Books postsSaturday December 27, 2014
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.
It's a Wonderful Quote - II
“[Director Frank] Capra stayed true to his desire to make a movie about 'the individual’s belief in himself,' but he connected it to the issue that was then troubling him the most—his intense need to be appreciated by others. In an earlier draft by Connolly, the 'alternate' life that George and the angel Clarence visit is one that includes a second George who is alive and well but lacks the real George’s good character. In the version that Capra chose to pursue, George instead watches what would happen in his world if he had never existed at all, and sees it quickly fall to ruin. For Capra, who was returning to an industry that he felt had recently erased him from its history, a what-if story about a man’s feelings of inconsequentiality and his dark fears of nonexistence felt autobiographical. It’s a Wonderful Life was a project driven by fears, desires, and wounds that he could no longer keep private.”
-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.”
It's a Wonderful Quote - I
“When [director Frank Capra] pitched It’s a Wonderful Life to Jimmy Stewart, he told the story so poorly that the actor’s agent, Lew Wasserman, sat in the office 'dying' until Capra finally spluttered, 'This story doesn’t tell very well, does it?' 'Frank,' Stewart replied, 'if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I’m your boy.'
-- from Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” ”It's a Wonderful Life“ was the first movie Capra directed after spending years directing the ”Why We Fight" series for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II.
Capra and Stewart.
The Things They Couldn't Carry
I'm nearly done with Mark Harris' excellent book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” about what Hollywood directors Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston did during the war, daddy. The most moving stuff is probably Stevens filming the liberation of Paris, and then, a year later, the liberation of Dachau. He returned from the war silent, and played golf day after day. When he did talk of returning to work he wanted to make a war picture. But no studio, in the days after the war, wanted to make a war picture. Harris writes:
Those who knew him begged him to forget the idea of making a statement and to simply try doing what he did best. Katharine Hepburn, a good friend and one of his greatest champions, told him he needed to return to comedy, a genre in which she believed his talents were unrivaled by any other director in Hollywood. But Stevens would never, for the rest of his career, direct anything but drama. “After the war,” he said, “I don't think I was ever too hilarious again.”
“I hated to see him leave comedy for the other stuff that came later on, the more serious stuff,” said Capra. “None of us were the same after the war, but for him . . . The films that he took of Dachau, the ovens, and the big, big piles of bones that nobody could believe existed . . . He had seen too much.”
John Wayne, Saddled
A corrective the next time someone holds up John Wayne as an exemplar of American manhood and courage. From Mark Harris' “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War”:
Since the war had started, [director John Ford] had watched with increasing contempt as John Wayne had made and broken one vague commitment after another to join up. Wayne’s star had risen since his breakthrough in Stagecoach and he was now in constant demand in Hollywood; he talked earnestly of going into the army or the navy, but always right after the next movie. In the spring, when Ford point-blank offered Wayne a spot in Field Photo, he had declined, and he declined again when the offer was reiterated in August. ... Wayne never would enter the war; he would fulfill his commitment to the armed services by doing a USO tour, getting no closer to combat than the starring role in Republic’s The Fighting Seabees. Ford found his behavior reprehensible.
Cf. this recollection from Gore Vidal, who also went to war. According to Scott Eyman in his biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend," Wayne's lack of service haunted the man until the end.
One of the many John Wayne inspirationals floating around the Web.