Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

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By the late 1960s, horror was stuck in the past, confined mostly to drive-in theaters and exploitation houses, and shunned by critics. Shock Value tells the unlikely story of how the much-disparaged horror film became an ambitious art form while also conquering the multiplex. Directors such as Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma- counterculture types operating largely outside the confines of Hollywood-revolutionized the genre, exploding taboos and bringing a gritty aesthetic, confrontational style, and political edge to horror. Zinoman recounts how these directors produced such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, creating a template for horror that has been imitated relentlessly but whose originality has rarely been matched.

This new kind of film dispensed with the old vampires and werewolves and instead assaulted audiences with portraits of serial killers, the dark side of suburbia, and a brand of nihilistic violence that had never been seen before. Shock Value tells the improbable stories behind the making of these movies, which were often directed by obsessive and insecure young men working on shoestring budgets, were funded by sketchy investors, and starred porn stars. But once The Exorcist became the highest grossing film in America, Hollywood took notice.

The classic horror films of the 1970s have now spawned a billion-dollar industry, but they have also penetrated deep into the American consciousness. Quite literally, Zinoman reveals, these movies have taught us what to be afraid of. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of the most important artists in horror, Shock Value is an enthralling and personality-driven account of an overlooked but hugely influential golden age in American film.

A highly interesting analysis of the resurgence of horror movies in the 1970s where the genre finally began to be taken a bit more seriously. It was the very lack of respect horror movies had that allowed several business outsiders to take risks and make their own experimental additions to the genre. It was also the very success of these movies that ended up dooming horror movies into becoming constrained by the same big business guidelines of other movies. The author doesn’t always like every movie that is considered ground breaking nor does he shy away from how difficult some of these directors were in personality, but there is a deep understanding of how horror went from being considered something for “kids” to a higher art form. It’s fascinating see just how some of these movies came into being and what it is about them that makes them stand out so much.

4 out of 5

Review: Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires by Andrew K. Amelinckx

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Murder and dark deeds shadowed the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In the summer of 1893, a tall and well-dressed burglar plundered the massive summer mansions of the upper crust. A visit from President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 ended in tragedy when a trolley car smashed into the presidential carriage, killing a Secret Service agent. Shocking the nation, a psychotic millworker opened fire on a packed streetcar, leaving three dead and five wounded. From axe murders to botched bank jobs, author Andrew Amelinckx dredges up the forgotten underbelly of the Berkshires with unforgettable stories of greed, jealousy and madness from the Gilded Age.

For those interested in the history of crime, this is an interesting book about forgotten crimes from American history. You’d think one of the first mass public shootings would be something you heard more about in other histories of crime, and yet the tragic mass killing in a streetcar by a mentally disturbed man remains largely forgotten. The author’s style is rather sparse and these feel more like magazine or newspaper articles than a deep introspection of the events or time period. It is an interesting little book though and while some of the stories occasionally get a little dry with facts, the events themselves are so bizarre and pretty much undocumented on the whole that the book is interesting in spite of that.

4 out of 5

Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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A groundbreaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.

Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and reimagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.

It’s amazing how much we think we know about Anne Boleyn, arguably one of the most famous queens in history, and how little we actually do. Most of the information about her that popular media has latched on to based on its salacious nature came from men who hated her and had every reason to lie about their impressions of her. Anne herself is an enigma, cast by biographers as everything from a wanton temptress to an innocent victim. So where is the true Anne? Probably somewhere in between. A woman intelligent enough keep a king determined to marry her in spite of political upheaval, she also was a woman who a man at that time would probably find very hard to be married to. Plain talk and personal opinions might be fine in a mistress that has caught your eye, but in a wife who was expected to be seen and not heard, be demure and obedient, particularly with a man like Henry VIII, the very fact that Anne was Anne and couldn’t be anything other probably contributed to her downfall. Was Anne a feminist hero? Not exactly, but Bordo makes a very plausible argument that it was Anne’s determination to be nothing other than what she was that was probably the reason she made so many enemies in the boy’s club of Tudor court and eventually with her husband.

Most forgotten have been Anne’s contributions to the Reformation movement. She was a bright woman with deep interest in the Reformation and it is more than likely her clashing with Cromwell over how confiscated papal money was being redistributed (Anne was disturbed that it was going into private funds, not into educational and charitable coffers like she was under the impression it would be) that eventually led to his very concerted efforts to have her removed from power. Bordo also reveals a little into the psyche of Henry VIII, a man who seemed capable of discarding of a woman he fought for for years without a second thought (he spent the morning after her execution partying with Jane Seymour). Henry is a fascinating study into a man who would probably be diagnosed as narcissistic or borderline today. The unsettling way he could turn his affections violently off towards people he had initially loved is disturbing (and a pattern…Anne, Cromwell, More, and many others didn’t make it out of Henry’s former affections alive). It all goes to reveal that Anne was probably playing a game far more dangerous than she even realized and one that few people would have succeeded at.

