Like a lot of people I’ve been listening to the Hamilton musical album non-stop and read this because it was the source of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspirLike a lot of people I’ve been listening to the Hamilton musical album non-stop and read this because it was the source of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration to create the brilliant Broadway show. The idea that a dense biography of an American Founding Father who was probably best known to the general public as the guy on the the ten dollar bill and the subject of a pretty funny Got Milk? commercial would someday lead to the creation of an incredibly popular musical that blends show tunes with hip-hop is only a little less likely than the life of Alexander Hamilton himself.
(And if you’re interested in reading a great account of the impact the show has on people I highly recommend this article that sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote about taking his daughter to see it.)
The circumstances of Hamilton’s birth on a Caribbean island as the illegitimate son of a divorced woman and a fortune seeking Scotsman were the first strike against him, and things only got worse when his father abandoned him and his mother died. As an orphan with no money and an embarrassing social status for the time young Alexander probably should have lived a short, hard life and been forgotten by history. However, he also had a brilliant mind, a talent for writing, and an enormous appetite for work that was fueled by relentless ambition. After a hurricane devastated his island Hamilton wrote an account of the tragedy so moving that a collection was taken up to send him to America to attend college.
Hamilton arrived in New York just as the American Revolution was about to start, and his talents landed him a pivotal position on George Washington’s staff as well leading troops in the field and playing a key role during the Battle of Yorktown that essentially won the war. Hamilton’s role in the writing of The Federalist with James Madison and John Jay along with his political maneuvering was critical in getting the Constitution ratified. HIs biggest contributions to the United States probably came from his bold actions as the first secretary of the treasury when he not only got the young nation on sound economic footing but also used money as a tool to link the fates of the frequently bickering states together as a way of achieving unity and promoting a strong federal government. As Washington’s most trusted advisor Hamilton was critical in shaping the future of the country he did so much to help create.
All of this should have meant that Hamilton would be remembered as one of the most important figures in American history but he also made powerful enemies including Thomas Jefferson. The struggle between those who believed power should reside in the federal government or with the states became a bitter fight in which Hamilton was the victim of relentless political attacks that slandered his reputation and made him a perpetual lightning rod of controversy. The conflict would lead to the creation of the two party political system as well as a constant tug of war between factions about how much authority the American government should have that continues today.
Hamilton frequently didn’t do himself any favors with his outspoken nature, and his insecurities about his illegitimacy caused him to be hypersensitive to insults. His basic cynicism and mistrust of people made him wary of popular trends and leaving the fate of America in the hands of the general public who he felt could be too easily swayed by a mob mentality and demagogues. (Geez, where could he have gotten that idea?) This left him vulnerable to attacks by his enemies who smeared him as an elitist at best or a schemer plotting to return America to English control or set up an American monarchy at worst. He badly hurt his own political party by feuding with President John Adams who became another enemy who would smear Hamilton long after his death. Hamilton also had the distinction of being one of the first American politicians to be caught up in a sex scandal, and his reaction to it by publishing a tell-all memoir called The Reynolds Pamphlet was a miscalculation that severely damaged his public image.
Propaganda from his enemies and his own combative nature and thin skin hurt his standing during his life and limited his political prospects. When his long and complex relationship with Aaron Burr ultimately led to Hamilton’s death after their infamous duel his enemies would continue to slander his reputation while his widow Eliza would spend the rest of her life defending it and try to make sure his accomplishments weren’t forgotten.
What Chernow has done with this sympathetic portrait of a brilliant but flawed man is illustrate how America owes so much to Hamilton’s genius. By detailing Hamilton’s collaborations and battles with the other Founding Fathers it shows that they weren’t saints with some glorious vision of what America should be. They engaged in compromises and accepted contradictions in the interests of getting things done, and they were consumed by the fears of all the ways the country could fail. They were also just as capable of acting in short-sighted, mean spirited, and despicable ways as any politician today, Thomas Jefferson in particular comes across as a hypocritical sneaky jerkface that I would never vote for.
