Books of the Holy Bee, 2009

Happy New Year. Some Holy Bee New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Floss more regularly. Floss swords are awesome and make it much easier.
  2. Watch more movies. From my peak of watching 5-6 movies a week, I’ve dwindled to about two a month. The last time I went to the theater was for Inglourious Basterds at the end of August. The Hangover, District 9, Paranormal Activity, and just about every other major 2009 release are all as yet unseen by me. (I did see Year One, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.) My Netflix has fed me a steady diet of TV shows over the past year (House M.D., It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, How I Met Your Mother, many others). I r dum.
  3. Read more fiction. See below.
  4. Don’t be such a filthy alkie and quit taking drinks to bed. I shouldn’t pretend I’m going to “sit up & watch a DVD”. I will fall asleep almost instantly, wake up at 3:30 to the Family Guy DVD menu on a constant loop, and the drink will have gone to waste (not that it will stop me from taking a watery sip as I turn off the DVD player.) I probably set a record by breaking this resolution six minutes after the Times Square ball dropped. But I will do better. So to start the Holy Bee Year-End Round-Up, we’ll be taking a look at the books I’ve gone through this year, followed in a later entry by the Holy Bee Top 20 Albums of the Year. (No Movies of the Year entry for reasons described above.)

I’ve been keeping a list of books that I’ve read each year since 2004, and this is the first time I’ve made it public. In looking it over, I see most of my interests are covered, but I am slightly surprised to find no “heavy” history represented. Usually each year, I burrow my way through at least one weighty, shoebox-sized tome detailing the life of a president, a noted statesman, or a war. I hope my attention span isn’t being atrophied by my dedication to websites like Failblog or Passive Aggressive Notes.

Bear in mind, this is a list of stuff I’ve read cover-to-cover (including Prefaces, Introductions, and Author’s Notes. In some cases, I’ve even found myself poring over the source notes.) This list does not include the dozens of books that I’ve skimmed, dipped in and out of, or abandoned partway through. It does not include old favorites that I’ve re-read (I do that way too often.) Only a few of them were actually published in 2009. We’ll start with the ten best/most interesting (in no particular order):

1. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (2008)
An examination of the development, production, and release/promotion of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Academy Awards. This was a transitional time, when the old Hollywood studio system was breathing its last, but before the new wave of “movie brats” (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg) had fully picked up the gauntlet. Edgy, unsettling films appealing to a growing trend of cynicism and anti-authority feelings (represented by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate) squared off against comfortable, crowd-pleasing, middle-brow fare with an impeccable pedigree (what we now call “Oscar-bait,” represented here by the Tracy-Hepburn-Poitier Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and a fixture at the Oscars ever since: think Seabiscuit, Forrest Gump, etc.) Throw in an indie-with-a-social-conscience (In The Heat Of The Night) and a bloated “family” musical that represented “old Hollywood” excess at its worst (Doctor Doolittle), and you’ve got a perfect snapshot at the state of filmmaking on the cusp of the biggest change since the dawn of talkies. This book makes an interesting sort-of prequel to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which tells the tale of the movie brats’ takeover, and how it eventually led to the same sort of wretched excesses that almost sunk Hollywood in the previous decade.

2. Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (2006)
Alan Bennett first came to the public notice as part of the long-running British satirical stage show Beyond The Fringe in 1960. He has since become one of Britain’s foremost playwrights, authoring The Madness of George III, The History Boys and many others. Not so much an autobiography as a series of autobiographical sketches and diary entries, Bennett tells of growing up in the shabby university town of Leeds, his mother’s mental illness, his brutal beating at the hands of muggers in Italy, his coming out in his fifties after years of self-denial, and his battle with colon cancer. And he makes it all funny, or at least warm and engaging in his gentle, self-deprecating style. I could have done with a few more anecdotes about Bennett’s Fringe co-star Peter Cook, but that’s just me.

3. Don’t Know Much About The Bible: Everything You Need To Know About The Good Book But Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis (1998)
Part of Davis’ epic “Don’t Know Much About…” series, this is a solid primer on Biblical lore and history. Despite my conspicuous absence of anything resembling faith or belief in any religion, it’s a fascinating topic of study and I’ve always told myself I would educate myself properly on it. I made an early attempt when I was 21 or 22, taking some Religious Studies classes and reading a few books. But beyond confirming the suspicion I’d harbored since I was ten or so that religion held nothing for me spiritually, my attempt to educate myself on the nuts and bolts of western religion was sketchy and facile.

