This year has been quite an active one. Since it began, we've only dedicated one column to the literary arts.
This week, a planned column failed to materialize, which gives us an opportunity to delve a second time into one of my very favorite arts: literature. My stack of books which have been read and are waiting to be reviewed in the column is about ready to fall over and endanger the dog, so let's pick four good reads and have a look at them:
Tina Fey has won fame and considerable fortune, first as a major player on ''Saturday Night Live,'' and since then as the screenwriter and producer of several comedy films and of the successful TV series ''30 Rock.''
Perhaps the quality which has brought her the greatest success is her ability to point out what she considers failures and flaws of her own, in a humorous way. Her most famous character is named Liz Lemon, and is constantly called just ''Lemon'' by her egocentric boss, played by Alec Baldwin.
Her characters date losers, they get insulted and isolated by popular and attractive girls, and they're perpetually spilling things on their clothes, getting their hair caught in the spirals of notebooks, and getting all dressed up for events in what turns out to be an exact match for the dress worn by the cleaning woman.
Recently, she has published a memoir of her life so far. She gave the book the title ''Bossypants,'' which she says comes from her self-consciousness at being the person at the center of a successful television show, with the power to hire and to fire and to decide whether to spend the money on her own ideas for settings and costumes.
The self-deprecation flows like wine. She draws a chart, comparing the stress level of managing a network comedy show against active military service, coal mining and managing a Chili's restaurant on a Friday evening, which demonstrates everything is many times more stressful than her job.
The book is very entertaining. It's easy to read and had many laugh-out-loud moments. Even the book's cover is a photo of a beefy, middle aged man, onto whose body Ms. Fey has had her own face photoshopped, expressing her feeling about what the world's idea of a ''boss'' is, and who she is.
In among the obvious jokes there are very real comments on the degree of sexism to be found, in life and especially in the entertainment business.
She does get serious, occasionally, usually suddenly and without warning. She talks about what is probably her most famous gig, portraying Sarah Palin during the 2008 election season. She talks about what she did to convince television viewers that they were looking at a reasonably accurate impersonation of the former Alaskan governor, to the point that it was Fey, dressed as Palin, who made the famous quote about being able to see Russia from her house, not the candidate.
What Ms. Palin said was substantially different.
Here is a woman who finds humor in situations which would drive most people over the edge of despair. She goes on her honeymoon aboard a cruise ship, and ends up spending the night sitting up in a lifeboat, trying to stop her husband from panicking, for example.
If you enjoy her humor on the television, you'll certainly enjoy her book. If you don't, but you want an accurate picture of the making of network television programming, it's a worthwhile read as well.
A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE: 1610
From feminism in contemporary television to feminism in 17th century espionage, we turn to our second volume, titled ''A Sundial in a Grave: 1610.'' The author is Mary Gentle.
Unlike Tina Fey, whose feminism seems well-researched and significantly accurate, Mary Gentle writes a beautifully plotted tale of spies and assassins, but tinges it with feminism which seems unbelievable and anachronistic.
The narrator of the novel is Valentin Raoul Rochefort. He is a giant of a man, well over 6 feet tall in an age in which the average height was substantially shorter than it is today. He is a son of a nobleman, who has been cast out by his father, and forced to earn his living by ''doing jobs'' for people with the money to pay him. These often mean murders, fomenting rebellions and similar dark deeds.
This Rochefort is marked by two clear weaknesses. He is loyal to a fault to one Maximilian Bethune de Sully, a nobleman in the court of French King Henri IV, who has rescued him when his family rejected him, and to whom he is loyal to the point of death. Also, he is distinctly masochistic. Anyone who is able to degrade and humiliate him can addle his thought processes and make him momentarily a puppet.
I don't doubt that such people exist, but they hold little attraction for me as the protagonist of a novel.
Most of the characters in the novel are actual historical people. The plot is set in France and in England, in the year 1610. At that time, the Wars of Religion were raging with people who considered themselves Christian killing, torturing and raping their way through their own friends and neighbors who held slightly different versions of Christian thought.
By threatening to torture and kill Sully, the Queen of France, Marie de Medici is able to convince Rochefort to participate in a plot to assassinate her husband. Rochefort forms a plot for the assassination which he considers absurd and certain to fail, hoping to keep the king safe, while winning himself some time to get his patron out of danger. Instead, the plot succeeds.
Rochefort has been identified as part of the plot, which incriminates his patron. He flees the country, going to England, where he almost immediately falls into the hands of a mysterious Dr. Robert Fludd. The doctor is a mathematician who has studied with the same scholar as the infamous Nostradamus. Fludd's numbers tell him that Rochefort is the only person who can successfully plot an assassination of England's king, James I.
The doctor believes that if James dies and his oldest son becomes King Henry IX, this will change all the future of the world and save the human race from extinction, in the 21st century. The doctor's predictions of the future are so precise, he is capable of fighting a duel with swords against the professional killer, because while he has no training in fighting with swords, he knows every move his opponent will make, and therefore cannot be beaten. Plotting the murder of a king is unlikely enough. Plotting a stab with a dagger so exactly that one can side-step it, stretches believability.
