Five For Friday: Al-aNon-Fiction

Last week, FR shared some of their favorite fiction.  This week…well, you get the picture.  Or, well, the page.

Nathan: The Whole Equation, David Thompson

For film analysis, avoid David Thompson; for an entertaining, thorough as you can get in one volume history of Hollywood, turn to David Thompson.

Travis: Hitchcock/Truffaut, Francois Truffaut

Throughout my life since age five or so, my obsessions have gone something like: books, sports, sports, books, books, sports, movies, movies, sports, sports, movies, books, boobs (age 11-present), books, movies, movies, movies, sports, movies, music, music, music, music, music, movies, books, movies, music, music, alcohol, serial TV, alcohol/sports. For all those “movies,” this book.

Tyler: Final Cut: Art, Money And Ego In The Making Of Heaven’s Gate, The Film That Sunk United Artists, Steven Bach

Good Lord, what a wild ride.  Even passive cinephiles know that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is shorthand for “biggest bomb of all time”–you can keep your Cleopatra and your Waterworld and your Cutthroat Island; Gate really did destroy an entire studio, one of Hollywood’s most heralded, and deservedly so–and Final Cut depicts the whole disastrous shebang, from conception to preproduction to the Earth-scorching aftermath.  Bach, higher-up at UA as the plane went down, writes with humor and grace and wit, never shying from incrimination of those responsible, including himself.  There’s an excellent hourlong documentary based on Cut available on YouTube, and the book itself is out of print.  But.  If you love movies, or even intrigue, or want to know how to do business backwards into oblivion, read.  Final.  Cut.

Nathan: An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

In her vivid memoir Annie Dillard recollects that her father’s office looked out onto a bridge in Pittsburgh. Occasionally a pedestrian would go out to the middle of the bridge and stare into the water for a long time. If noticed by anyone in the office, a betting pool was made on the likelihood of said pedestrian was going to take the plunge.

Stop right there. Think about seeing this as a child. Annie Dillard will make you see everything as a child again and An American Childhood is the great foggy memory come back to life again.

Travis: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon

I’m an overeducated white semi-young person, therefore it is mandated that I think The Wire is one of the greatest achievements ever aired on the small screen. It would never have happened if Baltimore Sun crime reporter and future Wire creator David Simon had never written this book, which was also the basis for the underwatched but also fantastic network show of a similar name. Simon spent a year or so “embedded,” as it were, with the Baltimore homicide unit as they tracked cases, broke suspects, and cleverly solved crimes, but the real revelations in the book that make it a must-read aren’t the moments of epiphany as cops solve crimes, but the much smaller moments, such as those that illustrate the sick sense of humor someone who deals with death for a living must possess to do the job day-to-day without going insane. Fans of The Wire or the Homicide TV show will recognize many of the anecdotes and characters presented in the book, some of which are among its funniest—two of my favorites: cops hooking up a suspect to a copy machine and feeding pieces of paper reading “TRUE” and “LIE” through to approximate a lie detector (it works!); and detectives arriving on the scene to ask a uniformed officer if the recently deceased suspect, alive when the officer called it in, said who shot him; the officer’s deadpan answer: “Yeah, he said it was a guy with a gun.”

Tyler: Manhunt, James L. Swanson

I picked up Manhunt on a whim, off a recommendation from a friend or a website or a whim or something, and put down its near-500 pages in about three days.  I’ve had a fascination with assassination since early youth, and never have I encountered a tome regarding the topic so riveting and well-written as this incredible recounting.  Cleaving to primary sources, Swanson nonetheless humanizes each and all of the characters, hunters, suspects, victims and bystanders.  I’ve never recommended this book to somebody who didn’t love it.  Take heed, dear readers.  And prepare to lose track of time.

Nathan: Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann 

There was a time in my life, around 2001, when I believed that theology was no longer useful to me. It is, after all, a pondering of things unseen and therefore unprovable. How can you know that you’ve chosen the right idea among so many possibilities? And if you can’t be sure that you are right, what is the point of believing at all?

