For my final review in my Cannonball read, I wanted write about the Secret Six comic series I’ve been obsessively working through this year. This is going to be a very spoilery, squee-heavy, fan-girly post, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Continue reading
I read Mark Kermode’s newest book on the flicks to while away a hungover Sunday afternoon. Kermode, a professional film critic, hasn’t missed the fact that his job is looking more and more like an old media relic. Twitter quotes are used on movie posters, and anyone with a wi-fi connection can bung a review online. Plus aren’t critics fusty old snobs who deserve to be taken down a peg? Taking on the criticisms of critics and the evolving critical landscape (hells bells, there’s a fart-sniffing phrase for you), he romps through the current state of moving picture writing, online and off.
This is not a beard-stroking analytic defence, it’s a book about having ‘the perfect job’ of seeing movies for a living and how that is (or is not) changing, with some anecdotal flourishes from Kermode’s lengthy and colourful career.
In my case, the dude is preaching to the choir: not only am I someone who is very occasionally financially remunerated for writing down my opinions on things, I owe a huge amount to various reviewers who helped me discover many new worlds. Growing up in suburban NZ in the eighties-nineties, there was only so much exposure to ‘different’ movies/music/books/scenes I came across naturally, and it was in magazines and newspapers that I began to find the clues that would lead me to more interesting landscapes. I vividly remember discovering the collected works of Julie Burchill, which lead me to reading the NME and Melody Maker, and Joe Queenan, who lead me on to Sight & Sound magazine then Pauline Kael and my head exploding. My family tended to take the reactionary point of view against my newfound cultural snobbishness – ‘The “critics” trash movies real people love’ kind of thing – which predictably drove me up the wall (still kinda does, the idea that ‘the critics’ are some sort of singular entity, like The Borg).
Kermode makes a solid argument for passionate interaction with movies. He doesn’t try to make out that a movie review can be great art, though I’d argue that it certainly can be – not only that, good film writing has the same joy as the 70s exploitation flicks he loves, that it contains art where you don’t expect to find it.
While he’s not my favourite film writer (<3 you, Peter Bradshaw), and this hasn’t become my favourite ever book about movies (shameless excuse to big up Antonia Quirke’s magnificent memoir Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers aka Choking on Marlon Brando), and he tends to stretch out it’s anecdotal structure to breaking point – I don’t really care why you’re dressed up in costume when you receive a text message at the pub, honestly – it’s a fun read. Maybe I’ll send it to one of my cousins who I had so many vicious arguments with.
Like a cookie full of arsenic, this is a flinty bon-bon of a read. A curiosity from one of America’s cheekiest sweethearts, Gypsy Rose Lee wrote this murder mystery set in the backstage world of NYC’s burlesque scene. It’s packed full of stripper slang, sass, and sequins, and was quite the shocker back in 1941.
Short and sweet, it’s a brisk read with a labyrinthine plot I didn’t bother trying to follow. Narrated by ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’, she introduces us to Gee Gee, Dolly, Jannine, and the rest of the troupe at the Opera Theatre where they ply their shimmying trade. Soon enough, a stripper gets knocked off – yes, a g-string is involved (Lee’s novel probably helped popularise the once-scandalous item), and paranoia reigns.
Witty and sharp, like Lee herself, this is a fun bit of nonsense that’s aged very well. The edition I read was from the Feminist Press and had some fun extras, including a chin-stroking po-faced scholarly essay about the writing of the book, and the letters to the editor from Lee that were used as promotional copy. Next, I’m going to watch the movie based on the novel – Lady of Burlesque with the immortal Barbara Stanwyck.
Tripping the light fantastic down the alimentary canal, right through from soup to, er, nuts, Mary Roach continues her run of popular science writing that yuks it up. Sometimes yuck. The squick factor is high with this one.
