Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: "Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend" (by Sam Staggs)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for an honest review.

I’ve long had a fascination for the Gabors. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, given the extent to which they, like so many other glamour goddesses, have become gay icons. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I saw that there was an entire book devoted just to them. Delicious and decadent, Finding Zsa Zsa is a heartfelt examination of the lives of these women, which were at once both beautiful and tragic.

Though the book’s title privileges Zsa Zsa, and though the book does so to an extent, it also goes into a great deal of detail about the other sisters and, of course, the indomitable mother Jolie. In Staggs’s capable (if at times luxurious and self-indulgent) hands, they are brought to live in all of their contradictions. Though they have often been derided as being famous for being famous (and though there is some truth to that assessment) all four of the Gabors were some combination of sensible, extravagant, and talented, though there were times when one of those traits would overshadow the others. Indeed, Eva would be the most successful in terms of acting, while Zsa Zsa could have done so had she put in a little more effort. And Magda and Jolie, not known for their acting, were nevertheless hard-headed businesswomen.

As was the case with his previous books, Staggs has a style that is really all his own. Though he looks with contempt at the sorts of biographers who were a bit too credulous in their approach to the Gabors and their conscious construction of their own image, Staggs tends to do the opposite, assume that his own assumptions and understandings are ironclad. It’s not really a good thing when you find yourself wondering just how reliable a writer is when they make claims that are more than a little outlandish.

What’s more, Staggs has a tendency to let his rhetorical flights of fancy get away from him, and while this can sometimes be charming, it can also get a bit cloying at times (though, considering the fact that the book is about the Gabor, perhaps this is self-conscious, though I rather doubt it). As with his previous books, he tends to be a little too in love with his own cleverness. A nice rhetorical flourish is fine used judiciously, but there are times in the book when his own penchant for showing off becomes more of a distraction than anything else.

Yet for all of its gossipy seaminess and Staggs’ flights of rhetorical fancy, he does ably demonstrate the extent to which the lives of the Gabors, as glamourous and glitzy as they often were, were all also marred by tragedy. This ranges from Eva’s premature death as the result of a fall to Zsa Zsa’s ignominious last days under the thrall of her final husband to Francesca’s unfortunate descent into mental illness and homelessness. Staggs is right to remind us of the terrible toll that female stardom often takes on the women involved, and how American culture seems peculiarly unwilling (or unable) to provide these aging stars the type of support that they need in their later years.

It’s clear throughout the book that Staggs has a genuine fondness for his subjects. He seems to have a particular affection for Francesca, and a strong dislike (one might even go so far as to say disdain) for Zsa Zsa’s last husband and his fame-hunting antics (and possible abuse of his wife). Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that Staggs makes no pretense of objectivity.

Furthermore, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions of his analysis, I have to admit that Staggs has a perceptive film critic buried inside him somewhere, and the parts of the book where he analyzes both Eva’s and Zsa Zsa’s performances in their various adventures are some of the most insightful (and thus, to me, enjoyable) parts of the book. He has a keen eye for the sort of detail that makes for a smart reading of a film, and I sometimes think that a focus on more of that and less on seaminess would have helped.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Finding Zsa Zsa, though I also would have liked to see more detail about each of the women. Still, for those who want to learn more about these glamourous women and their racy lives, one could do worse than Sam Staggs.

Reading History: “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (by Tom Holland)

I have a complicated relationship with the works of the British historian Tom Holland. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, I’m always struck by two things. First is his tendency to indulge his own stylistic flourishes to an extraordinary degree and, second, to try to craft an all-inclusive argument that subsumes all things into itself. Though these might at first blush appear unrelated phenomena, they are in fact related, and each feeds into the other.

In Dominion, all of the things that I both enjoy and find infuriating about his work are front and center. Stylistically, this book is somewhat self-indulgent. It doesn’t seem as if Holland has any form of impulse control when it comes to his flights of fancy and his rather rakish and cheeky turns of phrase. To put it another way, he sometimes to be so in love with his own clever Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of pizzazz in my prose, but when it’s repeated again and again and again, it starts to get a little cloying and, ultimately, distracting. Sometimes, I think that Holland should really make an effort to find an editor who can rein him in and keep him from indulging in some of his most exaggerated tendencies.

In Dominion, Tom Holland looks into the deep roots of Christianity and how, since its founding, its permutations and adaptations have shaped the modern Western world. Beginning in antiquity, he then moves into the modern world, showing how Christianity is, in essence, responsible for everything from socialism to science to secularism. And, in a rather counterintuitive move, he even suggests that such thoroughly un-Christian institutions such as ISIS are, even if they don’t realize it, Christian (he makes a similar argument about Hinduism and Judaism). Given that Holland has made no secret of his contempt for much of Islamic thought, I suppose I shouldn’t find this surprising, but nevertheless I did find it intellectually disingenuous (to put it mildly) and intellectually imperialist (to put it bluntly).

