Books and Movies

“The theologians, the apologists, and their kin the metaphysicians, the high-handed statesmen, and others, no longer interest me. All that has been spoilt for me by the grind of stern reality!" – Jude the Obscure

Thomas Hardy wrote a book that appeals to bitter souls lurking in basements, clad in sweatpants and white tube socks. The idealism is far beyond sadder but wiser. It’s more like sadder, but without a prescription for Cymbalta and verging on suicide but determined to live just long enough to bring everyone around him down. Even Angela’s Ashes had a soupcon of hope as the writer of that unrelentingly depressing (and therefore perfect) Irish morality tale left the environment for a better one.

I picked this up because I’d read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd and enjoyed them immensely. The descriptions are beautiful. Hardy writes poetry set in prose with a philosophical scaffolding. As it turns out, the philosophy in this work veers away from the Victorian moral outlook of its time; indeed, it rather crashes headlong into it. Very well, sometimes a writer has to question social conventions. - July 17, 2018

In Tell Me Why, Tim Riley exudes expertise in music theory as well as a talent for language as he explores every song recorded and released by the Beatles. One paragraph about George Harrison’s songwriting debut captures the essence of the writer’s facility for the subject:

“’Don’t Bother Me’ has a variety of texture; good use is made of the stop-time breaks before each verse; and there is a brooding, almost malevolent quality in the singing that suits the lyric (the modal harmonic design sets dorian verses off an aeolian bridge ).” Mind, this is a random pick of hundreds of other paragraphs with marvelous descriptions.

I don’t agree with all his assessments – he all but hates the Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine albums. He considers Sgt. Pepper a “flawed masterpiece,” yet spends page after page caressing bar after bar the songs.

Riley throws away his credibility as he peruses the post-Beatles catalogue. In Wedding Album by John Lennon and the missus, he writes that “Side one is another extended dialogue: John says ‘Yoko,’ Yoko answers, ‘John’ for over twenty-two minutes. But the range of emotion they evoke with these two words transcends the self-indulgent framework: when Yoko erupts in piercing screams near the end and John responds in kind, the moment is ripe with pain and desire; at another point, they become deeply erotic.”

“Ripe with pain” is an understatement. Pain is the most probable reaction to anything recorded with Yoko Oh-No’s shrieking voice. In a better world, or at least with a reviewer with better sense, this tripe would be laughed to scorn. I don’t blame her for breaking up the Beatles, but I do blame Lennon for letting her near a live microphone.

My advice to would-be readers is to stick with the group’s output, shrug at his criticisms of most of George Harrison’s work, and ignore the rest. - June 30, 2018 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Years before Sam Walton launched his discount chain, there was always the icehouse on Telephone Road in Houston for a peek at the kind of people described in JD Vance’s memoir of his life in Appalachian Kentucky. I was reminded of something my grandmother always said: “There’s no shame in being poor, but you don’t have to ACT poor.”

Hillbilly Elegy is a combination of Angela’s Ashes and Tobacco Road. Chapter after chapter portray the kind of people that can only be charitably referred to as dysfunctional. This is not a sociological study; this is a memoir of a man who escaped through sheer dint of effort and study. He joined the Marines thinking the toughest branch would shape him up. It worked. The worst insults a DI could hurl bounced right off him. His own mother said worse when she was sober. From there he went on to Ohio State University then Yale, of all places, to earn a law degree.

Vance does not spare his family. In spite of the unflattering picture, he admits that he owed his success to a dedicated grandmother who always made sure he was welcome. He lived with her throughout his high school years. She took a dim view of his plan to join the Marines because they have a reputation for giving orders, something hillbillies don’t take kindly to, but she supported him nevertheless.

It’s an inspiring read, but brace yourself for an unrelenting, depressing view of an underclass that revels in its hillbillyness. – June 14, 2018

I didn’t set out to read all the novels by Willa Cather, but as of this week, I’ve gone through her canon, including a collection of short stories. Ironically, the last novel I read was her first – Alexander’s Bridge.

