Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction


Review: For Keeps – Pauline Kael

For Keeps: 9thirty Years at the MoviesFor Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies by Pauline Kael

This isn’t really the kind of book you’d sit and read cover to cover. Like, I did, but I’m not really a role model for how people should live their lives. I loved it, though.

What For Keeps is, is a collection of essays written for magazines (largely the New Yorker, but elsewhere too), generally reviewing then-current films. They were written back before screeners and largely before VHS/Beta allowed people to take movies into their homes, so a lot of her reviews try to capture her emotions after a screening or two.

Generally, when I read a collection of this sheer size and scope – it’s well over a thousand pages and over an inch thick – I find the essays all kind of bleed into each other and it’s hard to pick moments out of the pack. Fortunately, it’s not the case here. Although there are plenty of reviews for movies I’ve never seen (and probably never will), her prose, insight and instincts generally stand out well after I’ve read them. For example, when she writes about “Last Tango in Paris,” she carves into the raw sexuality of Brando. Elsewhere, she gets into the madness of Nicolas Cage, the way Paul Newman can make his characters appealing and looks at what made Cary Grant so good at what he did.

Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Still, there are moments which sound dated. Kael is probably best remembered for her insight or wit, but she also had a real nasty streak. When I read her calling someone a fatty, I wonder what’d she say about Melissa McCarthy. And her defence of a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy” seems a little reactionary, particularly since I’d read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist almost in tandem with For Keeps, and Gay’s approach to a movie like that comes off far better (to again make a modern parallel: would Kael have liked “The Help” or would she have seen through that, too?).

Probably the weakest moment in the book is her book-length essay “Raising Cain,” which is collected here in full. At the time, it was an incendiary shot at Orson Welles and Auteur Theory, arguing “Citizen Kane” was more the work of Herman Mankiewicz than Welles. Although it has it’s moments, particularly when dealing with Hollywood in the 30s, the essay is problematic: there are attribution issues where Kael claimed others work as her own; there are factual errors by Kael, too. I like the style and her essay is readable, but I also skimmed over it.

It’s a little hard to recommend a book of this scale and size. It’s a little unwieldy to carry around and the reviews are both too long and too few to really make it worthwhile as a companion to, say, Leonard Maltin’s books. (Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies might be a better choice there). But I’d still recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading good criticism, is interested in film or in writing their own criticism. For me, it has a nice spot next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film.

The thing about Kael isn’t her wit (although it’s nice), but the way poked into and at movies. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say she loved film, since it so vividly comes through with her writing, in the way she could enjoy both pulpy fare like “The Re-Animator” and high-class works like “The Dead.” But her love wasn’t uncritical: if a movie had holes, she’d poke at them: why was a character motiviated? What did the lighting do for a scene? Does a script take the time to explain a character? Etc, etc, etc.

These days, movie criticism is largely left to the specialists who work off in a corner that nobody really reads. Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for his work, but Grantland struggled to find an audience. Instead, people gravitate towards people like Ebert, who would sum a movie with a hand gesture, or TV critics who award flicks on a sliding scale of three to five stars. It’s kind of funny when some of the best criticism comes from Gregg Turkington and Tim Hidecker’s funny web series “On Cinema at the Cinema.” So go back to Kael, go back and read about some movies you’ve forgotten or never seen, and enjoy yourself. I certainly did.



Book Review: The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian – Robin Lane Fox

Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To HadrianThe Classical World: An Epic History From Homer To Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox

Written right on the cover of Robin Lane Fox’s book about the history of Greece and Rome is the word epic. It’s there three times, actually. I guess that’s a word which has lost it’s power in recent years, but it used to apply to the ancient world a lot, particularly to long poems by Homer and Virgil.

Neither of them really have a large role here in his book, but the sheer size and scope of Fox’s book sort of reminded me of them: he attempts to take a good 600-plus years of history, pretty eventful ones at that, and condense them down to 600 pages. He did a pretty good job, but it’s more of a casual history than something in-depth.