The real issue with Dominion, and with Holland’s work more generally, is his tendency to mistake his premise for his conclusion. Throughout this book, I kept wanting to hear the actual evidence to support the large claims that he makes. It’s not enough to merely assert that basically ever aspect that we have come to associate with modernity owes its roots in Christianity, and I’m not convinced that you could truly support such a huge claim with any degree of intellectual honesty. However, I’m also not entirely sure that I disagree with some of these assertions–I agree that secularism has no identity without the religious with which it is juxtaposed–but I don’t really think that Holland effectively or convincingly proves this point or, for that matter, many of the other ones. While I think he’s on surer ground on antiquity and the medieval periods, once gets to modernity things start to unravel rather quickly.

And, to be just a bit nit-picky, Holland also tends to make some slight errors that are frustrating because they’re so easily corrected. Early in the book, for example, he says that the Byzantines referred to themselves as such, when it’s pretty well-known that, for the entirety of their existence, they referred to themselves as Romans (even Europeans referred to them as Greeks, not Byzantines). Though these aren’t world-ending, when one is writing a book of popular history, and when one has a particularly large audience, accuracy becomes even more important.

That being said, I do think that Dominion makes some important points. Holland is absolutely right that Christianity was a truly world-changing development, and he’s also right that we in the West (or, to put it somewhat differently, the Global North) do owe much of our patterns of thought and our cultural sensibilities to Christianity. However, to use it as some sort of ur-myth that explains all of modernity…well, that still seems like a bit of a stretch.

Overall, I think that Dominion is vintage Tom Holland, and those with an interest in the broad history of Christianity and its influence on the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds will find it both enjoyable to read and informative. However, it’s also important that they approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and, if possible, to seek out other sources to flesh out his narrative.

Book Review: “Me” (by Elton John)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I absolutely love the music of Elton John. Though I’d always heard his music growing up, it wasn’t until I was in college that I truly discovered how much I really enjoyed his music. In the years since, I’ve seen him in concert four times (and hopefully going to make it to a fifth). I’ve always eagerly awaited an official autobiography and now, at last, it’s here.

In Me (could there be a more Elton John title?), we finally get the complete story of his tumultuous life from his own perspective. We witness the dizzying heights of his success, as well as the nadirs of his life, including his plunge into a cocaine addiction that takes over for much of the ’70s and ’80s, until he enters rehab in the 1990s. John is not shy about delving into the ugly details of these addictions, and his bracing honesty is refreshing and at times unsettling. I can’t imagine that it was easy for him to delve into these ugly parts of his personal history, but somehow he manages to make it utterly believable and endearing. Through this narrative, we come to learn what really makes Elton John tick, through both the good and the bad.

But we also get a window into the personal relationships that have shaped his life. We meet John Reid, his first lover and the man who was a key part of his business success (and, ultimately, some of his failure). Elton isn’t shy about telling us how much he loved Reid, and I very much enjoyed his frankness about his sexuality. We also meet Elton’s parents, a study in contrasts, his mother a woman of many emotions and a love of music, his father a stiff-upper-lip type who never seems to understand his son or his desires. I’ve long known that his relationship with his mother was difficult, but here we get a stronger sense of just how long that conflict went on. One can’t help but feel a great deal of pity for both of these people, neither of whom really seemed to understand one another. As someone whose relationship with his own mother has been at times strained, I found these parts of Elton’s story to be particularly moving.

And, of course, we also encounter Bernie Taupin, Elton’s long-time lyricist with whom he has written some of his most enduringly popular songs. These were honestly some of my favorite parts of the book, since one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed most about Elton’s music is the lyrics to his songs. At one point, John compares Bernie to Tolkien, and that seems a pretty accurate description of the types of lyrics that Taupin has always managed to produce. It’s clear that, though they’ve had their times of conflict, John and Taupin are truly one of the greatest musical duos to have graced rock-and-roll.

And, finally, we meet his husband David Furnish and their two children, both of them born from the same surrogate. Reading these sections of the book, it’s striking how much being a father has really begun to change John’s life and his perspective on it for the better. Anyone who might have had doubts about whether a 60-something-year-old man can be a father should have their doubts assuaged by this book.