There were many things that broke me out of that funk, but Theology of Hope played a major role. Moltmann drew me back into the cosmic nature of Christianity, reminding me that many of the small theological issues that I was trying to decipher were not exactly important in the face of a Kingdom of God that would come, washing away this Earth along with all of its history and ailments. In essence, though we could not see it, Christ, outside of space and time, has already completed his goals. Locked into space and time, we have hope that these dimensions will be destroyed. We have hope, because the future has come and gone.

Travis: Ball Four, Jim Bouton and Leonard Shecter, Ed.

One of the best sports books ever written is this season-long diary written by former Yankee pitcher Bouton as he tries to revive his career with the upstart Seattle Pilots as a knuckleball pitcher. Its bite-sized chunks full of humorous anecdotes, both about Bouton’s current predicament trying to restart a stalled career and about his days with the Yankees, make it perfect bathroom reading and re-reading, and on top of being one of the funniest and most quotable tomes ever written about sports, and the first real sports tell-all (this just in: Mickey Mantle liked to booze and chase women!), it is also at moments strangely touching. Read this, smoke ‘em at the knees and on the corners, and get in here so we can pound some Budweisers and go shootin’ beaver.

Tyler: Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal, Russell Brand

I’d seen Get Him To The Greek with Nathan in the summer of 2010, enjoyed the hell out of myself, and then forgotten it and its star for a year.  Then something happened and Brand wrote about it, his words knocking me dumbstruck.  I, like just about everybody (whenever I mention that I love Russell Brand to anybody, the reaction is the same: veiled disgust, masking a contemplation that the conversation should soon end), had no idea that good ol’ Rusty Brown could flat-out fucking write.  Greek was cycling on cable at the time, I DVRed it, rewatched it countless times, and fell forever in love.

I just started My Booky Wook, 2‘s predecessor, but 2 stands alone.  Ascendant from the hell of addiction and abuse, Brand tears forth into a bewildering world of burgeoning celebrity, his troubled mental process adoring the attention but quivered by everything else.  He writes with excruciating honesty–the tales of compulsive, craven sexual encounters stagger the mind–but never without his otherworldly sense of stupefying, gut-busting humor.  Booky Wook 2 was the third element, after the essay linked above and Greek, to cement this exquisite oddball as one of my idols.  For life.  Not convinced yet?  Here’s the final passage of the book, which spoils nothing.

“From the first date I changed.  No more women.  Well, actually, thousands of women.  I wake up to a different one each day, but they’re all her.

She’s sleeping next to me right now, tranquil and slightly beguiling, it’s impossible to ally her with the incandescent girl that blazes through the day.  Her hand rests on her shoulder and I can see the ring I gave her when I asked her to marry me, at midnight on New Year’s Eve in India, under a full moon, a blue moon.  Once in a blue moon.  She said yes.  She chose me, bottled me, and cuffed me.  And now this is my life, this girl, this beautiful woman.

Just her and the revolution.”

Nathan: Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride

It’s no secret here that I love me some John Ford. But some readers might be scratching their heads wondering why. Ford is, after all, what you might call an anachronistic figure at this point. His films are blatantly sentimental, hammy, and almost unilaterally American without apology. For many in my generation, Ford’s movies look like the epitome of the worst in Old Hollywood. I too felt this way at first. Gradually, after forcing myself to see new film after new film because they are routinely featured on canon lists and often praised by directors I admire, I found that Ford wasn’t anachronistic at all. Rather, his films were deeply complex, oftentimes burning his candle at both ends.

By the time I decided to read Joseph McBride’s massive Ford biography, I was already in love with the films – Stagecoach, Young Mister Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, Wagon Master, The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – but by the time I was finished with the book, I was in love with the man, seeing no separation between the artist and his art.

Ford famously played the part of the non-artist, hilariously poking at the many pretensions that come with artistic ambition. He was so good at the act that even now many people now see him only as a for-hire Hollywood director. That’s too bad, because he was probably the greatest artist of the 20th century.

