HHhH (2010)

Laurent Binet

Heralded as one of the greatest works of historical fiction HHhH takes on the simple and yet immensely complicated task of detailing the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS.

The book is many things under the one banner including a biography of the Reinhard Heydrich, a biography of the paratrooper assassins, a historical analysis of the development of the final solution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and an exploration of the act of writing historical fiction. Amongst all this content Laurent Binet also writes himself into the book as he muses on his role as researcher and author.

The books strength is in conveying large amounts of information and research in a smooth and continually interesting manner. Binet, in examining a different theatre of war than usual, goes to great lengths to detail the history of the German occupation of Moravia. He writes of the government in exile and the public figures who stayed and collaborated with the Germans. As part of his biography of Heydrich Binet also provides many insights into the inner workings of the upper Nazi echelon and the nature of their interactions.

The weakness of the book is it often feels too worried about itself. Binet constantly signposts what will happen next and why. That Binet as author includes himself in the book should and could serve as some sort of narrative to the reader but even this potential device is not allowed to exist independently or work properly as Binet feels the need to justify including himself. This level of self-awareness could still allow for the narrative of the researcher and the vast amount of time and effort spent gradually letting go of the story in writing but within the short length of the book it is biographical details about Binet himself which are lacking.

In the climax, when the climax is finally allowed to happen Binet is both too self-aware and intent upon sign-posting his intentions, his motivations and the motivations of his intentions. This leads from very early on to a feeling of anti-climax that, as I reader, I kept expecting would somehow be overcome. Instead the anti-climax is underlined and examined in the same clever way Binet examines much of his writing throughout the book and, I found, this led to a feeling of suffocation under the repeated waves of analysis, self-awareness and concern for the direction of the story.

Binet writes in the closing passages of the emotional investment and near trauma that he has taken on in researching and writing the book. I found this glimpse into his psyche promised so much of what seemed to be missing. I wish he had been allowed to write more about himself, even if it was indulgent perhaps even especially if it was indulgent.

I feel too that if Binet had been allowed another hundred pages to fully illustrate who he is and to also indulge in the personal and his own process of parsing and then writing on these atrocities then this book could have been more than a great work of historical research in the form of a novel. It could have shown how encompassing and dark was the cloud of the Nazi regime and how, even still, so many decades on it is so often impossible for us to comprehend this part of history. I would have happily read more of the guilt and trauma of Binet as he struggled to convey all of this.

But, too, perhaps this is my own worry that I’ll never be able to fully complete my comprehension of these events or the guilt I carry, as I think many of us do, that the fascination with the war and Hitler and the atrocities he committed is voyeuristic rather than academic.

And, so, ultimately undecided as I am this is another book that will remain in limbo on a shelf with few others that I want to read again soon and see how time and myself find it different on a second pass.

 

*The featured image above is the edition I have. To date this is the most edition variants I have found of a book online.

 

hhhh7

Born Standing Up (2007)

Steve Martin

An impressingly well-crafted autobiography which, though brief, is an almost perfect splicing of Martin’s upbringing, pivotal biographical moments, evolution as an artist, encounters with fledgling and established celebrities, and struggle with the heights of his fame.

Martin is modest throughout the book but even within his humble recollections it becomes evident just how formative and influential he has been on modern comedy. It is this evolution of his distinct style which is the most interesting aspect of the book. Much of his stand-up and movies seem dated now, I think, but given the context of this book it is possible to understand just how truly unique Martin’s comedy was in its time. Iyoung steve martinf his comedy seems dated now it is because his inventions have since been so often copied and built upon.

I am always interested in reading about the evolution of an artist but have never read anything which provides such a clear understanding of how the evolution occurred. From a young age Martin is interested in performing and this book meticulously plots the twists and turns of his interest in comedy, development of style, interest in ‘doing it new’ and the subsequent struggle and then rise to mega-stardom. Along the way he performs with member of The Eagles before they are The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac before they are Fleetwood Mac, and even meets and is complemented by Elvis.

