“TIME JUST GETS AWAY FROM US” EDITION (Book Reports: 3/19 to 3/20)

Charles Manson, William Blake, Gettysburg, Little Rico, Catholic guilt, the Normandy Invasion, Harper Lee, Brett Kavanaugh, and spies, spies, spies….All in a year’s reading and what’s not to like?

Okay, I knew last year was a zoo and I had fallen behind but this is ridiculous….let me just review the past year’s reading in passing with brief commentary and try to do better in the future:

A Loss of Patients (1982); Getting A Way With Murder (1984); Thicker Than Water (1981); The Grass Widow (1983)
Ralph McInerny

Like most series procedural whodunits these kind of blend together. The detective is more interesting than the plots and I found the Catholic element (this is the Father Dowling series) involving, perhaps because I knew so little about it. A quick way to pass the time though I came out of this run thinking I had probably got what there was to get.

Six Armies in Normandy (1982)
John Keegan

This reads like a Cliff Notes version of Cornelius Ryan’s classics The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, covering the Normandy Invasion and subsequent actions in far less time but also with far less insight and passion (though to be fair, passion was not exactly Keegan’s forte). Still, well written and so a good book for anyone with a passing interest in an important subject. I cautiously recommend it in hopes those who find it interesting will want to dig deeper.

Passport to Peril (1951)
Robert Parker

In all honesty I picked this up cheap and used thinking it might be an early effort by Robert B. Parker of Spenser For Hire fame (whose work I keep meaning to acquaint myself with). Turns out it was by a modestly popular spy fiction writer of the early Post-war period. It was short, I’ll give it that, but despite the spy novel being an American invention (Fenimore Cooper in the 1820’s), the Brits have always done it better.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Casey Cep

The title’s a bit sensationalist. The book concerns some interesting personalities, with Lee foremost among them. There’s a little bit of new info on her, which is valuable for those of us who love her great book, but Cep’s real achievement is in giving a snapshot of rural Southern life (Alabama), especially race relations, in the Post Civil Rights 60’s and 70’s. As someone who has lived in neighboring North Florida from 1974 onward I can attest to the quality of Cep’s research, even if her insights aren’t necessarily sounder than the average carpetbagger’s. Worthwhile as long as you don’t go in with any exaggerated expectations about plumbing Harper Lee’s mysterious depths.

Justice on Trial (2019)
Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

This was the hot-off-the-presses account of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings told from the perspective of two conservative journalists. As far as perspectives go, it’s about what you would expect. No one with a strong opinion on the matter is likely to have their mind changed either way. But the book succeeds admirably in what I suspect was its real goal: As a snapshot of the purely political process everything in Washington D.C., and especially the selection and confirmation of Supreme Court justices. The sausage-making is about what you would expect in a “free” society where the important laws are made by executive order or judicial fiat. Be warned: however you felt/feel about Kavanaugh or his chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, this blow-by-blow account of the process will likely turn your stomach.

33 1/3 The Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las (2019)
Ada Wolin

I plan to write about this elsewhere. Let’s say I was not entirely amused.

When Eight Bells Toll (1965)
Alistair MacLean

MacLean was already starting to wind down a bit, though he wouldn’t completely exhaust his formula for another decade. It’s no Guns of Navarone. It is, however, an efficient Cold War thriller by one of the masters of the form and I was happy to reacquaint myself with it. Recommned for completists of either MacLean or the action/espionage form he helped pioneer.

Call For the Dead (1961); A Murder of Quality (1962); The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963); The Looking Glass War (1965)
John le Carre

I’m coming at last to a project of reading all of le Carre’s George Smiley novels in order. These are the four short ones (I’m just coming to the end of the first long one, which is only Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  I’d read three of these previously though The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the only one that left an impression. It was the only one that left an impression this time either and the impression was again a deep one. It’s swiftly paced and has a claim on being the greatest spy novel ever written. Not my favorite perhaps, but it’s the one that feels the most like it could have really happened not least because it accepts the tragic view of life the author would adapt in some of the later novels, both in this series and generally. He’d never be better though. The rest here are skillful and entertaining. It’s to his credit that he was almost alone among pulp writers in improving on a good start so dramatically.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019)
Tom O’Neill

and

Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family (2018)
Jeffrey Melnick

And I swore I wasn’t going to read any more Manson books. To be fair, these aren’t really books about Manson or his family as much as attempts to make Vince Bugliosi–the prosecutor who put Manson away in a case where he had a lot less evidence to work with than, say, the prosecutors of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony–pay for his success. I didn’t find either book very convincing. If I were going to recommend one, it would be O’Neill’s. But there’s nothing here to add to Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Ed Sanders’ original version of The Family (avoid the updated versions), or Jeff Guinn’s Manson bio, which I reviewed here.