Travis: Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds

For much of my life, I’ve obsessed over music (see above). While that’s dulled down quite a bit since I’ve sort of become a grown-up, this book about one of the most creatively fertile periods in the history of popular music is still a go-to if I’m looking for something new to listen to. Reynolds is a brilliant writer and critic, and he manages to weave a distinctive narrative through the many strands of music inspired by the punk explosion, from the abrasive proto-industrial of Throbbing Gristle to the melodic “Big Music” of Echo & the Bunnymen and U2. Essential reading for any music or pop-culture obsessive.

Tyler: Life, Keith Richards

Take every other rock-star autobiography, pile them in a mess, and set that shit alight.  “This is the life,” reads the reproduced hand-writing on the front-cover inside flap.  “Believe it or not, I remember all of it.”  And he does.  Keef, baby.  The greatest romantic ever to rock.

Nathan: Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

There are a lot of other theological books that are deeper, more entertaining, or more important to the history of Christian thought. There are other books that have been far more influential in my own thinking, too. But no book that I can think of so elegantly lays out the parameters of Christianity.

Originally presented as a series of BBC radio talks between 1941 and 1944, this slim volume begins with nothing and works its way towards a complete vision of a world in which Jesus Christ is the God of all things. And once Lewis reaches that point, he is able to unpack various cultural, moral, and practical elements of the faith.

His reasons are not always my reasons, but that’s never really mattered much to me. I’d read it on a regular basis just to watch this man – once a fervent atheist – lead us into what he believes is the truth of the universe. Lewis’ language is clean and unfussy, intended for laymen but not dumbed down for them. And best of all, it is concerned almost entirely with essentials; there is no prolonged discussion of how one should baptize or on the debate between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. For the believer and non-believer alike, Mere Christianity is a succinct look at the Gospel from a man living through the greatest war of the 20th century.

Travis: My Dark Places, James Ellroy

For a long time, I considered James Ellroy my favorite author. I don’t know if I do anymore; that’s probably beside the point. When I saw the film LA Confidential, still one of my favorites, as a sophomore in high school, I decided to read the book upon which it was based, and found myself exposed to something much darker and sinister than what made it to the screen. That’s not to say the film didn’t do the book justice; it’s probably the best adaptation of a very unadaptable book that’s ever hit the silver screen, but there’s a lot more to the book, and it’s on the whole a lot darker. LA Confidential is actually the third in a series of sequentially-related novels, Ellroy’s LA Quartet, and other novels he wrote before and after share characters, including one of my mentions in last week’s list, American Tabloid. I read the novel after LA Confidential, White Jazz, which actually contains some of the plot points contained in the film (not to be explained here, for anyone who hasn’t seen LA Confidential) and then explored Ellroy’s back catalog, as it were. The first great book he ever wrote was the first of the LA Quartet, The Black Dahlia, made into an unfairly maligned but still not that great movie by Brian DePalma. The Black Dahlia murder case was one of the first big tabloid murders in Los Angeles, and one that paralleled another big tabloid murder in the LA area, the one tackled in My Dark Places—that of Ellroy’s mother. My Dark Places is probably the rawest autobiography I’ve ever read, alternating between three narratives: a cold, clinical discussion of the case files of the murder of Ellroy’s mother; Ellroy as a kid in the years following his mother’s death, growing into a troubled adolescent and early adult addicted to speed, dime novels, classical recordings and panty raids; and Ellroy as a semi-well adjusted adult, working with a private investigator to try and solve his mother’s still open case. Dark Places indeed.

