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Favorite books read in 2013

Favorite books read in 2013

Two can’t-put-it-down page-turners topped my list for 2013. The books were biographies of 1960s cultural icons> the one a rock band that changed the world, and the other a crafty if intellectually limited, self-absorbed, bloody-minded, puppet-master who epitomized that decade’s dark side. In both instances, the authors uncovered important new sources, stirring their stories into the well-known histories to paint fresh and highly revealing portraits and brilliantly analyzed assessments of their subjects and the worlds they inhabited. Strong  writing boosted my enjoyment of each book. If one volume narrowly edged the other out for top spot, that was a function of subject matter.

  1. Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In (Crown Archtype): An extraordinary achievement. Lewisohn places John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey and their four struggling, fragmented, and tragic families squarely within the context of rough-and-tumble of post-World War II Liverpool. Lewisohn explains how four boys and young men with vastly different personalities found kindred spirits and aspirations in one another, coalescing into a band of brothers ready to take on the world, when not periodically, tentatively abandoning their shared dreams. One remarkable aspect is their shared unwillingness to listen to anyone’s voices and opinions except their own….unless it was that of John, the true leader of the group in its early days. They ignore the urgings of every family member and teacher who sees talent and pleads with them to stick to their studies. They stick to their guns in matters in all matters of their evolving rough-hewn art of music, ignoring the conventional wisdom handed out by virtually everyone in the business. The young men listen only to themselves and seem at times to be their own worst enemies. (Lewisohn does not wallow in their unattractive qualities, but neither does he ignore them.) Maturity does begin to emerge, and, while always maintaining their equality in any business dealings, they begin to listen to and entrust their futures to perhaps the only two men who could have prevented them from falling apart, and who could have brought them to stardom, Brian Epstein and George Martin. What made these self-made posh Englishmen capable of taking on the rough Liverpudlians are stories in themselves, and here again Lewisohn does his homework. The author also explains the roles of Stu Sutcliffe and his German friends in the Beatles’ evolution from quaffed leather-clad rockers to more polished Beatle-booted future stars. Pete Best may have been a mediocre, even lousy, drummer who simply had to be jettisoned, but Lewisohn honestly sets forth Best’s importance to the band (through his mother, if little else) during a period when their hard work seemed to get them nowhere. The book takes the reader only through 1962, with the rolling success of Love Me Do, the recording of Please, Please Me and the writing of I Saw Her Standing There. All the pieces are in place for 1963 and the outburst of Beatlemania in Britain. It will be a long wait for volume 2…. Who will take longer to produce a new volume? Lewisohn or George R. R. Martin?  Definitive. Essential reading for anyone interested in The Beatles, popular music and the music business, the 1960s, post-war England, etc. A surprising story of that unfolded against all odds.


  1. Jeff Guinn, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster): While some long-time Manson aficionados complained that there was nothing new here, move along, I found the Guinn’s take on the murderous puppet-master a compelling read. The author unearthed long-hidden family members, who revealed fresh info on Manson’s youth that effectively replaces the lies he told about his own family origins. Guinn’s Manson was a manipulative little bastard from the get-go, a quality he honed in reform school and prison. Perhaps never have the Dale Carnegie courses on how to win friends and influence people been put to such bad use as by this narcissistic creep. Guinn explains how Manson was able to take advantage of the highly transitional 60s culture in California and play upon the weaknesses of the young women (like Leslie Van Houten, Lynette Squeeky Fromme, etc. ) and men who were the detritus of a growing societal tolerance for (or at least inability to deal with) previously unthinkable behaviors. As crafty as Charlie was (and remains), he was little more than a con man whose cons required increasing elaboration and increasing cover-up of failed ventures. The terrible murders he unleashed were little more than ham-handed attempts to cover up his earlier mistakes. A fascinating read of some ugly and stupid people, as well as the often clueless California musicians (notably Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher) who briefly went down Manson’s rabbit hole before crawling out just in time.


