Review: Powerhouse/Guilty Pleasure

CAA bookOne of my favorite guilty pleasures is stories of Hollywood people having badly.  Love The Player.  Love Entourage.  Always a good time.

I was therefore naturally attracted to Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  This is the story of the founding of Creative Artists, the ground-breaking literary agency.  (I also read Miller’s book on ESPN).  Miller’s trademark is writing oral histories, and he is extremely good at it.  There is commentary when needed, but it is used sparingly.  He doesn’t re-invent dialogue (I’m looking at you Bob Woodward), but takes the actual quotes and puts them under the name of the actual person who said it.  (It’s a little Studs Terkelish).

There’s a huge amount of skill in how these things are assembled.  He lets the reader play along.  For example, he will juxtapose two recollections which are 100% divergent, and let you, first, gawk, and then second decide for yourself who is right.  ProTip:  When you are faced with an employee saying that the work environment is shit and a CEO saying it was collegial and supportive, believe the employee

Anyway, the book has more than its share of bat-shit crazy people, starting with Michael Ovitz.  There are certainly others–this is Hollywood–but Ovitz is the king of the bat house.  Someone calls him a “maniac” and that might be the most perfect word for it.

Not only are the agents included, but many of the clients as well.

The only thing I didn’t expect to find was good guys.  Ron Meyer, a co-founder, is just a 100% good guy.  In fact, there are numerous testimonials of performers who credit CAA for their very career–people like David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Eva Longoria–and do so in such an emotional and effusive way that it blows away the caricature of the agent we usually see.

CAA’s innovation was to work across the functional lines of the company, allowing Eva Longoria (for example) to develop a film career along with extending her into other businesses.  Letterman had a similar story and there are others.  And they made a difference in the lives of a wide variety of artists and performers in a wide variety of fields.

One other thing.  I don’t know what I thought, but the agents in this book work incredibly hard.  It’s a 24/7 story, at least for the ones who excel.  There’s no downtime and little sleep.  I am not sure I have ever met any single person who works as hard as ALL these people do.  It’s a lifestyle decision.  Yes, you will get rich but you have to live like this to get it.  Nothing comes without trade-offs.

My recommendation is that if you like stories of Hollywood, this book is for you.  And if you like business dramas, this book is for you.

Review: Red Sparrow

Should have been her, not Jennifer Lawrence

So while I was up North, my mother and step-father recommended that I read Red Sparrow.  They had both read it and they know I like the Americans, so it was kind of like a human Amazon-type thing….

People who like The Americans also liked Red Sparrow….

Anyway, I borrowed their copy and they were right.  It was really good.  It is written by Jason Matthews, a guy who lived that life, and I found it a little unfair for a guy to have been an accomplished spy and write this well at the same time.  It’s just very entertaining and a great read with great characters and a huge amount of tension.

Similar to Leaving Berlin, it is an incredible feeling to be transformed into a world where you are always being watched…where any slight deviation can expose you.  Where being seen somewhere you didn’t belong could unmask you. Where you have to execute a two-hour series of maneuvers to ensure you are not being followed.  It creates non-stop tension that makes for good reading.

The book has some tried and true elements, such as a drop-dead gorgeous Natasha type (Dommenika) who has some very special training from the Russians.  There’s some sex and there’s the classic storyline of two spies trying to spy on each other at the same time.

Even better, whereas The Americans was set in the Soviet era, this book is set in the more or less present.  Putin is trying to rebuild Russia’s intelligence and counter-intelligence to KGB-standards.  Even better than that is that Putin himself appears in the story a few times, including a meeting held in his basement while he lifts weights with his shirt off.

One last item which is either an additional enticement or a warning.  Like all the great books of this genre, Red Sparrow does not flinch from any of the gory details, from the training Domenika experienced to torture to murder to the experience of a self-inflicted pre-capture suicide.  You’re getting a full look at all of that in this book, which I believe is some readers of this type of book secretly relish.

Gave this four-stars for sure and I will be working my way through the next book in the trilogy.  For fellow Americans fans, this is a great read.

Less: A Review

lessBarb bought me Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last month, and it has been waiting patiently until I had a chance to pick it up about a week ago.  Less comes with obvious recommendations, having won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was looking forward to reading it.

