Here’s ten books of recent vintage (2009-2010) that the Holy Bee found especially entertaining and/or informative this past year…
BOOK OF THE YEAR for 2010:
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Unlike the last noteworthy Washington bio, Joseph J. Ellis‘ brief 2004 His Excellency, Chernow’s work is not a cover-the-basics summary for the casual reader. (Not a criticism. That was the book’s purpose.) Chernow delves into amazingly rich detail, while never losing his grip on the forward momentum of the narrative flow. Interested in Washington’s famous dentures? Chernow provides lengthy paragraphs on not only the materials used in their construction (not wood, you simpletons), but how they affected Washington’s appearance and interactions, and deep background on his relationship with his dentists. (Washington was very ashamed of his dental deficiencies, and the letters to his dentists are in kind of a code language, to spare him embarrassment if his correspondence was ever made public.)
Chernow also sheds light on the difficult relationship between Washington and his battle-axe mother (who lived to see him become president, not that she seemed to care — she was more interested in hitting him up for money.) His somewhat lazy, shiftless step-son also caused him much worry, although it seems doubtful that any offspring could live up to his exacting standards. He never had biological children of his own. His marriage to rich widow Martha Custis, though a happy one, was made as more of a business arrangement, which was the custom of the time among 18th century landowners. Washington admitted privately to a friend that there wasn’t a lot of “fire between the sheets” (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much), but straying beyond his marriage would be unthinkable for someone of Washington’s level of self-control and sense of honor. Chernow believes there’s simply not enough evidence to confirm or refute the commonly held belief in G.W.’s infertility. A similar lack of evidence prevents Chernow from making any conclusions on Washington’s much-ballyhooed (in previous bios) youthful dalliance with his married neighbor Sally Fairfax — it seems the relationship was affectionate but chaste. [Anyone remember the ’84 CBS mini-series with Barry Bostwick as G.W.? In an otherwise even-handed telling of Washington’s life, former Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith (!) stuck out like a sore thumb, portraying Sally Fairfax as a panting, sex-starved seductress.] Whatever level on which his feminine relationships existed, Washington always preferred the company of women, where he felt he could be truly relaxed and less scrutinized.
The process of turning this flesh-and-blood Virginia planter into an idealized marble statue was well under way during Washington’s own lifetime. Washington was very aware of the looming figure he would become in American history. With this weight on his shoulders, he seemed determined never to set a foot wrong. His agony over every decision, and obsession with making sure he appeared to have not an iota of self-interest or ambition sometimes gave him the whiff of the martyr. His letters to associates are chock-full of sad laments that “public duty” was costing him his health and happiness, but he felt he could not turn it down or the fragile new country would slide into the abyss.
Chernow does not shy away from Washington’s one truly negative trait — he was a slave-owner. A deeply conflicted one, one who made many private remarks expressing his desire that the slave system would someday end, but one who did not make any move to change the situation himself. (Unlike his protege, Alexander Hamilton, who helped make slavery illegal in his home state of New York. Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton is also highly recommended. The man on the ten-dollar bill is largely forgotten by those without an avid interest in U.S. history, but without him, the country may have turned out very differently, or failed altogether. Not that Hamilton was without glaring faults of his own, but that’s another story…) [ED. NOTE: As I was going through my blog archives (“blarchives?”) many years later, I re-read this entry, and laughed out loud at the thought of no one remembering Hamilton in 2017.]
As a general in the Revolutionary War, G.W. was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, but kept a badly outnumbered and under-supplied army in the field for over six years through sheer force of will and personality. As the chairman of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was the only figure who all thirteen states — each deeply enmeshed in self-interest and petty squabbling after the revolution, but in agreement in their distaste for strong central authority — could trust to lead them into a new national government. As the first President of the United States, he proved a much more deft politician than usually given credit for, very much aware that every move he made would set a precedent. (The honeymoon period of hero worship wore off by the middle of his first term, and he was soon the victim of potshots taken by political opponents, just like every other president that followed.)
The world powers of Europe observed in astonishment as Washington voluntarily gave up absolute military authority when he retired as general of the Continental Army in 1783, then stepped down as Chief Executive of the civil government at the end of his second term in 1797. No one in their experience had disinterestedly walked away from so much power — twice.