After reading this it’s easy to understand how Hamilton the remarkable person inspired Hamilton the remarkable musical. ...more
Lawrence Block is one of those authors that I’ve often wished I could spend some time with just to hear him reminisce about his long career as well asLawrence Block is one of those authors that I’ve often wished I could spend some time with just to hear him reminisce about his long career as well as get his opinions on other crime writers. I haven’t gotten a dinner invitation yet (Although I did get to meet him when he was touring for Hope to Die.), but until that day reading The Crime of Our Lives is a damn fine substitute.
Through this collection of introductions and essays he’s done over the years you get a sense of what Block thinks about the mystery genre as a whole as well as specific things about various writers including some very humorous stories like the time Charles Willeford asked him if he had ever eaten cat.
Some of the more interesting stories come from the early days of his career when Block was working for a shady literary agent where he’d read submissions all day and write up rejections that would encourage the suckers to submit more work for a fee. Block believes that slogging through that much bad fiction was a better education than reading masterpieces of literature because it taught him what not to do rather to admire what most everyone already agreed was great.
The most moving parts come in several things Block wrote about his late friend Donald Westlake. (It’s probably a safe bet that Block was inspired to do this by the similar collection of Westlake material in the posthumously published The Getaway Car. Block also wrote an introduction for it that is reprinted here.) Through the various pieces you get a real sense of the long friendship between the two writers as well as the deep respect that Block holds for his work. There’s also some intriguing musings as to how he thinks Westlake’s career and legacy might have been different if his early book Memory would have been published at the beginning of his career. The story of how Block helped get it into print after Westlake’s death that he relates here shows just how much Block thought of that particular work.
Because there are some different pieces on the same subject, there’s a little bit of repetition, but even that becomes interesting if you pay attention to the different ways that Block can relate the same story. Fans of Block or of the crime genre in general will find a lot of interesting tidbits as well as probably adding a few writers to their To-Read lists.
Between this book and Packing for Mars I know way more about pooping in space than I ever wanted to…..
Mike Mullane’s childhood fascination with spaceBetween this book and Packing for Mars I know way more about pooping in space than I ever wanted to…..
Mike Mullane’s childhood fascination with space travel gave him the determination to become one of the first groups of astronauts chosen for the space shuttle program, and eventually he made three trips into orbit. Despite eyesight bad enough to prevent him from being a pilot, he was also an Air Force officer who flew combat missions in Vietnam as the weapons system operator. (Like Goose in Top Gun.) He’s traveled the world and has a lot of funny stories about meeting famous people like hobnobbing with Christie Brinkley at a Super Bowl and getting a tour of the White House while cracking jokes with Barbara Bush. While he’s justifiably proud of his achievements, he’s also got a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
All in all, Mullane has lived a life that’s going to make most of us seem about as interesting as a bowl of cottage cheese by comparison, and he’d probably be entertaining as hell if you had a couple of beers with him. He’s amusing at providing the details about what it’s like to be in space including oversharing a bit on the Viagra effect of zero-G as well as a step-by-step explanation of using the toilet. However, despite having the subtitle of “The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut”, I didn’t find any of the tales that outrageous or different from other books I’ve read from people involved in the space program.
Since the shuttle missions were mainly about delivering freight to space, they just aren’t that exciting unless something went horribly wrong. It doesn’t help that two of Mullane’s three missions involved putting top secret military hardware into orbit so he can’t even talk about the details of those because they're classified. I feel silly saying that a guy writing about riding a giant tank of burning rocket fuel into space seems kind of routine, but when I contrast this with something like Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon, in which Lovell recounts not only his life story but the life-threatening Apollo 13 mission, then this seems kind of tame by comparison despite Mullane’s efforts to convey the wonderous nature of viewing the Earth from orbit. (In fairness, part of the reason I checked this out was because Andy Weir’s The Martian gave me a tremendous hankering to read something from a smart-ass astronaut’s point of view, but it’s really not fair to compare the fictional Mark Watney to the real life of Mullane.)