  1. Oscar Wilde, Complete Works (Collins Edition): Wilde’s work appears in a number of collections. This relatively complete one benefits from the analytical essays. After re-watching the only PBS miniseries on Lily Langtry that first introduced me to Oscar’s brilliance and tragedy, I decided to go beyond The Importance of Being Earnest and read his poems, essays, short stories, novels and other plays. Only about half-way through (the stories – Canterville Ghost, Dorian Gray – and plays are still to go), but this reader is taken by his facility for topsy-turvey aphorisms found in the essays that proceeded the plays and his heart-on-his sleeve profundity in De Profundis. If Shakespeare invented modern English, Wilde reinvented it.


  1. Peter Clarke, Mr. Churchill’s Profession (Bloomsbury Press, 2012):  Junior army officer, adventurous war correspondent, politician, memoirist, historian-biographer, statesman, spokesman for the British Empire, the US-British alliance, and a US of Europe, Winston Churchill may have led the single richest life of anyone on the planet during his 90 years (1874-1965). An aristocrat of very little means, he found in writing both the means to live an important life and, equally critical to him, to live life large. While writing my blog series on “The books that…” this US-UK dual citizen/subject-at-birth quickly realized that Churchill was the first historian whose works beyond my parents Christmas gift I sought out. Since his death, a number books have been published on various aspects of his literary career. While Clarke’s book ostensibly focuses on Churchill’s final major opus, his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples,  his narrative builds to this point, by telling the twin story of how Sir Winston came to write each of his major works, how his political career both inspired and hamstrung his literary efforts, how he relied upon a team of researchers, and increasingly in his old age, writers, to draft and polish the millions of words published under his name. Essential to an understanding of Churchill’s literary career is the work of his agents and lawyers to hard-line negotiate brilliant contracts that enabled him to live beyond his means, even to pay for his working vacations and those of his entourage in places like the French Riviera. The financial legerdemain and literary subterfuges are not the whole story. At the core, Churchill’s brilliance as a biographer (especially of his most noted ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough), and war leader during Great Britain’s darkest hours are likewise an integral part of the story. I’ve also read David Reynolds’ In Command of History: Churchill Writing and Fighting the Second World War, and a couple more volumes in the genre are on deck, but recommend Clarke’s book as a starter in the subject.


  1. Several Joan of Arc biographies read in recent years spurred me to branch out into the larger stories of the Anglo-French Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and England’s Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), both conflicts providing the background for Shakespeare’s series of historical plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Parts I-II; Henry V; Henry VI, Parts I-III; and Richard III). Last year’s plunge into Juliet Barker’s Conquest: The English Kingdom in France and this year’s enjoyment of the magnificent British TV four-play production of The Hollow Crown led me to re-read Alison Weir’s The Wars of the Roses (1995). Perhaps the foremost popular historian of the Lancaster-York-Tudor conflicts, Weir rightfully takes her readers back to the conflict’s origins with the unfortunate reign of Richard II and the usurpation of his throne by Henry (IV) Bolingbroke. She makes clear that it was less a conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York than a convoluted struggle for power and position among perhaps a dozen English families, whose magnates were supported in promise-today/betray-tomorrow fashion by scores of lesser lords and ladies. Weir breathes life into scores characters in her account of this convoluted era of English history. The book stops short of the reign of Shakespearian villain Richard III and his overthrow Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For that part of the story, I turned from Weir, whose research and analytical choices for the Rickardian story are accused as being suspect, to another sort of writer and book. Bertram Fields, The Royal Princes: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes (1998) is an entertainment lawyer who decided to try his hand at historical true crime, the case against Richard III for the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London. Fields finds much to be intellectually troubled by in the traditional story written down by Thomas More and made immortal by Shakespeare during the reign of the Tudors. Fields admits the evidence against Richard III but finds it limp. Far more compelling to his mind is other circumstantial evidence against Richard’s enemies, including Henry Tudor, who had much more to gain by the princes’ deaths. The times and the characters populating the Wars of the Roses will forever remain controversial. Although neither author will have the last word, their books are well worth reading, Weir for her ability to narrate a complex story with the reader squarely in mind, Fields for his ability to unearth and fairly weigh evidence.