It is a great book, certainly deserving of all the praise.  The essential story is that Arthur Less is an author about to turn 50 who goes on an around the world tour after having his heart broken.  It’s funny and charming and sad and funny and ultimately the kind of book that stays with you.

Reading Less was a very interesting experience.  I enjoyed the entire book.  As I was cruising through the first 90%, I was entertained and very satisfied.  The story moves along well and was constantly compelling.  Note that the trip-around-the-world frame is almost unbeatable because it provides access to a wide selection of exotic locales and people, because it by nature gives the story momentum, and because it is the perfect backdrop for a character whose deeper voyage is to explore himself.

So the first 90% was really good.  I was, however, reading it and thinking in the back of my mind that as good as the book is, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that wins Pulitzer Prizes.

And then in the last 10%, Greer gives us magic.  I’ve read books like this before, though I can’t remember an example.  The last ten pages of Less are a literary explosion.  They open your head up and you see vistas of open water and you hear cool breezes.  The previous pages, where the reader was on a pleasure cruise down a canal, now come back to life and are experienced again in a single burst.  The book is transcendent.

When you are finished, you understand the awards.  The writing is brilliant.  The ability–the control–to carry a reader along with a deft touch, entertaining and even delighting them while resisting the urge to unleash the crescendo, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling.  It’s a huge gamble.  If the end isn’t a crescendo, the book is merely good or even worse.  The mastery to set that trap for yourself and then escape is brilliant.  It’s a gift to the reader.

A couple other notes.  One thing that literary fiction often loses is the idea of a story.  Greer succeeds here.  Less is, above all, a story.  Even better, it is a simple story.  One main character and the moons around him.  There are flashbacks, but natural, like you would use if you were telling a story verbally.

Lastly, Greer has a world-class grasp of language.  He has a writer’s grasp of detail and the ability to create a sense of place.  His visual metaphors are just perfect–novel and accessible at the same time.

This book deserves to be read.

Bonus Post: The Grand Inquisitor

There does not seem to be any doubt that The Grand Inquisitor is the most famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov.  It is in the part of the book we just finished, and both of us thought it deserved its own post.

It is a section of the book which consists of a story that Ivan wrote and is telling to Alyosha.  Remember, Ivan is the intellectual among the brothers, the kind of insufferable guy you end up talking to a party as he describes the big controversy he got into at his department chair’s meeting last week.  Even in this case, he fatuously states that he doesn’t think he’s a very good writer before starting the story.

The basic idea is that Jesus comes back to earth and meets the Inquisitor, who tells Jesus that he failed because he gave people freedom and that people are incapable of being free and happy.  He further goes on to say that Jesus erred in resisting the three temptations Satan offered because he threw away the things that could have been used to manipulate the people into being happy–more or less, bread and circuses.  There’s also a rich helping of the Book of Revelations, which is an eye-opener if you are not familiar with it.

At the end, after the Inquisitor has spent pages berating Christ (CHRIST!) while Jesus says nothing, Jesus does what I think you would expect.  He kisses the inquisitor and walks away.

It’s quite a read.  I think you might be able to spend your life unpacking all of the meaning embedded.  In fact, some people probably have.  It covers ideas and debates that Dostoevsky had been thinking–hard–about for his entire life and about which he cared deeply.  When it came time to write this passage in his last book, he had a lot to say.

This debate is something that had been ringing through Christianity for centuries.  It is, in fact, a dark ages concept.  After the fall of Rome, the judgment was that a free society was self-destructive, and you went through the middle ages and then really ramped it up during the Reformation, when people literally had the ability to choose their church.

What Dostoevsky does so effectively in this book is present you with the inherent conflicts of any lifestyle.  You can be pious and then you’re standing in front of the starets looking for spiritual healing.  You can be licentious and tormented—see Dmitry.

In this section, we see the gothic inquisitor, full of grandeur and arrogance and we can contrast it to Zosima.  We see two methods of persuasion–providing shock and awe mysticism directed at the unwashed and then the presentation or truly divine miracles.

