Monday, February 13, 2023

A Few February Recommendations

Fake Money, Blue Smoke, by Josh Haven (2022). Nothing beats going into a novel cold and having it completely knock you out. A veteran of the war in Iraq is released from prison and finds an ex-girlfriend, one he’s pined for but also written off, waiting for him. Turns out all these years later she’s a damn good counterfeiter, and has a job on which her old beau might be able to provide assistance. Of course, she’s not telling him the whole truth, and he’s got a duffel bag full of secrets himself. Haven writes in a sleek third-person-omniscient style that leaves room for unexpected deadpan asides. He also pits his half-hearted lovers against some truly odious villains. The result is a globetrotting, thoroughly disreputable heist novel that I loved straight through to the slam-bang finish.

Reboot (Hulu). The main thing I want from a sitcom? Jokes, and lots of them. They’re served up at a furious clip with deadly accuracy in this behind-the-scenes series from Modern Family’s Steve Levitan. When a schmaltzy family comedy series gets a makeover twenty years later, the cast reunites with their problems intact. There’s Keegan-Michael Key as the stage actor who thinks the material is beneath him; Johnny Knoxville as the stand-up comic terrified that he has lucked into the best gig of his life; and Judy Greer as a woman who viewed acting as a stepping stone to a future that didn’t pan out. Even better are Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) as the young writer/producer forced to fight for her edgy vision of the retooled show against the original’s creator—her own father, played by Paul Reiser. Over the last few years Reiser has been the best part of everything he’s appeared in, from The Kominsky Method to Red Oaks, an Amazon show that somehow survived three seasons despite my being the only person to watch it. The highlight of Reboot is the writers’ room scenes, with two generations of hacks kvetching and eventually figuring each other out. (MVP to Rose Abdoo’s Selma, whose every filthy line kills.) I was about to press play on the season finale when I read that the show hadn’t been renewed, and attempts to move it elsewhere have sadly failed. Watch it before it gets disappeared like so many other programs and I’m convinced it was all a beautiful dream I had.

Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter
, by John Hendrickson (2023). I hate when reviewers open by telling you something about themselves, but in this case I feel it’s necessary, so here goes: I have a stutter. It occurs rarely now, usually only in moments of stress, and I have a lifetime of workarounds for when I feel it coming on. Journalist Hendrickson wrote an acclaimed article about President Joe Biden’s history of stuttering, which forced him to reconsider his own. This memoir is the result, a powerful book about dealing with a lifelong condition that whenever it rears its head, in the words of writer and fellow stutterer Nathan Heller, leads to “a kind of tightening of the leash, and you can’t ever escape what you were at five years old.” There’s a lot of fascinating material about the science behind stuttering; different neural pathways are used for spontaneous speech and memorized speech, which is why many prominent actors are able to perform in spite of pronounced stutters—including Samuel L. Jackson, who uses the word “motherfucker” to help overcome blocks. Hendrickson also dives into how his stutter has shaped his life, conducting interviews with friends, family, speech therapists, and others to dig into the awkwardness stutterers frequently encounter. (He participated in this terrific short documentary about the subject last year.) It’s given me plenty to think about, including what Joe Biden’s debate coach—and fellow stutterer—described as the condition’s two gifts, one good and one bad: “immense empathy” and “an anger that is very deep … an anger that comes out of frustration.”