February 2018 Books …

I’ve been remiss in writing about my reading! Here’s the recap of my four books from February (March coming sooner).


Intro

I’m trying to read a book each week in 2018, and you can follow along at home! Expect a mix of fiction, historical non-fiction, comics and graphic novels, and movies-related books over the next 52 weeks!


Week of February 4th

This week’s book is Cinegeek by artist Pluttark. Originally published in Europe, this looks like a kids’ picture book, but it is decidedly not. Each page is a single strip on some geeky movie topic, such as “Actors Who Were Smart to Take On a Screen Name,” or “Actors Who Might’ve Played James Bond, But … No.” The art is charming and the writing humorous, but the book is best taken in small doses of a few pages at a time. Part graphic novel, part humor book, part movie trivia tome, this is a cute time-waster if you love movies, and a bargain at $14.99.


Week of February 11th

This week’s book is a ringer, something I’ve read in the past. I’m in the middle of another book right now and not ready to write about it, so I turned to my bookshelves and pulled out a definite “desert island” book, at least for me. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe is the definitive history of the company, from the launch of Fantastic Four #1 through the 2010s. It’s all here, warts and all. Since I firmly believe the greatest era of Marvel Comics was from FF 1 through what I term “the split” era (when Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales broke up into Iron Man, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Hulk, Nick Fury, and Doctor Strange in their own titles), this book is my “bible,” the true, unvarnished history of the Marvel Age of Comics and beyond: the cosmic ‘70s, the rise of the X-Men, the Jim Shooter era, the fall into almost-ruin and bankruptcy, and the controversial era of Bill James and Joe Quesada. I could pick up this book right now and start re-reading it and enjoy every word. It’s probably the best comics history I’ve ever read.


Week of February 18th

This week’s book is Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates. It’s a thriller about three middle school kids who share a life-changing experience in the 1980s and reconnect in 2008. I have to admit, this one was slow-going for me and a bit tedious. The book veers back and forth in time and reflects three different voices (Matthew, Patrick, and Hannah). When I read fiction, I know I’m going to let an author manipulate me, take me down the path (or in this case, roads) that tell the story, but hearing the same story from three different points of view in three different voices is a bit much. I’m not sure this is a book I can recommend, to be honest. It has an additional secondary character who is entirely superfluous and could have easily been eliminated from the book, thus focusing more on the reasons why things happened to the leads, and making a shorter, punchier read.


Week of February 25th

This week’s book is Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins. I’ve been fascinated by the Village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, just across the border from England, since I first discovered it here on Instagram. It is literally a town of bookstores and, as such, it’s like the proverbial heaven to me (there’s either 32 or 40 stores, some owned by the same owners, so I’m uncertain how many actual stores there are). I’m planning a trip there this fall, but Collins beat me to it, moving his family over to Hay in the early 2000s. It’s a fascinating book, where Collins writes not only about his experiences living in Hay, but also some of the weird, wonderful, and incredibly obscure books he comes across (not to mention some of the weird, wonderful, and incredibly obscure people in Hay). I look forward to my long weekend in Hay and hope I can find my way there via train and hired car later this year.


I post a new book every Monday on Instagram. Follow me at gg92101 there for the latest!

 

January 2018 Books …

Over on Instagram, where I hang out the most, I’ve been posting a book a week with the hashtag #garysbookofthe week. You can see what I’m reading on a weekly basis, plus my almost-daily photos by following me there. Click here to go to Instagram!

But I’d thought I’d do a monthly recap of all my books (no guarantees, though … I get lazy) here on the blog, so here’s what I read in January (sort of, kind of … I may still be reading a couple of these).


Intro

I’m trying to read a book each week in 2018, and you can follow along at home! Expect a mix of fiction, historical non-fiction, comics and graphic novels, and movies-related books over the next 52 weeks!


Week of January 1

This week’s book is The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak. One review says “Stranger Things meets Halt and Catch Fire,” but that sells this little gem short. It’s a warm, funny tale of three 14-year-olds in the spring of 1987, who are on a quest to get a copy of the issue of Playboy that features Vanna White. Will, the protagonist, is also a budding computer programmer and he teams with Mary to enter a games contest. The two of them bond over Will’s game, The Impossible Fortress. As with all young teenagers, nothing comes easy. A romantic, twisty, heist novel is the gooey center of this coming-of-age story, no TV show analogies needed! The author also had a retro game created … read the book to find it online!


