September 30, 2008

BOOKS: Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley (2008)

I was disappointed by Buckley's last couple of novels -- Boomsday was a bit flat, and I couldn't even get through Florence of Arabia -- so I'm happy to report that the new one is a significant improvement.

As Supreme Courtship opens, President Donald Vanderdamp is struggling with sub-Bush approval ratings. He's so unpopular that the Senate, led by Majority Leader Dexter Mitchell, is rejecting his perfectly reasonable Supreme Court nominees just because they can; one is booted for the sin of saying, in a book report written at age 12, that there were "boring parts" in To Kill a Mockingbird. In a fit of pique, Vanderdamp decides to send the Senate a nominee it can't reject, the most popular judge in America -- Pepper Cartwright, of TV's most popular legal show, Courtroom Six.

Buckley alternates Judge Pepper's struggles to fit in on the Court with Vanderdamp's re-election campaign against Mitchell, a campaign which triggers a Constitutional crisis that winds up -- where else? -- in the Supreme Court.

Buckley's comedy is broad as can be, and his characters are often obvious caricatures of real-life figures. Justices Silvio Santamaria and Crispus Galavanter, for instance, are clearly inspired by Scalia and Thomas, and Dexter Mitchell's inability to stop speaking if there's a news camera nearby is reminiscent of Joe Biden at his worst.

But I found enough good laugh lines and colorful characters (I particularly liked Graydon Clenndennynn, "wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences....the man, it was rumored, with more n's in his name than anyone else in Washington.") to keep me reading and smiling. Great literature this may not be, but it's a heckuva lot of fun.

September 27, 2008

TV: Gary Unmarried (CBS, Wednesday 8:30)

Jay Mohr is Gary, a recently divorced father of two who's taking his first steps back into the dating scene. His ex-wife, Allison (Paula Marshall, in a spectacular rendition of the Ex From Hell), has just announced that she's marrying their marriage counselor (Ed Begley, Jr. at his smarmiest); 14-year-old son Tom (Ryan Malgarini) is terrified of girls; and preteen daughter Louise (Kathryn Newton) is obsessed with Al Gore and Gandhi. On the plus side, Gary's just met Vanessa (Jaime King), who looks to be his first serious relationship since the divorce.

This is a perfectly servicable sitcom, and its strong suit is its cast. Mohr and King are a likable pair; Marshall plays a terrific love-to-hate-her character; and Begley is just right for his role. And the time slot makes sense; Gary Unmarried follows The New Adventures of Old Christine, and is in some ways a gender-reversed version of that show.

But in the absence of interesting writing, the cast flounders a bit, working terribly hard to elevate routine material. There's nothing special or distinctive about the show, nothing to make it stand out from the pack and make me feel that I really want to watch it. At best, it's likely to become a new Home Improvement or According to Jim, the kind of show that survives for five years and that you always think "oh, that's still on?" when you stumble across it.

September 24, 2008

TV: The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesday 9)

Yet another installment in the ongoing CBS attempt to make a TV star out of Simon Baker (The Guardian, Smith). This one is an odd hybrid of House and Psych.

Baker plays Patrick Jane, a former stage psychic who now uses his highly honed powers of observation as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation. There is a Great Wound in his past, which causes him great pain while simultaneously making him even more devoted to his job. Jane has a House-style team of associates: exasperated female boss (Robin Tunney) and white guy/white chick/non-white guy team of junior investigators (Owain Yeoman, Amanda Righetti, and Tim Kang, respectively).

The plot mechanics are essential those of Psych without the sense of humor; Jane's partners chase all of the red herrings and wrong suspects while Jane keys in on the one misplaced prop or strange sentence of dialogue that allows him to find the real killer.

As police procedurals go, it's perfectly competent, but there's nothing distinctive about it that would make it stand out from the already crowded CBS procedural lineup. It'll probably get perfectly adqueate ratings, and maybe even last for two or three years, but it's not going to be a show that any remembers with particular fondness when it's gone.

TV: Opportunity Knocks (ABC, Tuesday 8)

Heartwarming family game show that will surely please fans of such things.

For each episode, the Opportunity Knocks crew rolls into a new town and builds its portable set outside the home of that week's contestant family; the audience for each show is made up of the family's friends and neighbors.

