Posts Tagged ‘book review

03
May
16

Book Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of CrowdsExtraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

A charmingly dated look at frauds, hoaxsters and other chicanery, Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, is an interesting, facinating read.

Originally written in the mid-19th century, Mackay was a Scottish writer who dabbled in poetry, journalism and even songs, but is primarily remembered these days for this massive look at the ways people get sucked into scams and hoaxes. His book covers a wide range of these, from money bubbles to witchcraft trials to even more casual scams: wood taken from Shakespeare’s desk or relics of popular saints.

Indeed, his stuff about money bubbles is what draws readers to this book: it’s gotten accolades from people like Michael Lewis and Will Self; on the cover, Andrew Tobias says the first 100 pages are “worth many times it’s purchase.” It’s not hard to see why: there are three contrasting stories about economic bubbles which rose quickly, made a few people wealthy and popped, leaving a lot of people without money. His story about the Tulip Mania in Holland is already well-known, but his chapters on the Mississippi Company and South Sea Company are worth reading. The schemes, where people keep building and lending on credit, thinking the money will keep pouring in and in, have ominous echoes for anyone who thinks about Silicon Valley and the subprime lending crisis.

That said, the rest of the book is wild, entertaining and occasionally shocking. A lengthy section of alchemists is like a shadow history of the rise of scammers in Europe: people who’d leech off of rich nobles who thought pewter could turn into gold. Likewise, the stuff on the assorted quacks and fraudsters engaged in what we’d now call New Age-adjacent stuff shows people haven’t really wisened up in almost 200 years (or perhaps that money talks).

Meanwhile, his section on the witch trials in Europe is shocking: his stories of grotesque torture, people being thrown into lakes to drown or burned alive at the stake are horrific. Thousands of people died because of superstition, maybe, but he acutely points out the often political or personal reasons behind such killings: it was almost impossible to defend from a charge like this and some people made a living at going from town to town, calling people a witch and killing them – usually with the state’s approval.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Mackay has a dry, dark sense of humour which often finds it’s way into even the darkest of it’s passages. For example, take this section on a witch trial, where an old woman was accused of giving a priest headaches through dark magic:

“One poor witch, who lay in the very jaws of death, confessed she knew too well the cause of the minister’s headache. The devil had sent her with a sledgehammer and a large nail to drive into the good man’s skull. She had hammered at it for some time, but the skull was so enormously thick, that she made no impression upon it. Every hand was held up in astonishment. The pious minister blessed God that his skull was so solid, and became renowned for his thick head all the days of his life.”

There are other nuggets, like when Sir Walter Raleigh was challenged to a duel and spat upon: “if I could as easily wipe from my conscience the stain of killing you, as I can this spittle from my face, you should not live another minute.” Ice cold.

Although I’m not sure everyone would like this book as much as I did – and to be fair, I did skim it here and there because it’s awful dry in places – but I think those who would like it will like it a lot.

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27
Apr
16

Book Review: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our TimeA Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
(translated by Marian Schwartz)

Short and wild, a romp through the Caucasus with a Russian noble who doesn’t really give a shit about anyone but himself and even only casually at that. Pechorin doesn’t treat women very respectably, but then again he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like his friends very much either; I suspect he’d be the kind of guy who wears a trilby in 2016.

Still, it’s an entertaining and short romp and I banged this one out in a couple of days. Perhaps it’s the translation (by Marian Schwartz, for the Modern Library), but Lermontov’s prose is almost cinematic: the landscapes are picturesque, with pivotal scenes happening on mountainsides, moonlit beaches or society-packed ballrooms. The whole time, I kept finding myself wondering if this has been made into a movie and who should play Pechorin (I finally decided it should be a Coen brothers flick, starring Paul Rudd: an ironic comedy).

23
Apr
16

Book Review: Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's LivesShakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

The other night a local newscast had a story about Shakespeare’s grave, namely that his skull may or may not be inside there. I didn’t bother paying a ton of attention to the story because just a day or two before, I’d finished this book, which says (among many other things) that the grave has either Shakespeare’s bones, a horde of manuscripts or nothing but dust. It depends on who’s story you believe.