To me, the ultimate question is one of faith.  We’ve all heard the old logical puzzle that if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in him and he doesn’t exist.  To me, that doesn’t seem like faith.  Similarly, if you are forced to believe in God, that doesn’t seem to reach the transcendence of a true faith.  Rather, to have your freedom and choose to worship…that seems to me to be the kind of thing you’d be looking for.

Finally, we can’t leave this section without seeing how Alyosha reacts to this.  Aloysha is the pious brother–if a little naive now and again.

Aloysha is sad that his brother’s heart is with the Inquisitor.  Ivan tells him the whole thing is “muddle-headed,” and that of course, he isn’t becoming a Jesuit.  He just wants to live for 30 years and be done with it.

Alyosha asks him how he can have “such a hell in your heart and your head.”  (He’s right…there’s no other word for what’s between that man’s ears.  He’s as messed up as his brother and his Father, just in his own way).

Ivan tells him he has a special strength, what the kids today would call a superpower:

“The Karamazov Depravity”

No one can argue with that.

Book Five: Euclidean Geometry

euclid2First, and foremost, the key event in Book Five is also the most commented-on facet of the entire book, and that is “The Grand Inquisitor” section.  Barb and I have agreed to look at that in a separate post.  As the cool kids say today, “it will take a while for us to unpack that.”

So let’s look at the other highlights of Book Five, which is like watching the consolation game at a basketball tournament….but there you go.

For me, the consolation highlight of Book Five was the David-Foster-Wallace style footnote on Euclidean Geometry.  It was more than two pages and thanks to good therapy did not bring on the howling fantods.

So, Euclidean geometry was created by Euclid in the 4th Century BC.  The last theory of Euclid’s was that two parallel lines would never intersect, something which seems logical but which centuries of geometarins have been unable to prove, (I recall that proofs are important from 10th grade geometry and also I got a D).

So, contemporary with Dostoevsky, they were debating non-Euclidean geometry, which differs from Euclidean geometry only in the sense that they think two parallel lines do intersect due to the curvature of the earth, or something like that.

cliff-clavinIn terms of relevance to the story, this stuff comes (and could only come) from the mouth of Ivan, the Cliff Clavin of 19th Century Russia.  His point is that if you can’t understand non-Euclidean geometry, how can you pretend to understand God?

That’s a novel argument, one I would be able to apply.  Of course, the broader theme is a question that keeps recurring in the book:  whether a pure and simple belief in God can survive meeting a “terrestrial” world built on reason and intellect.

Or, there’s this part from later in the same speech.  I actually know someone who has been told that God must exist because animals don’t know murder is wrong.  Of course, animals don’t murder.  As Lou Solverson said on Fargo, “animals only kill for food.”

Ivan has a similar sentiment.

We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.

Indeed, I think that’s probably the right argument on points, but then again we used to have a cat that literally tortured a mouse for hours and showed no interest in turning it into a meal.  Maybe not with artistic refinement, though.

Here’s a last philosophical nugget.

Clarity in absurdity. Absurdity is direct and guileless, whereas the intellect is evasive and illusive. The intellect is a blackguard, but absurdity is undeviating and honourable.

Which is another brain twister.  Obviously, absurdity and intellect would be polar opposites based on common meaning…and with intellect the preferred choice.  But, taken back to our Euclidean metaphor….what’s more absurd than the beliefs at the foundation of any faith.  Immaculate conception?  Rebirth?  The Book of Mormon?  And what is more evasive and illusive than whether two parallel lines lines that intersect or don’t.

This gives us the chance to view the idea of absurdity in a new light.  The belief in these ideas is–has to be–a matter of pure faith, “direct and guileless,” and on a higher plane that human reason.

Next:  The Grand Inquisitor.

Ohio…additional thoughts

ohio-9781501174476_hrAdditional thoughts based on my reading of Ohio.  Between the theme and the writing, I was reminded of a couple of other things I have read recently.

As noted in the review, I thought Markley did a great job with this book and he is a very skilled writer.  One thing I noticed in several places where some passages which evoked the good parts of the DFW style.  Specifically, both DFW and Markley have the ability to create a list of details to describe a scene that creates an explosion in the reader’s mind.  Here’s an example from Ohio–of what was left behind in foreclosed houses.