I first encountered Cather as a college sophomore. We had finished William Faulkner’s Light in August, so A Lonely Lady was like reading a comic book. (Come to think of it, Faulkner is a little too easy to parody.)

Willa Cather’s works scrape heaven when she matches vivid scenery with memorable characters. My Antonia captured my attention and my heart. Next was O Pioneers! Sympathy for Catholic belief imbues Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop. I’m a sucker for World War I, so I naturally enjoyed One of Ours which portrays a young man who joins the military to do his part in the Great War. Song of the Lark impressed no less than H.L. Mencken. The theme of a heroic loner runs through all her works, but the theme works best when she provides someone who rises to the occasion.

Alas, A Lonely Lady fell short. But it was better than the forgettable Lucy Gayheart and Alexander’s Bridge. In between were The Professor’s House and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In my view, Cather provided better work as a literary critic, in the manner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In a preface to the otherwise forgettable Alexander’s Bridge eleven years later, Cather frankly admits that “it is not always easy for the inexperienced writer to distinguish between his own material and that which he would like to make his own.”

“When a writer once begins to work with his own material, he realizes that, no matter what his literary excursions may have been, he has been working with it from the beginning—by living it.” - June 11, 2018

Jimmy Stewart: A Biography - Marc Elliot
Jimmy Stewart is among the most revered of movie matinee idols, arguably the most beloved. He was certainly one of the most done by impressionists, with a stammering voice as ungainly as his walk. He wasn’t a heartthrob on the level of others of his age, such as Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, but everyone pulled for him to win the woman. And he pulled in some good ones, too: Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Ginger Rogers, to name a few.

In addition to his acting prowess, Stewart also proudly served in the Army Air Force during World War II, rising to the rank of brigadier general after earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre. To his credit, he refused to allow studio moguls to capitalize on his honors.

Stewart received world-wide accolades. Thanks to a growth in demand for old movies on television, then videocassettes, then film classes, new generations became exposed to the mostly underappreciated talent showcased in black and white. In fact, the negatives for It’s a Wonderful Life, a holiday favorite, almost turned into powder in the can until it was rescued by more receptive audiences. The movie, one of the Stewart’s first after returning from combat, did not overwhelm audiences. Nor did Vertigo, Rear Window, Harvey or even Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Some of the movie examinations seem overly Freudian. For example, Eliot writes that Lisa (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window disapproves of Jeff (Stewart) spying on others as a “perverse form of nothing less than masturbation.” There’s also something about a gun shooting off likened to an ejaculation. Gimme a break. Sometimes a gun is just a gun. This is reductionism, pure and simple.

Eliot describes the ongoing battle between him and father, first because he couldn’t do anything right, then because he could do no wrong. Alexander Stewart, also a veteran of the previous World War, bellowed in indignation in the presence of studio brass when he learned his son might not get the part of Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis.

Most touching is the anecdote related by a member of a tour bus which stopped in front of the Stewart home. By now, Jimmy Stewart not only did not object to the gawkers, he knew all the bus drivers by name. One day a bus door opened and a little girl ran to see him. He picked her up and gave her a kiss. The parents rushed over to apologize. He responded by inviting them inside for ice cream and soda. Someone asked them how they felt during this impromptu visit: “Right at home!”

This is the genuine Jimmy Stewart. A man beloved even in Hollywood, a town famous for backstabbers. A man who married once and stayed with his wife to the very end. When she passed away in his arms, he said, “The only consolation is knowing that we will soon be reunited. Our love will continue in heaven.” A man with conservative convictions who stayed as a guest numerous times in the Reagan White House. And a man who returned to Washington to express his outrage over Ted Turner’s “colorizing” the classic black-and-white movies. He thundered, “The colorization idea is a vicious lousy unkind thing to do to a motion picture.”

