About a week ago, after manic amounts of book-reading this summer, the One-Man Book Club unanimously approved a moratorium (1 in favor; none opposed) that prohibits even the cracking-open and general perusing of any book on the “to read” stack until the club confronts and discusses the entire backlog of already-read and partially-read books.
This is sort of a relief. Many of the One-Man Book Club’s members are employed as full-time television critics and are getting ready for a heap of nonsense known as FALL TELEVISION. Brains must rest, or try to.
Oh, the books: It’s a 60-mile Chinese traffic jam here. Let’s get things moving, quick, before the “fall books” start doing their dances of the seven dustjackets. Also, the One-Man Book Club is going to experiment this time with a ratings system, based on the concept of “lurve.” (Do we lurve the book? Do we sorta lurve it? Do we un-lurve it? Hmmm.)
• • •
First up, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, by Peter Doggett. The author is a British music journalist and the book is about the Beatles. It was released last year in Britain and now it’s here, with such a better jacket design. (And an Annie Lennox blurb! Sweet dreams are made of that.) (Would she lie to you? Would she lie to you, honey?)
Maddeningly, it arrives with Brit punctuation intact — periods and commas outside the quotes; single quotes used when someone is being quoted, double quotes for a quote within a quote. (Insane. ‘Copy editors’, he said, ‘proceed cautiously, or “bring Advil” ‘.)
Let me tell you about books about the Beatles: They aren’t just written for Beatles nuts, who will just quibble them to death anyhow. A lot of Beatles books are dulllll, written by men who can’t see the Norwegian Wood for the trees and therefore sacrifice story to trivia and second-hand news. I don’t know what it is about hefty tomes about the Beatles, but for some reason I can’t quite convey, I’m drawn to them. It’s not like I’m any more of a fan of the Beatles, than, say, the rest of the world. I don’t rush out to buy reconfigured and remastered albums or any of that.
What it is, for me, I guess, is the naive improbability of it all: How John knew George and George knew Paul and eventually they had to hire Ringo; how fast they became so, so famous. But mostly I remain stunned by how much work they accomplished between 1963 and 1969, and on drugs, no less.
I like the world they inhabited: communiques by Telex, airplane tickets, rotary telephones, escapes through kitchen entrances, susceptibility to Maharishis and other whack-jobs, women who were called “birds” and “luv,” press conferences, flashbulbs going off, gallery openings, haberdashery, sunglasses, Abbey Road sessions (EMI recording engineers in white labcoats!), publicity stunts for peace staged in four-star hotel rooms. All of that.
My friend David Segal, when he was the pop critic at the Washington Post (he’s now a marquee business-section writer at the New York Times), said something at lunch one day, about six years ago, that has always made perfect sense to me. I don’t know if the insight belongs to him originally, but maybe it does, and it goes something like this:
Elvis fans desire memorabilia. Beatles fans desire information.
That is not to say that Elvis fans don’t like information, and at the same time, many Beatles fans can go cuckoo for memorabilia rarities. But Beatles fans most want to know every last thing there is to know, to the point now where almost every hour in the Beatles’ lives between 1962 and 1970 can more or less be accounted for — travels, recording sessions, meetings, acid trips, etc.
So if a Beatles book looks interesting, I’ll give it a shot. The last one that I got really absorbed in was Bob Spitz’s The Beatles: The Biography; I’m sure someone out there can list all sorts of problems with that book, but I thought it was a great epic for the casual reader, and really brought out the good, bad and ugly of the band’s life. I got through all 992 pages (even the notes!) and wished there’d been another 300 or so. But not all Beatles books are created equal; I tried to read Philip Norman’s Lennon bio last year (snore) and also bailed on a McCartney bio recently — books about individual Beatles aren’t as good.
Now, You Never Give Me Your Money. What’s brilliant about this one is that it begins in 1969, when everything is going to shit for the Fab Four. We just skip the Irish immigration stories, no motherless John, no public art schools, no skiffle jams, no Hamburg, no Ed Sullivan, no Sgt. Pepper sessions. We start with the disastrous (but wondrous!) Abbey Road sessions and the stillbirth of Let It Be; the insinuation of Yoko and Linda; the slammed doors and lack-of-quorum meetings in executive suites.
Meet the Beatles: Manic tax evaders.
The book really dissects the horrible Apple Corps business idea that ruined the Beatles and went on ruining them (financially, emotionally) forever. Though the writing is not perfect, the reporting is about as sincere as you can hope for in a Beatles tome. By the time you get done (in present day) you won’t like the Beatles, personally. Just when you think you hate Paul more, you’ll decide John’s entire story and reputation (and talent) has been way overblown. Peter Doggett is especially good at examining the ways Lennon’s murder created a St. John Lennon who never quite existed. And you can tell this was hard for Doggett, who loves them as we all do, making this is a true work of critical analysis and fair reporting.
It’s taken almost 40 years (and counting) for the Beatles to break up. They and their survivors still — still! — can’t come to terms on everything. If you want a taste of that, simply go try to buy a Beatles album on iTunes.
You Never Give Me Your Money: A big LURVE. (Lurve is all you need.) Someone option the movie! Lawyers be damned!
• • •
Next up, Hitch-22, a memoir by Christopher Hitchens.
H E I S P O I S O N wrote a friend, when I told her what I planned to read on vacation.
Which might well be true, for people who’ve had to drink a whole vial or two of him over the years. (And these days he’s literally filled with poison, undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer. Which he just wrote a very nice and frank column about, as he enters the whole cancer culture and quickly advances to the most frightening stage of it.)
I am one of those so-called Washington media elites who happily elude each and every one of the circles in the Hitchens Venn diagram. There’s no possible way I could ever be invited to play with that crowd. Hitchens lives nearby and yet he is no more or less real to me than he is for Vanity Fair readers in the Midwest.