 Week of January 8

This week’s book is The Crown, The Official Companion, Volume 1: Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and the Making of A Young Queen by Robert Lacey. A companion to season 1 of the Netflix series starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, this book delves into the reality behind the TV story, written by Peter Morgan. And yes, it does differ quite a bit, its a drama series, not a documentary. It’s fascinating for an Anglophile like me and I hope they do a volume for each of the proposed six seasons of the series. Filled with both historical photos and behind-the-scenes of the series pics, my only regret is that this book is primarily in black and white.


 Week of January 15

Indulge me for a short fanboy moment … because I am, in fact, a short fanboy. The Fantastic Four is my favorite comic book series of all time. Growing up in the 1960s and seeing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s dual imaginations run wild each month was an amazing thing. It’s sad that Marvel has put these characters on the back-burner (and that Fox keeps making crappy FF movies). This week’s book, The Little Book of Fantastic Four, is just all images and captions (by Roy Thomas) and “outtakes” from a larger Taschen book, The Marvel Age of Comics, 1961-1978 (also by Thomas). This tiny version is 192 pages long and the first 160 pages or so are all Kirby (and Lee), summoning up fond memories for me of twice a week trips to the newsstand and stacks of Marvel Comics at only 12 cents each. And oh, those yearly Anuals! Summers were so much better with Marvel Annuals (or King-Size Specials, as they called them). We all love a girl and her name is Nostalgia.


 Week of January 22

This week’s book is In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett. I grew up watching Carol Burnett and I have fond memories of her show, especially when she was on Saturday night (yeah … I didn’t get out much). She was a particular favorite of my mom, and along with Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and the amazing Tim Conway, she carved out her own niche in variety shows for 11 seasons. My all-time favorite skit from her show doesn’t include her, though. It’s called “The Interrogator,” and stars Conway, Korman, and Waggoner. And I know nothing is funny about Nazis, then or now, but this sketch is hilarious. Click here to see the sketch. Fast forward to 5:30 and wait for Hitler. I’m pretty sure that nobody but Conway knew that was coming.

I miss variety shows. I can’t understand why somebody can’t come up with a variety format that would work these days for someone like Amy Poehler, but I digress. This wonderful book chronicles Carol Burnett’s great show. It’s warm, funny, and personal, and it takes me back to those cozy Saturday nights at home watching All In The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and of course, Carol.


Week of January 29

This week’s book is Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder by Piu Eatwell. Over 70 years ago, the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. The press dubbed her the “Black Dahlia,” due to her penchant for black, lacy clothing and her dark beauty. To this day, her murder remains unsolved. Except maybe now … author Piu Eatwell may have actually solved the case in her amazingly-researched book.

That’s the good news. The bad news is this book is a bit of a difficult read, or it was for me, at least. It’s brought to a screeching halt by the sheer amount of footnotes, a good number of which just tell you to read more about this particular person or thing on another page of the book, most of the time a page you’ve already read. There’s also an incredibly bad error (again, for me, at least) when she talks about James Ellroy’s LA Quartet series and “the movie, Hollywood Confidential.” Well, it’s LA Confidential, and evidently the editor went to lunch without reading that page. Ellroy is where I discovered The Black Dahlia (it’s the title of the first book in the LA Quartet), and also where I became fascinated with this era of Los Angeles history, one marked by a high level of corruption in the police force and general population (and a lot of collusion between the two). Bottom line: The LAPD had the Black Dahlia killer in custody and let him go, because he had too much knowledge of how bad the cops were. Years later he had a daughter and named her Elizabeth. Still, beyond the footnote problem (an admittedly important part of a historical non-fiction book), Eatwell puts to rest all the other half-baked theories of who killed Elizabeth Short. Maybe this troubled young woman can finally rest in peace.


 

Every Book Tells Two Stories …

He sat in the bookstore and read the first two chapters, trying to decide if the book was worth taking home and finishing. It was. “This book is mine now,” he thought. His fingerprints were on the soft matte-finish cover, a slight corner dog-eared on page 6 that only he would notice, a minor pedigree for a book he would add to a thousand others, all with their own memories of places visited and bookstores experienced.


I wrote that a few weeks ago as I sat in Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, one of my favorite bookstores in (what amounts to) the world to me and a great indy bookstore. And it’s true. I own thousands of books and some of them have their own special stories: where I bought them, who I was with, what city I was visiting, where I first began reading it. A book is like a scent: looking at the cover or cracking it open brings back a rush of memories, not only of the content of the book, but also of its origin in my life. This is one such book.