Unfortunately, this biography reminds us that not everyone gets to have his life rendered into print by Plutarch, Samuel Johnson or David McCullough. At least Kitty Kelly didn’t write it. But she might as well have.April 19, 2018

Njal's Saga -  transl. Magnusson/Palsson
My wife affectionately calls me a “book snob.” Of course, she calls me a lot of things – yes, they’re all printable – but I’m proud of it. My own daughter also calls me “nerd dad.” I can’t seem to shake the idea that literature should be worth reading and educational.

Mark Twain famously described a classic as “a book which people praise and don't read.” Here are my top three classics you won’t miss: Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and Njal’s Saga. The last one is of Icelandic origin. Dull does not come close to describing it, so I made a sort of Cliff’s Notes version:

“There was a man named Grrot, son of Grynngynn the Shaky. He was a powerful chieftain. On one occasion a tribe of Krysspy-Kryyms crossed the Fjord of Thjord and met the Hakkyssaks head on. Whereupon Hammer-head smote Flytty the Impertinent and pierced his shield and shattered his sternum. Following this shtus, he struck a marriage contract with Pryssy the Pink and her father, Thor the Llowbyddr.
“The sage now moves to Innaggaddadavydda where Thor the Iron Butterfly and his comrades valiantly fought the Hwlloskulls and burned their houses. The fire drew boatloads of Troggs led by Lyr-Lyr-Pants-on-Fyr. They planted their axes in their heads, then called for their lead arbitrator to lead a council. Fflysswatr made a pact with Smellyyffrt and concluded with a concert performed by Bjork the Weird.”

Okay, I made up the part about Bjork. But you get the dryfftt. The only redeeming quality is that it wasn’t written in Latin so professors can’t torture students translating it. You can thank me later for saving you the bother of reading it. My motto is “I read them so you won’t have to.”

The Greatest Showman
I had no one to blame but myself for this. First, I expressed an interest in seeing Les Miserables. My wife had warned me that Les Mis was an opera, not a musical. “No problem,” I assured her. Critics were raving about it. So was I after an hour, but for different reasons. I wanted to fall asleep during the second hour but couldn’t, because everyone was still SINGING.

And then The Greatest Showman emerged in the December flurry of new movies. As it turns out, Hugh Jackman was the lead in both. That should have been a warning. Did I miss the announcement that one opera a year would be issued from now on?

Up until this movie, I’ve never seen choreographed bedsheets. It was a mix of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, without the dead people, the bar scene of Star Wars IV/VIII, and a Boyz II Men video.

Next time I watch an opera, it’ll in Italian or German. That way I’ll at least have a reason for not making any sense out of it. - Jan. 22, 2018

MAXIMUM VOLUME: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin - Kenneth Womack 
Maximum Volume is really a book about George Martin, but you would be forgiven if you thought it was a book about the Beatles. George Martin, as any Beatles fan knows, produced all but one of the Beatles oeuvre.

The elements that brought the Beatles “to the toppermost of the poppermost,” as Lennon put it, are on display. Martin took in the Beatles, hoping to replicate the success other producers had with the “beat music” of Elvis and Cliff Richard.

Their music didn’t bowl him over during a begrudged audition. After the boys ran through their playlist, Martin proceeded to tell them everything he didn’t like in his posh London accent. He then invited them to tell him what THEY didn’t like. After a nervous pause, George Harrison finally chimed in, “Well, for one, I don’t like your tie.” The cheekiness broke the ice, and by the time the boys left Abbey Road, Martin set the wheels in motion to replace their sullen, incompetent drummer, and make the Beatles a household name. They returned with Ringo to record their first “long play,” itself a considerable investment. LP’s were customarily reserved for classical records. Martin gambled on their collective charisma and songwriting prowess.