The Killer Angels (1974)
Michael Shaara

A re-read. One of the great historical novels and one of the great war novels. If you want to be inside the minds of the commanders on both sides who decided the fate of the Union by what they did or did not do during three days in July, 1863, this is as close as you can come without doing the research Shaara did yourself. That task wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and I doubt you would learn all that much more. He was good on the facts and even better on the Truth that facts cannot contain. As may times as I’ve seen Gettysburg, Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film based on the book, in the years since, reading the novel again still brought fresh appreciation of everyone involved. One fo the few novels that’s a must read for anyone who cares about the American Experiment.

Little Caesar (1929)
W.R. Burnett

Burnett was a well known novelist and screenwriter of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. His prose style was so spare he made Dashiell Hammett read like Henry James. It’s as subtle–and effective–as the movie still at the top of this page, taken from the classic gangster film it became. You’ve been warned!

The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics Edition) (1977)
William Blake

Hey, it took me almost thirty years, but I got there. At the beginning of 2019, I set myself the task of reading the 600 or so pages left when I dropped it on the shelf back in the early 90’s. Finished Christmas day. Well worth it. Helps to read aloud. I promise.

Fr 2020, I’m taking on the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe…Have to average four pages a day to get there by New Year’s. We’ll see…

And now back to our regular programming!

APRIL BOOK REPORT–O.J. SIMPSON, ALAS and ROCK FROM THE BEGINNING (4/13)

American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense (Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth, 1996) and Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder (Vincent Bugliosi, 1996)

I actually ended up reading these side by side–a few chapters of one then a few of the other–because a couple of hundred pages into Shiller’s massive tome, I felt the need for an antidote. The way Schiller saw it from the inside, O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys–not to mention Simpson himself–were precisely the slick pieces of central-casting crapola they seemed at the time. Whatever Bugliosi is–and I find it hard to have a completely positive view of anyone so convinced of his own righteousness and general superiority to the rest of humankind–he isn’t slick.

Anyway, this is the first month of my life I’ve devoted to the Trial of the (Last) Century and rest assured it will be the last. Of the two, I would probably actually recommend Schiller’s book. Bugliosi makes his main points in about fifty pages worth of real argument scattered here and there throughout a book that (when footnotes and appendices are included) stretches well over four hundred. Beyond that you end up reading a lot about how much smarter Vince is than the rest of us poor incompetents and wishing he had chosen to transport some of that erudition through his typewriter or expend it on something other than the prosecution’s generally mind-boggling incompetence (viable as that point is, it does wear thin after a bit). Guy put the Manson family away so I cut him a lot of slack, but he’s pushing the limits of a commoner’s patience here.

As for the Schiller version…well, to be fair, he came up with an interesting angle.

With Simpson’s guilt in little doubt, the verdict already well-known to all at the time of publication, and little to be gained by heading in Bugliosi’s direction of excoriating a team of prosecutors evidently grown so fat and lazy on the high conviction rates guaranteed by a system that routinely stomps those who can’t afford “dream teams” into the ground that they couldn’t get out of their own way, he decided to make his 700 page opus about the souls of the lawyers!

On the surface this might seem, er, implausible as a subject of interest in a case where the defense team’s highest moment was the inspired decision to replace pictures of Simpson’s nude girlfriend with a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a young black girl overcoming segregation on the occasion of the jury’s visit to Simpson’s home.

Don’t laugh, though.

