North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘books

Book Review: The Power Broker – Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

A towering, monumental biography of a huge, powerful civil servant, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a hell of a biography. It illuminates all the aspects of Robert Moses, who build up New York in a way nobody else had before and probably never will again.

Here’s a good way to sum up Moses. Right from the earliest points of his career, he led crusades to build parks for the general public, arguing with the robber barons who controlled the land he wanted and had the money to fight him. At the same time, he worked in ways of keeping the urban poor – minorities, generally – from using his parks and wasn’t above lying to people to get them to do what he wanted and dropping them the second they stopped being useful.

Or consider this. At one point, Moses was simultaneously building a huge hydroelectric dam, the world’s longest suspension bridge and planning a world’s fair. When he was in his 70s.

Caro’s book has all this and more. It’s huge and impressively detailed. It goes the gamut of his life, going through Moses days at Oxford and up to his fall from power in the late 1960s. It covers the ups, downs and many, many moves of power that Moses made to crush people in his way. They could’ve been anyone: newspaper reporters, mayors and other elected officials, even entire neighbourhoods. He didn’t care about anything, anyone but himself. Caro captures this arrogant, aloof attitude, which is why this book is so compelling: the average writer might have simply written off Moses as someone who grew old and out of touch; Caro shows him as a ruthless manipulator who was unwilling to bend to anyone, even the President of the United States.

It’s more than just that, though. Caro’s book doubles as a history of New York City through the 20th century, from the days when Tammany Hall controlled the city, up through the troubled mayoralty of John Lindsay. He explains the shifts in population, the way the city’s power shifted between parties and the rise of a more outspoken media. But where he comes through most is the rise of the automobile and it’s relationship to the city.

Which was Moses doing. More than anything – even the parks which made him famous and powerful – Moses was a highway-building man. He built parkways, highways and bridges. Toll-collecting made his Triborough Authority richer than any other authority in the city and Moses extensive ideas and planning for highways gave him a grip of power on the city. He didn’t just have the ideas for how cars should flow through the city, but he was the only guy with both the power and the money to get it done. And he did. His parkways gutted homesteads, slashed through neighbourhood and caused more congestion than they did relieve drivers.

It goes deeper: the specific ways in which Moses built his highways defined how the city would be shaped long after he was gone. He built bridges so low that buses couldn’t use the parkways, limiting them to the middle-class and higher. He evicted scores of people, pushing them into already-packed slums and public housing and destroyed neighborhoods. And his refusal to even consider public transit meant subways and trains wouldn’t have a part, but they never would: by the time he was finished, the land would be too expensive to buy.

Did Moses care? Hardly. As Caro relates, this was a man who laughed at people who were angry with him, scorned those who dared challenge him and refused to talk to anyone who wasn’t there to help him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had built himself so powerful he didn’t need anyone’s help, really.

And, as Caro relates in the book’s final sections, this arrogance undid Moses. He fought with the press, with the city and even people who wanted to put on free plays in the park. It’s a cliche, but I kept thinking of Lord Acton’s old line about power.

At well over 1,000 pages, Caro’s book is pretty weighty (even makes a nice dull thud when you drop it on a desk), is packed with numbers and figures and can occasionally get a tad overwhelming. But it never lets up on the drive and once Moses drive for power and arrogance towards everyone starts getting in his way, the book takes on a new power. Perhaps it’s because Caro was around for those battles, but maybe it’s just because Moses started losing these fights.

But the last quarter of this book is as exciting, as riveting as anything Caro’s written in his Lyndon Johnson biographies – if I had to rank it among those, it’s slightly behind the third volume, which is my favourite of the four, and just ahead of volumes two, four and one (in order). Granted, I would’ve liked to see more maps and maybe a postscript of what’s happened since this was first published, but those are minor gripes. If you’re looking for a political biography, how people carve out a position of power for themselves and keep it, this is your book. Recommended.

Rating: 8/10

Book Review: Please Kill Me – Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkPlease Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

An oral history of the punk movement, Please Kill Me is a gossipy, entertaining read but one with a small scope and stories that’ve circulated for years.

The thing about punk rock is how ingrained it’s become in music culture, which is kind of surprising when you think about it’s origin as backlash to more pompous forms of 70s rock.

After all, back in the mid 70s, bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer could sell out Madison Square Garden and were featured on TV specials like California Jam. This was a band that didn’t have a guitar and played covers of classical standards like Pictures at an Exhibition! It wasn’t exactly the greatest time for rock, really.