That’s kind of what this thick, endlessly facinating book is about. It’s less a biography of Shakespeare than a survey of his biographers, idolaters and haters. It looks at dozens and dozens of books, pamphlets, monographs and memoirs about the Bard and charts how a poet and playwright from Stratford became the national poet and heir to controversies that will never quite go away completely.

In a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, Schoenbaum lays out the facts of Shakespeare’s life: family history, as proven by biographical records, his career and a general order of plays, his retirement death and, eventually, the extinction of his direct biological line. It takes him maybe 100 pages, give or take. That’s when the fun starts. With Shakespeare dead and buried, the legends begin to fly all fast and furious: he was a deer poacher! He died after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson! He was cuckolded and in a final fit of pique, denied his wife the honor of being in the same grave! Soon, the legends didn’t fill in the gaps, they replaced the known facts. Oh, and we’re just getting started here, folks.

Over the centuries, more and more stuff sprung up about Shakespeare, all of which Schoenbaum has a knowledge of. There was eccentric scholars like George Steevens and James Halliwell-Phillips, rigorous biographers like Edmund Malone and EK Chambers and forgers and fraudsters like William Henry Ireland. And to his credit, Schoenbaum makes these controversies and battles of letters come alive in his pages; the Ireland-Malone battles are downright facinating and would make a good book on their own, although I could say the same for the battles over portraits 0r a wild and drunken Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 where people danced and drank during a flood that wrecked havoc in Stratford.

Throughout the book, Schoenbaum tries to keep an even tone, never going too far to bash one critic or writer unfairly; he’s even rather kind to forgers like Ireland. But when he gets to the people trying to discredit Shakespeare completely, he just unleashes on them and it’s amazing; he calls books unreadable, writers cranks or lunatics and dryly leaves in large chunks of their nearly-unreadable prose. It’s fun, but it’s also interesting and colourful history: Delia Bacon waits overnight in Shakespeare’s vault, working up courage to break into it and get the proof she needs William didn’t write his plays; Ignatius Donnelly builds elaborate machines to prove Francis Bacon left a hidden message inside the plays. All sorts of names pop up here: Mark Twain says he doesn’t believe Shakespeare could have written all these works, while Malcolm X says he didn’t even think Shakespeare was even a real person.

Although this book sounds like the kind of thing only a scholar would have any interest in, I think really anybody with an interest in Shakespeare can get a lot out of this. Although his writing is rather British in tone (lots of passive voice, too), Schoenbaum’s book never stops being interesting. And he’s read so, so many things it’s impressive; he’s even read multiple versions of books he despises for this project.

By the end of it, I was left with one sort-of regret about this book: it was written too soon! A little over a decade after the second edition was published (1990), a new spate of controversies arose: a portrait of Shakespeare found in Canada (see: Shakespeare’s Face), duelling biographies by Germaine Greer (Shakespeare’s Wife) and Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) and more arguments over if he wrote Edward III. It would’ve been nice to see his opinion on books by James Shapiro, Bill Bryson and Harold Bloom. But really, that’s such a minor quibble.

Don’t make this the first book you read about Shakespeare, but I’d definitely recommend reading it after Greenblatt, if only so you can see how much supposition went into that book and give you some perspective into it.

30
Jun
15

Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

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13
Apr
15

A Cat Down Under the Stars: Garcia – An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life by Blair Jackson

Garcia: An American Life

This is a big summer for Grateful Dead fans, both the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death and the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation. It’s no wonder the band is getting back together and playing a few shows – albeit at a rather expensive ticket price.
And in the years since the band’s legacy has changed a bit: people generally look past the troubles of their later years (rough performances, riots among fans, a grueling tour schedule) and focus on the brighter spots. Recent archival releases include their gig at the Gaza Pyramids, two box sets of their spring 1990 tour and an incendiary show from February 1968. So, lots of good times, then.