Interspersed with the biographical elements of the book are insights into the music. Elton shines a light into the motivations behind so many of his most popular songs, as well as what went into both the good and the bad albums (let us never forget that Elton once recorded a disco album). However, I have to point out that, while Elton and Bernie both seem to think that The Big Picture is one of the worst albums that they’ve ever made, I always found it quite enjoyable.

Me also highlights the many important people that Elton has encountered throughout his life, ranging from the Queen herself to almost every famous or fashionable person you can imagine. Sometimes, you just have to marvel how quickly Elton John managed to rocket into the upper echelons of superstardom, and reading Me one gets the feeling that it’s precisely the precipitousness that in part led to some of his worst troubles. By the time you finish reading Me, however, you can’t help but be happy for Elton.

What I found particularly refreshing about this book was the fact that Elton is just so forthright about his own flaws. He makes no bones about the fact that he has a fearsome temper and is prone to outbursts that, to many, look more than a little ridiculous. He also recognizes that he has a bit of an acid tongue that has, needless to say, gotten him into some hot water more than once (his spats with George Michael, Madonna, and Billy Joel are well-known). Despite his flaws, however, one gets the feeling that, despite his waspishness and his temper, that deep down he really is a good person trying to do the best that he can, and that he loves fiercely, deeply, and indelibly.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s too short! There were many times when I found myself wanting to hear more about the writing process and, even more, about the meanings that he saw in the music that they created. Maybe at some point there’ll be a sequel? There just seems so much more that we could learn about his music, so let’s hope so!

All in all, Me is a fascinating and unflinching glimpse into Elton’s life and psyche. To my mind, it is nothing short of miraculous that Elton has somehow emerged from all of the chaos seemingly stronger than ever. I continue to marvel at his powerful longevity. Aside from everything else, Me is exceedingly well-written, a pleasure to read from the first page to the last. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the life of this fascinating musical figure.

Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.

Book Review: All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States (by Meaghan Winter)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review. It’s an unfortunate truth that the last few years have seen a hollowing out of Democratic power. From state houses to the nation’s Congress to the Presidency, the forces of the right have been shockingly and distressingly successful at grabbing the levers of power. This is, of course, no accident, as Meaghan Winter reveals in her book All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States. Indeed, as she points out in frightening detail, the right has been very effective not only in grabbing power, but in ensuring that they keep it, even if it means going against their constituents’ own wishes. The book focuses on three states and the ways in which they have confronted (and been confronted) by these realities: Missouri, Colorado, and Florida. We see numerous egregious examples of Republican abuse of their new power, ranging from gerrymandering (the sheer scale of their effrontery is truly hard to grasp) to a systematic and ruthless rollback of all the things that progressives have fought for (climate change, abortion, and guns are three key issues). It’s hard to say whether Florida or Missouri provides the more glaring object lesson in the outright cynicism that seems to motivate the Republican party these days. In both cases, state governments have done significant damage to both their states and, in the case of Florida, the planet in their mindless service to their right-wing donors. As guilty as Republicans clearly are for this state of affairs, Winter is not shy about showing how Democrats and other national liberal groups have also been negligent in their response. For too long, she argues, Democrats have focused almost exclusively on federal office, which has meant that not only has money been spent on those big-ticket races, but also that they only seem to care about states during major federal election years. Any other time they are forced to fend for themselves, with often disastrous results. Throughout the book, Winter focuses not only on the big picture and on the negative, but also on the hardworking progressive activists, legislators, and donors who have done their part to roll back this seemingly relentless tide. These are the people–mostly but not exclusively young–working long hours (and not getting paid for many of them), while turning themselves to the herculean task of building a society and a government that works for all people rather than the privileged and moneyed few. Though they don’t always win, it is heartening to know that there are still those who believe in a better world and are able and willing to do what it takes to bring it into being. Further, Winter deserves credit for paying just as much attention to their invaluable efforts as she does to those of their cynical counterparts on the right. As we continue to feel the endless buffeting of our democratic norms, All Politics is Local is a timely reminder that all is not lost, that we can take back our future. At the same time, however, it does not shy away from revealing the enormous difficulties that we still face across the electoral map. What’s more, we have to go into this with eyes wide open about the work involved. Progress is not (nor has it ever again) something that is accomplished and then forgotten about. It is a fight that must be constantly pursued in the face of those who would continue gaming the system for their own advantage. Winter’s book makes it clear that we must fight against those forces at every opportunity, and we must not let down our guard. If we do, as we have so often in the past, then we will have only ourselves to blame for the ruin that results. These days, it’s easy to lose sight of the small, local details, caught up as we are in the daily horror show that is the Trump administration and its cynical allies in the Senate. However, if we take the lessons of All Politics is Local to heart, we can, perhaps, make this country, and this world, a better place for everyone to live in.