Punk was kind of a reaction to that; it was simple, loud, aggressive music. But it went deeper, with influences ranging from Chuck Berry to The Velvet Underground to The Stooges. And it wasn’t just a reaction, it was often musicians finding their own styles and then co-mingling with other, like minded musicians and sharing influences. After all, punk only really became punk after bands like The Ramones, Blondie and Television started playing at CBGB’s.

Please Kill Me starts with the influences but generally sticks to New York City and even then, generally to a handful of bands: Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television and a few others. By no means is it complete: there’s scarcely a mention of Talking Heads, for example. And other cities almost barely get into the picture: there’s nothing about the scene in Toronto, Boston or Los Angeles.

And really, it seemed like most of the stories here followed the same general format: some male musician got really loaded on booze or heroin and made an ass out of themselves, usually in public. The characters and setting change, but the story’s the same, be it with Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious or Stiv Bators. There’s a lot of behaving badly; maybe when I was 15 I’d have read this and thought they were cool, self-destructive people but now? I just see them and get kind of sad.

Because at it’s heart, this is a tragic, almost mournful book. There were a handful of geniuses involved in punk and a bunch of talented musicians. But, by and large, they all burned out and faded away without leaving too much behind. It’s really kind of sad.

Take Johnny Thunders, for example. Here was a hell of a guitarist and someone who could write a pretty good song when he set his mind to it. And, as is noted in the book, bands throughout the 80s and beyond made tons of money by aping his style, both in clothing and on the fretboard. But what did Thunders leave behind? A good New York Dolls album and a couple of memorable singles: “You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory,” and “Chinese Rocks,” which he didn’t even write.

Indeed, Iggy Pop looms large in these pages, both as a character and as an influence. When he came into the picture, there wasn’t really anyone like him: Iggy was dangerous, in your face and captivating. But he also was addicted to, well, whatever you had on hand and probably almost died more times than anyone can bother to count. And the thing about him is, people tried to be him. They did as much smack, drank as much booze and lived as hard as he did. Iggy was lucky; he’s still alive. Many of his followers featured from this book aren’t.

At the same time, some people were able to leap out from the fringes and into the mainstream thanks to punk. Take Patti Smith, for example: in only a few years, she went from performing in front of small crowds at St. Mark’s church to selling out stadiums in Europe, while still generally sticking to the same material. (But then again, Patti was a shark; there’s more than a few stories here about her poaching talented musicians from other groups for her own! David Bowie would be proud!)

Still, for music nerds and people generally interested in the history of punk, there’s plenty to chew on. There are stories about the Dolls playing at the Mercer Arts Center, fascinating looks into the early days of CBGB’s and many legendary bands and, most interesting of all, a look at how a jokey, almost goofy scene in New York took on a life of it’s own, becoming political and tapping into a cultural vein in England.

He’s not as prominent as many of the other people here, but Malcolm McLaren stands out as the most important figure here. Without him, it’s likely punk would’ve come and gone like so many other scenes; the way he was able to take a scene and tie it into England’s culture essentially changed the way punk was perceived; it was a stance and a style, not a genre. The bands come and go, but the look and attitude McLaren worked to promote have outlived even him.

There are other histories of punk that generally cover the same ground. But Please Kill Me has a loose, rambling and gossipy vibe to it that other books lack. It’s fun, it’s opinionated and even if the same stories are available elsewhere – Phil Stongman’s Pretty Vacant or Victor Bockris’ Transformer come to mind – a bunch of the stories here were new to me.

Rating: 6/10

Richard Ben Cramer

leave a comment »

A while back, a friend was asking me for a good political read. It was a stroke of good timing: I’d just finished a great political book on the 1988 Presidential Election. “Oh, I know who wins that, I was hoping for something better.”

It’s too bad, I don’t think they ever read that book and it’s still the best book on politics I’ve ever read.

Richard Ben Cramer died earlier this week. He wrote that book, “What It Takes,” plus a handful of other books that are still startlingly fresh and vibrant reads. He wrote one of the most famous profile stories ever, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, He was one of my favorite authors and it’s sad to hear he’s gone.