Four family members compete, each being asked a series of four questions about their family members. Which of Sister's friends does Brother have a secret crush on? Which of Dad's 300+ toy cars is his favorite? Which cookie recipe won Mom the family bakeoff championship? There's $25,000 to be won over each series of four questions, and each family member can win a bonus prize customized to his interests -- backstage Jonas Brothers passes for Sis, a '69 Camaro for Dad -- if he gets all four questions right. At the end of the show, the family is given the opportunity to double the money they've won, or to go for broke for a possible grand prize of $250,000.

The show is very good natured, with none of the potentially embarrassing questions that I remember from NBC's similarly-themed Identity, which had a brief run in late 2006; the only potentially embarrassing moment in the first episode was the secret crush question, and even that was handled with surprising grace and delicacy. (Kudos to Ashton Kutcher, who is one of the show's producers; between this show and Beauty and the Geek, he's demonstrated a real knack for presenting potentially awkward premises in charming fashion.)

I don't have a particularly large appetite for heartwarming family entertainment, so I won't be watching Opportunity Knocks on a regular basis. People who enjoy such things, though, should enjoy this very much; I'd imagine, for instance, that fans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will feel right at home here.

TV: Worst Week (CBS, Monday 9:30)

Oh, what a mess this is -- an entire sitcom built around the embarrassment and humiliation of one man. It is marginally less depressing than, say, The Office, because at least here the embarrassment comes at the hand of chance and bad luck, rather than being doled out to all of the show's characters, by all of the show's characters.

Our victim is Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), who is engaged to Melanie (Erinn Hayes). Sam and Mel are planning to tell her parents (Nancy Lenehan and Kurtwood Smith) about their engagement (and about Mel's pregnancy) at dinner, but everything that can possibly go wrong for Sam does. Sam's list of embarrassments includes -- and this is all in just the first episode -- being vomited on in a cab by a drunken co-worker, being accused by that co-worker of sexual assault, showing up at the in-laws' wearing nothing but an impromptu garbage bag diaper, urinating on the long-brining goose that's sitting in the kitchen, watching Dad slip on said urine and get a concussion from the fall, incorrectly telling Mel and Mom that Dad is dead, crashing his car into Dad's and knocking him unconscious yet again, and destroying the painting of Dad that Mom had commissioned as his birthday gift.

The casting isn't bad; Bornheimer and Hayes are likable enough, and Bornheimer has to be likable, if we're to have any sympathy at all for a guy who screws up this frequently. Lenehan and Smith, masters of frustration and the slow burn, are perfectly cast in their roles; watching these two veterans flounder about trying desperately to get laughs where none are to be found is the saddest aspect of the show.

But despite the strength of the actors, the show's a disaster. Let's hope it dies quickly, and that CBS moves The New Adventures of Old Christine back to Monday night, giving it a full 2-hour block of decent comedy.

September 23, 2008

BOOKS: Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt (2008)

Fascinating look at the how and why of traffic and driving.

Vanderbilt studies such questions as why traffic jams form (and why they seem to suddenly disappear for no reason), how people behave in parking lots, and the usefulness of traffic signs.

Many of his conclusions are counterintuitive. Many of the things that we think contribute to safety on the road, for instance -- increased signage, wider lanes -- may actually make things more dangerous, because the safer drivers feel on the road, the more complacent they become, leading them to pay less attention and get involved in more accidents. By contrast, when one village tried the radical experiment of eliminating traffic signs entirely, accidents and death rates dropped dramatically; with no formal guidance, drivers were forced to pay attention and to cooperate with one another.

I was also surprised to learn that the most dangerous roads in the US aren't the freeways, but two-lane rural roads. They tend to be driven by the same people every day, and familiarity breeds complacency; they are generally more poorly lighted; and when accidents do occur, medical help is likely to be farther away.

There's a terrific chapter on the little-known group of city employees who are responsible for regulating traffic flow in Los Angeles; they make on-the-spot decisions about the timing of traffic lights in an attempt to keep traffic moving smoothly.

This is a marvelously entertaining book, and it's bound to change the way you think about your daily commute. (Oh, and don't be too intimidated by the size of the book; yes, it's just over 400 pages, but more than 100 of that is endnotes and index.)

September 21, 2008

TV: Knight Rider (NBC, Wednesday 8 pm)

The first episode will air on Wednesday night, but NBC has made it available for advance viewing at and at

Our hero is Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening), the long-estranged son of the original version's Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff, who makes a cameo here). There's another talking car -- this time, KITT stands for Knight Industries Three Thousand -- in which Mike will gallivant around the world on various assignments that the FBI can't be too closely associated with themselves.