Lane opens his history with the archaic Greece of Homer, Hesiod and the rise of city-states (nothing, sadly on the Mycenaean era) and wraps up with the emperor Hadrian. In between, he looks at the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the rise of Rome and decline of Greek power, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty. He particularly writes with authority on the Roman years, especially when the last years of the Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. It’s all well and good, but it’s the kind of thing any textbook could have.

But where his book diverges is when it comes to literature and society, particularly in how they relate to the history he’s covering.

For example, his look at the first years of the Roman Empire is filled with references to the letters of the Younger Pilny, who he says produced the closest thing to an autobiography that’s come down to us. And the last years of the Republic are filled with references to the writings of Cicero: letters, speeches and works of philosophy. He uses these works of literature to show how people – at least the upper class, anyway – thought and felt, how they had to act publically and expressed in private.

It’s also interesting when he examines the roles of various forms of art, particularly portraits of people. What can the picture of a couple on a wall of a villa in Pompeii tell us about the people who lived there? What about the face of a boy painted on top of a mummy? There’s certainly some supposition, but Fox’s writing on what we know about these examples is fascinating stuff; I’ll admit to being a little haunted by the mummy portrait, too.

At the same time, his look at literature also jumps around and overlooks some people. Poets like Virgil and Horace show up a often, but others like Ovid and Juvenal barely show up at all. Lucretius, whose poem On the Nature of Things is arguably one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of Rome, is relegated to a single line.

But then again, he had only so much space to work with and condense into 600 pages. And there was a lot to cover. I’m reminded Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra, which tackled a similarly large, eventful era in a relatively small book. There was more ground covered there, but I think Fox did a similarly good job on this era. It’s readable, never gets bogged down in statistics or historical minutiae and should be pretty good for the general reader who’s interested in learning what happened so long ago and, more importantly, why we should know about it.

Rating: 7/10


Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

There’s been some buzz lately about Toronto bidding on a World’s Fair, which frankly sounds like a bad idea to me. Those things are expensive, take a long time to put together and don’t really have a lasting purpose. If I remember The Power Broker right, the World’s Fair is what brought Robert Moses down and he was as powerful a man as it got in New York.

Anyway, with World’s Fairs in mind, I decided to read a book I’ve had sitting around for a long time but never bothered to read: Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City. Larson’s the author of several pop-history books: In the Garden of Beasts, about the rise of the Nazi party, and Dead Calm, about the sinking of the Lusitania. This one is about the 1893 World’s Fair, but also about infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, too.

As far as pop history books go, White City is functional. There’s a story, characters and a setting. Things happen, characters explain why they happened and then something else happens. I suppose Larson deserves credit for that.

But as far as a good book goes, it misses the mark.

Essentially, Larson bounces back and forth between two plots, one about the Fair and another about Holmes. Occasionally, he follows a few other people, too, like crazed assassin Patrick Prendergrast.

In the left corner, there’s the story of how the fair came together, starting as a way to prove Chicago was a city on the same scale as New York and was the result of a few people’s focused visions: landscape, all-white architecture, the then-revolutionary invention of the Ferris wheel.

And in the right corner is Holmes, a manipulative and slick sociopath who constructed an infamous murder house, containing rooms that shot gas or contained soundproof incinerators. He killed perhaps dozens of people, typically young single women.

He weaves between these two plots (pausing occasionally to briefly follow Prendergrast) and tries to draw parallels and tie them together into one continuous narrative. It kind of works. Kinda.

The thing about these stories is how they all kind don’t really have anything to do with each other. They all happened at the same time, sure, but Holmes could’ve killed people in any city at any time, probably. Aside from a short visit to the fair, his story doesn’t really have any connection to the other plot. And on the other hand, none of the principals of the other story likely heard of Holmes before he was arrested.

But throughout the book, Larsen jumps back and forth at a nearly dizzying pace. One moment he writing about a specific kind of flower used in landscaping; a few pages later, he’s writing about how Holmes built a box to burn his victim’s bodies in. Eventually it’s hard to even connect the two, as Holmes moved on from Chicago to other cities: St. Louis and Toronto, most notably.

Taken as a whole, Larson’s book feels like it’s two underdeveloped books packed into one. Neither narrative really requires or builds off the other and at time, I felt like I was reading two padded-out magazine features at the same time. Before long, I found myself rushing to get through it.

