Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career. Continue reading

Excerpt: MARLENE DIETRICH by Maria Riva (Open Road Media)

RivaM-MarleneDietrichORMOpen Road Media recently published Marlene Dietrich, a biography of the eponymous actress, written by her daughter, Maria Riva. To celebrate its release, the publisher has allowed me to share an excerpt. First, though, here’s the official synopsis:

With intimate detail, author Maria Riva reveals the rich life of her mother, Marlene Dietrich, the charismatic star of stage and screen whose career spanned much of the twentieth century. Opening with Dietrich’s childhood in Schöneberg, Riva’s biography introduces us to an energetic, disciplined, and ambitious young actress whose own mother equated show business with a world of vagabonds and thieves.

Dietrich would quickly rise to stardom on the Berlin stage in the 1920s with her sharp wit and bisexual mystique, and wearing the top hat and tails that revolutionized our concept of beauty and femininity. She comes alive in these pages in all her incarnations: muse, collaborator, bona fide movie star, box-office poison, lover, wife, and mother.

During World War II, Dietrich would stand up to the Nazis and galvanize American troops, eventually earning the Congressional Medal of Freedom. There were her artistic relationships with Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express), Colette, Erich Maria Remarque, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter, as well as her heady romances. And in her final years, Dietrich would make herself visibly invisible, devoting herself to the immortality of her legend.

Capturing this complex and astonishing woman, Maria Riva’s insightful profile of her mother has the depth, range, and resonance of a novel, and takes us on a journey through Europe and old Hollywood during an era that is gone but not forgotten.

The excerpt, which starts after the break, covers how the actress decided on her stage name.

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Some Quick Audiobook Reviews…

audiobookreviews-20170102

A quick round-up of six recent audiobook listens. Mostly, very good.

Featuring: Carrie Fisher, Frederick Forsyth, Anna Kendrick, Trevor Noah, Graham Norton, Nikki Sixx

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Review: HOMEWARD BOUND by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt)

carlinpa-homewardboundAn interesting account of Paul Simon’s eclectic, musical life

To have been alive during the last sixty years is to have lived with the music of Paul Simon. The boy from Queens scored his first hit record in 1957, just months after Elvis Presley ignited the rock era. As the songwriting half of Simon & Garfunkel, his work helped define the youth movement of the ’60s. On his own in the ’70s, Simon made radio-dominating hits. He kicked off the ’80s by reuniting with Garfunkel to perform for half a million New Yorkers in Central Park. Five years later, Simon’s album “Graceland” sold millions and spurred an international political controversy. And it doesn’t stop there. 

The grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Hungary, the nearly 75-year-old singer-songwriter has not only sold more than 100 million records, won 15 Grammy awards and been installed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice, but has also animated the meaning — and flexibility — of personal and cultural identity in a rapidly shrinking world. 

Simon has also lived one of the most vibrant lives of modern times; a story replete with tales of Carrie Fisher, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Shelley Duvall, Nelson Mandela, drugs, depression, marriage, divorce, and more. A life story with the scope and power of an epic novel, Carlin’s Homeward Bound is the first major biography of one of the most influential popular artists in American history.

Carlin is perhaps best known for Bruce, his exhaustive and best-selling biography of Bruce Springsteen (until this past week, it was probably the best-selling book on the Boss). In his latest book, he turns his attention to another mega-selling, internationally renowned musician: Paul Simon. Homeward Bound is a tighter biography than his previous book, and is sure to appeal to die-hard fans of Simon. Continue reading

Eight Quick Audiobook Reviews

AudioBookReviews-20160901

A quick round-up of recent audiobook ‘reads’, with thanks to Audible UK for the review credits (except for the first reviewed, which I borrow from the Toronto Public Library). I’ve kept the reviews very short on purpose. I’ll try to keep on top of these reviews in a more timely manner in the future.