Anyhow, I like his poison in tiny drops on the tongue. I also like his courage to take on organized religion and some of God’s more egregious poseurs. (Yes, like Mother Theresa. And Pope Benedict.)
And Hitch-22 is a pleasure to read, just for the language alone. It’s basically a report from another planet, as delivered by the spongiest, most erudite plant-form on the surface. Suicidal mother, cold father; homoerotic encounters in boarding school, dalliances with socialism; falling for America, learning to write, the life of a professional intellectual … all sustains me for about exactly as long as it ran. Minus the chapter on Salman Rushdie, because, I’m sorry about the fatwas and all, I don’t care about Salman Rushdie. People who’ve read Salman Rushdie and think he’s a genius are all over there somewhere, in another room, having a drink and a smoke with Christopher Hitchens.
I marked one thing that has really stuck with me for the last few weeks. It’s about Israel and Palestine. This passage is a trademark example of the Hitchens way of being at once inflammatory and yet totally, gently sensible. Here it is:
Suppose that a man leaps out of a burning building — as my dear friend and colleague Jeff Goldberg sat and said to my face over a table at La Tomate in Washington not two years ago — and lands on a bystander in the street below. Now, make the burning building be Europe, and the luckless man underneath be the Palestinian Arabs. Is this a historical injustice? Has the man below been made a victim, with infinite cause of complaint and indefinite justification for violent retaliation?
My own reply would be a provisional “no,” but only on these conditions. The man leaping from the burning building must still make such restitution as he can to the man who broke his fall, and must not pretend that he never even landed on him. And he must base his case on the singularity and uniqueness of the original leap. It can’t, in other words, be “leap, leap, leap” for four generations and more. The people underneath cannot be expected to tolerate leaping on this scale and of this duration, if you catch my drift. In Palestine, tread softly, for you tread on their dreams. And do not tell the Palestinians that they were never fallen upon and bruised in the first place. Do not shame yourself with the cheap lie that they were told by their leaders to run away. Also, stop saying that nobody knew how to cultivate oranges in Jaffa until the Jews showed them how. “Making the desert bloom” — one of [my mother] Yvonne’s stock phrases — makes desert dwellers out of people who were the agricultural superiors of the Crusaders.
In the mid-1970s, Jewish settlers from New York were already establishing second homes for themselves on occupied territory. From what burning house were they leaping? …
That may or may not be sort of how I feel about it. Actually, you know how I feel about that issue? I feel like it’s going to eventually kill us all — especially those of us who have to occasionally put on our serious hats and read op-eds about it, in a struggle to “get it,” or pick a side, because we were raised white and Christian and oblivious in Oklahoma and would just as soon not be part of a nuclear apocalypse caused by who gets to vacation in Tel Aviv and who doesn’t. All over some real estate that, frankly, from the pictures on the news, looks to me like either end of El Paso.
If Israelis and Palestinians could just work it out, you know what a one-state solution would look like?
Drop til you shop.
Hitch-22 gets a qualified LURVE, and strong hopes (not prayer) for Hitchens’s improved health.
• • •
And now, briefly, the dreaded list of those who failed the 50-page test: four books I started and ditched this summer (and some reasons why). I promise you, this is not my favorite part of One-Man Book Club.
The club has even thought about killing this feature, but the authors in the group (one, me) ultimately felt that he, er, I would probably, in most cases, like to know at what point (and why) potential readers bailed on my own book. Yes, even if it’s hard medicine to encounter into during a self-Googling.
[I find pooh-poohs of Tinsel pretty frequently online, btw. And if it hurts, then it's my fault for asking Google and Twitter to go look for them.]
So then … the theme this time is DRYNESS. Note to all editors at New York publishing houses: do something about dryness, won’t you?
<< The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live, by Ted Conover. Wonderful idea but stultifying execution: Conover explores ancient and modern roads on several continents and talks about their immeasurable contributions to civilizations, then and now. I gotta start paying closer attention to books in the store and less to the jacket copy and NPR mentions. I snapped this up because it looked interesting — though the too-earnest subtitle should have shooed me away. About 70 pages in, I realized I was reading a collection of magazine pieces that have been padded out, in a prose style that was weirdly disengaged, by a writer who seemed interested in stories about all the things he saw that wouldn’t interest me.
Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, by Willard Spiegelman. Seems like a perfectly nice man (English prof at SMU in Dallas) and I’ve enjoyed his pieces in D magazine before. His book explores these seven simple joys: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing. I’m for all of them. But the book reads like a term paper, which I do not count among even the top 100 pleasures, and I wasn’t getting any smarter as I struggled to find his groove. Bailed out after p. 56, skimmed around, then bailed for good.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Completely and totally unobjectively, I like and recommend Hamlet’s Blackberry a lot more. In an effort to recover braininess, this one discovers dryness.
In fact, cardboard prose is the real bugaboo overall. The other book I ditched was How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, by William J. Mann, which is such an interesting idea — a Liz Taylor book that is not a biography but instead an examination of the ways she set the template for modern celebrityhood and the self-maintenance of stardom.
But gosh, does the writer prefer the sound of dead leaves. The wit, when it comes, is that sort of obvious, unoffensive wink-wink humor you get from watching Robert Osborne on TCM. It’s a fussy sort of entertainment-biography language; makes me think of stale popcorn and Rex Reed. So I really started skimming it, well beyond page 50, but not in a way that I can claim to have thoroughly read it all.
I paid closest attention the chapter about the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which very nearly approached the kind of engagement one gets from reading Mark Harris’s excellent Pictures at a Revolution. But soon enough I was skimming again, and left the book for future readers, on the living-room shelf of our vacation rental in Provincetown, where I am sure it will find a new (and truer) friend.