What I did find intriguing was Mullane’s frankness when discussing the shuttle program, NASA management and his own obsession with getting into space. He doesn’t hedge when saying that after NASA completed the greatest engineering project in history by getting to the moon that it was turned into a freight hauling service with demands to become cost effective by politicians and bureaucrats who treated the shuttle like a commercial jetliner instead of the high risk experimental aircraft it was. He’s highly critical of the NASA management that let a secretive process to select flight crews turn the astronaut’s office into a seething stew of paranoia, fear and frustration. Mullane plainly lays the blame for the Challenger and Columbia disasters on the culture that resulted from these factors. He also confesses that like most of the other astronauts he was so desperate to get into space that he ignored safety concerns, and that he often put his own family second to his career.
Mullane is also brutally honest when recounting the casual sexism that he and the other astronauts engaged in when they were training with America’s first female astronauts. As someone who had gone to the all-male West Point as well as being a military officer, Mullane’s background had been almost exclusively male, and he admits to behaving like a jerk at times. However, he would grow to respect most of the female astronauts and would develop a strong friendship with Judith Resnik who would later be killed on-board Challenger. He was far less friendly with Sally Ride, and one gets the impression that the two of them probably didn’t exchange Christmas cards.
While I enjoyed his story as well as his frankness, in the end I wish that NASA had come up with a grander mission for a guy like Mike Mullane rather than risking his life to put satellites into orbit....more
(I received a free advance copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt wrote this unflinching accoun(I received a free advance copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt wrote this unflinching account of his battle with addiction during the late ‘90s, but he didn’t spend his days cooking meth with bikers or whoring himself out for crack. Poor Patton was a movie junkie who found plenty of dealers to get him high in the theaters of Los Angeles.
A double feature of Billy Wilder films at the New Beverly Cinema was the gateway drug that led Patton down a relentless path of devouring movies and cataloging them in a diary as well as notations in several film books he had. His work and his relationships suffered as he became unable to relate to other people’s every day interests that didn't involve movies, and he rationalized his behavior by thinking that it would eventually give him the insight to make a great film of his own. His descent continued until he hits bottom shortly after seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Which is understandable because a lot of us never felt like seeing a movie again after that one.
Ah, but seriously folks…
I noted in my review of Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland that I found the darker elements of that memoir intriguing, but that he’d seemed a little scared of making it too personal and sincere so he’d inserted segments of pure humor in it as deflections. Here we have him recounting a period when he feels like he let his love of movies of get the better of him, and how coming to terms with that changed the way he approached his own career as well as what was really important to him as a person. Since this is a professional comedian telling the story, it’s still funny, but it doesn’t seem like he’s using humor as a shield like it did in his previous book.
Here’s the tricky part for me about reviewing this: I’m a Patton Oswalt fan who finds him not only hilarious but also an actor capable of great work in both TV and film. I love reading about what creative people think about the process of actually turning ideas into something that can be shared. I’ll also confess to being a movie junkie. While I’ve never chased the dragon as hard as Patton did, I am the kind of person who is perfectly happy to kill an afternoon at a special showing of Seven Samurai or spend the better part of a day in a Marvel movie marathon. When Patton tells a story about seeing Last Man Standing and subjecting the friend he was with to the whole history of how it’s actually the same story as A Fistful of Dollars which is pretty much a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo which was heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, it made me cringe because I said the same exact thing to the person I saw it with, too.
So this book obviously hit a sweet spot for me, but I could see another reader (Someone who doesn’t have their own custom I HATE! I HATE! coffee mug based on Oswalt’s Text routine.) maybe not liking this book quite so much. Such a person might point out that Patton is essentially berating his younger self for the time spent on his movie obsession rather than creating his own work as well as lamenting the time he didn’t spend with friends and family. And they’d have a valid point.