The books is the strongest when analyzing the arguments about Anne herself and picking through the historical material. A word of caution though, just like the author discounts many of the accounts of Anne by those who would have been disposed to dislike her we have to keep in mind that the author DOES obviously like Anne and interprets some things very much in her favor without a huge amount of evidence (though many of her arguments are very logical and based on the psychology involved ring true). The book gets considerably weaker when it dwells on the many fictional versions of Anne (particularly The Tudors version). It is a fascinating read though for those interested in trying to get to the bottom of who Anne Boleyn was (and maybe the real answer is she is to some degree what the times make her).

4 out of 5

Review: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

 

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The riveting true story of mother-and-daughter queens Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois, whose wildly divergent personalities and turbulent relationship changed the shape of their tempestuous and dangerous century.

Set in magnificent Renaissance France, this is the story of two remarkable women, a mother and daughter driven into opposition by a terrible betrayal that threatened to destroy the realm.

Catherine de’ Medici was a ruthless pragmatist and powerbroker who dominated the throne for thirty years. Her youngest daughter Marguerite, the glamorous “Queen Margot,” was a passionate free spirit, the only adversary whom her mother could neither intimidate nor control.

When Catherine forces the Catholic Marguerite to marry her Protestant cousin Henry of Navarre against her will, and then uses her opulent Parisian wedding as a means of luring his followers to their deaths, she creates not only savage conflict within France but also a potent rival within her own family.

Pity poor forgotten Marguerite de Valois, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, consistently betrayed by men in her life, constantly at odds with her pushy mother who favored her most despised sibling. Marguerite was intelligent and brave and has been fairly forgotten by most popular history books. Marguerite lived a life filled with danger mainly stemming from the vicious court politics she was born in the middle of. Used as a pawn by her family, Marguerite managed to navigate highly unfavorable social situations in spite of the limited allies she had and ended up saving her ungrateful husband’s life multiple times. This book is fascinating and hard to put down as you feel for Marguerite and the incredibly unfair treatment she received at the hands of her family and husband.

5 out of 5

Review: Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish

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A longtime industry insider and acclaimed Hollywood historian goes behind the scenes to tell the stories of 15 of the most spectacular movie megaflops of the past 50 years, such as Cleopatra, The Cotton Club, and Waterworld. He recounts, in every gory detail, how enormous hubris, unbridled ambition, artistic hauteur, and bad business sense on the parts of Tinsel Town wheeler-dealers and superstars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, and Francis Ford Coppola, conspired to engender some of the worst films ever.

Sometimes you go into a movie and leave wondering “who greenlighted this mess”. The situation is even more embarrassingly compounded when the particular train wreck has an enormous budget. This book chronicles some of the most expensive movie disasters. Parish is able to really dig in to the background of what happened to allow such insane decisions to be made. The book is fascinating from a gossipy level as well has just a history stand point of how terrible things snowball. I really enjoyed the book.

4 out of 5

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton

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With all the adventure, derring-do, and bloodcurdling battle scenes of his earlier book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, acclaimed historian Giles Milton dazzles readers with the true story of William Adams—the first Englishman to set foot in Japan (and the inspiration for James Clavell’s bestselling novel Shogun). Beginning with Adams’s startling letter to the East India Company in 1611—more than a decade after he’d arrived in Japan—Samurai William chronicles the first foray by the West into that mysterious closed-off land. Drawing upon the journals and letters of Adams as well as the other Englishmen who came looking for him, Samurai William presents a unique glimpse of Japan before it once again closed itself off from the world for another two hundred years

Featuring a bizarre footnote in history, this very readable book introduces William Adams, a man who became stranded in Japan and ended up making it his home. Adams was able to navigate the intricate etiquette of Japanese culture, learn the language, and became invaluable to the survival of the first group of English traders in Japan. The victim of jealousy and distrust by his countrymen, Adams was still loyal and did what he could to help. Adams was a curious figure at a turning point in Japanese history. His battles with the Jesuits and Dutch are fascinating and a little known part of Japanese history is thrilling. Adams was perhaps ahead of his time, understanding the best way to navigate the culture of the land he had become stranded in was to respect it and modify his own behavior, something that the majority of the European populace found themselves unable to do when encountering other cultures.

5 out of 5

Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto

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Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century, and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe, Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).

Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve, the poor, A Useful Woman, delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced.

Determined to find a place for herself in a world where women were very limited, Jane Addams became one of the pioneers in social work. In a time when women were supposed to be seen as angels of the home and couldn’t even vote, Addams founded Hull House in an attempt to make a difference in the lives of poor immigrants and also find a focus for her need to do something other than be the spinster aunt. A woman plagued with health issues and always rather distant, Addams found became an advocate for immigrant improvement and reform to social work. She used the stigma of women being more refined and virtuous at the time to her benefit and plunged into a staggering amount of work involving helping her neighborhood. Addams served as one of the few social workers who not only had money, but a desire to live among those she was helping. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when charity work was seen as not much more than giving out help from on high.