Now that I have a few years of adulthood under my belt, my mind is a little more disciplined (I wouldn’t say “mature”), and I feel the time is right to try again. Davis takes the reader through both books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, and explains the historical and political context of the writings. A good, basic introduction (or re-introduction) to an area of study I am going to try to make something of a priority over the next year or two.

4. Real Life at the White House: 200 Years of Daily Life at America’s Most Famous Residence by John & Claire Whitcombe (2000)
A behind-the-scenes look at how the White House functioned as a home, rather than a symbol or seat of power. President by president, the Whitcombes take the readers through the routines and changes each occupant brought to the building.

5. Education of a Felon: A Memoir by Edward Bunker (2000)
I’ll quote myself from an earlier entry:  Another young L.A. thug-turned-writer is Edward Bunker. Bunker spent the late 1940s and 1950s in and out of juvenile hall and foster homes, or living on the streets. Bunker was unable to resist the easy money of drug-dealing and armed robbery, despite an off-the-chart IQ and a taste for Shakespeare and Dickens – which he had plenty of time to peruse once he started doing hard time in places like San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Bunker’s memoir, Education of a Felon, recounts his escapades, both as a criminal and his attempt at a “straight” job: working as an assistant and confidant for the mentally unstable wife of Paramount Pictures’ super-producer Hal B. Wallis. His descriptions of prison life make it sound not so bad for someone who follows the official and unofficial rules, at least until the race wars began in the late 1960s, and suddenly no one was safe. Upon his release in 1975 after almost two decades behind bars, he was already a published author — his autobiographical 1973 novel No Beast So Fierce was adapted into the 1978 film Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman as the Bunker character. Bunker continued to write and also dabble in bit-part acting – culminating in his crowning achievement, at least as far as most people are concerned: his performance as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs.

6. Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers (2009)
A quadruple biography…of sorts. It almost entirely ignores the professional accomplishments of these distinguished performers in favor of anecdotes about their excessive boozing. Naturally, I loved it. Yes, its shallow and sensational, in a style more befitting a British tabloid than a serious examination of what drove these four men to such self-destructive behavior — but the book is totally unapologetic, just like it’s subjects. The author’s informal style extends to the use of Cockney rhyming slang (he would never say “phone” when he could say “dog and bone,” and “porky pies” repeatedly took the place of “lies”).

It also introduced me to the sublime-yet-humble, unpretentious, masculine, stolidly British cocktail: the gin-and-tonic. I had always had it in my head that I don’t like gin, but inspired by its frequent appearances in this book, I decided to give it another shot. I liked it so much that it’s currently my facebook profile picture. (And make sure it’s real tonic water with quinine, not club soda or that flat piss that comes out of the soda gun at your local bar.) Oliver Reed would have his mixed in a bucket with plenty of lemon slices, and simply dip his pint mug in it at frequent intervals. I prefer lime slices and the traditional collins glass, but who knows what the future holds?

7. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald (2003)
Despite Wald’s narcissistically academic, self-aggrandizing writing style (Hello, pot? This is kettle), this is a solid attempt to not only separate fact from myth in regards to the fabled Mississippi bluesman, but also a concise history of blues as a genre. In conjunction with some other material I’ve read on the topic (see the list below), a picture emerged of a style that was not necessarily an authentic expression of oppression and heartache emanating directly from the cotton fields, but rather a much more commercially-oriented case of giving an audience what they wanted.

The original itinerant blues performers of the 1920s and 30s considered themselves “songsters,” human jukeboxes, happy to play a paying audience whatever kind of song they wanted – minstrel tunes, Broadway show numbers, country, jazz, you name it. When white academic folklorists such as John Hammond and Alan Lomax, or “race record” label owners came calling to record these performers for posterity, it was the more hard-edged blues numbers they were interested in, and the performers were happy to oblige. In their well-meaning-but-still-slightly-condescending way, Lomax and his ilk considered this primitive style more “authentic.” It was, of course, brilliant stuff, and it sold, sending more talent scouts and folklorists out to juke joints and shantytowns for more blues artists, creating a situation that fed on itself. The “bluesmen”’s versatility was forgotten, as was the songster tradition. It was all twelve-bar, slide guitar, my-woman-done-left-me from then on. Not that I’m complaining.