I wasn't a huge fan of the original Knight Rider, but the one thing it did have going for it was a complete understanding of just how cornball it was. Hasselhoff camped it up in a spectacular self-parody of machismo, and William Daniels was exquisitely bitchy and self-centered as the voice of KITT. By comparison, Bruening is a callow little boy -- it's impossible to believe that he was ever an Army Ranger -- and KITT's voice, provided this time by Val Kilmer, is insufferably ponderous and somber.

The supporting cast is also taking things far too seriously. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, as FBI agent Carrie Ruvai, lives in mortal terror that a smile might cross her face; Deanna Russo, as love interest Sarah Graiman, delivers all of her lines in a drab monotone. Only Bruce Davison, who plays Sarah's father, Charles, seems to be having any fun at all. (It is a bit stunning, I must say, how quickly Davison has aged over the years. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was playing romantic sidekicks, and now here he is as the crackpot old mad scientist.)

The concept of Knight Rider could still hold up and provide a pleasant enough hour of cheesy fun, but with all of the humor sucked out of it, this version is too dull to be worth watching.

NOTE: After making this post, I realized that what I'd watched was actually the 90-minute movie/pilot that aired last spring; the first episode that will air on Wednesday is also available for viewing at and I suppose it's possible that over the intervening months, the show's producers have fixed the lack of humor problem, but I don't care enough to watch and find out.

September 14, 2008

TV: Fringe (Fox, Tuesday 9 pm)

J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, brings us one of the fall's most eagerly awaited shows, a sort of updated version of The X-Files.

When a plane lands at Boston's Logan Airport with everyone on board dead (and their bodies altered in inexplicable, disturbing ways), a multi-agency task force is quickly assembled to investigate. Representing the FBI is Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who instantly butts heads with task force head Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), of Homeland Security. When Dunham's partner John Scott (Mark Valley) is nearly killed during the investigation, and affected by whatever killed the passengers, Dunham is even more desperate to find a solution, because Scott is also her lover.

Her best hope may be the eccentric Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), who was studying this sort of thing before being institutionalized in the 90s; the only way to get Walter out, or even to see him, is to involve his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), who is reluctant to get involved and wants nothing to do with his father.

Bishop's old lab partner is now the head of Massive Dynamic, the world's largest and most powerful scientific research firm; that piece of the investigation leads to MD exec Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an ice-cold control freak who seems to know more about what's happening than anyone.

The first episode is a mixed bag. Noble is a delight as the mad scientist, and though Brown doesn't have much screen time, she makes a strong impact. But Jackson doesn't bring much subtlety to his brooding and pouting, and Reddick overplays the whispery menace.

(Yes, I know, with his quiet, breathy voice and Nosferatu features, Reddick is condemned to a career of playing shadowy figures whose allegiances and morals are always under question. God love him for carving out a steady career as a working actor despite those handicaps, but even by his standards, he's overdoing things here.)

Perhaps because the first episode is padded to 1:45, it moves awfully slowly; I hope that regular 60-minute episodes will be paced a bit more briskly. I'm not entirely convinced yet, but there's enough potential here to keep me watching for another week or two.

TV: Privileged (CW, Tuesday 9 pm)

At last, a happy surprise from the new TV season.

Megan (JoAnna Garcia) isn't having a good day; her apartment's been burned out and she's been fired from her magazine job. Her editor, though, has given her a promising job lead that could give Megan the entree she's always wanted into the world of the filthy rich. Off to Palm Beach she goes to meet Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer), a business tycoon ("My husband left me a small cosmetics company; I turned it into a large cosmetics company.") who needs a tutor for her twin granddaughters, Sage and Rose Baker (Ashley Newbrough and Lucy Kate Hale). If Megan can get the girls' grades up enough that they are admitted to Duke University, Laurel promises to pay off her remaining college loans.

Megan is not entirely unfamiliar with this part of Florida; her father and sister, from whom she has been estranged for several years, live nearby, as does an old boyfriend, Charlie (Michael Cassidy). Charlie immediately sets his sights on winning Megan back, but he's going to have competition from Will (Brian Hallisay), who lives next door to the Limoges estate.

As for the tutoring job, it's going to be a challenge. Sage and Rose are used to goofing off as they choose -- Laurel's fired three tutors already -- and don't have much enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby.

The cast is uniformly attractive and charming; Garcia in particular has an offbeat way with a line, and Archer delivers all of her diva-bitch lines with great panache. The first episode is remarkably efficient in introducing its many characters (by the end, it's even managed to give the twins into distinguishable personalities) and plotlines. It's a bit overstuffed, perhaps, but I hope that without so much exposition to take care of, future episodes will be able to breathe a bit more.

