Quick Review: INTIMATIONS by Zadie Smith (Penguin)

SmithZ-IntimationsA superb collection of short essays

Deeply personal and powerfully moving, a short and timely series of essays on the experience of lock down, by one of the most clear-sighted and essential writers of our time

“There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytic, political and comprehensive accounts. This is not any of those — the year isn’t half-way done. What I’ve tried to do is organize some of the feelings and thoughts that events, so far, have provoked in me, in those scraps of time the year itself has allowed. These are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity.”

Crafted with the sharp intelligence, wit, and style that have won Zadie Smith millions of fans, and suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these unprecedented times, Intimations is a vital work of art, a gesture of connection, and an act of love — an essential book in extraordinary times.

Intimations, Zadie Smith’s new non-fiction collection, includes six fantastic essays that are observant, generous, sometimes wry, passionate, and always engaging. While some of them look at life as the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold, it is not a book specifically about the pandemic. It is an engaging read throughout. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Review: THE PEOPLE, NO by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books)

FrankT-ThePeopleNoThe interesting, if flawed history of American populism and its corruption by the elite

Rarely does a work of history contain startling implications for the present, but in The People, No Thomas Frank pulls off that explosive effect by showing us that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. Today “populism” is seen as a frightening thing, a term pundits use to describe the racist philosophy of Donald Trump and European extremists. But this is a mistake.

The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party — the biggest mass movement in American history — fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds us how much we owe to the populist ethos. Frank also shows that elitist groups have reliably detested populism, lashing out at working-class concerns. The anti-populist vituperations by the Washington centrists of today are only the latest expression.

Frank pummels the elites, revisits the movement’s provocative politics, and declares true populism to be the language of promise and optimism. The People, No is a ringing affirmation of a movement that, Frank shows us, is not the problem of our times, but the solution for what ails us.

I’ve been a fan of Thomas Frank’s writing for some time, now. His books have offered plenty of interesting and incisive examinations and critiques of American politics, culture, and economics. In The People, No, he turns his attention to “populism”: a term that has become quite ubiquitous in the age of Trump, but it is a term that is widely misunderstood. Frank provides a history of this movement, and explains how it has been twisted for nefarious ends. Continue reading

Review: THE VICTORY MACHINE by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (Public Affairs)

StraussES-VictoryMachineAn interesting look at the rise and fall of the Golden State Warriors

How money, guts, and greed built the Warriors dynasty — and then took it apart

The Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA for the better part of a decade. Since the arrival of owner Joe Lacob, they won more championships and sold more merchandise than any other franchise in the sport. And in 2019, they opened the doors on a lavish new stadium.

Yet all this success contained some of the seeds of decline. Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s clear-eyed exposé reveals the team’s culture, its financial ambitions and struggles, and the price that its players and managers have paid for all their winning. From Lacob’s unlikely acquisition of the team to Kevin Durant’s controversial departure, Strauss shows how the smallest moments can define success or failure for years.

And, looking ahead, Strauss ponders whether this organization can rebuild after its abrupt fall from the top, and how a relentless business wears down its players and executives. The Victory Machine is a defining book on the modern NBA: it not only rewrites the story of the Warriors, but shows how the Darwinian business of pro basketball really works.

An interesting account of the rise of the Golden State Warriors, and the behind-the-scenes drama and tension surrounding Kevin Durant’s tenure as part of the team. A little bit gossipy, well-observed, and engaging, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: MODERN FAMILY by Marc Freeman (St. Martin’s Press)

FreemanM-ModernFamilyUSThe Untold Oral History of the Long-Running Family Sitcom

An oral history, with the full participation of cast and crew, of one of the most popular sitcoms in television history.

Since premiering in 2009, the groundbreaking television sitcom Modern Family has garnered tens of millions of devoted fans, earning 75 Emmy nominations and 22 Emmy Awards, including five in a row for Outstanding Comedy Series (one of only two sitcoms to ever achieve that feat). Professors have written about it. Psychologists have lectured on it. Leading publications, such as The New York Times and Washington Post, have explained their love for it. With funny, heartfelt and relatable stories about family, Modern Family has gained a worldwide following of hundreds of millions of viewers in countries as diverse as England, Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa.