Book Review: Siege: Trump Under Fire (by Michael Wolff)

Let me be upfront by saying that I had distinctly mixed feelings about Michael Wolff’s last book, Fire and Fury. While it was, admittedly, tremendously entertaining and dreadfully (one might even say sinfully) readable, I ultimately felt that I had not really learned anything. It was mostly just a rehash of existing information, with a few gossipy bits thrown in for spice.

I had many of the same feelings about Siege, the sequel. Very accessible, gossipy, and more than a little soapy, it shows a President, and a White House, always on the brink of utter collapse.

Siege moves along at nothing short of a lightning pace, taking us through the familiar hallmarks of the Trump Presidency: gross incompetence, constant staff infighting, paranoia about the Mueller investigation, etc. However, that very speed is one of the book’s most significant weaknesses, as it denies Wolff the chance to really dig in deep into the material that he usually covers only glancingly. Sometimes, I had the feeling that Wolff was just rather bored with the whole affair and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.

As readable as the book is, however, there’s not much in this book that we haven’t already encountered elsewhere, either in traditional news outlets (which I generally find more reliable than Wolff) or in the numerous leaks that seem to be such a hallmark of this administration. This deprives the book of much tension, and by the end I didn’t feel that I’d really learned anything new. More distressingly, what new information there is–most notably Wolff’s claim that Mueller had drawn up an indictment against Trump–has been called into question. It doesn’t really inspire confidence in Wolff’s journalistic ability.

My more major complaint is that Wolff relies entirely too much on Steve Bannon. I find this repellant for a host of reasons, but two are particularly important. Firstly, it remains unclear why, exactly, Wolff relies so much on Bannon’s (profanity-drenched) commentary about Trump and his administration. The obvious answer is that Bannon is one of the few people who will still talk openly to him, but that still leaves one to wonder why Wolff seems to think that he can offer any significant insight on the administration or its doings. Secondly, Wolff commits the crime of elevating Bannon into a status that he most definitely does not deserve, as some sort of oracle that possesses the key to both Trump and his voters. In addition, Bannon just comes across as a grouchy old man who likes to swear a lot and has a very high opinion of himself (one which Wolff clearly shares).

Structurally, the book doesn’t ever quite seem to have a sense of what exactly its governing principle is. There is rarely a sense of cohesion between one chapter and the next, and it sometimes feels as if Wolff is merely jumping to whatever subject seemed to catch his attention at that particular moment (a phenomenon not dissimilar to what Trump himself does). One gets the feeling that this book was a bit of a rush job and, in my opinion, it could definitely have done with some more time to be sculpted into a coherent narrative rather than a series of simultaneously hilarious and alarming vignettes.

Where the book succeeds, arguably, is in its ability to get into Trump’s psychology (as much as any work will ever be able to do so). Wolff has a keen eye for the foibles that make Trump tick and that remain key to his persona. Throughout Siege, Trump emerges as a very paranoid and inept figure, one whose confidence comes from his extraordinary good luck and his ability to survive the sorts of stumbles that would be the end of any other politician (or other public figure). And, of course, the real best thing about the book is that, like its predecessor, it will no doubt get under Trump’s skin.

All that said, I will assert the same thing that I did about Fire and Fury. If even a third of what Wolff asserts is true about Trump’s state of mind, we are in very deep trouble. But, as the bookshop clerk responded when I said this to her: “I think we’re already in a lot of trouble.”

Book Review: “The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent” (by P.E. Moskowitz)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

Of all the issues facing us today, one that continues to excite an enormous amount of outrage from the right (and sometimes from the left) is that of “free speech.” Whether it is Milo Yiannopoulos being met with fierce protests at UC–Berkeley or racist psuedo-scientist Charles Murray being met with a similar outrage at Middlebury College, the First Amendment is on everyone’s lips. P.E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech is thus a very timely contribution to the fraught (and sometimes violent) discussion surrounding this pressing issue.

I was honestly quite excited about this book. For some time now I’ve been grappling with the complicated issue of free speech and how it can be that Nazis and others who advocate genocide have their rights championed by people across the political spectrum. Though I don’t always agree with Moskowitz’s conclusions, I appreciated the way they lay out in exhaustive and excoriating detail how it is that free speech has increasingly become an empty signifier. While we pride ourselves on our championing of this essential right, the reality is that we have always imposed certain restrictions on certain types of speech, usually so that those who possess power can continue to do so without undue interference from below. Given that many (though not all) of those who have attempted to impose such restrictions have come from the right, it is galling to see them now up in arms.

