Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Books you might be interested in reading, or burning
John Belushi – source unknown
In the course of writing a new biography of John Belushi, Tanner Colby went page by page through Bob Woodward’s book Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi to check facts, and, and found reality much different than what Woodward had written. A fascinating subject, in fact. Woodward’s reputation continues to swirl downward…
What started as a fun project turned out to be a rather fascinating and unique experiment. Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books.…
Wired is an infuriating piece of work. There’s a reason Woodward’s critics consistently come off as hysterical ninnies: He doesn’t make Jonah Lehrer–level mistakes. There’s never a smoking gun like an outright falsehood or a brazen ethical breach. And yet, in the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right—some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. There’s no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don’t. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.
Over and over during the course of my reporting I’d hear a story that conflicted with Woodward’s account in Wired. I’d say, “Aha! I’ve got him!” I’d run back to Woodward’s index, look up the offending passage, and realize that, well, no, he’d put down the mechanics of the story more or less as they’d happened. But he’d so mangled the meaning and the context that his version had nothing to do with what I concluded had actually transpired. Take the filming of the famous cafeteria scene from Animal House, which Belushi totally improvised on set with no rehearsal. What you see in the film is the first and last time he ever performed that scene.
Here’s the story as recounted by Belushi’s co-star James Widdoes:
One of the things that was so spectacular to watch during the filming was the incredible connection that [Belushi] and Landis had. During the scene on the cafeteria line, Landis was talking to Belushi all the way through it, and Belushi was just taking it one step further. What started out as Landis saying, “Okay, now grab the sandwich,” became, in John’s hands, taking the sandwich, squeezing and bending it until it popped out of the cellophane, sucking it into his mouth, and then putting half the sandwich back. He would just go a little further each time.
Co-star Tim Matheson remembered that John “did the entire cafeteria line scene in one take. I just stood by the camera, mesmerized.” Other witnesses agree. Every person who recounted that incident to me used it as an example of Belushi’s virtuoso talent and his great relationship with his director. Landis could whisper suggestions to Belushi on the fly, and he’d spin it into comedy gold.
Now here it is as Woodward presents it:
Landis quickly discovered that John could be lazy and undisciplined. They were rehearsing a cafeteria scene, a perfect vehicle to set up Bluto’s insatiable cravings. Landis wanted John to walk down the cafeteria line and load his tray until it was a physical burden. As the camera started, Landis stood to one side shouting: “Take that! Put that in your pocket! Pile that on the tray! Eat that now, right there!” John followed each order, loading his pockets and tray, stuffing his mouth with a plate of Jello in one motion.
First off, Woodward wrongly calls the cafeteria scene a rehearsal, when half the point of the story is that Belushi pulled it off without ever rehearsing it once. Also, there’s actually nothing in the anecdote to indicate laziness or lack of discipline on Belushi’s part, yet Woodward chooses to establish the scene using those words. The implication is that Belushi was so unfocused and unprepared that he couldn’t make it through the scene without the director beside him telling him what to do, which is not what took place. When I interviewed him, Landis disputed that he ever referred to Belushi as lazy or undisciplined. “The greatest crime of that book,” Landis says of Wired, “is that if you read it and you’d just assume that John was a pig and an asshole, and he was anything but. He could be abrupt and unpleasant, but most of the time he was totally charming and people adored him.”
(click here to continue reading Bob Woodward and Gene Sperling: What Woodward’s John Belushi book can tell us about the sequester scandal. – Slate Magazine.)
You should read the rest…
Ok, one more excerpt:
John Belushi was a recreational drug user for roughly one-third of his 33 years, and he was a hard-core addict for the last five or six, from which you can subtract one solid year of sobriety. Yet in Wired, which has 403 pages of narrative text, the total number of pages that make some reference to drugs is something like 295, or nearly 75 percent. Belushi’s drug use is surely a key part of his life—drugs are what ended it, after all—but shouldn’t a writer also be interested in what led his subject to this substance abuse in the first place? If you want to know why someone was a cocaine addict for the last six years of his life, the answer is probably hiding somewhere in the first 27 years. But Woodward chooses to largely ignore that period, and in doing so he again misses the point. In terms of illuminating its subject, Wired is about as useful as a biography of Buddy Holly that only covers time he spent on airplanes.
Of all the people I interviewed, SNL writer and current Sen. Al Franken, referencing his late comedy partner Tom Davis, offered the most apt description of Woodward’s one-sided approach to the drug use in Belushi’s story:
“Tom Davis said the best thing about Wired,” Franken told me. “He said it’s as if someone wrote a book about your college years and called it Puked. And all it was about was who puked, when they puked, what they ate before they puked and what they puked up. No one read Dostoevsky, no one studied math, no one fell in love, and nothing happened but people puking.”
