Manson (2014)

Jeff Guinn

A comprehensive research based biographical true crime book about Charles Manson. Guinn’s writing is easy to read, informative, appears to be well researched and is perhaps the definitive work about Charles Manson and his ‘family’. Or at least as definitive as a collection of paper, ink, vowels and consonants can be on the nature of Charlie Manson and his effect upon Western society.

Guinn covers Manson’s upbringing and his biological families background, the changing cultural climate as America of the fifties gradually changed throughout the sixties. The book charts Manson’s connection to the Beach Boys, and the spiral of musical frustration, psychosis and drugs which would eventually lead to the Tate killings.

If I could offer any criticism to this work it would be that it could benefit from additional photos. While reading about these people all I wanted was to see more images of them and their faces and try to find some hint of how they could have followed and committed murder so blindly. However perhaps there could never be enough photos to truly explain the senselessness of the killings. Because that too is another fault of this book. That there is no explanation to the senselessness. Guinn has, if anything, done his job too well. His work is perhaps too comprehensive in its exploration of Manson, his followers and their crimes.

The book calmly explains the trail of events such that the effect is almost chilling in the chain reaction of murderous petty spite and charisma. Manson is so definitive and encompassing that Guinn never resorts to sensationalism or speculation. Instead he illustrates how Manson took advantage of the sixties counter-culture of freedom of expression.

Guinn doesn’t even bother to try to draw any sort of allegory between the Tate killings and the cultural upheaval of America throughout the sixties. He notes that the crimes were linked to the cultural revolution but resists any sort of summation or explanation. Manson and his followers, his family, have been mythologised and canonized. Many, including me before I read this book, believe that the family killed more people and that their reach and evil spread further and loomed larger. This book details the almost mundane reality as well as the petty motivation. Manson’s insecurity about his height and delusions of musical talent combined with a hardened malice.

Guinn shows how the fear which pervaded American society after these killings and changed the course of the counter-culture was based on the same paranoia and dread which had led to the myth of satanic gangs in the early 20th century. This is what truly makes this book an interesting, important and chilling read. Society is convinced there are demons among us. Guinn shows just how easily society can unknowingly foster and enable these demons and, in turn, popularize and fear them all the more.

Bloodlust: Tournament of Death (2016)

Damien Abraham

A short vice style (for lack of a better descriptor) documentary about the CZW wrestling company and its annual death match wrestling event: Tournament of Death. Not a subject I’m usually interested in but, like a lot of the Vice shows, I was drawn to it more because of the presenter than the subject matter. I’m a big fan of the Damien Abraham’s band, Fucked Up, and his various podcasts particularly Turned Out a Punk.

So, that said, it’s hard to say too whether I would recommend this doco. Its violent and gory and if you don’t want to see wounds being inflicted on another person, even semi-staged ones, this if a no-go zone. If, however, you’re intrigued by just how many people it takes to remove a roofing nail array from someone’s skull than, well, this doco is for you.

Abraham examines the life of the owner of CZW and the amount of work he puts into his company and these tournament of death events. He interviews various wrestlers and examines some of their expectations, motivations and plans. It is almost interesting in its coverage of the culture and this sub-culture of wrestling and how something that is generally viewed as being a large produced for TV multimillion dollar industry can also be produced on such a grass roots level and for little other than the passion of the fans and the performers. Unfortunately though this angle isn’t properly explored and there isn’t any full closure on the financial success or failure of the event. By the time the documentary finishes and the various participants, including the owner, are being treated for wounds and concussions it is hard to see the appeal or any basis for the passion and bloodlust which the fans are so full of.

