Books postsMonday February 23, 2015
“The disco music shifts to the Bee Gees, white men who have done this wonderful thing of making themselves sound like black women. 'Stay' Alive' comes on with all that amplified throbbleo and a strange nasal whining underneath: the John Travolta theme song. Rabbit still thinks of him as one of the Sweathogs from Mr. Kotter's class but for awhile back there last summer the U.S.A. was one hundred percent his, every twat under fifteen wanting to be humped by a former Sweathog in the back seat of a car parked in Brooklyn.”
-- part of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom's driving-home musings in the summer of '79, in John Updike's 1981 novel, “Rabbit is Rich.” I thought of this passage after last night's doubly odd showing from John Travolta: both on the red carpet with Scarlett Johansson (below), and on stage with Idina Menzel. I think John needs another talk with Quentin Tarantino. Maybe QT (who's got issues of his own) could at least get him to lose the rug.
The Most Absurd Money Game Ever: 1980s Edition
“My father's generation grew up with certain beliefs. One of those beliefs is that the amount of money one earns is a rough guide to one's contribution to the welfare and prosperity of our society. ... It took watching his son being paid 225 grand at the age of twenty-seven, after two years on the job [as a bond trader with Salomon Bros. in the 1980s], to shake his faith in money. He has only recently recovered from the shock.
”I haven't. When you sit, as I did, at the center of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society ... when hundreds of equally undeserving people around you are all raking it in faster than they can count it, what happens to the money belief? Well, it depends. For some, good fortune simply reinforces the belief. They take the funny money seriously, as evidence that they are worthy citizens of the Republic. It becomes their guiding assumption—for it couldn't possibly be clearly thought out—that a talent for making money come out of a telephone is a reflection of merit on a grander scale. It is tempting to believe that people who think this way eventually suffer their comeuppance. They don't. They just get richer.“
--Michael Lewis, ”Liar's Poker," epilogue.
Richard Wright and Langston Hughes Go to the Movies
“The Negro Soldier was received far more positively than Capra or its creators had anticipated. Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son had been published a few years earlier, attended the Harlem screening and told a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle that before the picture started, he had written down thirteen offensive black stereotypes on the back of his program—Excessive Singing, Indolence, and Crap Shooting among them—and intended to make a mark next to each one as it appeared onscreen. He didn't check off a single box and told the reporter that he found the movie ”a pleasant surprise.“ Langston Hughes called the picture ”distinctly and thrillingly worthwhile,“ and New York's black paper the Amsterdam News marveled, ”Who would have thought such a thing could be done so accurately . . . without sugar-coating and . . . jackass clowning?“
-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” ”The Negro Soldier“ was one of the films in the ”Why We Fight" series, orchestrated and produced by Frank Capra.
Commie Hollywood Propaganda ... Kinda
“The [Communist] Party itself had focused on Hollywood starting in 1936, when V. J. Jerome, a cultural commissar, and Stanley Lawrence, a CP organizer, journeyed out to the West Coast to set up a movie-industry branch of the Party. ... John Howard Lawson, who ran the Hollywood branch, quickly understood that the collective process of moviemaking precluded the screenwriter, low man on the creative totem pole, from influencing the content of movies. As the Party's national chairman, William Z. Foster told the faithful in a secret meeting at Dalton Trumbo's house in 1946, 'We can't expect to put any propaganda in the films, but we can try to keep anti-Soviet agitprop out.' Lawson and Ring Lardner did run a writer's clinic that tried to analyze scripts from the viewpoint of a Marxist aesthetic, but submission and compliance were mostly voluntary, and the project never got very far.”
-- from “Naming Names” by Victor S. Navasky. The Foster quote comes from the author's interview with Alvah Bessie, one of the Hollywood Ten.
My Year in Reading: Holding Friends Close and Enemies Closer
Shades of red were big on book covers this year.
I probably read more books in the last year than I have in any year since ... 1998? Since I hopped online for good? Hate to say it, but the Kindle helped. It's easier to buy books (2 a.m.? Sure!), easier to carry around, easier to hold in your hand. Your mileage may differ.
Here are 10 recommendations from the past 365 days. All non-fiction. Most were published in 2014 or nearby. If you look closely, it's me trying to make sense of the world. I'm holding my friends close and my enemies closer.
- “The Invisible Bridge; The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” by Rick Perlstein. A history of the years 1973 to 1976, when America had the chance to mature, to own up to the more unpalatable aspects of its history, and began to lean right, and toward wish-fulfillment fantasy, instead.
- “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis. The story of how Wall Street firms are using computers and fiber optic cable to do what would be illegal if human beings did it: they front-run trades; they use micro-seconds to get between the buyer and seller, buy it, and sell it to the seller at a higher price. The game is rigged. Surprised this didn't make more “Best of ...” lists this year.
- “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. I got this at the end of 2013 and read it in a few days. It's how history should be written: straightforward but full of digressions: I need to tell you about X but first you need to know about Y and Z. Bryson covers aviation and Lindbergh, baseball and Babe Ruth, radio and Jack Dempsey. The 1920s were really the beginning of mass culture. It's the beginning of us.
- “Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch,” by Nick Davies. Imagine someone sitting on 6,000 graves and someone else coming along and accusing them of, oh, maybe a death or two, maybe just an assault; then imagine them attacking and maligning this accuser with vehemence and all of the power at their disposal for daring to suggest it in the first place. That's basically what you have with the News of the World hacking scandal. It's the worst people in the world getting comeuppace, despite protection from the right, the police, and themselves.
- “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” by Mark Harris. Harris has a thing for fives, doesn't he? First, the five best picture candidates of 1967—the divide between old, studio Hollywood, and new, Nouvelle-Vogue-inpsired Hollywood—and now this: directors William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens, and what they did during the war, daddy. Also what they did after the war. For example: “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “It's a Wonderful Life,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and “I Remember Mama.” The section of Stevens at Dachau is understated and powerful.
- “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” by Scott Eyman. We get the in-depth backstory, the itinerant childhood, then we're mostly in the movies. We get the failure of “The Big Trail” (1930), then Wayne relegated to B movies, then redemption at his friend and acccuser John Ford in “Stagecoach.” When war comes he doesn't go, just portrays its heroes on screen. Ford, who went, never quite forgave him. The moviegoing public did. More, actually. They forgot.
- “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution” by John Paul Stevens. The great liberal voice on the court, appointed by Pres. Ford, details six of the amendments that need amending, thanks to—and this goes largely unsaid—the activist intransigence of Stevens' former conservative comrades. It's short and not-quite-sweet. I should re-read it.
- “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News and Divided a Country,” by Gabriel Sherman. The rise and rise of a man ruining the country with ruthlessness, bombast and paranoia.
- “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of 1976,” by Dan Epstein. The subtitle says it all. It's amazing that Epstein gets such mileage out of a season in which the Cincinnati Reds never lost a postseason game. All the drama was in the ALCS.
- “The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption,” by John Rosengren. The focus is on an incident that occurred during August 1965, in which SF Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, at the plate, took his bat to the head of LA Dodgers catcher John Roseboro; but what really recommends the book is Rosengren's account of the rise of dark-skinned Latin American players after Jackie.
Keep reading, everyone.
Let's try to shorten those subs, authors.