Chernow’s work gives a portrait of someone who was aloof, class-conscious, overly-formal, sometimes humorless and ill-tempered. Also generous to a fault, fair-minded, practical, an avid theater-lover (even the bawdy plays), an amateur interior decorator (he took immense delight in selecting art and furnishings for every dwelling he occupied), a notably nimble dancer — and most importantly for a young republic suspicious of centralized authority — absolutely uninterested in power for its own ends, and absolutely incorruptible.
(Interested in other recent presidential bios? Ronald C. White’s 2009 A. Lincoln: A Biography is a thorough and up-to-date look at the Great Emancipator — but I still prefer David Herbert Donald’s 1996 Lincoln. I wrote about Harlow Unger’s The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness earlier this year.)
You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Break-Up by Peter Dogget
Beatles books have come in phases. First was the “authorized” biography, The Beatles, by Hunter Davies, published all the way back in 1968, before the group had even split. There was a relative lack of written work on the band in the 1970’s. Apparently, many people were hoping that their story as a band wasn’t over, and a reunion would occur. The scant handful of 70’s books seemed to take a sociological approach, focusing on their impact on popular culture. After John Lennon’s murder in 1980 ended reunion hopes for good, the floodgates opened, and Beatle-related books abounded in the 80’s, including a new “definitive” band biography, 1982’s Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation by Philip Norman, the gossipy “insider” tome The Love You Make by former Beatle assisstant Peter Brown, and the first major biographical works on the individual band members (Ray Coleman’s 1985 doorstop Lennon, Chet Flippo’s glib Yesterday.)
The Beatles books of the 90’s and early 2000’s assumed everyone knew the “story of the band,” and tended to be technical, encyclopedic break-downs of their live appearances, recording sessions, and equipment. And now, we’ve come full circle, with the basic story being laid down again, with new research and perspectives, for a new generation. There has been a new band biography, once again entitled simply The Beatles, published by Bob Spitz in 2005, an excellent recent bio of John Lennon by Philip Norman (again) in 2008, and now two new McCartney bios.
Like Norman’s John Lennon: The Life, Howard Sounes’ heftier Fab does the experienced Beatle-reader a favor and gives equal weight to McCartney’s post-sixties career (including his wince-inducing, train-wreck second marriage to former high-class callgirl Heather Mills in the early 2000s.) Is the recording of Wings’ 1979 album Back To The Egg as fascinating as the recording of Sgt. Pepper? Probably not. But I’ve already read about the recording of Sgt. Pepper 10,000 times.
Sounes is a typical British journalist, with all that implies — impeccable prose and a clear taste for the salacious, while pretending to be above such things. He’s not a particularly gifted music writer, though, and tends to inject his own opinions a little more than necessary. To his credit, he interviewed over two hundred people for this book, many of whom had never been interviewed before. Most Beatle aficionados know about all the trouble they got into in the Philippines on their 1966 world tour by refusing to attend a state reception given by the evil, dictatorial Marcos family. Sounes actually interviews Imelda freakin’ Marcos about this “snub.” Unfortunately, she’s kind of an idiot and offers no real insight. But I appreciate the effort. Interviews with former Wings members such as Denny Laine and Hugh McCracken add much more to the tale.
For all that, does Sounes reveal anything about the McCartney personality that we didn’t already know? Not really. Macca’s a cheerful, dedicated family man, a driven businessman, frequently kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless and gauche, militantly (at times obnoxiously) vegetarian, with an overstuffed ego that few are brave enough to puncture. Heard it all before, but it’s nice to have it set down in a meticulously-researched work that can stand as the go-to source for all things McCartney — at least until the wheel turns again, and the next generation gets their “definitive” biography.
Spitz’s The Beatles is a great read, but stops precisely when the band does. No epilogue, no “last chapter” about what became of the Fab Four in future decades. For those who are curious about the post-Beatles developments, Peter Dogget’s You Never Give Me Your Money can be seen as a companion volume to Spitz’s work. You can read the Spitz book, then jump into Dogget’s at about Chapter 3 without missing a beat, and the story continues.