Sounds fun – exploring without leaving the comfort of my office couch…
The true story Christopher S. Stewart has to tell in “Jungleland” resembles nothing so much as the set-up for one of H. Rider Haggard’s old pulp adventure novels. It’s got a fabled lost city somewhere in the midst of a trackless rainforest, intrepid explorers, stoic guides, assorted dangerous animals and sinister bad guys, and a dash of espionage. Even the local tribesmen get in on the act, issuing forth vague warnings about “forbidden” zones, the voices of the dead, evil spirits and monkey gods.
Stewart, a journalist specializing in war and organized crime, first heard about Ciudad Blanco — the White City, a magnificent ruin rumored to be buried deep in the jungles of the Mosquitia region of Honduras — while reporting on the booming Honduran drug trade in 2008. An American ex-soldier who had been involved in training the Nicaraguan contras told him about the legend while describing Mosquitia as the “shittiest, buggiest shithole jungle in the world.” Stewart was soon obsessed, and in a few months, he was on a plane for Central America.
He was far from the first to heed the call. Explorers ranging from Columbus to Cortes had taken note of the rumors, and the first Catholic bishop of Honduras informed the king of Spain that he’d heard tell of the city from the lips of an “Indian princess;” she said its aristocrats ate from solid gold plates. Charles Lindbergh claimed to have spotted the white ruins of “an amazing ancient metropolis” while flying over Central America, and many other visitors to the region have found artifacts that seem to be the remnants of a sophisticated culture. The most recent and apparently reliable eyewitness account dated back to 1940, when Theodore Morde, a 29-year-old adventurer from Massachusetts, claimed to have stumbled on the city while wandering in the heart of the jungle.
(click here to continue reading “Jungleland”: In search of a lost city – Salon.com.)
Available in a couple weeks, I’ll tell you how it is.
The Science of Good Cooking (Cook’s Illustrated Cookbooks) by The Editors of America’s Test Kitchen and Guy Crosby Ph.D
Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix (Musicians in Their Own Words) by Steven Roby
A book that I’ve been meaning to read as well…
I finally read John Kelly’s troubling The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (iBook) Our problems feel small. Ireland lost one in three people in the late 1840s. At least a million died in the famine and its related illnesses; another two million fled for England, Canada, the United States or other ports of refuge.
But I kept coming back to U.S. politics anyway. Hauntingly, Kelly repeats the phrase that drove British famine relief (or lack of it): they were so determined to end Irish “dependence on government” that they stalled or blocked provision of food, public works projects and other proposals that might have kept more Irish alive and fed. The phrase appears at least seven times, by my count, in the book. “Dependence on government:” Haven’t we heard that somewhere?
In fact, the day after finishing Kelly’s book, I found Salon’s Michael Lind writing about the Heritage Foundation brief, “The Index of Dependence on Government.” It could have been the title of a report by famine villain Charles Trevelyan, the British Treasury assistant secretary whose anti-Irish moralism thwarted relief, but of course it was written by well-paid conservative Beltway think tankers. The very same day PBS aired a Frontline documentary revealing that our fabulously wealthy country has the fourth highest child-poverty rate in the developed world, just behind Mexico, Chile and Turkey.
And I couldn’t help thinking: we haven’t come far at all.
(click here to continue reading When right-wing blather killed – Salon.com.)
and Joan Walsh’s thumbnail review:
A brief overview is necessary: Kelly fights the notion that the British famine response was “genocide,” or even, as I put it in my book, “ethnic cleansing.” It was more benign and commonplace, he argues, though still cruel and deadly: An effort to use a tragedy to advance a political agenda, and to imagine God’s hand at work advancing that agenda, in matters that are well within the realm of human action to prevent or correct.
Famine Ireland combined the worst of feudalism and capitalism. Anglo-Irish landlords, given their land in “plantations” after decades of war in the 16th and 17th centuries to displace conquered Irish Catholics, were a big part of the problem. At least a quarter were absentee and only wanted the highest rents they could gouge; resident landlords preferred “conspicuous consumption” – Ireland enjoyed a million acres of deer parks and gardens – to building the infrastructure of modern agriculture.
So British leaders wanted to use the famine “to modernize the Irish agricultural economy, which was widely viewed as the principal source of Ireland’s poverty and chronic violence, and to improve the Irish character, which exhibited an alarming ‘dependence on government’ and was utterly lacking in the virtues of the new industrial age, such as self-discipline and initiative,” Kelly writes. Trevelyan told a colleague: God “sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson…[and it] must not be too mitigated.”
Sometimes I felt like quibbling with Kelly over his effort to refute charges that the famine response was a deliberate form of ethnic cleansing, given the way it was driven by centuries of crippling prejudice against Irish Catholics. But he’s right: It isn’t genocide when we don’t act to stop the deaths of people we don’t care about in the first place. Certainly some Irish leaders veered into crazy anti-British conspiracy theories. The famine even had its version of Jeremiah Wright: Irish revolutionary John Mitchel, who claimed the British government created typhus in laboratories and deliberately infected the Irish, much as Wright accused the U.S. government of spreading AIDS in poor black communities. I guess centuries of oppression can lead to some crazy, intemperate ideas.