Of course George Martin’s work with the Beatles dominates the book, but he had made his mark with other acts before and after. In fact, comedy records put him on the road to success and eventually in charge of Parlophone Records. Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein brought other acts to his attention, and the British Invasion ensued.

The book ends abruptly after Rubber Soul’s release. Stay tuned for the sequel. - December 15, 2017

When I picked up “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty” at the local library, it looked more like a project than a book. It ran 640 pages and weighed as much as my dog. Okay, he’s a wiener dog, but he’s a lot of trouble to pick up. And probably 40 pages consist of footnotes and index. Still, it looked like a prodigious tome.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself turning page after fascinating page. The author, a professor at our town’s Rice University, performed a civic duty by giving a fair estimation of not only Jefferson’s strengths, but his weaknesses and his constraints. JFK famously remarked at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Nothing escaped Jefferson’s interest. He read voraciously, especially science, then known as “natural philosophy.” He studied architecture, and used his knowledge to design his Monticello. He owned patents on a number of items, including the pedometer. Thanks for keeping track of my steps, Tom. He made improvements in agriculture. As a statesman, he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which guaranteed, as the name implies, freedom of religion for all faiths. He used a fledgling Navy against pirates trolling the Mediterranean trade ships. When Marines sing the line "to the shores of Tripoli,” they are paying tribute to Jefferson. As if all this weren’t enough, he found time to found the University of Virginia, bequeathing his collection of books.

Above all, Jefferson was devoted to his family. He opened his home to his adult children as well as some ne’er-do-well relations. He hated to be alone.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson elicits the most ambivalent reaction among historians: “He composed the Declaration of Independence, for cryin’ out loud. Couldn’t he at least have released his own slaves?” Regarding manumission, Virginia law mandated that freed slaves must move to another state. That meant that our third president would have to find and buy property for them outside of the state in order to survive. He chose to keep them where at least he knew nobody would maltreat them. It’s not an excuse, but he thought it was the best he could do under the circumstances. - August 5, 2017

This Bird Has Flown: The Enduring Beauty of Rubber Soul – John Kruth
I’ve read at about a dozen books by and about the Beatles, three of them this year. What I had hoped to read when I checked out “This Bird Has Flown: The Enduring Beauty of Rubber Soul” by John Kruth was something about the songs, what inspired them and how they came to fruition. What I got instead was a sordid blow-by-blow account of how many and much drugs were ingested, and how many groupies/affairs were carried on. Okay, we’re not dealing with choir boys – well, one actually was – but if I really wanted to know all this, I’d subscribe to National Enquirer.

That said, this book does contain some background stories, but you have to wade through a lot of mud to find them. There are also some laughable parts. The writer NEVER could get the name of the Monkees right (Monkeys. Really? Monkeys?)

Skip this. If you really want some interesting and credible information, check out “Can’t Buy Me Love” by Jonathan Gould, “Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, or “A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Song ” by Steve Turner. - June 21, 2017

Just over one hundred years ago two indefatigable brothers decided to test the notion that man was not meant to fly. They studied birds and their wing motions. They built gliders, and even created a wind tunnel to test small-scale models. Nothing was left was to chance.

Wilbur and Orville innovated bicycle design during the years they also innovated their aircraft. They endured numerous Jobean obstacles – illnesses, crashes, clouds of mosquitos – but nothing deterred them from their mission. At last, the hard work paid off with brief but encouraging proof that it could be done! The brothers flipped a coin to see who would be first to fly their ungainly-looking contraption a distance less than a football field.

The commemorative quarter for the state of Ohio depicts the Kitty Hawk aircraft and an astronaut with the inscription “BIRTHPLACE OF AVIATION PIONEERS.” Isn’t Kitty Hawk in North Carolina? Indeed, the aviators traveled there, having learned that the prevailing winds offered the best chance to test their craft. They left nothing to chance.