Knowing what I already know, I was fearing that Dogget’s book would be mostly about the lawsuits and counter-suits associated with breaking up the Beatles’ enormous and profitable business empire. And it was. But he made me understand the purpose of those cases, and why the outcomes were so important to the individual Beatles on a personal level. For years, Yoko Ono was painted as the Chief Villain in breaking up the Beatles, then her reputataion was re-habilitated in the wake of Lennon’s death. She became the Sainted Widow and Misunderstood Artist for awhile. Now, the tide has swung against her once again. Ono was acknowledged by everyone Dogget interviewed to be a colossal pain in the ass during the Beatles’ last couple of years, and while nothing could have stopped the Beatles break-up, she was a vocal and obstinate roadblock to any reunions that John was amenable to in the 1970s. (She also derailed McCartney’s attempts to finally buy the Beatles’ songwriting catalog from Michael Jackson’s estate, for reasons that seem to be little more than spite.)
With his towering reputation for debauchery and decadence, and his slurred, mumbling speaking voice, Keith Richards rarely gets credit for his intelligence. But he may be one of the sharpest knives in the rock n’ roll drawer. I was always a fan, but I came to truly believe there was much more to Keith than met the eye around the time Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light was in theaters. An interviewer asked Richards about working with Scorsese, and was treated to a lengthy, informed diatribe on film history and technique, and touched on everyone from Chaplin to Cocteau. This is the Keith Richards to which we are treated in Life. Film lover, history buff, blues scholar. A hardcore bibliophile, the one major trait he shares with the Holy Bee. And musician. His love for guitars, and playing them, permeates the entire book. What they feel like. How they make him feel. Different tunings, different sounds, different styles.
His personal relationships and history of bad narcotic habits are dealt with with unblinking candor. After the craziness of the 1960’s and 70’s, Richards was “clean” and one of the great rock music survival stories. But being “clean” for Keith simply meant “no heroin.” Everything else was still fair game. This all changed after an accident in 2006 led to brain surgery, and now the strongest things he ingests are cigarettes, a morning joint, and endless cocktails of Sunkist orange soda and vodka, a concoction he calls “nuclear waste.” (Make that two things we have in common. This beverage has been a Holy Bee favorite since 2001.) Decades of pharmaceutical abuse has made him a cultural icon just as much as his music has, but he never comes off contrite or ashamed. He credits his survival to a strong genetic make-up, only accepting the highest quality (no “Mexican street shit”), and never trying to get just a little higher when we was already high.
What about his relationship with the other Rolling Stones? His love-hate brotherhood with Mick Jagger is complicated, to say the least. It’s clear he respects Jagger, but every compliment he pays him (on his lyric-writing, his harmonica-playing, his business sense), is augmented by two complaints (about his fad/fashion-chasing, ego-tripping, and uptight-ness.) Like all right-thinking people, he reveres drummer Charlie Watts. He’s fond of other Stones guitarist Ron Wood — but clearly not as fond as he used to be, becoming increasingly exasperated by Wood’s inability to manage his own substance intake. Richards confirms the general assessment of original guitarist and band founder Brian Jones as a musical prodigy, but a world-class asshole. Original bassist Bill Wyman might as well have been furniture for all Richards seems to think of him or acknowledge him.
The book was put together by Richards and writer James Fox over several years’ worth of interviews and taped conversations. Fox is no ghostwriter, but merely “put the stories in the right order.” The words are Keith’s, and they’re fascinating.
Diaries 1980-1988: Halfway To Hollywood by Michael Palin
The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
Several similarities tie these books together. Both are second volumes of proposed three-volume autobiographies, both are written by multi-talented British writer-performers, and neither are available in the United States. I had to get both from the British Amazon, amazon.co.uk.
The sort of person who’s read this far into the Holy Bee knows that Palin is one of the founding members of Monty Python, and is now well-known for his travel documentaries. He is also an obsessive diarist ever since 1969, when he started keeping a daily journal as a way to help him quit smoking. The first volume (1969-1979: The Python Years) would probably make better reading for the casual fan, but Halfway To Hollywood is full of behind-the-scenes tidbits for the hardcore Python-head, written as they happened. Along with all the little everyday details a husband, father, home-owner, and businessman has to deal with, we get to read about the almost-simultaneous production of the final Python film (The Meaning of Life) and Palin’s solo film The Missionary (which he also wrote and produced), which drove him nearly to the end of his endurance. He had deep reservations about thescreenplay for A Fish Called Wanda, and ever after its enormous success, didn’t seem to feel a lot of affection for the popular film. Palin chronicles almost a decade’s worth of other writing and acting work, some ill-fated, some successful, all of it work. That’s what comes across most forcefully in a diary format. Palin kept himself busy.