It kind of works. Schiller’s real protagonist–who would be completely forgotten now if not for the strange, source less, perfect-in-its-disturbing-way celebrity of his insidious offspring–is Robert Kardashian. Mostly this is because the now deceased Kardashian was the guy who drew him into the case as the kind of “journalist” who could help shepherd the defense through the technical difficulties of transcribing Mark Fuhrman’s infamous, game-changing tapes (a “favor,” designed to increase trust and access for the improvement and/or existence of this very book, a service which one LAPD detective attached to the case deemed crucial to the single most important element in setting Simpson free, though one could, of course, argue that Fuhrman’s own vileness was more important still), all while believing fervently in Simpson’s guilt.

Certain kinds of journalists are, like certain kinds of lawyers, a special breed.

In any case, Schiller stumbled onto the one really interesting angle. Namely, what did Kardashian–the only lawyer in the case who was genuinely close to Simpson either before or during the trial, the only one who had a material role in Simpson’s cover-up, the only one who renewed his license to practice criminal law so that he specifically could not be called to testify about that role, and, oddly, the only one who seemed to possess anything a normal person might recognize as resembling a conscience–know and when did he know it. And Schiller the journalist milks this for all it’s worth, right down to never letting us know the answer but giving us all the information we need to make an educated guess.

Like I say, not a place I ever care to go again, but together, these two books certainly tell any moderately interested person everything they will ever need to know about this particular bit of madness.

Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, aka Rock From the Beginning (Nik Cohn, 1970, revised 1973)

A re-read.

Whoo boy.

One of the first “histories” of rock and roll. On the surface Cohn is pretty much a constant fingernail on the chalkboard of my particular sensibility. Whatever I like least in a smart-ass he tends to represent in spades:

Desire to be at least as important as his subject? Check.

Not too keen on the facts, especially if they interfere with his own reality? Check.

Literary pretensions sans literary discipline and training? Check. (He got past Tom Wolfe on talent alone, but I suspect he was aiming for the D.H. Lawrence of Studies in Classic American Literature at the very least, even if no torture has ever been devised that would make him admit it.)

Dismissive of anything he doesn’t like but weirdly (by which I mean, not quite sincerely) apologetic about what he does like? Check.

Hipper than thou, even when (or especially when) he’s pretending to anti-hipness? Check. 

Professional huckster? You bet! (His other main claim to fame is writing the story for New York Magazine upon which Saturday Night Fever became based. Turned out he made it up. Of course he did.)

Women problems? The rock critic’s ever-abiding occupational hazard–or perhaps job requirement?

Check and double-check.

I mean this is a guy who, privileged with a sharp brain and a front row seat–make that a Front Row Seat!–to the madness of the sixties, makes it very clear that the only two things which truly frightened and disoriented him were Brenda Lee’s pipes and Tina Turner’s butt.

Admittedly, two cosmic forces, but still….

So, with all that going against him, why is this still an essential read?

Well, for one thing he could write. Boy could he write.

Among English language critics who have covered the arts in the last hundred years, he and Lester Bangs are the only ones who I would ever recommend reading for style. Whether there is any significance to the two men being so close in age and both covering rock and roll–at least in those days, the red-headed stepchild of “the arts”–is a discussion best left to shrinks and sociologists. And I don’t mean to really compare the two. I mean, Bangs is what Cohn might have been if he hadn’t been a huckster.

All that said, he was often insightful in spite of himself and his commentary on the London scene from which he sprang is probably unparalleled, (and he was particularly good–not to mention almost eerily prescient–on both the Beatles and the Stones, not a bad trick for 1970, when seeing them clearly could not have been easy).

And believe me, for this sort of description, I can easily put up with having every single one of my buttons frequently and fervently pushed:

“I remember seeing them [Ike and Tina Turner] in a London Club one time and I was standing right under the stage. So Tina started whirling and pounding and screaming, melting by the minute, and suddenly she came thundering down on me like an avalanche, backside first, all that flesh shaking and leaping in my face. And I reared back in self-defence, all the front rows did, and then someone fell over and we all immediately collapsed in a heap, struggling and cursing, thrashing about like fish in a bucket.

“When I looked back up again, Tina was still shaking above us, her butt was still exploding, and she looked down on us in triumph. So sassy, so smug and evil. She’d used her arse as a bowling ball, us as skittles, and she’d scored a strike.”

Forget Tom Wolfe, even D.H. Lawrence himself never beat that.