Roach points out that we don’t know a helluva lot about the digestive system, although pseudoscience abounds. Just today, I stumbled across a yoga magazine article arguing that raw foods contain more nutrients, fercrissakes. She jumps around from the magic of saliva, to Elvis’s super colon – poor old King – and the various crank cures for cleansing/improving/speeding up your plumbing equipment. There’s enemas with holy water and a brief but fascinating excursion up in to the prison economy fuelled by ‘hooping’ i.e. smuggling contraband in using the backdoor.
I loved two of her previous books, Stiff and Bonk, but I found this a more erratic in tone and harder to warm up to. Part of Roach’s schtick is quick comic sketches of her subjects, but sometimes these fall flat – and why does every single female she interviews get described by her level of attractiveness? That clangs. I was also driven to distraction by her wavering empathy levels. She’s touched by the plight of animal test subjects, but is incredibly callous when it comes to discussing human drug mules or people stricken by eating disorders.
The book is strong on interesting trivia and I certainly learned more about what happens to my daily victuals. I’ve been merrily grossing out friends and acquaintances with my new-found knowledge, and would recommend it as a decent introduction to the subject.
After reading 5 essay collections more or less in a clip, I figured I’d suck it up and go hard on the form. The OBE is 680 pages of pure essaying goodness in the English language, so no Montaigne, though his shadow obviously lingers over the result. Kicking off in 1625 with Francis Bacon chewing over the truth, and winding up rather oddly with Clive James in 1980 snarking about Judith Krantz. I read them side by side, deciding to take a double-pronged approach to the book (see illustration), flicking between the back and front. This made for some odd combinations, like Bacon’s essay deflating the snarky jibes of James – I guess the latter had to be included, given his reputation at the time, but he hardly shines having a go at a pulpy author. In my mind I edited it out, choosing as a better addition this delightful recent piece by Tim Krieder as a better finale, or the second to last work, Joseph Epstein’s wonderful About Face.
Henry Fielding and James Baldwin, Jan Morris and Charles Lamb, Lewis Thomas and Lord Macaulay – it made for entertaining combinations. Subjects veer all over the place, though it’s unsurprisingly dominated by old white dudes, there’s a mutual disdain for sentiment and love of language throughout. All the best display a commitment to specificity and generosity of mind, though I found the most joy in strange places: the natural history coverage (especially Loren Eiseley’s The Snout), Reyner Bayham on the potato chip (or crisp for the limeys), Macaulay on Clive, and the grace and wit of authors in places I wouldn’t expect. Some of my favourites I relished and saved up as reward for getting through a particularly tough bit of Victorian theology – MFK Fisher on Young Hunger, Joseph Addison’s Sir Roger, Pauline Kael on Movies on Television. I read a lot of people I’d never dared try before – William James wasn’t as scary as I thought he’d be, neither was John Stuart Mill or George Santayana. Two selections defeated me – David Hume and James Anthony Froude. The Froude bit was on the philosophy of Christianity, and there seemed to be a lot of God in the selections, even the second Mencken essay chosen was a weak one dealing with archaic gods. I know religion is a Big Deal and all, but I did allow myself a cheer when I got to Twain having a go at the All-Powerful Creator for inventing the fly.
Some of the pieces have dated badly – Elizabeth Hardwick’s The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King made me cringe, and throwing in Baldwin’s sublime Stranger in the Village doesn’t do enough to make up for the overall disinterest in racial politics. Snark and pessimism ages badly (James Stephen on Joyce: “the English language doesn’t permit more than a spoonful of pessimism – to be well shaken before taken – for it isn’t built that way”), and Hazlitt’s On the Pleasures of Hating testifies to that: ultimately the old curmudgeon doesn’t convince, even though he was one of the finest writers ever, he’s writing himself in to a corner.
Looking at the whole thing from a distance, there’s a lot of theology and ethics, a smattering of theatre/arts writing, a bit of politics (loved Walter Bagehot’s Dull Government), absolutely no sports, which I was surprised by, and much on human weaknesses. I finagled the reading so that I’d end with T.S. Eliot, represented by his oddity of self-projection on Marie Lloyd and working class art (and how the mechanical age and movies are killing us with boredom. LOLarious). But it was Katherine Anne Porter’s The Necessary Enemy that I’ve dwelt on, the same way I lingered over Chesterton’s Sandals & Simplicity, or Beerbohm’s A Clergyman. The best essays pack a punch, but also a perfume, to mix metaphors flagrantly. There’s the initial impact, once you’ve wrinkled out the meaning, and then there’s the unexpected gift you take with you unawares.