Because for all his self-criticism here it’s a little odd that Patton doesn’t give himself more credit for what he was accomplishing at the time which was turning himself into a top-notch comedian by performing relentlessly as well as landing regular work in the movies and on TV. Yeah, maybe he was on King of Queens for years instead of making his own Citizen Kane, but that helped him get to a point where he’s got to do other things like his great and disturbing performance as a sports nut in Big Fan. And now he’s married and has a daughter that he loves dearly so he figured out that whole work/life balance thing, right?
So what exactly is this guy bitching about? That he wasted a lot of time in the ‘90s watching movies? Hell, we all did that.
However, it the book works for you, then you‘ll find a lot more than that. It’s hard to break down the stew of events and small epiphanies that make us who we are, and that’s what Patton has tried to do here. He’s describing a period when he wasn't satisfied with what he was doing and was flailing around for answers by immersing himself obsessively in something he loved. He did finally learn something from all his time watching movies, but it wasn't what he went looking for. Maybe he didn’t become Quentin Tarantino, but he did grow into being Patton Oswalt. And like a lot of his fans, I’m happy it worked out that way.
Hey, I just got an email from Alamo Drafthouse telling me that they’re having a screening of The Apartment this weekend. Maybe I should check that out....
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.
This should teach me to pay more attention when I ask for an ARCI received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.
This should teach me to pay more attention when I ask for an ARC.
I requested this from NetGalley on a whim when I saw the title, and I didn’t realize that I was getting a book that was almost a thousand pages.* I also didn’t consider that a kitten-squisher of a biography about a notorious Nazis wasn’t going to be ideal summer time reading. I’ve done my best to give it a fair review, but any critical comments I make should probably be taken with a grain of salt by anyone interested in it.
Peter Longerich uses Joseph Goebbels’ diary as a guide post from the time when he was a wannabe writer and radical through his rise through the Nazi party to become the chief architect of its propaganda. By contrasting what Goebells claimed in his journals against other documentation Longerich gives us the real history.
This portrayal shows that Goebbels was a raging narcissist that achieved the recognition he craved by dedicating himself to Adolf Hitler who Goebbels helped elevate to the supreme leader of Germany. (We all know how well that ended.) By making Hitler into an almost god-like figure, Goebbels could then validate himself as great by earning Hitler’s respect and praise. Hitler’s opinion was so important that Goebbels and his wife Magda (Who it seems Hitler had a bit of a thing for.) made him a de facto father figure that they treated like a member of the family and consulted on domestic decisions.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is how Longerich uses what Goebbels claims against other historical documents to show how much Hitler used him like a chump. While Goebbels liked to brag about his close relationship with Hitler and boast about his many accomplishments, the records show that in fact Hitler often kept him out of the loop, ignored his advice, and even occasionally used him as a diversion. If Goebbels had more self-awareness he might have realized that Hitler saw his value as a talented creator of propaganda but didn’t credit him as much more than that, at least until the end of the war left him with few other options.
After establishing what he believed about Goebbels' personality, Longerich is content to relay the facts of his life in chronological order while letting quotes from the diary clue us into what Goebbels was thinking and correcting the record with a minimum of commentary aside from occasionally pointing out patterns. This approach gives a remarkably detailed and rich portrait of Goebbels as well as the inner workings of the Nazi party.
However, it’s also one of the problems with the book. Everyone has habits and routines. When you read something that covers 20+ years of a person’s life, it’s going to get repetitive no matter what they’re doing even if they’re Nazis perpetrating some of history’s greatest crimes. So whether it’s Goebbels kissing Hitler’s ass or Goebbels having some bureaucratic squabble with another Nazi or Goebbels feuding with his wife or Goebbels launching another anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, there comes a time when the point has been made so it seems like the same thing is being rehashed over and over.
In a weird way the strength of the book became one of its irritations for me, but I’m not sure what could have been done about it. It’s tempting to say that it could have used more analysis and less detail, but the details are what eventually give you such an understanding of what made Goebbels tick. It seems unfair to fault Longerich for being too thorough, but in the end that’s almost what it feels like.