So with the big anniversary, it seemed appropriate to finally get around to Blair Jackson’s biography of the Dead’s lead guitarist: Garcia: An American Story. It’s a thoroughly researched, interesting book and does a good job charting his unlikely rise and all-too-predictable fall.

Garcia was born into a musical family: his father played in local bands and opened a bar that featured live music. But his upbringing was rough and troublesome: his dad drowned and Garcia wound up splitting time between his mom and grandparent’s place. He drifted into a rough crowd, dropped out of high school and spent time in the Army before falling into a burgeoning folk music scene.

These early years in San Francisco had a lasting impact: he met future band mates, his first wife and Robert Hunter, who’d have a life-long working relationship with Garcia: Hunter wrote the words and Garcia the music for many of the Dead’s most famous songs.

Jackson takes readers through these years fairly quickly, showing Garcia as a drifting, rootless musician: he’d crash with friends, play around in bands and didn’t seem to have much of a future planned. Eventually, one of his bands went electric and started playing around as The Warlocks; soon, they’d rename themselves as The Grateful Dead. They were certainly in the right place at the right time, quickly becoming the house band for Ken Kesey’s infamous Acid Tests.

From there the story is generally familiar to heads: the band slowly shot to fame, playing both Monterey and Woodstock and started releasing albums. But even at this point, Jackson shows Garcia’s darker side: he left his first wife and child to hook up Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl, coming across as someone who doesn’t really think about consequences. It’s an attitude that comes up again and again.

As Jackson points out, Garcia’s musical career was long and varied. But except for the Dead, most of his side projects were very short lived. His bands with Merl Saunders lasted five years before Garcia abruptly fired him; Old and In the Way lasted just more than a year before falling apart. Despite his image as a friendly, almost grandfatherly figure, Garcia was a demanding musician for most of his career while also being someone who’d change directions on a whim – and leave the firing to someone else. It was often the same in his personal life, where he’d leave one partner for another, often leaving them hanging in the wind.

Early in the book, Jackson says he tried to write a positive biography – “the Forces of Light win in this book,” as he writes – but even so, Garcia’s story is tragic: starting in the mid-70s, he started using cocaine regularly and eventually graduated to smoking heroin. Compounded with a poor diet and a serious smoking habit, Garcia’s body gave out several times; a diabetic coma in 1986, a serious illness in the early 90s and eventually a massive, fatal heart attack in 1995.

However, the unspoken aspect of Jackson’s statement isn’t about how he’s treating Garcia, but about the reaction to an earlier oral biography of Garcia: Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star, a book that paints a dark picture of Garcia and his final years: already in poor health and surrounded by enablers, Garcia worked himself to death by relentlessly touring, both as part of the Dead and in his solo vehicles.

While Greenfield’s book is much darker than Garcia, both work well together: Greenfield for the darker elements of the life (including his relationships with doctors and enablers), Jackson’s for the positive aspects. It’s worth noting Jackson never specifically blames anyone for Garcia’s problems, but does come to the same general conclusion as Greenfield: the Dead just toured too much and for too long, especially when Garcia probably should’ve been relaxing and taking care of his health.

As a biography, Jackson’s book is packed with first-hand sources and interviews and provides a reasonably clear picture of Garcia: a talented musician, but someone who didn’t like taking responsibility and didn’t like (or react well to) the pressures and trappings of fame. There are moments where he perhaps overwrites a bit:

“His guitar could cry tears born of existential longing one moment and roar like a firebreathing dragon the next. Sometimes one crystalline, perfectly formed note was all it took to draw a tear or a smile or even ask a question.”

But then again, it’s The Grateful Dead, so you’ve got to expect a bit of hyperbole.

Rating: 8/10. A fully enjoyable, well-researched biography and one I’d recommend to fans of the Dead or Garcia’s solo music. There’s a nice annotated discography in the back, too, although it’s quite out of date at this point.

10
Feb
15

Bad Cops: LA Confidential – James Ellroy

L.A. Confidential (L.A. Quartet, #3)L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Set in 1950s Los Angeles, LA Confidential is a gritty, dark thriller about bad people. And they’re supposed to be the good guys.

