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 th...moreI 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. (less)
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, the...moreThere’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. (less)
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 ther...moreI 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.(less)
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 another...moreI 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. (less)
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. Ladies...moreEllroy, 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. (less)
Paul Dirac won a Nobel prize for physics. He was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other things, he predicte...morePaul 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.(less)