If you’re looking for a seriously detailed in-depth biography of Joseph Goebbels that also provides a lot of behind the scenes history of the Nazis, then this is the book for you. If you’re in the mood for a lighter pop-history that tells you the basics about Goebbels, you should probably look elsewhere.
* About 40% of the book is its bibliography and notes....more
I always thought that James Ellroy was exaggerating the corrupt and scandalous nature of Los Angeles in his books. After reading this, I’m thinking thI always thought that James Ellroy was exaggerating the corrupt and scandalous nature of Los Angeles in his books. After reading this, I’m thinking that he may have actually toned it down.
This is essentially the parallel biographies of two men: Mickey Cohen and William Parker. Cohen was an illiterate small time thug who made a name for himself by working for the Capone mob before heading west and apprenticing under Bugsy Siegel and eventually becoming the head of organized crime from late ‘40s into the ‘60s. Parker joined a corrupt and highly politicized police force in the ‘20s and eventually worked his way up to the top position in 1950 through a mixture of incorruptibility and shrewd use of the bureaucracy
Buntin uses the lives of Cohen and Parker to tell the history of the city itself. Their combined story includes local politicians, Hollywood stars, presidents, gangsters and strippers just to name a few. The push and pull between the criminal element and the police would go on to shape the city in various ways. By the end of it, Buntin does a long section that details how Parker’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimate grievances that minorities had with the police department created a culture that got passed on and had a hand in the Rodney King riots and other image issues that haunt the LAPD to this day.
It was an interesting way to tell the history of a city and includes a lot of interesting anecdotes and trivia. For example, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was a LAPD officer in their public relations department who wrote speeches for Parker, and it was his work reviewing scripts for the TV show Dragnet as part of their deal with the department for access to police files that got him into television. ...more
There’s a chapter in this book where Tina Fey is describing the hectic week that culminated with her filming scenes of 30 Rock with Oprah Winfrey, theThere’s a chapter in this book where Tina Fey is describing the hectic week that culminated with her filming scenes of 30 Rock with Oprah Winfrey, then rushing to get to the Saturday Night Live studio for her debut performance as Sarah Palin all while she was still making last minute arrangements for her daughter’s birthday party. In between takes, Tina was watching You Tube clips of Palin to work on the voice while holding her daughter and Oprah was asking with genuine concern if she’d have time to get to SNL and rehearse. As Tina puts it:
“By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.”
What makes that line extra funny is that while Fey writes about the long hours and stress of doing her TV show and movies, that she went ahead and wrote a book, too. (I think that while she may have had some help that Tina did the heavy lifting here without ghost writers because it’s such a personal story with her style of humor all over it.) The book is called Bossypants because it’s mainly a tongue-in-cheek account of how she became a success and her feelings about her career.
As you’d expect, it’s extremely funny with several laugh out loud lines and stories. My favorite chapter was the description of what it’s really like to be the subject of a professional photo shoot for a magazine and how being pampered by hair and make-up professionals while everyone tells you how great you are makes it a bit disconcerting to go home and cook macaroni for your kid.
Fey has a lot of fun pointing out her own contradictions. She’s a working woman who is irritated by the double standard of being asked about a being a successful boss and mother when no one thinks twice about successful fathers, but she still feels guilty at the time she’s spent working instead of with her daughter. She’s mocks her own appearance relentlessly but is willing to put herself on magazine covers in tight dresses. She considers herself a poor actor yet stars in a TV show. She’s often insecure and shy, but refuses to be pushed around by anyone. It’s all of these elements and her willingness to mine them for laughs that make this such a funny memoir. ...more
I relate to comedian Patton Oswalt to an almost scary degree. We’re about the same age, we both grew up as nerdy sci-fi/comic fans in areas where therI relate to comedian Patton Oswalt to an almost scary degree. We’re about the same age, we both grew up as nerdy sci-fi/comic fans in areas where there was absolutely nothing cool going on, and we both seem to share a bleak outlook when it comes to people. I loved his routine Text from his My Weakness Is Strong comedy album so much that my wife got a specially made coffee cup for me with the words I HATE on one side and a cartoon of a giant robot destroying a city on the other.*
*(I looked for a free link to that routine to put here but couldn’t find a decent version so you’ll have to take my word that it’s really funny. The cup makes me giggle so much that I can’t use it because I always end up dribbling coffee down my chin the whole time I try to drink from it. So I mostly just stare at it.)