“I, Barrington Jedidiah Walker, Esq., have known you, Monsieur Morris Courtney de la Roux, since we was both high-pitched, smooth-cheeked, mischief-makers waiting for we balls to drop.”
Safe to say I fell for Barry Walker, the Mr Loverman of Bernardine Evaristo’s riotously funny new novel, at first read.
76 years old and still up for it, Barry welcomes us in to his world at a point of crisis. His best friend Morris has given up drinking and his wife Carmel has the hump (i.e., she’s right pissed off). Mind you, Carmel always has the hump – she is convinced Barry is having it off with other women on his long nights out, and takes refuge with her ultra-religious uptight friends. Barry’s daughters are split on him, his eldest thinks he’s a rascal who breaks their mother’s heart, the youngest thinks he’s a rascal but Carmel don’t half bring it on herself.
So Barry is creeping in to his house in Stoke Newington after a night on the lash, and reviewing his fortunes. On one hand, he’s a self-made man, moved over to London from Antigua and raised a family and a business. On the other, he’s been having an affair with Morris since they were teenagers and keeping this secret from everyone in his life has led to a bitter hollow core at the centre.
Sounds very worthy, doesn’t it? Immigrant communities, homophobia, domestic unrest, Evangelical church goers, the gentrification of working class areas, generational differences, institutional racism…oh yes, there’s plenty of fibre in this book. But it’s handled with such gut-busting humour, there’s not a moment of lemon-sucking social justice preaching in it.
It helps that Barry – a rogue and a scoundrel though he be – is a cracking storyteller. Yes he’s a sexist bit of baggage, stymied by the kitchen when Carmel deserts him to return home to Antigua, and he even manages to get on the wrong side of the eternally peaceful Morris. But his protracted coming out process takes him to gay clubs in Soho (his daughter at the entrance to a club for the older gent: “This one’s called the Elephant’s Graveyard”) and reading the greats of queer lit. It also means dealing with a family rent all asunder by high drama and emotions, a smart arsed teen grandson who fancies himself the British Barack, and Carmel’s own demons – including her heart’s secret desires.
I laughed like a drain throughout.
“Oh boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the Queen’s English…Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there, I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”
See, even when dealing with the big ol’ issues, Evaristo maintains a lively cheek. Taking a pop at small-minded bigots as well as acknowledging these character’s own faults, there’s a poetry to the down and dirty ways of Mr. Walker. Then there’s Carmel, who gets to tell her side of the story, in a flowy stream. Initially a bleaker counterbalance to Barry’s boldness, I warmed to her over the book.
A perfect, uplifting summer read. It pulls off the rarest feat of setting a steamy sex scene in a municipal council office, and could only really be criticised for having too happy an ending.
Ava Gardner was the greatest screen siren Hollywood ever produced. Sexier and more interesting than Marilyn or Audrey, even Elizabeth Taylor thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She broke Howard Hughes’s jaw and Frank Sinatra’s heart, met the great, good, infamous, and downright despicable, and liked a drink or five. There are three places to go to start an Ava addiction: The Killers, her breakthrough role alongside the blazing hot Burt Lancaster, Ann Helen Peterson’s smart and saucy profile of her at The Hairpin, and Lee Server’s classic, definitive biography Love is Nothing.
Server’s book is an astonishing read, one that opens up the strange machinery of the studio system in it’s heyday and of how celebrity and stardom worked through most of the twentieth century. It’s also full of eye-popping anecdotes from Gardner’s steamy life. It’s one of my favourite non-fiction titles, and I’m talking about it here because it’s a much better book than Evan’s newly released tell-all. Of course I had to read it, and I enjoyed the blazes out of it, but it left a bit of an icky taste in my mouth afterwards.