Laura Miller adds:
The Irish economy was backward and precarious, but for Trevelyan the failure of the potato crop presented not a life-or-death crisis but an opportunity to forcibly modernize it. He agreed to a limited public works program (in which out-of-work laborers were paid a pittance to build roads to nowhere) because he believed it would break the peasant class of its reliance on barter and subsistence farming. The idea was to sell them corn imported from overseas because the grain couldn’t be cultivated in Ireland, thereby accustoming them to using money. However, when Ireland’s mercantile men objected to the price-depressing effects of government-funded grain, Trevelyan vowed not to sell it too cheaply, claiming that high prices would promote foreign imports.
These strategies amount to the 19th-century version of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “Shock Doctrine”: an attempt to force economic reforms on a population reeling in the aftermath of a disaster. Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll: streets jammed with gaunt, half-naked wraiths who had sold their clothes for food, families gathered mutely in miserable cottages to die, unburied corpses by the roadside, entire hamlets razed by landlords seeking to evict “dead weight” tenants they’d otherwise have to help. If only these unfortunates could have sought comfort in “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity”!
Recognizing that the British handling of the famine was “parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology” rather than deliberately genocidal is important because while powerful, paranoid, racist madmen like Hitler are relatively rare, our own time is replete with men like Trevelyan. The Moralists saw the famine as a combination of divine judgement on the Irish people and the market working itself out in accordance with God’s plan, an equation of brutal capitalism with pseudo-Christian piety that can be just as destructive as outright malevolence. That version of the story may not be as satisfying dramatically and morally as the one with the evil, homicidal Englishman, but it does do what history does best, which is to show us how not to repeat it.
(click here to continue reading “The Graves Are Walking”: Was the Great Potato Famine a genocide? – Salon.com.)
A Dance with Dragons
I finished zipping through the first five books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels in record time (started the first novel, April 4th, finished the last May 9th.) Heavy, dense histories and political dissertations are my more usual fare, but I never consume those kind of books quite so fast as I sprinted through the faux history of Westeros and Essos and the dynastic civil wars engulfing these continents. Almost 2 million words in a month. Yikes…
Was it great literature? No, but it was fun to read, and iBooks/ebooks are easy enough to read while running on my treadmill, or whenever I have a moment before a meeting somewhere.
Wordcount of A Song of Ice And Fire – George R. R. Martin
- A Game of Thrones: 298k words
- A Clash of kings: 326k words
- A Storm of Swords: 424k words
- A Feast for Crows: 300k words
- A Dance with Dragons: 422k words
Total: 1M 770k words
(click here to continue reading Wordcount of popular (and hefty) epics | The Cesspit..)
My main complaint is that the sixth volume of the series, to be called The Winds of Winter, is not published, and only the Seven know when it will be, besides the author. So there are plenty of cliff-hangers waiting to be resolved.
The previous installment, A Dance with Dragons, covered less story than Martin intended, omitting at least one planned large battle sequence and leaving several character threads ending in cliff-hangers. Martin intended to resolve these cliffhangers “very early” in The Winds of Winter, saying “I’m going to open with the two big battles that I was building up to, the battle in the ice and the battle at Meereen—the battle of Slaver’s Bay. And then take it from there.”
Martin confirmed in March 2012 that the final two novels will take readers farther north than any of the previous books: “What lies really north [The Land of Always Winter], we haven’t explored that yet, but we will in the last two books.” The sample chapter on Martin’s website is written from Theon Greyjoy’s viewpoint and shows his interactions with Stannis Baratheon as they are camped in the snow on his march to Winterfell. Martin has also said that “you’re definitely going to see more of the Others in The Winds of Winter”.
At 2011 WorldCon, Martin read an Arianne chapter, during which she heads for Griffin’s Roost to see the young boy who is calling himself Aegon. Victarion’s chapter will take off five minutes after A Dance with Dragons, taking place on the eve of the Iron Islanders’ surprise attack on the cities in Slaver’s Bay
I have a copy, but haven’t started reading it, yet. The previous volumes have all been ripping yarns, and have high expectations for this one too.
“The Passage of Power,” the fourth installment of Robert Caro’s brilliant series on Lyndon Johnson, spans roughly five years, beginning shortly before the 1960 presidential contest, including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and other seminal events of the Kennedy years, and ending a few months after the awful afternoon in Dallas that elevated L.B.J. to the presidency.
…You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans. Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause.
According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
This is the question every president must ask and answer. For Lyndon Johnson in the final weeks of 1963, the presidency was for two things: passing a civil rights bill with teeth, to replace the much weaker 1957 law he’d helped to pass as Senate majority leader, and launching the War on Poverty. That neither of these causes was in fact hopeless was clear possibly only to him, as few Americans in our history have matched Johnson’s knowledge of how to move legislation, and legislators.
(click here to continue reading ‘The Passage of Power,’ Robert Caro’s New L.B.J. Book – by Bill Clinton.)