GeniusOfTheSystem

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz* is one of the best books I have ever read on movies. It explores the studio system by examining the output of three studios (MGM, Warner Bros., and Universal) and one independent producer (David O. Selznick) from the 1920s until the decline of the studios in 1960. It was published in 1988 by Pantheon, and I purchased my hardcover copy in 1989 while visiting New York City. And therein lies the other story of this book …

In the fall of 1989, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I took an “emergency” trip to New York City from my then home city of Pittsburgh, PA. The emergency was simply a need to get out of town, because I was madly in love with a co-worker and our office Christmas party was coming up and she was bringing her erstwhile boyfriend. The year before we had gone together and—I remember this moment with crystal clarity—as we were walking down the steps of one of the fanciest restaurants in Pittsburgh, surrounded by co-workers, one of the news anchors turned and said to us, “You two are such a cute couple. Are you dating?” And simultaneously I said “Yes,” and she said “No.” Needless to say, the rest of the evening was strained. (Happy ending: we’re still dear friends and see each other every year, even though she’s now happily married to someone else, not the boyfriend of 1989).

But back then I was still carrying a torch—and still not dating—and I couldn’t fathom staying in town and torturing myself for three hours on an almost-winter Sunday evening, imagining the goings-on at the company’s holiday party, so I rather expensively flew to New York City for the weekend. At that time, you could get a relatively cheap last-minute flight from the ‘burgh to the Big Apple. Finding a hotel was a different story and I ended up at the Penta, which used to be the Statler-Hilton, which used to be the Hotel Pennsylvania, and is now the “much hipper” sounding Hotel Penn. At that point in time, the Penta had fallen on hard times, and it’s $99/night rate proved it. It was, quite frankly, a dump. (Buyer beware: rooms still start at $99/night, although the rooms look much nicer on their website.)

I’m not sure what the dates and days were, but I think I went up on Friday and returned on Monday, thus avoiding the dreaded holiday party on Sunday evening. It was a bitter cold weekend in New York City, and as was my usual schedule when I went there, I always visited a bookstore or two upon arrival. There were two major bookstores open late at night: Coliseum Books at 57th Street and Broadway, and Doubleday books on Fifth Avenue, directly across from Trump Tower. Doubleday was owned by the publishing house and was one of many bookstores on that fabled NYC shopping street, including Scribners (which became Brentano’s), B. Dalton’s, Rizzoli, and two Barnes and Nobles (the only one left, with just one store on Fifth now, at 45th Street). The stores themselves were large, multi-level affairs (in the case of Scribners/Brentano’s, it had a mezzanine), and befit the legendary NYC home of book publishing (not to mention comics and magazines).

But this particular trip, I think I headed to one bookstore that cold Friday night after arriving in the city: Coliseum Books. Coliseum was an independent bookstore with one location, but it was a prime one: the corner of 57th Street and Broadway, just south of Columbus Circle and Central Park (named after, I believe, The Coliseum, which was located there on land which is now Time Warner Center). It was open, if memory serves me, until 11:00 each night, and I took a long, cold, blustery walk (the Penta was located at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street, so a walk of about 24 blocks; at that time I was too afraid to ride the subway and too cheap to hop a cab) into a wicked wind to make it before it closed.

ColiseumBooksPhoto

That phone booth is long gone, too. 1987, photographer unknown; found on the internet.


The bookstore itself had a large, rambling first floor, with a basement sales area that I rarely visited. Coliseum had a habit of shrink-wrapping all of their books, leaving one open copy that browsers could peruse. The store also had a great stock of magazines, some from other countries (I believe it’s the first place I ever saw Empire magazine, the leading British film mag). The one thing I definitely remember is that Coliseum had an amazing film book section, during a time that publishers were still actively producing books about movies (today … not so much). The nostalgia phase, which came with a ton of books, posters, prints, photos, and other ephemera (including photo-covered metal trashcans, one of which I owned), and deified older stars such as the Marx Bros., Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and W. C. Fields, had peaked in the late 1960s, but the book publishing industry still was trading on that wave. I remember getting to the store late, and scrambling to find a book. That book was The Genius of the System, which I purchased right before closing time.