Tyler: Ball Four, Jim Bouton, with editor Leonard Shecter

Ball Four is rightfully heralded as the best baseball book ever written.  It is the kind of book you lend to a friend, never to be returned (ahem).  But it’s not just about baseball.  Jim Bouton, capable pitcher, Yankee glory in his rear-view mirror, diarizes a year in the weeds, developing out of necessity an ability to throw knuckleballs, not because he’s crafty, but because he has to do so to stay employed in his passion of choice, plagued both by the dreaded “dead arm” and an intellectual curiosity that segregated him, unwillingly, from many of his teammates.  Therein lie Four‘s greatest observations, the depiction of an obstinate manager, Joe Schultz, all old-school and bluster, but somehow lovable, not least due to his unceasing post-game and encouraged routine of “pounding that old Budweiser.”  The “scrambled eggs” that constitute the ballcap of Bouton’s team at the time, the expansion Seattle Pilots.  The brazen honesty of a married man (the marriage ended in divorce; see Ball Five) who adopted an Asian son decades before such actions became “trendy,” but who still takes horny pleasure from “shooting beaver” at lady spectators who may or may not realize their skirts are rowdy remedy for crafty ballplayers miles away from their wives, and an athlete’s endless hormones surging hard.  Bouton’s memoir estranged him from Major League Baseball, and his adored Yankees, for decades.  No matter.  The book Bouton concocted is not only an impeccable work of observational reportage; it is a stirring collection of damn-straight insights into human character.

Not to mention, it concludes with one of the most inspired passages of any kind of literature that I have ever read.  It ain’t just about about baseball, friends.  It’s about passion.

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

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12 thoughts on “Five For Friday: Al-aNon-Fiction

  1. “Aw, dude, you haven’t seen The Wire? Aw, you gotta get on that shit.” “No, yeah, I know, I’m just lazy, I should, I gotta get around to it.” “Nah, man, really, like, you need to get on that shit like right now, dude.” “…I understand, I just–” “DUDE!”

  2. Some really great things on this list and a few that I’ll have to check out. It’s also nice to see some people I’ve actually met (Steven Bach and Joseph McBride) get name-checked.

    I offer a few additional titles for your consideration:

    First, a trilogy of true crime books that are among my absolute favorites: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City. I realize that a couple of these are genre-busters as “nonfiction” novels, but I still count them as nonfiction, especially since most historians acknowledge that there is a “fictive” element in the craft of historical writing.

    Second, David Foster Wallace’s Another Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Wallace was a very gifted essay writer, something that might be overlooked by those who only know his novels and short stories. Consider the Lobster is also good, and features Wallace’s rather extraordinary coverage of the Adult Video News awards. but for my money, Wallace’s account of going on a cruise ship is an absolute classic. Trenchant, witty, biting, and laugh out loud funny.

    Lastly, I also want to give a shout out to Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music, a book that is proof that even the most seemingly banal material can become a fascinating read when it’s in the hands of a truly gifted writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. The book will have you scouring the vinyl sections of thrift shops looking for pop culture ephemera by the likes of Mantovani, Bert Kaempfert, Esquivel, and the Mystic Moods Orchestra.

  3. Correction: That should read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Serves me right for posting before I’d looked at my bookshelf.

  4. Jeff, In Cold Blood was my odd man out, and I’d forgotten that I’d read Devil In The White City (wasn’t my copy). Both fantastic tomes.

  5. My odd man out was Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. I’m embarrassed to admit, though, that while I’ve read plenty of baseball books, I’ve never read BALL FOUR, which obviously is popular in these parts. It is next on my list.

  6. Oh, and a little something to make Travis jealous. My copy of My Dark Places is signed by Ellroy himself.

  7. Tyler, how necessary is it to have seen Heaven’s Gate before reading Final Cut?

    I have access to a DVD of the movie, but have heard rumors that Criterion might actually be releasing it. If I have the choice, I’d rather watch it on a nice BD.

  8. Randomly, my copy of My Dark Places is also signed, though I wasn’t there for Ellroy to sign it. I just happened to be in Kansas City (where Ellroy was living at the time, I think he’s since returned to LA), walked into a Barnes & Noble, and there were a bunch of copies left over from a signing he’d just done.

    Is it wrong that I think Heaven’s Gate is kind of good? Like, not great or anything, but not nearly the fiasco it’s meant to be?

    Tyler, I know you’ll never watch The Wire, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t missing out.

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