As much as people love the show, few know the stories behind it. How did a kernel of an idea by Emmy-winning writers Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd morph into a television juggernaut? Where did they find the cast? How did they come up with story ideas and film favorite episodes? What went on behind the scenes? Up until now, there have been individual stories and interviews about the show, but nothing comprehensive that captures the complete story of the series.

Marc Freeman’s Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms is the only major book ever written that explores this show as told by those who created it. More than seventy people, including the entire cast, crew, and creators, detail the full history of this iconic sitcom. The cast recalls their memories of the trials and tribulations of casting. They share their impressions from the first table read through the last light turning out. Writers, directors, and performers walk readers through storylines, production and favorite episodes. Guest stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Josh Gad, Adam Devine, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane recall their appearances on the show while others recount their experiences working with Kevin Hart, Barbara Streisand, Ed Norton and more. Readers get to go behind the scenes and experience the show like never before, including personal photos. They’ll also discover the never-told fallout and divorce of the two showrunners, making the show two separate series blended into one. Even people unfamiliar with the show will gain deep insight into what it takes to put a series on television.

I started watching Modern Family around season three, I think — I caught an episode when I was visiting my father in LA. It was funny, and I started watching it whenever I could. Like all long-running shows, it experiences ups and downs, but it held strong for a surprisingly long time. With the show recently ended, I thought this Oral History would be an interesting read. I was not disappointed: exhaustive, engaging and illuminating, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE BRITISH PEOPLE DURING THE EMERGENCY by Jason Hazeley & Nico Tatarowicz (Quercus)

HazeleyTatarowicz-InstructionsForBritishPeopleDuringEmergencyUKA very amusing handbook for these interesting times

An indispensable handbook to see the nation through lockdown, breakdown and meltdown.

As Britain enters a period of tremendous upheaval, your government has requested that everyone immediately undertake a series of life-style changes that may test the nation’s resolve.

Most of it is simple common-sense, but common-sense may be new to you, especially if you are young, wistful or an imbecile.

Indeed, it should be noted that much of what is to come in the weeks and months (and months) ahead will be new to us all. But let us remember that, not so long ago, the same was true of pesto.

We must not lose heart. With stoicism, courage and a substantial supply of alcoholic fortification, we will pull through this together and emerge from it a stronger (or weaker but more experienced) nation.

Sir Clement Apricot-Wilson,
Permanent Secretary
The Department of Unforeseen Circumstances

I was pre-approved for this on NetGalley, and decided to give it a try on a bit on a whim. I’m very glad that I did, because this is at times very funny. As it turned out, this book is just the antidote for these strange and difficult times I was looking for. Very enjoyable. Continue reading

Quick Review: UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener (MCD, FSG / Fourth Estate)

WienerA-UncannyValleyUSA page-turning memoir of contemporary Silicon Valley

In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener — stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial–left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.

Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.

Part coming-of-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.

Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.

This memoir received a lot of buzz prior to release. In some ways, this was inevitable — Silicon Valley remains a perennial fascination for so very many people. However, one thing that was coming out of the early buzz was that this is a rather different kind of Silicon Valley memoir/book. I started reading it pretty much as soon as I got a review copy, and I’m happy to report that the hype was justified: this is a superb book. Continue reading

Upcoming: IF THEN by Jill Lepore (Liveright)

LeporeJ-IfThenA new Jill Lepore book is always something to celebrate! And this latest looks quite different from the author’s previous histories. In the past, Lepore has covered topics such as the storytelling tradition in America (The Story of America), The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and has also tackled the Herculean task of writing a single-volume history of the United States (These Truths). If Then is a history of a data company established during the Cold War and how its influence can still be felt today. Here’s the synopsis:

A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller These Truths.

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge — decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine that it has no past, but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense.

Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I would also highly recommend The Story of America and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If you are looking for a single-volume history of the United States, then These Truths is certainly one to consider (I’ve typically found that genre rather unwieldy, but Lepore’s book is excellent).