If you want comparisons to other shows, think of this as Gilmore Girls meets Gossip Girls. It should be a very good fit with 90210, and it gives the CW the strongest one-night lineup it's yet had.

TV: Do Not Disturb, Fox Wednesday 9:30

There have been some awful sitcoms in the last few years -- The War at Home, Twins, Help Me Help You, Cavemen -- but in Do Not Disturb, I believe we have a contender for the worst sitcom of the decade.

I'm not going to name any of the actors, because they aren't to blame; the show is so poorly written, sloppily directed, and badly conceived that the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn't make it work.

We have here a workplace comedy set at The Inn, a trendy boutique hotel in Manhattan. The principal antagonists are the (male) general manager and the (female) head of personnel, who shriek at one another in the desperate hope that volume will somehow make the dialogue funnier. The show is smutty, even by Fox standards, and the characters made of cardboard.

To be avoided at all costs.

TV: True Blood (HBO, Sunday 9 pm)

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) works as a waitress in a cheap bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana. It's a crappy job to begin with, and it's not made any easier by the fact that Sookie can hear what all the drunks and other customers are thinking, which gets to be a pain after a while. And then in walks Bill (Stephen Moyer), whose thoughts Sookie can not hear, which is part of how she figures out that he's a vampire.

Vampires live openly in the world of True Blood; ever since a Japanese company developed a synthetic blood (called True Blood) that provides them with all the nutrition they need, they don't need to prey on humans, and now want to be accepted as full, equal members of society. Alan Ball's series (based on novels by Charlaine Harris) doesn't bother with subtlety in comparing the vampire rights movement to the gay rights movement; vamps are described as "coming out of the coffin," and a churchyard sign announces that "God hates fangs."

Based on the first episode, the show is something of a mess. The characters are cartoons, rarely rising to the level of two-dimensionality, much less three, and each can be reduced to an obvious cliche -- Sassy Black Diva, Lovestruck Boss, Irresponsible Horndog, Wise Old Granny, and so on. The vampire/gay equivalency is poorly handled and borders on the offensive, surprising from Ball, who has proven himself capable of telling gay stories with great sensitivity on Six Feet Under; it's sad to see him retreating to this sort of cowardly "don't scare the straight folks" allegory.

And the show can't even make up its mind about its own internal logic. For the first several minutes, it seems that Sookie's overhearing of thoughts is completely involuntary, but there are people whose thoughts aren't heard (or at least, we don't hear them when they're near enough to Sookie that we should), such as her brother and grandmother. And by the end of the show, the dialogue has strongly suggested that Sookie can, in fact, control her ability; her best friend screams at her, "You promised to stay out of my head!"

This is a major disappointment.

September 10, 2008

TV: Hole in the Wall (Fox, Thursday 8 pm)

If you enjoyed Wipeout this summer, then Hole in the Wall is made for you.

It's another adaptation of a Japanese game show built around watching people fail at elaborate physical stunts and fall into pools of water. Two teams of three compete in each match (an hour long episode features two matches). They stand in front of a pool and a styrofoam wall approaches. There's a hole cut into the wall through which it is (at least theoretically) possible for the contestants to pass their body; twisting oneself into pretzel shapes is required, as is the occasional bit of leaping. If a contestant successfully passes through the hole, his team scores points; if the non-hole part of the wall knocks him into the pool, no points. Couldn't be much simpler, and you needn't fear being even remotely challenged on an intellectual level.

Host Mark Thompson oversees the events from a balcony, bellowing instructions like a bad wrestling announcer; his unfortunate catch phrase, as each round begins, is "It's time to face the hole!," which sounds vaguely pornographic (an aura that's only furthered by the skin-tight silver bodysuits the contestants wear). Chatting with the contestants on the sidelines is Brooke Burns, who has experience with this sort of thing from her years as host of Dog Eat Dog. The crowd noise is so loud that she's forced to scream in order to be heard, and it makes her voice sound very harsh and painful to listen to.

It's hard to imagine that this is going to do particularly well against Ugly Betty and Survivor; neither of those shows is as strong as it once was, but they still have sizable loyal audiences. Then again, it's probably dirt-cheap to produce, so Fox doesn't need it to draw an enormous audience. It's harmless stupid entertainment, and if I was bored some night with nothing to do, it would be a tolerable way to pass the time, but it's not much more than that.

