Harpo Speaks!

book cover to harpo speaks, the autobiography of Harpo Marx

Harpo Speaks is the autobiography of Adolph (Harpo) Marx

Harpo Speaks!
1962

I’m writing this review on-purpose for a book I read by accident.

I received “Harpo Speaks” as a Christmas present in 2012. It looked okay, but nothing I’d want to write home to mother about. So it went into my stack to be read one day.

A few days ago I was cleaning the bedroom and went to move parts of my book stack. I picked up the book and thought I’d read a few pages. Why was this in my stack?

I found it to be such an enjoyable book that I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in a day or two.

Harpo Speaks is a nice conversationally-written story of the life of Harpo Marx. If you’ve ever seen a Marx Brothers movie, you’ll know Harpo. He’s the silent one who’s the clown. The title of the book then is a bit of a pun: Harpo never spoke in any public event. Now you can hear what he had to say.

I think the book works whether you are a fan of the Marx Brothers or not. I’m not much of a fan. After reading the book I went back and watched a couple of their movies. It was okay comedy, but it didn’t hugely impress me.

So it’s not a fan book. Instead, it’s a story of a kid growing up in New York around the year 1900. What was the city like? What was it like being a kid?

I found this fascinating. From there we move into what it was like growing up poor in a family where the mother was convinced that they were all going to be in show business. Even though they weren’t.

This is a classic “rags to riches” story, and Harpo and his ghost writer do it up very nicely. I think I would have been happy with the book just like that, but the themes kept coming, each of them executed professionally.

There’s a great section on how the brothers slowly crafted their act, using the audience as a live gauge of what worked and what didn’t. (Great lessons for startups there). Then, once they started hitting it off, Harpo, a second-grade dropout, somehow fell into a band of literary and intellectual leaders in the 1920s. Amazing stories from what the 20s were like for those folks who were rich and smart.

I found this such an oddball turn that I refused to believe it, going to Google to verify key parts of the book.

We get a great overview of what being famous is like. After Harpo moves to Los Angeles, he became quite the social butterfly, and the book has lots of vignettes of him meeting more famous people and how his life went. Finally, the last part is about his marriage and kids. It ends with him in the early 1960s. His kids are almost grown, he is in his 60s, and suffering recurring heart problems. (He died just a short time after the book was published)

So it’s really his entire life.

This was a great book. I would classify it as a history book. Lots of interesting insights into how things used to be. If you like reading about famous people, historical events, and how one person makes it big against all odds, you’ll like this book. Wonderful quick read.

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    Divine Justice

    cover shot to the book divine justice by david baldacci

    Baldacci does a workman's job in this latest in his Camel Club series

    David Baldacci
    2008

    I got Divine Justice as a birthday present. I don’t think I’ve ever read Baldacci before, so I was looking forward to the experience. After all, he was lauded on the cover as a “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author!”

    After finishing it, I have very mixed feelings about the book.

    First, I liked that it was set in Virginia, seeing as how I live here. All the places struck chords with me and the color and background of the book was wonderful to absorb. Baldacci knows how to write quick portraits of people and places around the state.

    I also liked the fact that the book was a thriller. There’s nothing like the fast turns and quick plot changes in a good thriller to keep you reading. And this book really kept be reading! Good job.

    However the book itself — and I’m not sure exactly how to say this — was trivial. It was a great airplane or beach book because little or no thinking on the reader’s part was required at all. Parts of the book reminded me of a Scooby Do episode, complete with the characters driving around in a van. The bad guys were comically bad and the good guys were always saving orphans from drowning. It was a bit trite and one-dimensional.

    But pop fiction is like that. And if I sighed several times at the lameness of the depth, the book did it’s job: it kept me reading it. I managed to finish in just a day or two. Reading books like this is a great way to put your brain in neutral for a spell.

    The only other bad part was that this was book #3 in a series about some group called “The Camel Club”. Perhaps if I had read the earlier books this one would have seemed more deep. I don’t know. What I do know is that Baldacci was able to pull me along even though I hadn’t read any of the other books.

    The plot is basically a cat-and-mouse, chase book wrapped around a murder mystery. I won’t go into details — after all, the fun part is reading it yourself — but it delivers on the action, suspense, and thrills.

    I might pick up another Camel Club book — I think Baldacci has already written another. Reading Divine Justice reminded me that there’s nothing like a nice summer book to help you relax.

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      Gone For Good

      A picture from the cover of the book gone for good

      Gone for good is great, page-turning intrigue

      It’s gotten so that anytime people use the word “intrigue” you think of boring spy novels or something involving complicated plots. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Gone For Good is a great little page-turning novel where as each secret is exhumed and decisions made, the universe shifts into a new way of looking at things. Massive changes in the reader’s model of reality can easily be overdone, though. Coben doesn’t go too far.

      Starting off sounding a lot like a crime novel, we begin with the death of a next-door neighbor that is pinned on our protagonist’s brother. The brother was never found, though, and our guy lives day-to-day wondering whether his brother is alive and knowing in his heart that he didn’t commit the crime. The plot gets moving with the death of a close relative that causes our hero to begin a search, and a mission, that can only end in a big old bucket of suspense and surprise.

      I enjoyed this book a lot, especially after reading some splatterpunk horror. It’s nicely told, and the author doesn’t miss a beat. It would have been easy to make a book like this too complicated, or too busy, but Coben balances the story-telling just right. To me a sign of a good book is when you are reading a part and thinking “Why the heck am I reading this? Is it important?” only to later realize “Wow! That was really important!” Very cool when it’s done well. He also nails dialogue. There were a few times when characters made snarky remarks where I caught myself laughing out loud, which I rarely do. And several other times characters said things as I nodded, thinking, yep, that’s exactly what he’d say.

      As I understand it, Coben usually writes in a serial format. You know, the same hero doing something a little different each time at bat. I don’t blame modern authors for doing this — it seems to be the only way to make a buck at writing. But I’m glad he took some time out to write Gone for Good; it’s a wonderful little book.

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