“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!

THE LASTEST UPDATE (NOT A REPEAT!) FROM THE STORY THAT NEVER ENDS …

MARYWEISSDOUBEL

I’m up to 1991 in Greil Marcus’s Real Life Top Ten. It’s still running like a freight train most of the time. Then, every once in a while, the Shangri-Las drift in from left field and everything grinds to a halt:

3) Ed Sanders, The Family: The Manson Group and its Aftermath (Signet/NAL) reissue, 1971)….

Here sex can seem uglier than murder, murder more casual than sex, sex so often ritual, dog blood poured on copulating bodies a logical extension of the standard Family initiation or its everyday, California, do-your-own-thing version of Adamite and Free Spirit beliefs and practices that went back almost a thousand years. Even without the material on the Process Church of the Final Judgment and the Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, removed after the first edition because of lawsuits (that’s what libraries are for), Sanders’ narrative casts a spell so strong it can suck in almost anything. I saw the Shangri-Las in a TV nostalgia clip doing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”  and in their blithe teenage nihilism they could have been from Manson’s harem…

So, to previous descriptions/assumptions of Mary Weiss as…

Dead: (“The In Between Years,” Mark Sten, included in Rock Almanac, Stephen Nugent and Charlie Gillett, eds., Anchor Press, 1978)

Black: (James Brown, 1964. Also numerous YouTube commenters of recent vintage)

Jewish: (Are You There God, It’s Me Mary: The Shangri-Las and the Punk Rock Love Song, Tracy Landecker, Rhino Kindle, 2012…it was released on Sept. 11. proving somebody, somewhere has a sense of humor; Jews, Race and Popular Music, Jon Stratton, Ashgate, 2009, along with numerous articles/comments that can be found on-line, whether feeding the “research,” herein or drawing upon it is anyone’s guess.)

Catholic: (Most everyone else. Of course, one can be ethnically Jewish and of the Catholic faith. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Mary Weiss is neither.)

Brunette: (The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh, 1989…He mixed the Weiss sisters with the Gansers so he specifically had her in a beehive. Mary Ann Ganser was identified as the lead: “a straight-haired blonde.”  The error was not corrected in the 2nd edition).

Betty Weiss: (Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, Phillips International, 1966, and various liner notes to a number of other comps over the years.)

Marge Ganser: (A book on Rock and Roll Death I picked up and thumbed through in a book store once. I couldn’t afford to buy it and I never saw it again. Today, the internet yields no solid clues as to the book’s actual existence. But I swear it happened. It’s out there. No, really. On any bible you want!)

Patty Hearst’s soul mate: (“How the Other Half Lived,” Greil Marcus, Village Voice, Sept. 8, 1975...I had my say about that here.)

We can now add…

Manson girl…not to mention teenage nihilist: (Real Life Rock, Marcus, Yale Press, 2015. Reprinting a column from March, 1991, originally published in Artforum)

There are at least six different versions of the Shangri-Las performing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” on YouTube, but the “TV nostalgia clip” Marcus encountered was likely this one, which I’m almost certain is the only one that has ever been “officially” released (and thus the only one licensed to be on television) and which, when I first saw a piece of it in the 1983 documentary Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, I took as a sign from Heaven that life on Earth was indeed worth living. Different strokes for different folks, I guess:

And, no, all these years later, I still don’t see Susan Atkins or Patricia Krenwinkle in there. Quite the opposite in fact. Call it joy. Call it knowing. Call it the joy of knowing….something. Something not everybody knows.

Call it “nihilism” and I’m liable to think you are making stuff up.

Me not being a certified psychoanalyst, there is clearly way-y-y-y too much disturbance in the male psyche going on in Marcus’s piece for me to be comfortable with any further speculation on which of us might have a screw loose somewhere.

But I will say none of it matches what I still consider the weirdest description of Weiss I’ve ever come across.

It’s from the 1983 updated edition of Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City (the original 1970 version did not contain it). He described Mary Weiss’s voice thus:

“Deadpan.”

I ain’t going anywhere near that.

UPDATE: One thing I should have mentioned is that, in the liner notes of her (very fine) 2007 solo album, Dangerous Game, Weiss included Marcus in the list of those she thanked for their “encouragement and support.” His reaching out to her for a response via email to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks may well have been one of the stepping stones that lured her back into the studio. Greil Marcus does some very good things. Which may be why I find his own nihilistic streak very disorienting.