Stephen Fry is only slightly less well-known in the U.S. than Palin. Most Americans have either seen his face or heard his voice in something or other. In Britain, though, he’s nothing short of a national treasure. From his sketch comedy show with Hugh Laurie (who is extremely famous in the U.S. now, of course) A Bit of Fry and Laurie to his current job as host of the game show QI, Fry has been a constant presence on British TV screens, cinema screens, and bookshelves since the mid-80’s. The first volume of his autobiography, 1997’s Moab Is My Washpot, chronicled his coming of age as a part of the last generation to get the true British public school upbringing. (As always has to be explained, a “public school” in Britain is actually an elite private school. Think Hogwarts without the magic.) Fry’s tales of Latin lessons, canings, sweet shops, and rugby really are quite evocative of a dead or dying way of life. Less nostalgically, Fry ends his public school education in a manic-depressive haze of credit card theft and a suicide attempt.
The Fry Chronicles begins with Fry, newly sprung from a short jail term, getting a fresh start at what would in America be considered a junior college. He belatedly passes the entrance exam for Cambridge University, and the rest is history — teaming up with people like Laurie, their classmate Emma Thompson, and guys like Robbie Coltrane and Tony Slattery for live sketch comedy, which blossomed into short-lived shows for regional television, which led to work on the venerable BBC. Fry’s steady upward climb was offset by what would one day be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. The third volume promises cocaine addiction and a second suicide attempt. Fry, in his wry, wordy, very self-deprecating British way, can write about all these depressing things without ever depressing the reader. I’d hate for him to have to do it all the time though, and luckily, Fry’s career has been a progression from success to success. (I’ve just found out that Halfway to Hollywood will be published in the U.S. in March 2011.)
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
All of Bryson’s earlier travel writings, works on the English language, and layman’s explanation of how how we went from the Big Bang to being modern humans (A Short History of Nearly Everything) were devoured eagerly by the Holy Bee over the years. In fact, he may be the primary influence on my writing style, much to his chagrin if he ever found out. (The second biggest influence is Michael J. Nelson.)
Bryson spent many years as an ex-pat American working on a British newspaper, which accounts for his blend of cheery American casualness and dry British wit. In his latest book, he moves from room to room in his own house, and explains how things we do in a particular room, or associate with it, came to be. The dining room, for instance. Why do forks have four tines, not five or three? Out of all the seasonings in the world, why, specifically, are salt and pepper always found on our tables? Wonderful digressions are the key here. Bryson takes us from his dining room to ancient Mesopotamia, to Victorian London, and back again, maybe with a few extra stops. Horticulture, paleontology, mathematics, chemistry, economics, and dozens of other disciplines are all brought to bear on Bryson’s explanations, and somehow made relevant before he reaches the end of his topic.
What interested me the most is how recent our concept of “comfort” is. Until the last 150 years or so, people dressed in layers of uncomfortable clothing made of uncomfortable fabrics, and sat on unupholstered furniture in extremely dark rooms. (And the forks? Three tines = dangerous weapon. Five tines = structurally weak. Seems obvious when you think about it.)
Denver-area reporter Dave Cullen spent the better part of a decade researching the shooting rampage at a Colorado high school that left fifteen dead and twenty-four wounded. The hard work shows, as Cullen not only provides a minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened throughout the 49-minute attack, but also guides the reader through the months and days leading up to the attack, introducing us to the people who would become the fatalities, the survivors — and the perpetrators. Fascinating as all that is, it’s what happened afterward, when the media took over, that provides some of the most gripping reading. Never has a mainstream news story been so botched, and the national news media the source of so much misinformation.