It feels too as if the doco was cut short. As if there were either not enough time for a narrative to develop or there wasn’t enough of a narrative present to justify more time. Whatever the reason the result is that the documentary, stand-alone, falls a little flat. That said this documentary makes much more sense and is far more interesting when viewed after Abraham’s interview with one of the wrestlers, Jeff Cannonball, on the Turned Out a Punk podcast. This interview provides more of the background and motivation of Cannonball and shines a light of context upon the CZW tournament and similar events as well as the violence inside the ring. Though much of the sport at this level still, to me at least, seems like savagery just for savagery’s sake the interview with Jeff Cannonball shows that, like punk- hardcore and various other sub-cultures what can appear strange and violent to an outsider can be a passion and way of life for the participants and fans. Abraham is more than able to flesh out the interest and appeal of sub-cultural passion and its importance in relation to the development of other sub-cultures and even popular culture in his free-form podcast medium. Strangely though there is no such connection or summation made in this film. Many other vice documentaries I’ve watched seemed to dedicate an ending portion to making these connections and it’s kind of jarring that in this there isn’t enough time for same level of ‘so what does this mean’ or ‘why does this matter’ and the whole flick seems so much less important than it may have as a result.

Cosmicomics (1965)

Italo Calvino

This was a struggle. I had to force myself to read on at times. I found a lot of the stories slow and a little boring. Which was a surprise as I expected to like Calino’s writing. But I feel like I need to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller for proper context on how these stories relate to Calvino’s work as a whole. I chose this book as a random entry point. I had heard of his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and its method of writing in the second person perspective. I’d seen this lampooned in a Fred Negro cartoon and know someone who loved it and whose taste I respect, at least in literature. I’m still very interested in reading book but I doubt I’ll ever read this collection of short stories again. The stories are ok. They’re often poetic and almost always very smart and scientific (at least for 1965) but they are, for me, boring and often don’t provide the reader with anything other than an attempt at providing a different perspective about the idea of the cosmos and infinity. These ideas start off interesting but by the last story I found them mundane.

I’ve read that these stories were constructed around scientific facts and so perhaps round pegs were forced to fit into square holes at times. Perhaps Calvino wrote each piece easily and fast. Each story is written with a calm assurance but none of them stretch themselves to provide anything other than a narrative based around science and the cosmos. Perhaps, in ’65, with much of this science brand new these stories seemed far more important than they do now. A similar problem I had reading Portney’s Complaint and the erosion of its central taboos. Another classic I struggled to enjoy. Though again I’ll wait until reading more Calvino to decide how I feel about his writing.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994)

John Berendt

I always assumed I knew what true crime writing was. In the same way, you assume you know a lot of things. I thought I knew because I had once read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and thought that was the broad template. An in-depth immersion into the many facts of a crime, it’s surrounds, the criminals, the victims, the trial and the punishment.

Berendt’s book does not adhere to this template. It is a different kind of true crime writing and it’s not necessarily lesser but it is certainly different. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil itself is still a good book. I was simply surprised that it took such a different tack. Berendt’s book is written in a light journalistic and serial manner. The crime isn’t overly complicated and so Berendt instead investigates the local characters and town surrounding act of murder. There is a degree of conceit whereby the writing seeks to act as entertainment first and provide any form of investigation, resolution or solution as a distant second. As such Berendt revels in providing a southern gothic portrait of the city of Savannah and its eccentric inhabitants.

As a novice to true crime this book was entertaining and easy to read and almost pulpy with its first-person perspective and rearrangement of chronology to help the narrative. It shows how problematic true crime writing can be. How easily facts can be rearranged to amp up the entertainment factor. How easily the truth and non-fiction of an event can be morphed into fiction. This book doesn’t ask any searching questions into the nature of crime and how it relates to the human condition but it was a good introduction and primer towards some of the more harrowing true crime novels I’ve since read while also acting as a reminder that the genre, while serious and often intensely so, is also almost paradoxically still acting as a form of entertainment

Redeployment (2014)

Phil Klay

Along with Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch this was my favourite read of 2016. They both deeply affected me perhaps because I read each of them in hospital in very short time-spans. They were also both recommended by Bret Easton Ellis on his Instagram and though I don’t necessarily agree with all the views he has on his podcast I so far 100% back his taste in film and literature.

In a way, too this book reminded me of Holly Child’s No Limit’s (perhaps my third favourite read book of last year). The two books are worlds apart in subject matter but in reading each there is the sense that there has been extensive reduction in drafting and editing so that what is left behind is the boiled down essence and exactly what author wished to convey.