The book generally focuses on three cops. Bud White is brute, a cop who beats people for information and has a vendetta against domestic assault. Ed Exley is a World War II vet, a cold calculating guy who’s following the career his dad set out for him. And Jack Vincennes is a dirty cop who shakes down musicians and sells stories to a local scandal rag.

All three dislike each other: Bud’s seen as a loose cannon, Exley as a squealer (he ratted out some cops who beat a bunch of prisoners up) and Jack as a self-promoting opportunist, a guy trying to get his name and face out there. Soon all three get caught up in a murder investigation, each investigating different aspects and each trying to sabotage the other.

None of these cops are especially nice people. All three aren’t above lying to and abusing prisoners, to getting in wild shootouts that leave bystanders dead. They plant evidence, beat confessions out of people and drop racial slurs so casually it’s like they’re talking about the weather. They’re as crooked as the criminals they prosecute.

Which is kind of the point in noir fiction, really. The whole genre, going back as far as Hammett and Chandler is subversive in it’s treatment of police, refusing to treat them as paragons of society or even as generally good people. And Ellroy’s novel continues this thread.

Even now, nearly 25 years after it’s publication, LA Confidential is still a brutal read and hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock. It deals with hardcore pornography, underage prostitutes and all kinds of police abuses. The main thread deals with a crime called The Nite Owl Massacre, where a handful of people are shot to death in a diner; before long, this murder involves a whole string of underworld people and incorporates everything from torture to blackmail, too.

Key to its brutality is Ellroy’s deadpan and terse prose. He writes in short, rapid bursts, pushing the plot along so quickly there’s hardly time to stop and look at the collateral damage, the people framed for murder, the innocent bystanders blown away in the crossfire and all the civil rights routinely violated.

In the book, there’s a popular TV show called “Badge of Honor,” a local and heroic look at the men in blue. But Ellroy presents it as another cynical take on policing: they look good, but only on the surface. The actors all have dirty secrets and the policeman adviser is not above shaking them down and blackmailing the actors.

The mystery itself is nicely crafted, if a little hard to follow, but it’s almost secondary to the main stories of revenge and double-crossing, of a divided and compromised police department. By the time one gets the Byzantine lines of crime sorted out, the book’s nearly over and all that’s left is a cataclysmic shootout scene on a prison train. But really, pursuit of this crime just about takes a back seat here and there as Ellroy delves deeper and deeper into back-channel politicking, casual racism and cops pissed at other cops.

While I enjoyed this book, after spending so much time with other noir fiction I found it a bit wanting in a couple respects. It was a dark read, but sometimes felt like it was being intentionally pushed into the realm of shocking, like Ellroy was pushing to provoke readers. For example, take all the vice-related crimes. It’s not enough that someone looks at pornography, but they have to look at graphic books full of gore. Frankly, it’s almost cartoonish in how hard it tries to be disturbing.

Indeed, Ellroy’s treatment of sex in this book is interesting: it leads to vice and debasement, undoes the good men are striving for and, by book’s end, is the root cause of evil in the main villain. I’m not saying Ellroy’s a puritan, but I was occasionally reminded of the way David Foster Wallace treated women: he spends so much time trying to shock the reader it’s easy to miss the reactionary undercurrents.

Rating: 6/10. Recommended for people who enjoy noir fiction and don’t mind books with a lot of shooting. But honestly, I’m more into Chandler’s more darkly cynical take on LA, which feels less cartoonish and less judgey.

03
Feb
15

Richard Nixon: Alone in the White House – Richard Reeves

President Nixon: Alone in the White HousePresident Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves

A huge, exhaustive look at Nixon’s first term of office, Reeves’ book is a compelling day-by-day look at the making and unmaking of a presidency, often at the same time. It’s an interesting read.

When Nixon rolled into the Oval Office in 1969, he brought in a handful of loyalists whose jobs were to insulate him from stuff he deemed un-presidential. If people wanted to talk with him, they had to go through Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman first. So right from the get-go, maybe Nixon’s presidency was doomed: he didn’t trust his staff, loathed the media and had nasty, paranoid edge. He assumed everyone else did, too.