That book saved my life that weekend. It got progressively colder and windier. On Saturday night, I went to see the just-opened Back to the Future Part II in a Times Square theater, and the walk back to my hotel (a mercifully shorter 12 blocks or so) was one of the coldest walks I’ve ever taken. I holed up in my crummy hotel room for the rest of the weekend, venturing out only for nearby food, and also devoured that book. The weather broke on Monday and I flew home, my petty self-exile over and done with.

ColiseumBookmark

I wish I still had one of these bookmarks … I must have had 50 of them over the years. From: http://boundbooksandlibraryblog.blogspot.com/2015/01/fewer-bookstores-to-be-found-in.html


Coliseum Books, like so many other bookstores in NYC, no longer exists. It lost its 57th Street lease and moved, briefly to 42nd Street, opposite the New York City Public Library for a few short years. It wasn’t the same, at least not for me. Now bookstores in NYC are either Barnes and Noble, or a hearty indy like McNally Jackson. The B&N stores there are big and beautiful; I’m fond of the Union Square one and there’s a newer one up on the Upper East Side on 86th Street, but even that mega-chain has experienced closings in the last decade or so: a large store on the Upper West Side in the 60s closed, near ABC TV’s NYC broadcast center and opposite the still extremely-missed Tower Records.

I still make bookstores a primary stop on all my trips. One yearly trip is planned around a bookstore: Powells in Portland, Oregon (I’m going there next month). New York City still has a wealth of stores to visit, including a newly revived Rizzoli’s, which calls itself “the most beautiful bookstore in New York.” I still miss Coliseum, though, especially the joy of late-night book shopping on Broadway, and their shrink-wrapped books with their own price stickers on the back. The store is gone almost 10 years now, but the internet never forgets: its website is still viewable.

I am writing this on an evening where I’m about to start reading another towering history of Hollywood, this time of the modern age: Power House CAA: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller*, an oral history of the “New Hollywood” system, involving agents and creative talent. It’s too early to tell if this book will “save my life,” too, but at least I’m safe at home in warm San Diego.


*Yes … I totally get the irony of writing a post about a beloved gone-but-not-forgotten bookstore and linking to Amazon. Such is the world in which we live.


 

Book Report #001: Five Came Back by Mark Harris …

FiveCameBack_2

There used to be a time in this great land of ours when movie books were a thing. You could go to a bookstore, big or small, chain or indie, and find a whole section devoted just to films. Nowadays, that section has dwindled to one bookshelf or less and shares space with plays, screenplay-writing tomes, and how-to filmmaking courses.

Maybe all the great books about movies have been written, but one author, journalist Mark Harris, seems to have found his own niche when it comes to this genre. Harris was the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, a few years back. That book told the story of the five 1968 Oscar Best Picture nominees (for films released in 1967) and how they represented a sea change in Hollywood. The films were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. By examining each of these films and what they meant both collectively and separately to Hollywood, Harris proved that 1968 was a year of major change in the American film industry.

Harris is back again with another “five” book: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. This time around, Harris looks at five legendary film directors who left Hollywood during World War II to work for the government making propaganda pictures. The five directors were Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, and all five (with the exception of Huston, whose had just started directing) were at the very pinnacles of their careers. While Capra toiled mostly in Washington, DC, the other four directors saw action, particularly Stevens and Wyler. Those two men were also the ones most affected by what they saw and filmed during the war. [SPOILER ALERT] Wyler came back almost totally deaf due to an accident that occurred while filming on a plane; Stevens came back a profoundly changed man after being among the first to see—and film—the horrific conditions at Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau. In fact, the director made official films documenting the camps for the prosecution of war criminals at Nuremberg, films that were incredibly devastating in their truth.

Harris follows all five of the directors month by month through their years in the armed services. All five were frustrated at the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of the government. In certain ways, all five were censored in the films they made, yet they still were ale to make, in some fashion, the movies they wanted to make. Harris’s honest and thorough portrayal of all five men shows their foibles, egos, and genius that both helped and hindered them in making a different kind of film.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is showcasing the films of these five directors each Tuesday during the month of September, featuring Mark Harris as co-host of these five special nights. It all starts tonight at 8:00pm Eastern time with Frank Capra, and follows through the month with John Huston on 9/8, John Ford on 9/15, William Wyler on 9/22, and George Stevens on 9/29. You’ll see not only some of the directors’ most popular Hollywood films, but world premieres of some of their war work, too. Click here for more details on TCM’s special Five Came Back programming in the month of September.