The set-up is pure Ava drama: the former party girl had become a recluse in her flat in London after a debilitating stroke. She was feeling the pinch, and called on ‘entertainment’ journo and friend-of-friends Peter Evans to ghost write her autobiography. He was unsure about taking the assignment, he writes, after being warned of her temper and demanding nature, but this was the woman known as The Love Goddess. She had a great story to tell, and he couldn’t resist.
Evans interviewed her and worked on a memoir, even setting up meetings with a honcho at a big publisher. But Gardner had forgotten to check whether one of her ex-husbands had ever sued him, and Evans seems to have conveniently forgotten to mention that Sinatra once took him to court. She got spooked, Frank paid her out, and the book was quashed. But after her death Evans took the recorded transcripts and kept working on them. After his death, they have been finally published. And what a ride it is.
This book fills in some of the questions about Ava’s life – her poor but loving upbringing on a farm (she resented being called ‘dirt poor’ by her studio), the discovery that changed her life, being married at 19 to Mickey Rooney – then arguably the biggest movie star on the planet – and the stars and gangsters of Hollywood, her drinking, her relationship with Hughes, her sex life…and Frank.
Scintillating stuff. In between revelations, we have the biographer’s duty of prying facts from her, taking her depressed late night phone calls, and weathering her moods and manipulations. Ava had a wonderful way of talking, Southern and straightforward, cheerfully vulgar but eloquent. She objected to him reproducing her swear words (“I sound like a fish wife!”) and found remembering the past often too painful.
I ripped through this like a storm, but not without a cocked eyebrow here and there. Evans writing is often pedestrian and he carries on with some jokes or themes simply too long. His tabloid past is apparent: there’s no shades here, no subtlety, and you can’t not wonder how much of it Ava wouldn’t want to have revealed. Not that she comes out of it badly – bawdy, for sure, and very much a woman of her time, but one with an enormous heart.
This is really a two star book, but I enjoyed it despite its many flaws because I’m infatuated with you-know-who. So it gets and extra one for being light relief.
I think the publisher is trying to flog this as Patchett’s memoir, which it ain’t. It’s a collection of her non-fiction, stuff she cheerfully points out in the intro was mostly written to pay the rent while she worked on her novels. Which fits in to my current thirst for essays very well. I have read some of Patchett’s fiction, and loved it, but the book of hers that walloped me was Truth & Beauty. The story of her friendship with author Lucy Grealy, I read it in my early twenties and had never encountered such a deep examination of female friendship. It’s still a personal touchstone for me, one of those books that reached me just when I needed it.
She touches on the legacy of that book twice in this collection, in two works that confront the attempted banning of Truth & Beauty when it was assigned as college reading. Her tone is a little shrill when dealing with it, but then, if someone dismissed my work as Satan-loving pornography, I’d be shoving a pitchfork in their nethers, not demonstrating nearly as much good grace.
There is a lot of biography in here: her parent’s miserable marriage, her own joyful one – despite the title, this is not a smug couple fest, it’s genuine and astonished, her writing on writing, and her dog, Rose. I will ‘fess up: I skipped the chapter about her bookstore, not because I don’t trust her opinion, I just cannot deal with any kind of commentary on the publishing/bookselling industry’s future anymore. I have reached my absolute limit and get slightly ill even thinking about it.
The rest of this collection I hoovered up, with tremendous joy. She is self-effacing about this work in her introduction, but there’s no need: it’s a first rate set of writing.
Best known for his GQ profiles, which take on popular culture from very idiosyncratic perspectives characterised by a ‘John Jeremiah Sullivan’ savant-doofus character bumbling around in them, I was a bit wary of this collection. I stumbled on the opening essay, Upon this Rock, which opens seemingly hellbent on banishing straight journalistic standards of brevity and objectivity to whimsy along with this Sullivan character making a dick of himself en route to his subject matter – a Christian Rock festival. Better seen almost as a travelogue-meets-memoir, over 40 pages it gets down into sociological insight, theological meandering, and memoir: rewarding, once you’re tuned in to his frequency. But a little too clever for his own good, maybe. Easy to worry over the idea that he’s repping the only worldview that allows this kind of indulgence. Just imagine a similar essay written from a female or minority perspective: it would be dismissed as “too personal”, I bet. (Relevant).