I would say that a failing of the book is that at times it is too modest, too glib and refuses to ever truly revel in the achievements or success of its author. I could have read much more on Martin’s film work and encounters with the SNL cast. When he does write about the peak of his fame, performing stand-up to arena’s full of tens of thousands of fans, he is still analytical of his act rather than congratulatory of his success. I would have welcomed more detail but will settle for a book that is, like the author, continually entertaining.

stevemartin

Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]

Updike (2014)

Adam Begley

I was drawn to read Updike during a spat of exploring the work of Pulitzer winners. He seemed particularly intriguing as he is one of only three to have won the Pulitzer more than once, for two of his Rabbit novels. What I’ve found weird is that no one else that I know has read him. The impression I have is that his halo has dulled and his writing is less revered than some of his contemporaries. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps because Updike is unflinching in his exploration of gender dynamics and has been accused of misogyny in detailing what, I would argue, was an attempt to paint a true character and representation of gender dynamics in middle class America. Meanwhile the works of Hemingway, Miller et al remain popular with no such defence. Perhaps it is because Updike lived longer and was so prolific in his output? Perhaps he simply occupies an uneasy intersection of realism and high literature?

I was eager to read Adam Begley’s book to try and find the answers to these questions and know more about the Updike himself. On the latter matter, at least this book succeeds. It is a straight-ahead birth to death biography of a man who wasn’t particularly interesting even while all of his adult life was spent crafting stories and articles for the New Yorker. But even if the behind the scenes of this career was a little dull Begley still details all of Updike’s not particularly interesting life with the true enthusiasm of both a scholar and fan and it is this perspective which makes this book of value.

Begley manages to capture the sheer passion which Updike poured into his craft.  He conveys just how much of a genius Updike was and what went into his creating such a prolific output. Begley deftly covers Updike’s personal life and doesn’t appear to whitewash the many affairs which Updike embarked upon. In this respect, too there is a certain kind of second act in the book which is reminiscent of the Mad Men and shows how John Updike the man was as affected by the changing nature of sixties America as his main protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.

Unfortunately, this work doesn’t delve into how the perception of Updike may have changed with time. As if there is some great fact about him that could explain what he did and how he did it from such a young age. Because… while his books are great. They are just so mundane. And that’s what he wanted?!? How was he able to create such a style? To sell it. To somehow craft such gentle slow writing into such momentous and important works? Unfortunately, again, Begley like me, is a fan and if this book lacks anything it is a critical eye. Begley is even closer than me to the subject. He has no hope of being able to explain how Updike’s books do not seem to have prospered within the modern canon or how his ideas about honesty and diving deep into the mundane have become blasé. Or how his deep love of the written word and the luxury or revelling in it is not quite as in vogue as it once was. This book covers everything about a man whose life was lived in his writing. It just fails to address why this writing seems to be fading out of fashion.

Don’t panic: Douglas Adams and the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

Neil Gaiman

Perhaps the most disappointing book I read last year. As a biography of a person this book is dull. It is full of information and would be valuable for completest fans of Douglas Adams and his work. There are detailed break downs of all the Hitchhiker radio and tv episodes as well as a behind the scenes insights into the making of Dr Who episodes Adams worked on and, of course, a comprehensive list of the various incarnations of The Hitch-hikers Guide in the many varied forms it has taken

As for the author, well, according to this book there isn’t much of a story to Douglas Adams. He seemed to have been blessed with a genius sense of humour, sense of invention and imagination. The most interesting sections relate to how Adams worked within the BBC in the eighties. He was chaotic, often very late and always unorganised. Unfortunately, Gaiman seems to try to stretch these sections and, at times, the writing begins to resemble the cheap unauthorised biographies of celebrities which themselves are often extended Wikipedia entries.

Its as if this book needed to be combined with something else like, for instance, the history of the BB or radio serials or perhaps the nature of adaptation. Gaiman suggest that the creation of Hitchhikers Guide was a result of impulse, spontaneous wit and the pressure of a deadline. In turn to try and summate that spark in the flowery elaborate style of Gaiman’s feels anachronistic.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to say if this book might have been better if it had been written by someone other than Gaiman, who, is not at fault per se but is perhaps too close to the subject and unwilling to allow that large parts of Adam’s life were boring or uneventful. But, again, this book is invaluable as a source of information on the history of the Hitchhikers guide. It’s simply does not or cannot provide an interesting story about the man behind the work.

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

4/1/2017

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.