September 08, 2008

BOOKS: Rapture Ready, Daniel Radosh (2008)

An outsider's look at the world of Christian pop culture.

The title is perhaps a bit misleading; the Rapture only pops up briefly, during Radosh's chapter on apocalyptic Christian fiction. For the most part, the culture Radosh explores falls closer to mainstream Christianity.

There's a Christian equivalent to almost every aspect of mainstream pop culture -- rock music, stand up comedy, music festivals, theme parks, even pro wrestling. There are exceptions, of course. Mainstream country music, for instance, has enough religious content that a specificially Christian version is unnecessary.

And there's very little Christian hip-hop or rap. Most pop musicians can write what Radosh calls "Jesus is my girlfriend" songs, in which the object of one's devotion is ambiguous -- might be Jesus, might be a girl. But hip-hop generally treats women with less respect, and "Jesus is my ho" songs aren't going to be quite as effective.

Radosh is respectful to his subjects, for the most part, though there are a few whose views are just so extreme that it's nearly impossible not to ridicule them -- the staff of a Creation Museum where kids can ride on a dinosaur, for instance -- or so potentially dangerous that they must be precisely and carefully ripped to shreds, such as the movement to install abstinence-only sex education in schools.

The writing is breezy and accessible; this is not a heavy, scholarly study of the topic. Radosh concludes that those of us on the outside of this world need to embrace, or at least be more welcoming to, those forms of Christian pop culture that aren't completely loony. By condemning them, he argues, we set ourselves in opposition to moderate Christians, who if forced to choose between the secular world and the more unpleasant extremes of Christianity will choose the latter.

A worthwhile and very readable overview of a world most of us don't see very much of.

September 07, 2008

BOOKS: Eight of Swords, David Skibbins (2005)

First volume (of four, so far) in Skibbins' series about Berkeley Tarot reader Warren Ritter.

Warren reads the Tarot mostly for the money, and is something of an agnostic as to whether there's any validity to his readings. But when teenaged Heather Wellington asks for a reading, the cards are so unsettling, both singly and in combination, that even Warren is disturbed. He breaks off the reading and fibs his way to a somewhat less ominous reading.

Much to his horror, Heather is kidnapped later that day, and Warren finds himself one of the chief suspects. Warren can't afford to have the law snooping around, so he starts investigating the crime himself, hoping to solve it before the cops figure out who he really is.

Because Warren Ritter isn't his real name; he is, in fact, a fugitive from justice. In the 60s, he was a member of the Weather Underground, and "Warren Ritter" is only one of a handful of fake identities that he has developed in various cities. Skibbins never spells out precisely what crimes Warren is wanted for (or whether he's actually guilty), but we do get the sense that he was a relatively minor player. It's even possible that he was so minor a figure that no one is actually looking for him, especially since he faked his own death 30 years ago, but Warren's paranoia won't allow him to take that chance.

The mystery is a good one, with an entertaining assortment of suspects and sidekick characters; the standout of the latter is Sally, a disabled computer expert who is the closest thing Warren has to a girlfriend. The storytelling moves along rapidly, and the suspenseful moments work well. Warren himself is a terrific character, and his combination of paranoia and bipolar disorder makes him even more unreliable than most first-person narrators.

I'm sure that some will be completely appalled at the thought of a series hero who's been living underground as a fugitive for 30 years; they should probably avoid this series. As for me, I'm planning to move on to the second volume.

September 03, 2008

TV: 90210 (CW, Tuesday 8 pm)

I never watched the original version of Beverly Hills 90210, and I am some 20 years north of the show's target demographic. So my reaction may not mean much, but y'know, as dumb teen soap operas go, this two-hour premiere wasn't half bad.

Our heroes this time around are Annie and Dixon Wilson (Shenae Grimes and Tristan Wilds), teens who are unhappy about being hauled from their home in Kansas to Beverly Hills, where dad Harry (Rob Estes) has accepted a job as principal at West Beverly Hills High (his own alma mater). Harry's brought the family to California to be with his mother, Tabitha, who apparently can no longer live on her own, though it's never quite spelled out why (Jessica Walter plays Grandma, doing yet another variation on her bitchy lush persona).

There are brief hints of a complicated backstory involving Dixon's adoption into the Wilson family (he is African-American). The Wilson family is rounded out by mom (Lori Laughlin), who makes so little impression in the first two hours that I don't remember if we even heard her name.