Featuring: Philip Delves-Broughton, Irin Carmon, Jessi Klein, Shana Knizhnik, Antonio Garcia Martinez, Randall Munroe, Nick Offerman, Richard Porter, Amy Schumer Continue reading

Quick Review: LEARNING TO FLY: LEARNING TO FLY (Orion)

WallM-FooFightersA quick biography of Nirvana Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters…

The definitive, no-holds-barred biography of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the world, the Foo Fighters.

Everyone from Sir Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page to Queens of the Stone Age now relishes the chance to share a stage with Dave Grohl and his legendary Foo Fighters. The question is: why? Musical depth? Not really. Major success? Well, yes. Despite no longer shifting albums in the same quantity as they did twenty years ago, this band can still fill stadiums the world over (when Dave’s not breaking his leg, of course).

Long before Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, Dave Grohl was planning for a life after Nirvana. The unflinching bright sunlight to Cobain’s permanent midnight darkness, Grohl had come from a similar broken home to his erstwhile band leader, but came out of the experience differently – brimming with positivity and a shrewd grasp of opportunities in the music industry.

Did Grohl merely take the sonic blueprint of Nirvana and embellish it with a more life-affirming pop sheen? Of course he did. Every band in America that sold over a million records in the post-grunge 90s did the same. The difference was that Grohl had real credibility. And he knew it.

With exclusive testimony from true insiders (including Krist Novoselic, Grohl’s bass-playing partner in Nirvana, ex-girlfirends, record company executives, tour photographers and confidantes), this book is an exploration of the real story behind Grohl and the Foo Fighters — the only serious literary biography of the group and its leader, one of the most famous and critically bulletproof rock figures of the 21st century.

I waited a long time to pick up this book. I sadly cannot say that it was worth the wait. This is, at best, a mediocre re-hash of information you’ll find elsewhere from more-informed and better writers. Yes, it covers everything important in Dave Grohl’s musical career. But it’s not particularly enlightening, nor is it gripping. It is not definitive. It is by no means “literary”, either — the interpretation and analysis is simplistic and not particularly deep. At least, not that provided by Wall. He does interview some people who know what they’re talking about. Continue reading

Excerpt: BASQUIAT — A QUICK KILLING IN ART by Phoebe Hoban (Open Road Media)

HobanP-BasquiatToday, we have a short excerpt from Phoebe Hoban‘s Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. Published by Open Road Media as an eBook on May 17th, here’s the synopsis:

A vivid biography of the meteoric rise and tragic death of art star Jean-Michel Basquiat

Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the Jimi Hendrix of the art world. In less than a decade, he went from being a teenage graffiti artist to an international art star; he was dead of a drug overdose at age twenty-seven. Basquiat’s brief career spanned the giddy 1980s art boom and epitomized its outrageous excess. A legend in his own lifetime, Basquiat was a fixture of the downtown scene, a wild nexus of music, fashion, art, and drugs. Along the way, the artist got involved with many of the period’s most celebrated personalities, from his friendships with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol to his brief romantic fling with Madonna.

Nearly thirty years after his death, Basquiat’s story — and his art — continue to resonate and inspire. Posthumously, Basquiat is more successful than ever, with international retrospectives, critical acclaim, and multimillion dollar sales. Widely considered to be a major twentieth-century artist, Basquiat’s work has permeated the culture, from hip-hop shout-outs to a plethora of products. A definitive biography of this charismatic figure, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art is as much a portrait of the era as a portrait of the artist; an incisive exposé of the eighties art market that paints a vivid picture of the rise and fall of the graffiti movement, the East Village art scene, and the art galleries and auction houses that fueled his meteoric career. Basquiat resurrects both the painter and his time.

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Audio Review: TRUTHS, HALF TRUTHS & LITTLE WHITE LIES by Nick Frost (Hodder)

FrostN-TruthsHalfTruths&LittleWhiteLiesAn amusing, at times moving, memoir of a life up to stardom

“No life can really be all black, right? Even during the darkest times, what got me through that bleakness was laughter and time. With enough of both of these things I reckon you could get over just about anything.”

