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

Very Quick Review: DESTINATION SHANGHAI by Paul French (Blacksmith Books)

Destination Shanghai_18mm spineA fascinating collection of short biographies

18 true stories of those who went…

For the privileged a cosmopolitan pleasure ground; for the desperate a port of last resort.

A pot of gold at the end of an Oriental rainbow; a thick slice of hell denounced from the pulpit.

The start of a journey for many; the end of the road for some.

A place to find fame, or to seek anonymity; rogues, chancers, showgirls, criminals…

For so many people from so many lands, there was one phrase that sent a tingle of hope or a shiver of anticipation down every spine: “DESTINATION SHANGHAI”

Ever since I read his contributions to Penguin’s series of short China Specials, I’ve been a big fan of Paul French’s books. He has a gift for bringing history alive, and writes in an engaging style. In Destination Shanghai, the author offers a collection of short biographies of people who found themselves in Shanghai at one point or another. Destination Shanghai is an excellent, illuminating read. Continue reading

Quick Review: BEST. MOVIE. YEAR. EVER. by Brian Raftery (Simon & Schuster)

RafteryB-BestMovieYearEverUSAn excellent examination of “How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen”

In 1999, Hollywood as we know it exploded: Fight Club. The Matrix. Office Space. Election. The Blair Witch Project. The Sixth Sense. Being John Malkovich. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. American Beauty. The Virgin Suicides. Boys Don’t Cry. The Best Man. Three Kings. Magnolia. Those are just some of the landmark titles released in a dizzying movie year, one in which a group of daring filmmakers and performers pushed cinema to new limits—and took audiences along for the ride. Freed from the restraints of budget, technology (or even taste), they produced a slew of classics that took on every topic imaginable, from sex to violence to the end of the world. The result was a highly unruly, deeply influential set of films that would not only change filmmaking, but also give us our first glimpse of the coming twenty-first century. It was a watershed moment that also produced The Sopranos; Apple’s Airport; Wi-Fi; and Netflix’s unlimited DVD rentals.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is the story of not just how these movies were made, but how they re-made our own vision of the world. It features more than 130 new and exclusive interviews with such directors and actors as Reese Witherspoon, Edward Norton, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, Nia Long, Matthew Broderick, Taye Diggs, M. Night Shyamalan, David O. Russell, James Van Der Beek, Kirsten Dunst, the Blair Witch kids, the Office Space dudes, the guy who played Jar-Jar Binks, and dozens more. It’s the definitive account of a culture-conquering movie year none of us saw coming…and that we may never see again.

Best. Movie. Year. Ever. is an excellent, illuminating discussion and examination of the movies that defined 1999: a year that produced an incredible number of excellent, ground-breaking movies. They broke the moulds of their respective genres, updated certain outmoded mores and tropes, or created something wholly new. A fascinating book that is a must-read for movie fans. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON by Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square Press)

OMearaM-LadyFromTheBlackLagoonUSUncovering the overlooked, oft-dismissed contribution of Milicent Patrick to the development of horror cinema

The Lady from the Black Lagoon uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick — one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters

As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre, there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.

As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.

A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.

In The Lady From the Black Lagoon, debut author Mallory O’Meara gives us an interesting and illuminating look not only at the life of a pioneering female artist, but also a glimpse into the early years of behind-the-scenes Hollywood. A must read for cinephiles, horror fans and also pretty much anyone who likes narrative non-fiction. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE CORROSION OF CONSERVATISM by Max Boot (Liveright)

BootM-CorrosionOfConservatismAn interesting account of a Republican’s departure from his life-long political home

Warning that the Trump presidency presages America’s decline, the political commentator recounts his extraordinary journey from lifelong Republican to vehement Trump opponent.

As nativism, xenophobia, vile racism, and assaults on the rule of law threaten the very fabric of our nation, The Corrosion of Conservatism presents an urgent defense of American democracy.

Pronouncing Mexican immigrants to be “rapists,” Donald Trump announced his 2015 presidential bid, causing Max Boot to think he was watching a dystopian science-fiction movie. The respected conservative historian couldn’t fathom that the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan could endorse such an unqualified reality-TV star. Yet the Twilight Zone episode that Boot believed he was watching created an ideological dislocation so shattering that Boot’s transformation from Republican foreign policy adviser to celebrated anti-Trump columnist becomes the dramatic story of The Corrosion of Conservatism.

No longer a Republican, but also not a Democrat, Boot here records his ideological journey from a “movement” conservative to a man without a party, beginning with his political coming-of-age as a young émigré from the Soviet Union, enthralled with the National Review and the conservative intellectual tradition of Russell Kirk and F. A. Hayek. Against this personal odyssey, Boot simultaneously traces the evolution of modern American conservatism, jump-started by Barry Goldwater’s canonical The Conscience of a Conservative, to the rise of Trumpism and its gradual corrosion of what was once the Republican Party.

While 90 percent of his fellow Republicans became political “toadies” in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Boot stood his ground, enduring the vitriol of his erstwhile conservative colleagues, trolled on Twitter by a white supremacist who depicted his “execution” in a gas chamber by a smiling, Nazi-clad Trump. And yet, Boot nevertheless remains a villain to some partisan circles for his enduring commitment to conservative fiscal and national security principles. It is from this isolated position, then, that Boot launches this bold declaration of dissent and its urgent plea for true, bipartisan cooperation.

With uncompromising insights, The Corrosion of Conservatism evokes both a president who has traduced every norm and the rise of a nascent centrist movement to counter Trump’s assault on democracy.

I’ve been aware of Max Boot’s writings for a long time. I read many of his articles as part of my research for one of my PhD chapters. I frequently disagreed with him, especially on US domestic policy, but was always interested in reading what he thought about foreign policy (the subject of my thesis). During 2016, like many who are interested in/obsessed with US politics, I noticed his sharp break from his party and have watched with interest his evolution as his former-party has imploded and wholly bought into Trumpism. Continue reading