In short time, air flight has become so routine that living near an airport is less trouble than living near a railroad line. - July 17, 2017 

RINGO: A Little Help From My Friends - Michael Seth Starr
Poor ol’ Ringo can’t get any respect lately. Of the four lads in the storied band, he seems to wind up on the short end in terms of musical talent, if you pay attention to critics new and old. Sure, he was in the world’s greatest group, but how many books have been written about him?

Well, at least one book has. This unauthorized book by a writer with the most improbably coincidental surname does not reveal much new material. Indeed, I’m up to here with all the sordid details of the behind-the-scenes.

What I really wanted to learn is how Ringo came about his drumming style. What were his influences? Did he influence others? For the answer to those questions, you’d be better off turning to the back of the book for the views of four modern rock drummers. All pay homage to this musician that has lately taken an unfair, uh, drumming.

In the past, luminaries such as Buddy Rich paid little heed, when they paid any at all. Ringo was a second-rate drummer who couldn’t even do a “mom and pop” drum roll. As it turns out, he was a left-handed drummer playing on right-handed drum setup. Huh, what? How is that? Paul was left-handed, but he acquired a left-handed bass guitar. Can’t you move your drums around to suit your preference?

However the drums were set up, Ringo developed a distinctive style. First and foremost, he kept the beat. You have one job as a drummer, and that’s to be the noisy timekeeper. Everything else is “drum fills.” Ringo was first-rate in what counted the most, and filled the songs admirably as well, particularly in “Rain,” “I Feel Fine” and his signature “A Little Help from My Friends.”

The Beatles were more than the sum of their parts. Ringo was good enough to be sought after by groups all over England. He was more well-known than the Beatles were when he was invited to join them. Paul McCartney himself said that when Ringo sat in for the moody Pete Best, “That was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”

In order to truly appreciate Ringo, watch the last ten minutes of “A Hard Day’s Night” as he enthusiastically thrashes the cymbals and bobs his head throughout the performance. I have never seen another performer having as much fun as Ringo on stage. - June 6, 2017

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
I took on Wuthering Heights for the same reason one takes on reading Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment, and climbing Mount Everest, and sailing the Pacific Ocean, and swimming from Florida to Cuba, and . . . well, you get the idea. Because it’s a challenge. And it’s a classic. As Mark Twain would say, Wuthering Heights is a book which “people praise and don’t read.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. Wuthering Heights clings to required reading lists because, in addition to being a classic, it’s written by a woman, which gives it sachet in the diversity curriculum, although more recent non-European woman writers are starting to elbow Bronte aside.

The main character, Heathcliff, is a thoroughly despicable character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever who never gets his comeuppance. Chances are you won’t relish the conclusion.

Spoiler alert: The main character dies at the end. Nobody mourns him, and the rest of the characters aren’t manifestly improved. In a nutshell, the loathsome Heathcliff has a dalliance with Cathy Linton, who is already married to another for all the wrong reasons. Heathcliff, a thoroughly Satanic creature, sucks Cathy and most of the characters around the drainhole in the eponymously named mansion.

The novel begins with Mr. Lockwood, an unreliable witness, informing the reader of the scene and the characters. Most of the remainder is given over to a housekeeper, Nelly. Somewhere in there Nelly lets someone else take over the narration. In a more modern novel, a chapter heading would give the reader a head’s-up who is speaking.

In modern parlance, the novel is described as a romance. It is indeed a romance, but not in a Hallmark sense. The book falls in the tradition of anti-Enlightenment sentiment. The British Romantics, following the path of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Mary Shelley, et al, exalted passion over rational thinking. As such, the novel clearly evinces a Romantic strain.

Unlike contemporaneous works as Frankenstein, however, the work does not pretend to present a moral, unless the moral is to warn the reader not to be an asshole to everyone around you.