The Nixon that emerges out of the pages of this biography is one of a guy who couldn’t trust people and assumed everyone was as paranoid, cynical and prone to backstabbing as he was. He’d lie to one person, tell another lie to a second and wait to see which lie got into the media first. He had a whole cabinet at his disposal but trusted just a handful of people: namely Henry Kissinger, Haldeman, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman.

So he plotted, plotted and plotted. At his direction, journalists had their phones bugged and conversations were secretly recorded. Even before Gordon Liddy proposed operation Gemstone – more on that in a second – the Nixon White House reads like something out of Machiavelli or Game of Thrones, a place where everyone plotted how best to stab someone in the back. Indeed, things got nasty early on, when the White House helped cover up the murder of a Vietnamese agent by CIA agents, a move Nixon personally pushed along and helped inspire Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers.

Eventually because of that and other leaks, a second and more infamous cast of characters comes into play: Liddy, Charles Colson and The Plumbers. These people were assigned to find and fix leaks in the White House, to stop people from talking to the press and to deal with what the White House deemed enemies. In one particularly insane passage, Liddy pitches a program he called Gemstone to Mitchell and John Dean:

“I have secured an option to lease a pleasure craft docked in the canal directly in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel. It is more than 60 feet long, with several staterooms, and expensively decorated in a Chinese motif. It can also be wired for sight and sound… we can, without much trouble, compromise these officials through the charms of some ladies I have arranged to have living on the boat.” (pg 430)

Mitchell and Dean both think the plan is insane, but regardless Liddy is kept on anyway, and soon plans are hatched for bugging prominent Democratic leaders.

It’s easy to focus on the seamy side of this book, but Reeves covers the triumphs of Nixon’s Presidency, too. He goes in depth on how Nixon reopened relations with China, the long and arduous peace talks with North Vietnam and the SALT treaty with the Soviet Union.

In many of these foreign deals, Kissinger played a key role, often operating under only Nixon and in total secrecy from everyone, including Secretary of State William P. Rogers. The more I read, the more Kissinger reminded me of Nixon, too: paranoid, often near hysteria and constantly plotting against others. Unlike Nixon, though, he loved attention from the media, which eventually gave him a pass on some of the stuff he does in these pages, like ordering the bombing of Cambodia.

The book more or less focuses on Nixon’s first term, ending with the President admitting defeat and wandering off to soak in a hot tub in April 1973. A brief epilogue covers the final months of his presidency in brief.

Reeves does an admirable job cutting through the many, many documents Nixon left in his wake. There are hours of tapes, thousands of notes and even annotations on his news summary, just to mention what Nixon was behind. And while the book is detailed, only occasionally did I find the sheer mass of information overwhelming.

More often, it read like a screenplay, cutting between Nixon in Moscow and Liddy breaking into Larry O’Brien’s office, two currents representing the highs and lows of Nixon: his success in foreign affairs and his paranoid tendencies that ultimately brought him down.

It’s also worth noting the book is well-researched, with a good 50 pages of notes, a lengthy bibliographic essay by Jonathan Cassidy and had interviews with everyone from Nixon and several of his cabinet officials (although John Connelly is an interesting omission, if not a surprising one; he passed on Caro, too).

A final note: between the lines, Reeves sketches out what we could call the post-Nixon era. As President, Nixon looked to cater to what he called the Silent Majority. The way he went out to make the Republican Party more like that of southern Democrats, the way he relentlessly attacked the media and the way he tried to unite working class people against students, intellectuals and journalists seems like the beginning of the populist playbook used by everyone from Reagan to Sarah Palin, with varying degrees of success. Nixon: he haunts us still. (I believe Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland covers this in better detail; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s maybe a little too much at once for people looking for a concise look at the Nixon presidency and it ends a little sooner than I’d have liked, President Nixon is a well researched and compelling read about his first four years. Recommended.

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