They left value behind: gas grills, furniture, jewelry, vinyl albums, Beanie Babies, plaques with framed prayers, frozen steaks, the entire Bible on a set of CDs, bikes, and one eccentric left thirty-odd ducks penned in beside a small backyard pond.

The difference between Markley and DFW is that Markley knows when to stop, whereas DFW will tend to continue to lick his balls because he can.

It’s good writing…kind of a photographic technique to describing something big by listing little things.  The artifacts we possess–and then leave–must say something about who we are and these kinds of lists allow you to include the reader in the process of exploring the homes without telling them what to think.

The other comparison I found might be a little odder.  A while ago I read Mothers Tell Your Daughters, a collection of stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, an outstanding Michigan-based writer.  Both Markley and Campbell write from the perspective of how people in the Great Lakes are living in the post-crash, post-manufacturing world.  Campbell’s characters are in the country and Markley’s in a smallish town, but everything else is similar.

Both writers share the same motif of purposelessness, drug use, drug sales, alcohol abuse and violence….particularly sexual violence.

To be more specific, both Campbell and Markley present men as being a persistent and toxic presence in the lives of their families.  Unless, of course, they are absent entirely.  There are just really striking scenes in the Campbell work about Mothers and Daughters tip-toeing around the malevolent presence of the men in their lives.  And, in Ohio, violence by men is the sun around which the story revolves.

I’m not sure what the point is.  I’m tempted to say that these men were raised to be producers and bread-winners and in a world where that has been stripped from them we find them sullen and ever-threatening.  Or, it means that men are just shits or more likely to be shits or just much worse shits.

Either way, its jarring as a man to see it.  And not pleasant to read.  No one ever promised us that literature would make us feel good, though.

Ohio: A Review

ohio-9781501174476_hrThanks to Netgalley, I had the opportunity to give this book a pre-read before it is released today.  There’s a lot of hype about the book and I will be interested to see what the overall reaction is.

As for my take, this is a great book.  I gave it 5-stars, which I almost never do.  Ohio is an absorbing book that does what a great book should do, which is to transport you to a place and time and let you live there among the characters, who are as real as they could be.

The book should come with a warning.  It is dark.  I mean dark.  If you are one of those people who sees the last days of Rome when you look around the world today, then you’re going to find yourself at home in Ohio.  This is the perfect book for the Trump age.  (Conversely, if you’re in the Fox News/MAGA crowd, then I suspect you might well find this book degrading).

I liken it to a kind of American Graffiti meets the 2016 election meets Hillbilly Elegy, except in a dying Ohio steel town, not a dying Ohio mill town.  It’s a story about a group of people who meet in high school in the previously mentioned steel town and takes place both in the high school timeframe and then years later.

You know the tableau.  This is the post 9/11 generation.  They are victims–directly–of the Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the opiate crisis.  Oh, and victims of growing up in a dead town–think, Steubenville–and their future isn’t looking too bright.

I am not one for plot summaries, except to say that this book is expertly plotted.  Without giving any of it up, I will just advise you to hang on tight.  The two swathes of time carry the story and reveal plot developments as softly as a brush on canvas. For all of Ohio’s disturbing trip down through the “dark corner of the American Experiment,” (Wire reference) the last 100 pages and chock full of drama that would work in any thriller.

I don’t live in a small town, so that was one way that I was transported to a place that was unfamiliar to me.  The other was what I would call, for lack of a better term, “high school culture.”  I understand that for a lot of people, high school is not just the key act in life’s drama, but the music that plays in the background the rest of the time.  High School–who dated who, who played football, who dumped who, who cheated on who, that night someone got so high or drunk…and the fucking, oh man…anyway, it had impact and gravity to some people.  A lot of them.

I was not in that group.  Nobody I knew was in that group.  So, I got a look at that as well.

I am from Ohio, where I have lived most of my life.  The book mentions Toledo (where I live now), Bowling Green (where I went to college) and Van Wert, which might be a bigger shithole than any of those towns over in the eastern part of the state.

I have a couple more posts coming out of this book, but in the meantime, I can’t recommend this book enough. It won’t make you feel good, but that’s not the job of art.  It will make you feel something though, which is the job of art.