If Then is due to be published by Liveright in North America and in the UK, on September 15th, 2020.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads

Quick Review: HEAVY by Dan Franklin (Constable)

FranklinD-HeavyUKWhat exactly is heavy metal music? How deep do its roots go?

Long established as an undeniable force in culture, metal traces its roots back to leather-clad iron men like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, who imbued their music with a mysterious and raw undercurrent of power.

Heavy unearths this elusive force, delving deep into the fertile culture that allowed a distinctive new sound to flourish and flaying the source material to get to the beating heart of the music. From the imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse that gave rise to Metallica’s brand of volatile thrash metal to Bloodbath and Carcass, the death metal bands resurrecting the horror of medieval art.

But there are always more lines to be drawn. Cradle of Filth and Ulver trade in the transgressive impulses of gothic literature; Pantera lay bare Nietzsche’s ‘superman’; getting high leads to the escapist sci-fi dirges of Sleep and Electric Wizard; while the recovery of long-buried urns in the seventeenth century holds the key to the drone of Sunn O))).

Dissecting music that resonates with millions, Heavy sees Slipknot wrestling with the trauma of 9/11, Alice in Chains exposing the wounds of Vietnam and Iron Maiden conjuring visions of a heroic England. Powerful, evocative and sometimes sinister, it gives shape and meaning to the terrible beauty of metal.

This is a fascinating, intelligent and engaging examination of what it means for music (and a few other things) to be “heavy”. Using a few bands, their windows and genres as windows into the worlds of heavy metal, Franklin takes readers on an interesting tour of heavy music over the last few decades. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE OFFICE by Andy Greene (Dutton)

GreeneA-OfficeUS“The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s”, an Oral History

The untold stories behind The Office, one of the most iconic television shows of the twenty-first century, told by its creators, writers, and actors

When did you last hang out with Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael, and the rest of Dunder Mifflin? It might have been back in 2013, when the series finale aired… or it might have been last night, when you watched three episodes in a row. But either way, fifteen years after the show first aired, it’s more popular than ever, and fans have only one problem–what to watch, or read, next.

Fortunately, Rolling Stone writer Andy Greene has that answer. In his brand-new oral history, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, Greene will take readers behind the scenes of their favorite moments and characters. Greene gives us the true inside story behind the entire show, from its origins on the BBC through its impressive nine-season run in America, with in-depth research and exclusive interviews. Fans will get the inside scoop on key episodes from “The Dundies” to “Threat Level Midnight” and “Goodbye, Michael,” including behind-the-scenes details like the battle to keep it on the air when NBC wanted to pull the plug after just six episodes and the failed attempt to bring in James Gandolfini as the new boss after Steve Carell left, spotlighting the incredible, genre-redefining show created by the family-like team, who together took a quirky British import with dicey prospects and turned it into a primetime giant with true historical and cultural significance.

Hilarious, heartwarming, and revelatory, The Office gives fans and pop culture buffs a front-row seat to the phenomenal sequence of events that launched The Office into wild popularity, changing the face of television and how we all see our office lives for decades to come.

I was a latecomer to The Office. When the original UK version first aired, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ricky Gervais. This meant I didn’t rush to watch the American version. A few years ago, though, we gave it a try and quickly fell in love with the employees of Dunder Mifflin, Scranton, PA. I’ve now watched the whole series multiple times, and each time it keeps me entertained, laughing out loud. When I learned about this book, I quickly got in touch with the publisher and they were kind enough to send me a DRC. I started reading it almost immediately, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Continue reading

Quick Review: IMPERIAL TWILIGHT by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf/Atlantic Books)

PlattSR-ImperialTwilightUSA fascinating re-examination of the causes and consequences of the Opium War

As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

As one of the most potent turning points in the country’s modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today’s China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable — and mostly peaceful — meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today’s uncertain and ever-changing political climate.

Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight is a substantial, highly readable history of the causes and consequences of the Opium War. This is an extremely fine history: exhaustive, fascinating, and engaging from beginning to end. Continue reading