For me, the most compelling (and convincing) example of the American right’s hypocrisy is their continued bankrolling of radical conservative thought in the American academy. At the same time as they are doing so, of course, they help to lead the charge against those who would push back against such corporate control of our intellectual life. For people like the Kochs, free speech only matters in so far as it allows them to continue building their influence and, it goes without saying, their wealth.

Throughout The Case Against Free Speech, Moskowitz gives attention to those whose stories are frequently left out of (or deliberately effaced) in discussions around free speech. In these pages we meet those young people who led the protests against Milo and Murray, the labor protestors of the early 20th Century, and numerous others who openly confronted the injustices they saw in the world. Dismissed by many as special snowflakes and rabble rousers, here they emerge as people of passion and deep intellect, profoundly invested in changing the world for the better and confronting the deep and structural inequalities that have blighted (and continue to blight), the promise of the American dream. As they point out, it is almost always the marginalized who are sacrificed on the altar of free speech. Those who have been discouraged (often violently) from speaking truth to power are all too frequently the ones who are the first to suffer in these battles.

There were times when Moskowitz’s history lessons threaten to detract from the primary thrust of their argument, and it would have helped if they had tied together those deep (and very problematic) histories with the issues of the present. Part of this, I think, comes from the book’s organization, which doesn’t seem as coherent as it should be. It sometimes shuttles between past and present in a not-entirely-coherent manner, and this makes it easy at times to lose track of the thrust of the argument.

It’s worth pointing out that this book is straightforward about its political investments. Moskowitz is very clearly a radical, and in my view this allows them to sometimes fire their criticism at both those who are acting in cynically self-serving ways and those who, for better worse, truly do believe in the essential virtue of the American experiment. Be that as it may, The Case Against Free Speech is nevertheless required reading for all of those who want (or need) to take a good, hard look in the mirror at the myths that we construct around ourselves and that prevent us from seeing the realities of our troubled present.

At the end of the day, however, The Case Against Free Speech leaves us with a conundrum, one that has no easy answers. Do we really want to abandon the idea of free speech, as empty as it may sometimes seem? What would this actually look like in political practice? These are questions we will all have to grapple with, both today and in the days to come.

Book Review: “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution” (by Emily Nussbaum)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for generously providing me a copy of this book to review.

There’s a peculiar joy that comes from reading sound media criticism. A very few people can somehow capture their intellectual passions in a way that makes their work intelligible for mainstream audiences (something that a lot of media scholars struggle to do).

Thankfully, Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, has done just this in I Like to Watch: Arguing my Way Through the TV Revolution.

The book is a collection of pieces, most of which Nussbaum wrote for various publications and a few that she wrote especially for the volume. Some are simply short reflections of a particular TV series, while others are more in-depth explorations of a particular series or showrunner (her lengthy piece about Ryan Murphy is one of the best in the collection). Though they vary in subject matter, they are united by Nussbaum’s distinctive voice and intellectual clarity, as well as her deeply personal encounter with the medium.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book as a whole was its willingness to look at television series that fall squarely outside the quality TV designation that seems to be all the rage (or was, at any rate) among those who think and write about television. Indeed, she begins the book with an anecdote about how it was watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer that drew her into wanting to write about television.

Some of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on these “bad” texts, including Sex and the City, Behind the Candelabra (the HBO film about Liberace), Hannibal, and sundry others. However, she also gives sustained attention to more traditionally quality TV, and her essay on The Sopranos is particularly compelling and insightful. I also loved The Sex and the City essay, which makes the compelling case that this HBO series deserves just as much credit for vaunting HBO into the upper echelons of television production as more male-oriented series.

While most of the essays in the book focus on contemporary television, some also delve deeper into TV’s past, including a particularly erudite exploration of “bad fandom” and All in the Family. Thus, one of the through-lines that runs through the entire book is Nussbaum’s interest in fandom, both her own and that of others. All too often, fandom is something to be confessed to, rather than embraced and celebrated. The fact that Nussbaum, writing for one of the premier intellectual publications in the country, so openly embraces her own identity as a fan is refreshing.

Nussbaum’s style is nuanced and deeply thoughtful yet very accessible. If I have one quibble with her, it’s that I sometimes feel that she (like many mainstream critics) seems to believe that her realizations emerge out of a vacuum, when in fact there are huge bodies of scholarship conducted by television and media scholars that often reach the same conclusions that she does. Since this seems to be a problem with many working for mainstream publications–not just television critics–I won’t be too hard on her.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this foray through Nussbaum’s encounters with television. Highly recommended.

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.