But going a bit deeper made the book even more uninteresting. Larson admits his research methods rely heavily on period documents: he read many books, including Holmes own memoir. However, he admits he didn’t hire a researcher or use the internet, preferring to look at documents and make his own judgments. Which he does, quite a lot, packing his account with a lot of supposition.

This gets a little annoying and troublesome, especially for Holmes. After all, Larson admits, “what motivated Holmes may never be known.” Although he consulted with others on what he thinks happened, Larson tries to paint pictures of people’s final moments with Holmes and provide a motive where nobody can definitively say what happened or why. In other words, his accounts are colourful, but who knows if they’re correct.

Like I said above, the book felt like two stories that could’ve used some editing (particularly in how often they repeat information) and ran in a magazine somewhere. Here, they’re mashed together with some narrative twists and presented as one consecutive story. It’s too bad there isn’t one.

Rating: 3/10


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.


An Expensive Way To Go – The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

The American Way of Death RevisitedThe American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

A blistering expose of the bloated funeral industry, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited is a bunch of things: infuriating, illuminating, interesting and very funny.

Back in the 60s, Mitford wrote a book about the rise of the funeral industry and it’s many shady practices. They ranged from salespeople exploiting grieving families by price gouging to unnecessary practices like embalming or specialized clothing for the deceased. Her book caused an outpouring of letters and support – “it touched a sensitive nerve,” she writes here – but caused spasms of outrage from the community of funeral salespeople.

In the years before her death, Mitford worked on a revision of that book, which was published in 1998 as The American Way of Death Revisited. It’s essentially a rewriting of her early book, with updated material and her hindsight on the early material. It’s an interesting book, one I’d recommend wholeheartedly to anyone.

Mitford takes on an industry piece by piece, exposing the more ruthless falsehoods and busts them one by one. For example, she has numerous funeral directors explain why embalming is important: it stops decomposition; it stops the spread of pathogens; it’s a way to make sure the person is actually dead. Then Mitford busts these one by one: it only stops decomposition for a few days (and if the coffin is sealed, actually speeds it up!) and dead bodies don’t really spread pathogens; you’re way more likely to catch an infectious disease from someone who’s still moving around and breathing than someone who isn’t doing either. And undertakers like it more if the person is still not quite technically cold and dead, since it makes embalming a whole lot easier.

Mitford busts many aspects of this industry. There’s the huge markup on coffins and caskets, which often are just discarded when the diseased is cremated. There’s the bait-and-switch schemes they use to lure customers in and high-pressure tactics they use to coerce high-cost, high-profit funerals. There’s the relentless pressure they’ve posed on congress and governmental groups to help get their way: the FTC, which once regulated this industry, has turned into a rubber stamp for their practices, alleges Mitford. In some places, it’s even become a crime to dispose of ashes yourself – although one that’s unlikely to be enforced.

The best part of Mitford’s book is how she sprinkles it with a dry English wit. For example, here’s her taking on the so-called public demand for elaborate, expensive funerals:

“‘It is a little hard to conceive of how this public demand is expressed and made known in practice to the seller of the funeral service. Does the surviving spouse say… “I want my wife to be throughly disinfected and preserved. Her casket must be both comfortable and eternally durable. And do be sure her footwear is really practical.”

At others, she lets the hyperbolic funeral industry hang itself with it’s own words, like when she quotes from ad copy in a trade magazine:

“All three visions have come to be realities- the steamboat, electricity and the Hilco Peerless Cast Bronze Receptacle.”

My experience with funerals is admittedly short, but a casual asking-around of family and friends has shown their experiences to be similar to that of those Mitford relates in the book: expensive rituals, high-pressure sales and disturbing encounters with the deceased, who’ve been painted up to lool ‘alive’ once again.

Rating: 9/10. During her lifetime, Mitford worked up a reputation as a muckraking journalist and published several books – Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking is another that seems great! – and this one is no slouch. Recommended, unreservedly, even if only for the final chapter where she lays out practical advice on how to avoid getting gouged yourself and where to turn for an inexpensive funeral.