Some of the the conclusions these “journalists” and pundits reached regarding youth culture, high school society, and music would have been hilarious if the circumstances surrounding them weren’t so tragic. Because these elements existed for them on a plane much lower than their Very Important Adult Things, the journalists seemed to believe they could get away with reporting on “kid stuff” without research. The reporters seemed to have taken the first few quotes from whatever terrified students they could grab as they fled, and built months’, even years’, worth of stories out of them. High school students are not the most reflective and articulate people under the best of circumstances, but in this case, their wild speculations were taken as gospel.
So let’s take a look at the Media Myth of Columbine: The two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were friendless outcasts, bullied and picked on, who were members of the “trench-coat mafia” (wait, I thought they were “friendless”), a group of angry misfits who listened to the “goth music of Marilyn Manson.” On their rampage, they targeted the “jocks” who made their lives hell, and evangelical Christians.
All totally inaccurate. Both were relatively popular and had active social lives. Both came off as thuggish, immature pricks, which is certainly no obstacle to popularity among high school males. They were far more likely to be the ones doing the bullying. The ridiculous “trench-coat mafia” thing was from one of those lame-joke captions in the high school yearbook under a picture of a small group of students showing off their London Fogs, and did not feature either of the shooters. It was seized on because it made a great sound-bite. I guess it was good enough for the media to simply equate “wears dark clothing” with “goth.” Anyone who knows anything about the sublimely ridiculous goth “culture” knows that those pasty geeks wouldn’t hurt a fly. And Marilyn Manson — assuredly not “goth” for whatever that’s worth — was just the latest “shocking” musical trend that parents were up in arms over. Later evidence and interviews with more cool-headed witnesses showed that the shooters targeted victims completely at random. (Hell, fire off some shots anywhere in central Colorado, and you’ll probably hit an evangelical Christian. The local mega-church’s crass co-opting of the Columbine tragedy for publicity was one of the more nauseating after-effects.)
The Holy Bee spent some time as a high school teacher, and has encountered many kids just like the two shooters. Full of inexplicable rage, even though they lead sheltered middle-class lives. Fixated on guns. Casually homophobic (they would have called Marilyn Manson a “fag.”) Almost all of them outgrow it, but you never know which 1% are the textbook psychopaths like Eric Harris, or the true manic depressives like Klebold, who saw the whole thing as a “that’ll-show-them” method of suicide. This wasn’t the lightest read of the year, but it may have been the most important.
The Holy Bee always promises himself he will read more fiction, and in 2010, he did a little better toward that end. Out of the handful of novels I got through, here’s the two highlights…
Drood by Dan Simmons
Simmons has previously combined obscure historical events and sinister horror fiction to great effect (2007’s excellent The Terror). He continues his winning streak with this look at the last years of literary giant Charles Dickens. History shows that after surviving a traumatic train wreck, Dickens spent his last few years working on an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Simmons’ tale is told in the first-person voice of Dickens associate (and fellow 19th-century author) Wilkie Collins. Collins begins to believe his friend Dickens has fallen under the sway of mysterious supernatural forces. Collins, the perfect example of the literary device known as the “unreliable narrator,” has his own demons to deal with while attempting to help the Victorian era’s Greatest Writer.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Two favorite films of mine are the Merchant-Ivory production The Remains of the Day and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Both give us a glimpse at one of the most privileged existences in human history — the landed British gentry of the 1920’s and 30’s. Huge country homes (palaces, really) set among hundreds of acres of fields and woodlands were tended to by an army of servants, while the owners didn’t seem to do much of anything, except grouse-hunt and sit in their libraries in a cloud of pipe-smoke being as eccentric as they pleased. It couldn’t last, of course. The social and economic upheavals caused by World War II ended this way of life. The fields and woodlands became housing subdivisions, the country homes were torn down or turned into public museums. The Little Stranger takes place as these changes are occurring. It follows a year or so in the life of a formerly wealthy family gradually shutting their lives down. Room after room in the manor house is sealed up, servants are let go, fields and property sold off. All the while, it seems something else is…not quite right. The Little Stranger is a ghost story, but the signs are so subtle the reader is not sure a haunting is taking place. The family may simply be haunted by a past that, despite its trappings of wealth, harbors a lot of sadness. They are certainly haunted by a grim future.