Jane’s plight wasn’t unusual at the time. Women were expected to get married and no thought was given to a woman ever having a career or different sexual orientation that may have made that less than desirable. Women at this time were starting to become more accepted into education but were often left at ends with what to do with it afterwards. The author delves into the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued some educated women that we would now contribute to severe mental and emotional distress or depression, but at the time were seen as proof of women being “weak” mentally. She also very openly and fairly addresses the fact that Addams may or may not have had romantic inclinations towards other women, a fact complicated by the flowery letter writing at the time and Jane’s own rather remote personality.

5 out of 5

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

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He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of The Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Quincy Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history, which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

Considered to be a failure as a president, John Quincy Adams is a figure who not only suffered multiple political failures (such as the presidency), but found a way to persevere in spite of them and ultimately become a truly monumental champion of free speech, abolition, and protecting the rights of citizens. Now more than ever Adams’ example should shine as a beacon of someone who first and foremost saw himself as a defender of the right to speak out against things seen as a wrong or unfair. Adams became a formidable orator and in spite of constant opposition in Congress demanded his voice be heard saying things those in power did not want to hear, but needed to.

Raised by his ambitious parents to be a politician who would be able to protect and defend the legal and political side of his newly founded country, Adams was able to smooth the way for the fledgling nation with his diplomatic skills. Finding himself out of touch with the common man after becoming president, he eventually became the most fierce fighter for every man’s right to free speech. Not without his flaws, Adams could also be harsh and was plagued with many personal tragedies revolving around his family, from the young death of beloved family members, including a daughter, to the disease of alcoholism that claimed his brothers and sons. Adams was a pioneer in pushing the young nation to establish better education and centers for learning. Mocked for his devotion to knowledge, the Smithsonian Institute was founded under his watch. Determined to speak for what he believed rather than party politics, Adams alienated people and made many enemies, but on his death was almost universally admired for his wisdom and virtue. Unger gives a highly readable glimpse of a man that many have forgotten to some degree.

5 out of 5

Review: Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra

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Clover Adams, a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the soon-to-be-eminent American historian Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate of power brokers in Gilded Age Washington, where she was admired for her wit and taste by such luminaries as Henry James, H. H. Richardson, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, “all she wanted, all this world could give.”

Yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having begun in the spring of 1883 to capture her world vividly through photography, end her life less than three years later by drinking a chemical developer she used in the darkroom? The key to the mystery lies, as Natalie Dykstra’s searching account makes clear, in Clover’s photographs themselves.

Clover Adams was for all intents and purposes a very intelligent and artistic person overshadowed by a brilliant husband and haunted by a family history of mental illness and depression. Perhaps the saddest part of her biography is the fact that her suicide might have been preventable today with the help of counseling or medicine, but at the turn of the century it was just not something really understood. Another area  of a time period that failed her is the view of women at this time. Clover had the makings of a great photographer, but bowing to the more conservative nature of the time and her husband’s dislike for attention directed toward his family (which a female photographer gaining any reputation other than as a “hobbyist” would have done) Clover made her passion a pass time. What remains is a woman who felt truly alone and becoming useless. Her husband was not a demonstrative man and had a very obvious fondness for another woman even though he truly did seem to love his wife. Clover’s documented insecurity with her looks and fear of abandonment could only have been aggravated by her inability to gauge her husband’s affections. The story is tragically of a woman plagued with a history of depression surrounded by people who could only hope she found a way out of her “black moods”. The most poignant thing is Clover’s photography sheds a light on the isolation and sadness she suffered from, giving a glimpse into a mind those closest too her struggled, but failed to understand.

5 out of 5

Review: Scarlet Women by Ian Graham

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In 1965, an impoverished elderly woman was found dead in Nice, France. Her death marked the end of an era; she was the last of the great courtesans. Known as La Belle Otero, she was a volcanic Spanish beauty whose patrons included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. She accumulated an enormous fortune, but gambled it all away. Scarlet Women tells her story and many more, including:

Marie Duplessis, who inspired characters by both Dumas and Verdi; Clara Ward, a rare American courtesan who hunted for a European aristocrat, but having married a Belgian prince, ran away with a gypsy violinist; Ninon de L’Enclos, who was offered 50,000 crowns by Cardinal Richelieu for one night. Money left in her will paid for Voltaire’s education.

Featuring a cadre of scandalous women, you’d think this book would be more salacious than it is, yet the cover is about the most tawdry thing about it. More focused on the unusual lives of some of the most infamous (and often forgotten) women who rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful in history, the book rarely addresses anything going on between the sheets and more looks at how unique their lives and situations often were. The over arcing theme is often that many times these women had little choice in the matter of whether they were “scandalous” or not. Some had big personalities, some were pushed into the life of a courtesan by their families, and some were simply beautiful women who wanted some measure of freedom in their lives. Many of the women I’d never heard of before, but they are presented sympathetically and often with humor. The book has sort of a choppy style in the writing, which is the only minor complaint I had. I’m sure someone looking for in depth about any of these women would be disappointed, but as a general collection of stories about some fascinating figures this book is a wonderful read.

4 out of 5