Once again, Rochefort finds himself forced to plan an assassination which he hopes will fail. In his travels, he becomes companion to a Japanese Samurai named Tanaka, who has been sent as an ambassador to the court of King James from Japan.
Also, he travels with a plump young man, in his mid-teens, named M. Dariole. Dariole is so gifted with sword, dagger and every other kind of weapon that he is able to bring the much taller, stronger Rochefort to his knees, whenever they fight. And naturally, that's where he really wants to be.
The action is very exciting. The history is usually extremely accurate, and the power of description is stunning. It was worth the occasionally unbelievable material, to me, in order to enjoy the rest. You must decide for yourself.
From well-written but sometimes unbelievable historical fiction, to very believable historical fiction, we turn to the novel ''Grave Goods'' by Ariana Franklin.
Again, we have a feminist writer, this time with a female protagonist, and it's set even earlier in history: in 1176, when Henry II is King of England, married to the infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine and setting out in hopes of conquering all of Europe.
The protagonist, in this third novel in a series, is Adelia Aguilar, the daughter of a famous surgeon who has taught his daughter all he knows about medical science. She has specialized in autopsy and the study of dead remains. Because ''everybody knew'' in 1176 that a woman was incapable of being a doctor, and because women who seemed to threaten what everybody knew were usually burned to death as witches, Adelia hides her gifts by attaching herself to a tall Arabian eunuch named Mansur.
Adelia speaks Arabic, so she pretends to interpret for Mansur, while it is actually she, herself, who is doing the treating.
In this novel, King Henry is troubled that the beautiful abbey of Glastonbury has burned to the ground. In legend, the abbey was the burial place of the famed King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. The fire has actually uncovered an ancient grave which has two skeletons. If Adelia can prove these remains belong to the legendary king, Henry can use their presence in England to justify his intentions to bring Wales into the Kingdom of England.
The Welsh have reason to want her to fail. The king expects that she will make the proof, whether it's true of not. Both sides are convinced that God helps those who help themselves.
The result is a very good detective story. It's believable, both plot-wise and historically. Adelia doesn't suddenly run the skeletons' DNA through a computer or anything of that kind. I found myself allotting myself an extra page or two every time I picked up the book.
THE REAL LIFE OF LAURENCE OLIVIER
To many people living today, the late Lord Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor who ever lived. As a result, there is an unending controversy over what things were true about the man, and what things he did to create an artificial reality in the form of a theatrical role.
Someone once asked Joan Plowright, Olivier's third and final wife, how she could tell when her husband was telling the truth and when he was acting.
She replied that was easy. ''Larry is always acting,'' she said.
This particular biography is quite interesting, although it can be very difficult reading. Biographer Roger Lewis writes almost in stream of consciousness. He can go from an anecdote in the 1980s about the aging Olivier, in charge of England's National Theatre yet in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and losing his grasp on reality, then switch to an incident when Olivier was in the Air Force in World War II and damaging so many aircraft that the officers were trying anything they could find, to keep him out of the planes.
The incidents are all interesting and very well documented, but the non-linear structure of the book is often off-putting.
Olivier's enormous talent, his ability to make audiences of unruly schoolboys suddenly become profoundly wrapped up in ''Othello'' or ''Vanity Fair,'' make him a fascinating study. His capacity to use other people, even very famous and talented people, to advance his own career and his own successes as an actor, makes him interesting as well.
For many film goers, Olivier was the epitome of aristocracy, elegance and majesty. His country chose him to produce a version of Shakespeare's play ''Henry V,'' which many have described as the most patriotic play ever written, in the darkest days of World War II. When France fell before Hitler's troops and England stood alone, facing an entire continent controlled by Nazis, the British government wanted a tool of propaganda, to convince their people to accept the daily deaths and destructions of the Blitz, and to continue fighting. When their king died and the new queen, Elizabeth II, was crowned, there seemed no possible other candidate to narrate the film than Olivier.
Olivier's delivery of Henry V's famous ''We brave few'' speech was recorded on records, and films of his portrayal were shown in every film theater in England.
Olivier's love life, which included his second marriage to Vivienne Leigh, the actress chosen ahead of nearly every actress in the profession to play Scarlett O'Hara in ''Gone With the Wind,'' won him one of the first cadres of paparazzi, and made him fodder for the tabloid press in a far more sensitive era.
I found myself becoming more comfortable with the author's disjointed approach to his subject as I went, although truthfully, I started and rejected the book twice, before I finally got up the gumption to read it straight through.
There are occasional incidents which brilliantly point out his character. My favorite was a tale of when in his 80s, Olivier was taking a short vacation in the seaside town of Brighton, and accidentally fell down a short set of stairs. ''I am Lord Laurence Olivier, and I need assistance,'' thundered the famous voice. Obviously, a simple ''Help'' probably would have gotten him as good if not better assistance.
Whether ''The Real Life of Laurence Olivier'' is more or less accurate than other biographies is anyone's guess. I think I learned a great deal about acting and film making from reading it.