Redeployment consists of ten stories based around the Iraq war and/or its aftermath. Each story is narrated from a different perspective and these different perspectives range over various ranks military departments and stages of deployment, redeployment and return to civilian life. Klay has stated that his goal was to avoid creating caricatures and stereotypes of military figures and in this respect, as well as others, he is very successful.

I was drawn to this book in the same way that I have been drawn to other works dealing with the Iraq war such as Generation Kill, The Red Circle, American Sniper, Lone Gunmen and also biographies and the auto-biography of George W. Bush. It is the war of my generation but, unlike previous wars, history still doesn’t seem to know how to deal with it and whether to accept or reject its mission and legacy. Was the war necessary, successful or criminal? And if I have these questions, in Australia, how much more confusing must it be in America where the likelihood of knowing someone who served in Iraq would be much higher?

Redeployment doesn’t necessarily answer any of these questions but it goes a long way towards explaining why the questions and confusions and anger and sadness over the war exists in this way. The different perspectives which Klay utilises are nuanced and complicated. They show that there is no one war story or right or wrong sense of horror or alienation. They also highlight how far removed we in the Western world are from the field of battle and how easily we distanced and distance ourselves and the day to day reality of our lives from the horror of this conflict.

And so while it doesn’t answer my questions. While I can’t properly summate why this book is so powerful and affecting in the space of a short review what I can say is that this book goes a long way to providing the best reflection of the confusion and fog of war and the many lives which have been and are touched by its shadow.

Dead Until Dark (2001)

Charlaine Harris

I was obliged to read this as part of an undergraduate gothic studies subject and, well, while, I didn’t expect to dislike it I was a little arrogant and thought it would be pretty light (in the lite sense) and fluffy. This is, after all, the novel that was turned into the TV show True Blood. The TV show which imploded under its own premise of vampires being integrated into the real world and acting as an analogy for various civil rights movements. A series which then heaped upon the implosion crater the added insult of werewolves and fairies and shapeshifters.

But, TV series aside, this first book in the series is quite good. It takes a lot of pointers in tone and characterisation from Stephen King which works well with the refreshing perspective of a female narrative perspective. The premise is brilliant. The setting in the south is suitably eerie and steeped in gothic history.

This book could essentially be the screenplay for the first season of the HBO adaptation which was almost universally applauded. I’m tempted to read on further and find out if Charlaine jumped the shark into the world of fairies or if that was HBO’s mistakes. Judging by Game of Thrones though I feel like HBO has been reasonably faithful and that Harris’ later novels possibly suffer in quality and dilute the premise. Here though it is an almost perfect modern vampire novel.

The Founder (2016)

John Lee Hancock

What this movie has? Well… It has an excellent and flawless cast. One of the most entertaining parts of the film was the frequent population of so many known faces in almost every scene. No matter how big or small. It was as if only the best character actors had been cast. Everyone performs well even though some actors are cast against their type particularly a meek Nick Offerman and a quiet and powerless Lura Dern as Ray Kroc’s housewife. It was good too to see some well known faces being cast into greater roles. Notably, for me, B.J. Novak from The Office and Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks.

That said the movie is fun and interesting but ultimately unrewarding. The story is at its most interesting while it covers the McDonald’s brother’s initial development of their speedy burger system and restaurant setup. The plot and pacing then suffers as the focus turns more fully back and onto Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. The movie then seems a little lost as to how to portray his increasingly unethical behaviour. In the third act the movie misses beats as Kroc’s personal life changes as his wealth and power increases. The movie has set itself up as being about Kroc’s journey from struggling salesman to fast food mogul but can’t really maintain the audience’s sympathy. Told in this way the character development struggles and Ray Kroc’s financial rewards and success feel unearned and the true-life resolution of the film an anti-climax. Meanwhile much seems to be left out or glossed over. The film ends as the McDonalds corporation is beginning to expand across America and only hints at the coming international cult of Ray Croc as, in the closing scenes, he practices a speech addressed to Ronald Reagan.