8. When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall
A solid bio that neatly balances musical & personal, and brings the story up to date as of the big reunion concert at the O2 Arena in December 2007, and the subsequent out-of-left-field success of Robert Plant’s collaboration with Allison Kraus that seems to have permanently scuppered the more lasting reunion that was within our grasp. The perfect book to replace that worn-out, well-thumbed copy of Hammer of the Gods that should be sitting on the bookshelf of anyone who loves the rock and roll. One small quibble: Frequent interludes where each band member’s backstory is told in their first-person “voice,” as imagined by the author. Kinda lame. One smaller quibble: Wall has a pretty shaky grasp of American culture and geography. But it’s probably better than the average American’s grasp of British culture and geography.

9. Last Words: A Memoir by George Carlin (2009)
The late George Carlin’s autobiography. (Although he detests that word – “only criminal business pricks and politicians write autobiographies.” He prefers the term sortabiography.) It is the influential comedian’s final project, pieced together by collaborator Tony Hendra (a British ex-pat known for his association with National Lampoon and his role as Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith) from hours of tape-recorded conversations spanning a decade. Carlin tells of being raised in New York City by a single mother, his days as a class clown (of course) and misfit Air Force enlisted man, the beginnings of his comedy career as a radio DJ and member of the nightclub comedy team Burns and Carlin, his 1960s fame as a middle-of-the-road comic appearing frequently on The Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan Show, and the 1970 epiphany that caused him to abandon his career in “safe” comedy and blaze a trail of goofy outrageousness, and at times seething anger. Throw in a bit of a love story, the usual show-biz “nightmare descent” into drugs and alcohol, rocky recovery from same, and a bittersweet ending (the material in the book was originally meant for a one-man Broadway show, New York City Boy, which he didn’t live to realize) and you have all the makings of a fitting last statement from one of the greatest comedic minds of all time.

10. Just After Sunset: Stories by Stephen King
My sole foray into fiction this year, these stories are some of King’s best work in over a decade (and includes one old story from the Shining/Stand era of 1977 that’s actually the weakest link here). I always tell myself I’m going to read more fiction, to go deeper into Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, to explore Flannery O’Connor and T. Coraghessen Boyle, and really try to get a feel for fictional storytelling. But every time I pick up a fiction book, it’s usually popcorn genre-type stuff, like Andy McNab’s British spy novels, the Godfather sequels, and Stephen King. And even that doesn’t happen too often. I re-read King’s It and Danse Macabre every few years (and I did so this past summer) — both amazing examinations of horror’s place in pop culture, one fiction, one non-fiction. (I actually read Moby Dick three years ago and I’m still patting myself on the back for it.)

Other Books Read in 2009:

Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon – Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton

Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton & Richie Kohler – Brad Matsen

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – Joseph D. Pistone & Richard Woodley

Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas – John Baxter

John Wayne: American – Randy Roberts & James S. Olson

Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol – Bill Davidson

Niv: The Authorized Biography of David Niven – Graham Lord

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story – Peter Harry Brown & Pat H. Broeske

Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley – Peter Harry Brown & Pat H. Broeske

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music – Ted Gioa

The History of the Blues – Francis Davis

Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry – Bruce Pegg

The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend – Steve Turner

Martini Man: The Life of Dean Martin – William Schoell

Exile On Main St: A Season in Hell With The Rolling Stones – Robert Greenfield

Gasping For Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches on Saturday Night Live – Jay Mohr

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer – Chuck Thompson

Born Standing Up – Steve Martin

The Holy Bee’s Gin-and-Tonic Recipe

Quarter a small lime, and squeeze two quarters’ worth of juice into the bottom of a tall collins glass. (Toss in the two quartered lime pieces as well.) Fill to the brim with ice. Add 4 oz. of your favorite gin. Fill the rest of the glass with tonic water and enjoy. Save the other half of the lime for the second drink you will undoubtedly have. Cheers.

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