While most celebrities go into a hospital for “exhaustion,” Robin was truthful about his demons. Whether in his stand-up acts or during interviews, he openly discussed his troubles with depression and addiction.  He eventually conquered his addictions, but his self-esteem remained low throughout his life.   He thought of himself as an ugly man since he was not the epitome of a movie star.  Robin had hair tufts throughout his body.  He did indeed have a hairy body, which embarrassed him.  I couldn’t help but think his insecurities over his looks were so adolescent.  But then again, in ways, the author shows that he never really grew up, preferring the company of children to adults.  Off camera, he could play with his child co-stars endlessly.  If he was in the company of a five-year-old, he became five-years-old.  I confess, this reminds me of myself.  Personally, I find it delightful to be able to connect with a child on their level.

He might not have seen himself as a handsome man, but women sure did.   He wasn’t a faithful husband for two of his three wives.  There were too many female temptations around him.  He was a bit of a promiscuous player.   However, he was an excellent father to his three children.  After Robin’s death, it was his adult children who insisted that it couldn’t have been depression that caused their dad’s suicide.  They are confident of this since they knew that even at his lowest he would never hurt them in any way.  They were all in constant contact with him, they adored him and he adored them.  What his fans learn via his family, is that in the months before his death Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  He couldn’t remember his lines while filming his last movie.  Can you imagine how this must have felt for a man with a photogenic memory?    However, not until the coroner’s report, three months after his death, did we learn that he was actually suffering from a little-known but deadly brain disease, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD.)  LBD is a neurological disease that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson.  It was LBD that was causing his paranoia and confusion.

The author’s best writing moments are when he describes LBD symptoms.   The last year of Robin’s life, the actor suffered from tremors, insomnia, impaired senses, and extreme anxiety.   He had difficulty reasoning and was often hallucinating.  When coherent, he told many that he was losing his mind.  Sadly, he was.  The disease was eating away at his brain.   Throughout all of this, Robin remained clean and sober while searching for a possible cure.   Reading how this gentle and sensitive man suffered put tears in my eyes.  Itzkoff wrote an in-depth, impressively researched biography on the life of Robin Williams.  At times, I felt the book is packed with too much detail on his career.  There are dozens of pages with footnote citations.   I feel that the author was torn between writing a scholarly research paper or a compassionate book on the actor.  He tried to do both and I believe that he mostly succeeded.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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