Still, that’s not JJS’s fault, and Jeebus knows, the guy can write. I’d already read his nigh-legendary Axl Rose profile, which riffs on the Gale Talese ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ no-contact-with-the-primary-subject format, and does so brilliantly. I re-read it for probably the third time in this collection, and enjoyed it even more. His Michael Jackson profile ‘Back in the Day‘ is the stand out from all his popular culture analysis bits, hell it’s the best Jackson piece I’ve ever read and had me on the verge of tears.
But where he really surprised me was his reportage of more esoteric subjects. The pieces on Native American cave art, eccentric naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, and the weird insular world of early blues record collecting, which spins into a discourse on American heritage and memory, are jaw-droppingly good. He gets out of his own way in this work, and gives the subjects more foreground.
Not that I’d want to have missed his description of renting his house out to a TV company as a set for One Tree Hill, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I finished this collection feeling a little more in awe of the world, and more than a little stupid in comparison.
I’d remembered the review of an essay collection by Douglas Coupland. It had been in the Saturday Guardian book section. Or the Observer; whatever, the placement of the article on the page was fixed in my mind, along with the sensation of attraction and interest. I’d bookmarked it in my head. I could comfortably know it would be there – ‘there’ being wherever I chose to look for it, in a bookshop or library or on record on a catalogue or the Guardian website or Google.
Except it wasn’t. I looked it up a couple of times, trying to get the name right, and it maddeningly refused to show up. I whacked the enter key over and over again: Coupland, nonfiction. I looked at his Wiki page enough to have that now fixed in my mind’s eye. The only nonfiction work he’d produced had been on architecture or something, and the dates were wrong. How could he have done this to me? Was it some sort of postmodern stunt?
Then I was looking for something else at the bookshop, and there it was: a collection of essays from the career of William Gibson.
You and I have a vague idea of how computer memory, or a tape recording, or a video clip, works. But the human memory does things we’ve come to recognise and adapt with, but that are still strange and wondrous things emerging from a far more complex creation. Gibson is a science fiction writer – and bless him for always referring to himself as such – who has a good handle on just how weird our own wiring is.
We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run.
- Dead Man Sings
I read this book out of embarrassment at getting it wrong. Sorry, Gibbo. But I’m very glad I did. Back in the days just beyond cave painting and wax cylinders when I was getting half of a degree in media studies (whatever the hell that is), I had to trudge through all this New Media Theory verbiage that was very big just then. Cyborg theory and the posthuman era and network society and Marshall bleeding McLuhan and his dated aphorisms all got weary glances from me. I’m never very interested in predictions for the future, because I’m mostly a coward and a slothful one. Change is scary and disorientating and I don’t long to know just how unprepared I am for the world of tomorrow.
Gibson is very good at nailing the glazed-eye visions of the future trotted out by professional predictors. While he’s benefited from stumbling over ideas of future technology – he is humble about coining the term ‘cyberspace’ and downplays any hand he had in ‘predicting’ it – as the title says, he distrusts those who claim to see exactly what’s coming.
It’s this critical distance, as well as his sense of irony, and matchless curiosity, that make him so good at writing about technology and society. Not that there’s anything as simple as one theme in this book, though if it is, it’s not that; it’s really about psychology. But it goes to some interesting places
It swings around from Singapore’s totalitarian Disneyland chic to early eBay adventures in the vintage timepiece category, to his Steely Dan fandom, to introductions to some of his foundational ideas – autobiographical sketches snuck in to discussions of tech and lit. A beautifully-designed collection, most of the essays or speeches are a few pages long, but they’re all interesting and I found them compulsive reading. How much of it I’ll remember afterwards will be another adventure.