Despite my Patton fandom, I wasn’t sure about checking out this book. Comedians have a bad habit of having some flunky type up their old routines and selling them as hardcovers. (I’m looking at you, Jerry Seinfeld.) So I was a bit worried that this would just be recycled Oswalt. It isn’t, but what it is, is kind of ….odd.
It’s too dark to be truly funny, and too funny to be truly dark. It’s kind of a mash up of biography with bizarre pure humor segments inserted into it. So one part is a moving memoir about Patton’s adventures playing Dungeons & Dragons and how he poured his teenage angst into the game. But then another chapter is a spoof about greeting cards.
Oswalt can turn a phrase, and like his comedy, there’s a disturbing undercurrent to much of this book like sections about his uncle who was mentally unbalanced and spent most of his adult life sitting on a porch drinking coffee and listening to a radio. A long segment about a hellish two week gig at a shitty Canadian comedy club is both extremely funny and painful at the same time.
As individual stories, there’s some pretty good stuff, but it comes across scattershot. It’ll make you laugh and think, but it convinced me that if Oswalt set down and really made a concerted effort that he could come up with a really great book rather than a rambling collection of reflections on his life and jokes about hobo songs....more
I was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for anotherI was cleaning up after the wife and I had dinner last night and there was a small amount of green beans left. There weren’t nearly enough for another serving to make them worth saving so I dumped them in the sink, but just as I was about to turn on the garbage disposal, I realized that to the POWs described in Unbroken those few green beans I was about to mulch would have been a feast they would have risked torture and beatings for. I was disgusted with myself for the rest of the night. You know the book you’re reading is hitting you hard when you feel that much shame for letting a tiny bit of food go to waste.
Louie Zamperini is one of those guys who definitely earned that Greatest Generation label. The son of Italian immigrant parents, Louie was a rebellious kid who was constantly into one form of mischief or another, but when he finally channeled his energy into running, he became a high school track star in California. Louie was so good that he made the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the age of 19, and even though he didn’t medal, he ran one lap of a race so quickly that he electrified the crowd and even caught Hitler’s attention.
As a college runner, Louie held several national records and many thought that he’d be the man to eventually break the four minute mile. He was poised to do well in the 1940 Olympics, but then World War II cancelled the games. Louie left college and ended up in the air corps even though he was scared of planes. He became a bombardier and went to the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. Louie survived several missions, including one where their B-24 barely made it back with over 500 holes in it.
While on a search and rescue mission, Louie’s plane crashed in the ocean, and only he and two others survived. With few supplies on two tiny life rafts, they’d endure exposure, starvation, thirst and sharks.
However, after finally reaching an island and being captured by the Japanese, Louie’s hellish experience as a POW would make him miss the raft and the sharks. Starved, beaten, tortured and degraded, Louie also faces extra punishment at the hands of a brutally sadistic guard who singled him out. Louie and the other prisoners desperately try to hang on long enough for America to win the war and free them.
I didn’t care anything about race horses, but found Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit an incredibly interesting read. She’s surpassed that book here with this well researched story. Hillenbrand creates vivid descriptions of Louie’s childhood, the Berlin Olympics, the life of an air man in the Pacific, and a Japanese POW camp while also telling the stories of the people around Louie.
