Sunday Book Reviews – 1/24/21

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Off the Wall at Sardi’s by Vincent Sardi, Jr & Thomas Edward West (2000, Applause)

Sardi’s is among the most famous restaurants to cater to the entertainment industry. As the Brown Derby used to serve the Hollywood elite, Sardi’s has been known as a destination spot for Broadway celebrities for decades. It has been immortalized in a variety of movies for that reason, and because of one aspect of its atmosphere: its caricatures.

Cartoonish images of famous celebrities adorn the walls of the eatery, providing its distinctive reminder of the names and faces of regulars both past and present. This book, co-written by a theater expert and a former owner (and son of the founders), provides more than 275 of the cartoons, the backstory behind the decision to have them made and hung, and individual tales regarding many of the stars who are represented on the walls.

Sardi, Jr. is not a beloved figure in the history of the restaurant. Following the passing of his father in 1969 the place began accruing complaints and bad reviews, until it was purchased by new ownership in the mid 1980s. While Sardi, Jr. lacked in restaurant management skills he possessed an extensive knowledge of Broadway lore garnered through decades of working around them.

Those interested in caricatures could hardly find a better showcase for skilled workmanship, complete with a reasonable helping of Broadway gossip carefully chosen to avoid petty and mean recollections. It is cumbersome, in the typical style of coffee table books, leading to the temptation to merely flip through and enjoy the art rather than read the accompanying text. That would be a mistake.

Nightshade and Damnations by Gerald Kersh (1968, Fawcett)

Despite the title of the book, this collection of short fiction is not what most would consider horror stories. There is little of the Edgar A. Poe-style revenge story…

…and right there, I fail in my intent, which was to describe Kersh without reference to other authors. It’s difficult, because his work screams for such comparisons. He’s a less political Ballard that…. A Stanley Ellin with less plot but more… A Matheson, but in his later years and with… Jack Finney. Paddy Chayefsky.

These authors have little in common but some of the markets to which they sold, but all of them have echoes within the work of Kersh. His stories tend to be low on plot but heavy on character development, showing a playful respect to narrative structure while hinting that he’s ready to abandon it at a moment’s notice should the spirit so move him. He is a suggestive writer; he’s prone to leaving the meaning behind stories open but unlike most such authors seems to avoid directing the reader to an obvious conclusion. Instead, the story is simply there, it’s a narrative of what happened, and it’s up to the reader to decide for themselves what it means.

While much of his long fiction ignored any fantastical elements, he typically used them as a hook for his short prose. The result was a book which could be reasonably marketed as horror… most of the pieces fit within the broad definition of “weird fiction”… but which was about as far from the possessed dolls and flesh-rending lake monsters, and painfully simplistic stories of Ruby Jean Jensen as could be imagined.

…and there I go again.

Kersh offers commentary on the desire for family with Frozen Beauty, a political statement with The King Who Collected Clocks. His views undoubtedly color his words. But without research into his personal history it would be impossible to determine his intent, and that is a valuable talent… to encourage people to think, while not directing them in the method of doing so.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.