An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin


Steve Martin is best known for his work in films. Starting with stand-up comedy, he has acted, written screenplays, written for theatre, written novels and more recently recorded Grammy award winning music, playing the banjo.

In his spare time he collects art.

An Object of Beauty combines one of his many “jobs” (novelist) with his interest in art: following the progress of a young woman, Lacey Yeager, as she develops a career in the world of art sales, using whatever means she can to succeed.

Through Yeager’s journey Martin takes us behind the scenes of the art world, through auction houses and galleries and art work of various eras. He mingles real art and artists with those he has created for the novel. One of the interesting aspects of the book is the inclusion of small colour reproductions of art by some of the real artists that are mentioned.

Personally I enjoyed the “insiders” view of art, but I found the overabundance of sex scenes and sexual references possibly revealed too much of another of the author’s obsessions.

Turning Forty, Mike Gayle

turning 40

On the surface Mike Gayle’s Turning Forty has nothing in common with the Stephen King book I wrote about in my previous post. But to me, both bring up the idea of alternative time lines.

In King’s novel the protagonist travels back in time and creates alternative future outcomes by changing what happens to individuals in the past.

With Gayle’s books I always find myself facing the alternative lives I could have lived, if only I had made one or two different choices when I had the opportunity.

Gayle’s characters don’t face the extreme experiences of King’s protagonists. They are more or less everyday people going through things that aren’t uncommon, struggling with career and relationships.  In part I envy his characters and their long-standing friendships, but I don’t envy the complications that arise when those friendships are tested and sometimes break.

Turning Forty is a sequel to Gayle’s earlier book Turning Thirty. I read the earlier book a few years ago but couldn’t recall the characters or their younger lives. Having read all of Gayle’s books I find it hard to remember who belongs to which story.

Each of his books follows a similar path through part of the life of a main character who spends a lot of time with friends of both genders, usually struggling to find love, and trying to determine where the line between love and friendship should be drawn. While the paths may be similar, the destinations can be significantly different and the reader can never be too sure of where the characters will find themselves at the end of each book.

The similarities in his stories give me the impression that Gayle is sharing insights into separate parts and different inhabitants of a single community. And it seems to be a community he knows well. His non-fiction book The To Do List shows how his own life has similarities to the lives of the characters in his fiction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been close to having the multiple friendships depicted by Gayle. Maybe those relationships only come through growing up alongside others through childhood and school years, a period of life before adulthood teaches us to be more guarded.  I’ve probably had too many relocations and associated disruptions to develop and maintain the kind of friendships that Gayle depicts. If only I’d chosen a less mobile course I might have experienced friendships differently.

(for more that I’ve written about Mike Gayle see here: )

Stephen King: 11/22/63

Stephen KingTwo days ago I finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. The story involves time travel, major world events and the consequences of using the former to change the outcome of the latter. It is a BIG book (not only in length more than 700 pages) but also in ideas, combining real history with an imaginative reworking of that history: what would be the outcome if JFK’s assassination could be prevented?

Time travel stories are one of my great fictional loves, weaving different times together so that actions of a protagonist visiting the past can have repercussions in his/her own time, leaving hints of evidence of their journey to the earlier period.

Usually the premise will be that events can’t be changed, at least significantly. There is the clichéd paradox of a time traveller killing his own father before he’s met the mother, thereby preventing the birth of the time traveller who clearly is no longer around to travel to the past to kill the father…

With King’s story the traveller, Jake Epping, visits the past intending to change history by preventing the killing of President Kennedy in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. For me that intention was perhaps the story’s weakness. I couldn’t see Epping having enough personal investment in any potential outcome that he wouldn’t leave well-enough alone. He wasn’t even born when Kennedy died, and his “mission” was more the obsession of an acquaintance than anything more personal.