In the past few days, prices have spiked for used copies of What It Takes as it shoots to the top of the sales chart on Amazon. It wasn’t always that way: I got mine, a battered old hardcover copy with a library stamp from Washington, for something like a dollar online back in 2008. It’s a long, heavily researched book, basically four profiles in one, tied together with the narrative of the 1988 election. It’s a detailed examination of exactly what the title says: what does it take to be someone who deserves to be President? What does it take to run for presidential office? How does one get there? What happens when they do? And, most importantly of all, how can they stay there?

His book’s probing look at the media hordes around presidential politics was years ahead of its time: he forewarned of the power of the press and how their ideas are what motivates elections. In the late 1980s, Gary Hart looked like he could have what it takes. But he refused to play along with the media and when they questioned him, he challenged them back. He’s never had much of a career since. Conversely, someone like Joe Biden did: he was friendly with the press. He’d take people for late night spins around his property, tell them what his dream house was going to look like when built (one can see shades of this even in his cameo on Parks and Rec). His campaign more or less ended with a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him.

It also functions as mini-biographies for several of the major people in that election, most of whom are still around: Biden, George Bush, Bob Dole. Others are names that have kind of faded away: Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis. Their sections – especially Dukakis, who ended up with the Democratic nomination and is maybe best remembered for being slaughtered by Lee Atwalter’s attack ads – are what makes the book especially memorable. It’s sort of a history of the 1988 election, but not really; the book ends before the final vote. It’s more of a look at people and the powers that be. It could’ve been about any election at all, but maybe only about 1988 when all these fantastic personalities were running. It doesn’t matter if you know who wins, it’s still a fantastic read.

But Cramer was responsible for more than that. His biography of Joe DiMaggio, “The Hero’s Life,” is one of the high-water marks of sports biographies, ranking a close second to David Marianiss’ book on Vince Lombardi. It’s the logical extension of Gay Talese’s classic profile and covers his Yankee days up through the darker years of DiMaggio’s life. We see him aging, the years when he dated Marilyn Monroe and their tumultuous relationship, which abruptly ended with her death (Cramer notes that for years afterward, DiMaggio had flowers left at her grave).

His DiMaggio is a shrewd, private and controlling man. He did endorsement deals all throughout his life, yet remained separate from the public. It’s a book that’s poignant near the end, as DiMaggio’s life is filled with people out to make a quick buck off his name, especially on the lucrative memorabilia market, even if he didn’t need the money: During the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, DiMaggio panicked and was seen carrying a garbage bag filled with money.. It’s a sober, full portrait of DiMaggio, written without any help from the principal; it ends with letters written to him from DiMaggio’s law team, warning him off DiMaggio. Even with a total lack of cooperation, he’s written the definitive book on one of baseball’s lasting personalities.

His magazine writing was also top-notch stuff. Everyone interested in great profile writing has at least heard of his Williams story, but I’m also a fan of his piece about Cal Ripkin which ran Sports Illustrated. It’s one of my two favorite overlooked SI pieces, the other being Don DeLillo’s Total Loss Weekend.

But maybe Cramer was doomed to be overlooked. He only wrote a handful of books and his best – What It Takes – wasn’t exactly well received. It could’ve been the timing: it took him years to write and didn’t come out until Clinton-mania had made the 1988 election completely irrelevant. It could have something to do with his scope: What It Takes is over 1,000 pages, covering everything in detail, but still didn’t feel long enough. Could’ve been his prose: he writes like Tom Wolfe, in exclamations and bursts and jolts, but with the observation of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.”

The last time I heard anything from Cramer was a few months ago, when his biography of Alex Rodriguez was shelved. There was also talk of a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which launched the start of trade unions in the US. It’s too bad those books will never be written, not to mention anything else he’d have done in the future. With Cramer, we’ve lost one of the giants of modern nonfiction.

Written by M.

January 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

A Children’s Treasury of Negative Reviews

with one comment

A few days ago, Slate ran an essay called about the epidemic of nice online book reviews, about how online critics are too gentle and never have anything bad to say about books. It raises a few interesting points: Tumblr’s culture of inclusiveness and friendliness – a culture best documented by the awesome mind behind Tumblr Dot Txt –  and NPR’s reluctance to run negative reviews.

It’s an interesting read and it made me think a little bit about my own work as a freelance critic, which I’ll get to in a bit. But it also overlooked how there’s still tons of negative reviews online, in some cases far more negative than anything I’ve seen in print. Here’s a few of my favorites. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

August 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Posted in bigger stuff, other

Tagged with , , ,