The show wastes no time throwing the Wilson kids, especially Annie, into the drama of WBH High social life. By the end of the premiere, Annie has managed to befriend both queen bee Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord) and moody geek girl Silver (Jessica Stroup), and to become the center of a love triangle involving Ty (Adam Gregory), who is filthy rich even by Beverly Hills standards, and the school's king jock Ethan (Dustin Milligan). How she's going to juggle these conflicting social circles is beyond me -- Naomi and Silver hate one another, and Ethan began the episode as Naomi's boyfriend -- but if anyone can do it, it's Annie, who is so sweet and wholesome it could make your teeth hurt.

Meanwhile, Dixon takes his place among the jockocracy by joining Ethan on the lacrosse team, lacrosse having inexplicably taken over from basketball and football at WBH High as the sport of choice, and becoming friends with Navid (Michael Steger), the school's star journalist. (Right, because the jock and the school news geek are always best buds. Were one in a cynical mood, one might suspect that the two ethnic minorities were being given the best-pals-goofing-around storylines in order to avoid having to pair either of them with one of the show's white female leads.)

And even poor Harry gets his own romantic fallout storyline to deal with, learning that his one-time high school sweetheart, who happens to be Naomi's mother, gave up their son for adoption without ever telling him she was pregnant.

Clearly, one theme of the show will be the struggle of the Wilson kids to maintain their wholesome Midwestern decency, innocence, and goodness in the face of the evil, corrupt, decadent California values, which this version of the show can present more explicitly than the original ever could. There is, for instance, implied oral sex almost as soon as we get to school, roughly five minutes into the hour. (So much for the "family hour.") And I haven't even mentioned the drug addict who steals other girls' purses to finance her habit, the English teacher who's hitting on the guidance counselor (Jennie Garth, reprising her character from the original BH90210), or the "borrowing" of three pigs from Navid's porn-producer dad.

Yes, all of the expected flaws of the high-school soap are present. The acting's a bit on the hammy side; the storylines are flamboyantly melodramatic; and none of the West Beverly students looks any younger than 23. But for fans of the genre, those are also its charms. The kids are pretty (Steger and Gregory are particularly handsome young men); the adults have the sense to stay in the background; and the soap is as sudsy as you could want.

BOOKS: Beginner's Greek, James Collins (2008)

Peter is the sort of hopeless romantic who has always believed that he will meet his true love in some unlikely way, and fall for her in an instant. Every time he gets onto an airplane, some small part of thinks that this is where he'll meet her; she'll sit next to him, they'll strike up a conversation, and by the end of the flight, they'll know it's meant to be.

So when Holly takes the seat next to Peter and they find themselves deep in conversation about their careers, their lives, the book she's reading (The Magic Mountain), he knows that fate has struck. He leaves the plane with her phone number and promises to call her for dinner before he goes back to New York. Alas, when he gets to his hotel, he has lost the paper with her number on it. Fate has been unkind, and it seems unlikely that Peter will ever be reunited with Holly, the perfect woman of his most romantic dreams.

That is the set up for Collins' delightful romantic comedy of second chances and magnificent coincidence, in which we follow Peter and Holly (who do, of course, eventually meet again) as they struggle to overcome the assorted obstacles that life throws in their way -- her husband and his wife chief among them.

I don't read a lot of romantic comedy, but in my limited experience, it's unusual to have this sort of story told from the male point of view (or by a male author, for that matter). That's not to suggest that Peter's is the only point of view -- all of the major characters, and several of the minor ones, get their turn at center stage -- but he is, I think, the principal player here.

Collins' writing is a joy to read, filled with long, flowing paragraphs of dry wit and sparkling insight into the way people think and behave when they're in love. His characters are distinctive and memorable, and they are, on the whole, splendidly decent people; each one seeks his or her own happiness, but none of them wish to find it at the expense of their friends or colleagues. It's a novel in which everyone is trying desperately to do the right thing.

I was reminded at times of Elinor Lipman, another intensely humane author with great insight into the way we behave, and while I am not a fan of Jane Austen, I suspect that her devotees might also enjoy this novel immensely.

I have minor quibbles, to be sure. There are a few too many spectacular coincidences and events that happen at precisely the necessary moment to drive the plot. And it seems unlikely that these 21st-century New Yorkers would have not one gay friend or relationship among them; the novel's sole mention of homosexuality is as the punchline to a bad mistaken identity joke.

But they are minor quibbles, indeed. Beginner's Greek is a delightful novel, and even if you can see the happy ending coming a mile away, it's great fun watching as Collins devises more and cleverer ways to put it off just a little longer.