She also does a superior job of describing a phase of World War II that tends to get overlooked, Japanese war crimes against prisoners. The number of prisoners killed by the Japanese through starvation, beatings and forced labor are staggering, but Hillenbrand also shines a light on the Japanese policy of killing all POWs if that area was about to be invaded. Per her research, they were preparing to begin slaughtering prisoners in Japan in late August and September of 1945, but the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of the emperor probably saved those POWs lives. If the war would have carried on or a conventional invasion done, then mostly likely those prisoners would have been killed.*
*(Do not take this as my personal feelings about whether nuclear weapons should have been used or not. I’m just relaying a part of the book here, and Hillenbrand makes no argument as to whether dropping the bombs was justified. She writes that many of the POWs believed that the bombings probably saved their lives and leaves it at that. And if you feel like trying to start a comment fight about it, I’m just going to delete it so don’t bother. I left my sword and shield at home today and don’t feel like battling trolls.)
Ultimately, while this is a book about people enduring incredible hardship and cruelty during war, it's a hopeful book, not a depressing one. Great writing and the care that Hillenbrand took with the people and places make this compelling reading. ...more
Ellroy, I love your books, but I’m getting a little tired of hearing about your masturbation fantasies. *sigh*
OK, let’s take it from the top. LadiesEllroy, I love your books, but I’m getting a little tired of hearing about your masturbation fantasies. *sigh*
OK, let’s take it from the top. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, the biography of James Ellroy:
James Ellroy was 10 in 1958 when his mother was raped and murdered. The case was never solved. His parents had been divorced, and he went to live with his father, a lazy two-bit hustler in L.A. Young James was socially awkward, had an overheated imagination and a child’s belief that he may have caused his mother’s death by wishing her dead shortly before she was actually killed.
With unacknowledged feelings for his mother shoved into the back of his mind, James’ intense obsessive personality and story telling nature along with a complete lack of parental guidance from his father led him to live inside his own head. He was obsessed with women and concocted elaborate fantasies about anyone he’d see. He loved crime stories and created scenarios where he was the hero who would ’save’ a woman. His father died. He become a drunk and drug user, sometimes homeless, who peeped women, and broke into houses to engage in petty theft and panty sniffing.
Eventually, a full-blown mental meltdown and physical collapse scared Ellroy off booze and drugs. He worked menial jobs at golf courses and started writing. He got published. He grew as a writer and wrote The Black Dahlia. He admits that he shamelessly exploited his mother’s death for book publicity. That book became part of something larger, his L.A. Quartet of crime novels. (Also containing L.A. Confidential.) He started rewriting U.S. history as an untold crime story in American Tabloid. He married a woman named Helen Knode who encouraged him to finally acknowledge his issues with his mother.
Ellroy hired a retired L.A. homicide detective and the two examined his mother’s murder. He tied that into his own history and wrote it up as My Dark Places, claiming that he was finally owning up to his debt to his mother. He and his wife moved to Kansas City just as the critical success of the film version of L.A. Confidential, and the raves for American Tabloid and My Dark Places brought him to the peak of his commercial and artistic success to date.
Ellroy claimed he’d finally put his past to bed, he was moving on to bigger and better novels, he loved his wife, he loved his new home in K.C. and he’d finally achieved the peace and stability he’d always needed.
I was here in K.C. during that period right after the release of My Dark Places and got to meet him a couple of times at some events. I even got my own little Q&A session with him for about fifteen minutes once. He gave every indication of being a guy who had survived a pretty ugly past, and was ready to move on. And apparently, it was all lies. Actually, that’s not right. Ellroy wasn’t lying exactly. It’s just that he’s obsessive about needing a narrative. He’s a writer. He needed a story to fit the very public figure he’d become. So he gave us one and sold himself on it, too.
What Ellroy reveals in The Hilliker Curse is that he’s never gotten over his whole mad obsession with finding Her. The woman he’s been fantasizing about since his mother got killed. He’s been looking for her since he was a pimply faced teen running wild in L.A., fueled by booze, drugs and crime fantasies. It eventually made him a great writer. It’s also made for a pretty fucked up life. It’s led him to countless obsessions, two divorces, adultery, and another full-blown mental crack-up in the early 2000s.