Little context is given for what Ray Kroc means when he urges the McDonald brothers to ‘do it (franchise their business) for America’. The movie doesn’t’ explain that Kroc was a staunch republican and thought that the export of American burgers could help in the fight against communism. This kind of partisan view is carefully kept out of the film as if it is seeking to appeal to everyone even as it tells the tale of ‘the founder’ essentially stealing his business from the McDonald brothers. While the movie is fine, very good even, and extremely watchable, well-acted and well shot it may have worked better if it had concentrated solely upon the origin story of the McDonald brothers as they developed their business where too it needn’t have had to skirt around or lessen certain events. Also, it had been that story and their initial journey it could have coincided with a changing America in the fifties through to the sixties and seventies. Instead these cultural changes were actually minimised and ignored in this film. Of course, too, by the same token a whole other film could have been made about the latter period in which Ray Croc takes over and the modern international colonial style expansion of the modern franchise. Both or either of these films could have been great. This film though which seeks to encapsulate these two very different stories and time periods does its best but cannot help but feeling disjointed and so too also, unfortunately, powerless in its portrayal of all parties and events.

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (1993)

Emmanuel Carrère


One of my guilty pleasures is that I love biographies. It’s a guilty pleasure because so many biographies are either bad, boring or unnecessary. But I try over and over. It began when I read Jackie Chan’s biography at a young age. Admittedly Jackie Chan’s story is reasonably interesting and, by comparison, a lot of other biographies are boring even, or despite, interesting subject matter. But the unexpected highs and lows of Chan’s story started something for me. And like any gambler who wins on their first try I’ve continued to search for the same reward. Yet it’s often difficult to gauge what will and what won’t be a good biography. Those who produced the most interesting work may have had dull lives.

Sure, though Phillip K Dick had an uninteresting life? Considering his fiction and Its breadth and influence. But really Dick’s life was remarkably mundane and this could easily have been a bad biography. He married several times, did very few drugs in general but lots of amphetamine in particular. Didn’t really travel or interact with other authors. He wrote, a lot, though arguably only some of it was great and much of his output, like his life, was merely mundane.

Nonetheless this is perhaps the best biography I have ever read and, I’d wager, will ever read. Carrère tackles the subject with a true passion and interest as well as the innovation of providing his own dramatization of events so that the book resembles a work of historical fiction. The book is built heavily upon facts and events but embellishes otherwise undocumented events in Dick’s with some conceit to fiction. Carrère delves deep and even in the mundane sections is innovative and relates Dick’s work and day to day existence to the world events and the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture such that this book is about far more than merely the life of a prolific writer. The book is about philosophy, modern history, the birth and development of early modern science fiction, the nature and demands of creation, the counter-culture and its expectations and limitations as well as mental illness and the rewards and pitfalls of recognition.

It’s a sad book. Carrère tells the tragic life of a man who’s work touched, and continues to touch millions of people through the continual reprints of his novels and TV and movie adaptations. The book is not afraid to show the depths to which Dick fell and that he died lonely and confused and paranoid. Convinced to the end that he was trapped in just the kind of situation that he had written so much about. And Carrère in this work is not just providing us with the life of Dick, a genius. He is also asking what happened. At which point did the fiction consume and derail the writer and become his reality. Could he have been saved? Should he have been saved? Can he really be considered a hero or a genius when he was also seemingly so doomed and powerless? The book cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Nonetheless it does provide that perfect and poignant life and times story I’ve valued so much ever since my first taste.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Phillip Roth


This is the first and so far, only Phillip Roth book I’ve read. Controversial at the time of publication (1969) for its depiction of masturbation, bodily fluids and obscenity. It’s relatively tame by modern standards though some would argue otherwise (including this Guardian article). The writing is solid, especially for a first novel, but I found it from a modern perspective bereft of controversy and so the book serves more as a well-done writing exercise in the (now) well known trope of Jewish neurosis. The book is narrated as one long monologue through the central character of Portnoy. While reading, I assumed this novel was a small side journey from Roth’s more serious works in the same way that Gore Vidal wrote Myra Breckinridge and Mailer wrote Barbary Shore. Although looking at the publication dates it seems as if Barbary Shore was a similarly early work of Mailer’s and so perhaps Gore Vidal was the only one making side-journeys while the other two were evolving as writers in these their earlier, lighter books. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong in my idea of Roth and all his writing is similar to this, but that’s a realization for another day.