Nick Frost burst onto our screens in a blaze of camo fatigues and weaponry as the Territorial Army obsessed loveable idiot Mike Watt in the hit cult comedy Spaced. Since then, fans around the world have watched him with a fervent devotion as he fought zombies, rescued aliens and salsa’d his way to box office smash after smash.

It’s quite a story. But it’s not this story. This story isn’t the romp from movie set to Hollywood party. This is a story of a life like no other.

With blistering candour Frost recounts his childhood growing up in Essex in a household full of love and optimism but tragically blighted by alcoholism, illness and sudden life shattering misfortune. 

Dogged by his own personal demons, Nick tells of the hilarious, jaw dropping and at times heartbreaking experiences that have punctuated his tumultuous life.

Nick Frost is possibly best known for his roles in Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and Paul. He’s probably also best known as Simon Pegg’s best bud. After reading (or listening) to this audiobook, though, you’ll know him as a very funny, friendly, yet introverted fellow, too. I didn’t know anything about him outside of his film roles, so I was very interested in listening to this audiobook. I was not disappointed — this could be one of the top five audiobooks I’ve listened to this year. Continue reading

Review: ANGRY OPTIMIST by Lisa Rogak (St. Martin’s Griffin)

RogakL-AngryOptimistPBDisappointing, NYT-bestselling bio of Jon Stewart

Since his arrival at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, Lisa Rogak follows his unlikely rise to stardom, from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on to the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show, before at last landing a job as host of a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama.

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential news programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with current and former colleagues and with new material on his departure from The Daily Show, Angry Optimist reveals how Jon Stewart has come to wield incredible power in American politics and changed how the news is reported along the way.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most influential television series of the past couple of decades. Like many people, I first took notice when segments from Indecision 2000 went viral: the blend of hilarious satire and sharp observation was a winning combination. Despite the host’s denials, The Daily Show was a real force in American politics, often providing more news and media analysis than actual, professional news channels. Jon Stewart, however, has remained something of an enigma, however – fiercely private, most of us have only had the occasional magazine profile to inform us of what might make the host tick.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I started reading Angry Optimist. A quick read that, while entertaining, left me disappointed. Continue reading

Audio Review: YOU’RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET (ALMOST) by Felicia Day (Simon & Schuster)

DayF-YoureNeverWeirdOnTheInternetThe much-anticipated memoir from SFF Champion and creator of The Guild

From online entertainment pioneer, actress, and “queen of the geeks” Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a “relentlessly funny and surprisingly inspirational” (Forbes.com), memoir about her unusual upbringing, her rise to internet stardom, and embracing her weirdness to find her place in the world.

When Felicia Day was a girl, all she wanted was to connect with other kids (desperately). Growing up in the Deep South, where she was “home-schooled for hippie reasons,” she looked online to find her tribe. The internet was in its infancy and she became an early adopter at every stage of its growth — finding joy and unlikely friendships in the emerging digital world. Her relative isolation meant that she could pursue passions like gaming, calculus, and 1930’s detective novels without shame. Because she had no idea how “uncool” she really was.

But if it hadn’t been for her strange background — the awkwardness continued when she started college at sixteen, with Mom driving her to campus every day — she might never have had the naive confidence to forge her own path. Like when she graduated as valedictorian with a math degree and then headed to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting despite having zero contacts. Or when she tired of being typecast as the crazy cat-lady secretary and decided to create her own web series before people in show business understood that online video could be more than just cats chasing laser pointers.

Felicia’s rags-to-riches rise to internet fame launched her career as one of the most influen­tial creators in new media. Ever candid, she opens up about the rough patches along the way, recounting battles with writer’s block, a full-blown gaming addiction, severe anxiety and depression — and how she reinvented herself when overachieving became overwhelming.

Before listening to this audiobook, I was actually not that familiar with Felicia Day. Aside from seeing her in Buffy and some episodes of Supernatural, I am not at all versed in her work. Of course, being a fan of SFF and its connected media, I am familiar with her thoughts on genre, gaming, etc. So I was quite interested to read (or listen) to her memoir. What I found was… mixed. It’s certainly entertaining, though. Continue reading