That acquaintance was Al, the owner of a Diner, and the original discoverer of a “rabbit hole” leading to 1958. Al had personally tried to avert the Kennedy killing, but became too ill to remain in the past to fulfil his goal. Knowing he had so little life remaining, Al passes on to Epping the secret of the “rabbit hole” and his desire to save Kennedy.

Epping makes some exploratory visits to 1958, returning to see how his actions may have changed his own present. No matter how long he spent in the past, when he returned only a few minutes of that present had passed. Any subsequent visit back in time “reset” history and cancelled out the effects of what he’d done on previous trips so if anything drastic had been changed he could reverse it.

And maybe this “resetting” option gave some motivation for him taking up Al’s President-saving mission. If things were disrupted too significantly he could always reset the past and return history to its previous Kennedyless course.

While the attempt to save Kennedy is the major plot point, the heart of the novel is found in the years between Epping’s arrival in 1958 and the events of November 1963. How does a man make a life for himself when he needs to survive for 5 years in a time not his own? How does he do this and retain focus on his end goal? And how will the relationships he makes be affected? It is the strength of this heart that pushed aside the problem I had with the “saving Kennedy” aspect of the story.

I’ve probably written more plot synopsis than usual. I don’t like to give too much away, not wanting to spoil the experience of potential readers of a book I’m “reviewing”, but there’s a lot more to get out of this book than the above introduction touches, and I’ve probably not given away much that wouldn’t be revealed in a book blurb.

King can be an exceptional story teller, and he’s near the top of his game with this book. It was a much more enjoyable and interesting reading experience than the Brian Aldiss book I’d recently battled through. King creates engaging characters to carry the reader through a long journey. Characters we care about and characters that can be feared or loathed. He also creates a convincing late 50s early 60s world, describing its highs (real food, stylish cars, community life) and lows (racial prejudice, segregation and fear of the bomb). There are also some parallels that presumably reflect some of King’s present day concerns, such as the political climate in Kennedy’s time having similarities to today. The strong anti-Obama sentiment expressed by extremes on the political/religious right, is a clear example. (I’ve seen it reported that Obama has had more death threats made against him than any previous American president.)

Returning to the writing itself, I’ll repeat what I’ve written in a review of an earlier King book, that one of King’s major weaknesses as an author is his devotion to random statements of extreme crudity. They crop up now and again in his books, usually with no purpose other than their shock factor and sometimes in situations that seem not to fit the character making the statement. Maybe this habit is one of the downsides of King’s success: protection from the kind of editing that in my opinion could only strengthen his work.


See something I wrote earlier about King and his work:

Finches of Mars: conclusion

My earlier comments about this book still stand. It remained a book of ideas, lacking engaging characters.

There were a couple of almost bright spots where the book started to show potential, but for me that potential remained unfulfilled.

Maybe Aldiss tried to cover too much without giving room for development. I found the book was more like a lengthy plot development plan rather than a completed short novel.

Brian Aldiss: Finches of Mars, early impressions.

Finches of MarsI recently bought a signed edition of Brian Aldiss’s novel Finches of Mars, it is number 7 from a print run of 200. I had never read anything by Aldiss before, but I knew he was a respected science fiction author, so the opportunity to get an autographed book for my collection (for only $22.00) was taken up.

I’ve been reading it now for a couple of weeks. It’s only 203 pages but it’s very slow going, not really engaging my interest. Since I started reading  it I’ve taken the time to complete a few other books that I’d been struggling with. Dealing with them seemed to have much more appeal than returning to the Aldiss book.

At best I would describe it as a book of interesting ideas, but it fails to address those ideas through equally interesting characters. At worst I see it as a small-minded, bigoted and ignorant diatribe against God and religion. The latter I see has merit – but the former is nothing less than arrogant foolishness.

But maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe the anti-God rhetoric will eventually be subverted and that foolishness will be exposed within the novel itself. Maybe Aldiss is setting the reader up for an unexpected turnaround where the reality of God is made clear. But in the mean time, I won’t believe that until I see it – and I’m also not holding my breath until I do.