Ellroy’s self-admitted problem is that he often prefers to sit in a dark room fantasizing about Her, rather than dealing with real life with an actual woman. He knows he’s messed up. He claims he’s still on friendly terms with his last ex-wife and another woman that he had an affair with, and that they help keep him somewhat honest. But now he says that he has finally found The One. His long epic journey has at last led him the woman he’s always been seeking.
If I didn’t know about Ellroy, if I hadn’t met the man and listened to his previous story first-hand and bought it completely, then I’d probably believe him.
The key thing to remember is that he is an admitted opportunist and relentless self-promoter. When Black Dahlia released, he claimed that it was his final tribute to his mother. But when My Dark Places released, Ellroy said that what he’d said earlier was bullshit, and that he’d finally honestly examined his relationship to her and dealt with it there. And here we are 14 years later, and once again, Ellroy is telling us that wasn’t true either. Here’s the REAL story. And he’s so damn good that you can almost believe it. Again, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he’s narrating.
As an Ellroy fan, I enjoyed the book. It’s written in his trademark high-octane, ADD style. His behind the scenes account of his career explains why The Cold Six Thousand was unsatisfying, and how his breakdown and financial problems led to a decade of non-fiction, short stories and his involvement with bad movies. He appears to be back on track with the release of Blood’s A Rover last year and I’d like to believe that this new woman will finally lead him to happiness and lots of new novels.
But I feel like Charlie Brown running full tilt at the football just before Lucy yanks it away. I’m not falling for it again. I’m a fan of James Ellroy, I’m not his friend. I root for him to do well and want great books from him. In exchange, I’ll buy his work and spread the gospel. I’d like for him to be happy, but after reading two autobiographies by him, I’m doubting it’s possible.
Maybe he’s doomed to just sit in dark rooms and love his women via rich fantasies. If he needs to justify and rewrite his history to live with himself, that’s fine. We all do it to some extent. I just wish he’d use his talent in that area to write some new books instead of trying to convince us that this time he really, really, REALLY is telling us the true story.
4 stars for a terrifically well-written book and getting some idea of what happened during the last ten years his career. 2 stars for expecting us to believe him this time. So I’ll average it out and call it 3 stars. ...more
Paul Dirac won a Nobel prize for physics. He was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other things, he predictePaul Dirac won a Nobel prize for physics. He was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other things, he predicted the existence of antimatter, discovered the magnetic monopole solutions and his work was used as some of the basis for string theory.
What does all that mean? Other than the fact that Dirac was one smart motherf----r, I couldn’t tell you. Because it’s my curse to be fascinated by theoretical physics despite being so math challenged that I could barely scrape out a passing grade in college algebra. Yet I’m intrigued by black holes, string theory, the big bang, the theory of relativity, etc. So when I read a book like this, even though the author does a pretty good job of trying to put Dirac’s work into layman’s terms, I can usually still feel the breeze in my hair as the ideas shoot right over my head.
I can tell you that Albert Einstein once admitted to a colleague that he was having problems following some of Dirac’s equations, and that Stephen Hawking called him the greatest English physicist since Isaac Newton. A text book that Dirac wrote in 1930 on quantum mechanics is still in print and used today. So even a dunce like me can tell that Dirac must have been something special.
He was also a grade-A nerdlinger. Even the other physicists considered him an odd duck. Aloof, quiet and extremely averse to seeking attention, his peers made a game out of trying to get more than one-word answers out of him and usually failed. His idea of a good time was taking a long walk. When a layman asked him what caused the big bang, Dirac replied that it was a meaningless question and refused to speak any further on the subject. He wasn’t exactly a social butterfly.
The author believes that Dirac may have been somewhat autistic, and I guess it’s possible, but I’m a little leery of this new trend to classify every genius as autistic lately. But Dirac was such a private person that there was little personal insight for the author to draw on other than some interviews he did late in his life. So even after reading an entire book about him, I don’t feel like I know any more about him that I could have gotten from Wikipedia.
If you’ve got a flair for theoretical physics or are a huge fan of stories about eccentric geniuses, then there’s a lot to like here, but it’s not a casual read....more