In that case, yeah, this is a magnificent work. - June 3, 2017

You Know Me Al - Ring Lardner

The missing comma in the book title You Know Me Al by short story king Ring Lardner is not an oversight. The subtitle is A Busher's Letters which are purportedly written by Jack Keefe, a semi-literate and up-and-coming pitcher who breaks into the major leagues by brute strength and indefatigable effort. His prowess on the mound is matched only by his obtuseness with everything else. He is taken advantage of by the women around him, his roommate, the team owner, and a host of others. He continually threatens to wallop his many antagonists in the jaw, but resigns himself to fate.
Ring Lardner employs actual players: Christy Mathewson, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, and the infamous Ty Cobb. These are not just characters brought in for verisimilitude. Lardner covered baseball in the years before the Great War.

It’s an amusing read - I knocked it off in two days' worth of about 5-6 hours. It’s a book by a baseball writer about a baseball player that mostly takes place during baseball season, but it’s a study of human nature. Lardner was admired by no less than Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this. August 20, 2016

When I visit the library, I always browse through the new books. I’m an avid reader, mostly classical literature and history, but sometimes an odd title gets my attention. That’s the only explanation I have for taking home “The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones” by Rich Cohen.

I’ve never really been a Stones fan. When I was growing up, one pledged allegiance to the Beatles or the Stones. I began in the Beatles camp early on, and remained there ever since. Of course, that was no reason not to enjoy some of their songs - 19th Nervous Breakdown has always been a favorite of mine. It evokes beachfront hotel rooftop parties with teenagers sneaking a smoke and a swig from a hip flask.

I appreciate the fact that the Stones started out emulating the blues masters, such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Then they hit it big with Can’t Get No Satisfaction, one of the most ubiquitous and annoying songs on oldies radio. Fine.

They outlasted the Beatles by several decades. Bully for them. How many recording artists cover their songs? Paul McCartney’s Yesterday is the most-covered song of all time, and that was recorded two weeks after Ed White made the first spacewalk. Before their breakup, Hey Jude and Something have been in continuous play on rock stations. Let It Be was launched the same month as the ill-fated Apollo 13.
If longevity in the recording industry trumps recordability, the Stones win hands-down. The book details prodigious drug consumption of founder Brian Jones and Keith Richards. Mick Jagger was no piker, but he couldn’t hold a candle, however shakily, to others. The very fact that the sad and solemn Richards stalks still the earth is testament to the hardiness of the body and the desire to cling to life. - August 15, 2016

Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson
I just read – ingested, more like – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s study of the psychedelic era of the 60s. Imagine test pilots from The Right Stuff on acid and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. It’s e.e. cummings meets Yoko Ono meets William Faulkner meets bathroom wall scribes at a rave with day-glo paint.

An invented sub-culture needs an invented vocabulary. What exactly is “grock”? There is even some kind of invented punctuation mark that looks like a domino tile with a set of sixes. Sometimes the domino is on its side, sometimes standing up. Sometimes the domino is stacked on another domino. The only thing missing is multi-colored text, sound effects and scratch-and-sniff panels.

So, is it worth reading? I’m certainly in no position to tell Tom Wolfe how to write, but I have to admit that I skimmed a lot. There’s a reason why rational people avoid drug addicts – they don’t make sense. And if your book is mostly recreating the patois of drug-addled Merry Pranksters led by Ken Kesey, well, you get the flavor after a paragraph or two.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seemed like the right kind of companion reader to learn more about the 60s. The author of this screed is Hunter Thompson, but chances are you’re more familiar with him as Duke in "Doonesbury." He contributed articles for rock journal "Rolling Stone." As Frank Zappa once said, “Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.” This certainly applies to Hunter Thompson.

This is a despicable book by a despicable man. I found one passage worth recording out of 200 pages of gonzo journalism, if being in a drug-induced stupor is what "gonzo journalism" means. The book purports to be an account of an assignment to cover a car race. All I know is he abused substances I never even heard of, abused people of all walks of life, and abused the English language worse than public-school in-service providers. – November 5, 2013

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