Dessert with Orson

My Lunches with Orson is essentially a series of transcripts of the table conversations between independent film-maker Henry Jaglom and that great genius of film, theater and abrasive commentary. Orson Welles had the fortune to be well-known but the misfortune to be known best for what he despised. By the time these lunches took place, mention of his name was more likely to inspire references to "We will sell no wine before its time" then Citizen Kane yet Welles remained passionately interested in film and even his most off-hand opinion is interesting.

Gossipy, opinionated Welles was a bitter man in the 1980s. He was not politically correct. He did not let little things like facts influence him. He mythologized his own past but could be brutally honest about his own behavior. Whether he's holding forth on his opinions of Hitchcock or Wolfgang Puck, Welles is thought provoking. The gentle-spirited Henry Jaglom was the perfect counterpoint to the brilliantly, entertainingly bitter Welles, checking his most outrageous statements. Some of their exchanges are truly laugh out loud funny.

This book will be pure ambrosia for the serious film fan.



Better living through skyjacking

SkiesBelongA book that opens with dueling quotes from Virgil and Ghostface Killah is bound to have an expansive point of view. The Skies Belong to Us does not disappoint. Part history of The Golden Age of Hijacking (author Brendan Koerner’s term) and part story of two unlikely hijackers, all informative entertainment.

Koerner’s shows the evolution of hijacking in the United States during the 1960s from the use of threats and deception to secure a means of transport to Cuba to the use of threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash to the 1970s innovation of using threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash and transportation to Algeria. Occasionally someone will use a hijacking as a form of protest but aside from the rare instance of a mentally ill person acting out of delusion it’s all cash or Cuba.

The airlines priorities are clear: aircraft, passengers and future revenue. It’s not that the airlines would risk passenger safety to protect a 707, they’re just convinced that main concern of hijackers is, to quote Tattoo, de plane, de plane. Airlines see passenger priorities as convenience first, safety second. In their eyes, given a choice between having their carry on bags x-rayed and an unscheduled trip to Havana, passengers would rather have their inconvenience be of the unexpected nature. Koerner depicts the power struggles between the airlines and the FBI and the White House over how to stop the hijacking epidemic as reminiscent of a parent trying to get a teenager to clean his room: lots of excuses, promises and reasons why it just cannot be done.

The French government and for a surprisingly long time even the American people viewed hijacking as a form of social protest slightly more annoying than a sit-in. Only Fidel Castro, tired of having hijacked planes show up on short notice and suspicious of the hijackers, takes umbrage over the trend, setting up a “Hijacker House” to accommodate the determined tourists.

The other half of the book, that of would-be hijacking masterminds Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow is by turns jaw-dropping, hilarious and pathetic. Holder was charismatic and damaged, Kerkow was a happy-go-lucky survivor. Together they did not make a dynamic duo yet they managed to succeed where so many others had failed. Unfortunately for them, that is their only success. Holder and Kerkow weren’t brimming with possibility before the hijacking. Holder’s father wearily admits to the press that the hijacking “sounds like something our crazy son would do” while Kerkow’s co-workers express surprise that “she could follow orders well enough to be a hijacker.” After the hijacking they were sentenced to a weird international limbo that leaves them at the mercy of the Algerian and French governments and the whims of Eldridge Cleaver. From one form of powerlessness to another.

For me, the sections about Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver alone make this book essential reading. Whether he’s complaining about the high cost of international telephone calls, taking up cooking (“I like the rational, systematic way that the Chinese move on cooking. And the results are so rewarding”) or entering the cut-throat world of high fashion by reintroducing the codpiece (“They’re all accentuating your boo-boo …That’s what I’m trying to get away from,”) Cleaver provides mind-bending entertainment.

The story, pacing and structure of the book (short chapters that alternate the two storylines) make this a perfect summer read. Highly recommended for any non-fiction reader.

It's hard not to feel bitter on behalf of Leonard Levitt. He scooped the competition and ripped the lid off the story, as the cliches go; and his own newspaper refused to print the story. Reading a book by someone as embittered as Levitt has the right to be would not, however, be a pleasant task. Luckily Levitt has maintained a clear view of the stakes and his own involvement: "I did not solve Martha's murder. What I did was prevent the Skakel family from getting away with it."

Conviction is the story of uncovering the truth about the Moxley case, not just who did it but who did what along the way. I normally have little patience for the "how I wrote this book" or "how I investigated this story" sub-set of true crime. This is a well-deserved exception not simply because Levitt is a good writer but because the story of how he and Frank Garr tried to solve this case is not only part of the Moxley story it illuminates the story. The prejudices and power that hamstrung the investigation in 1975 kept it from being solved for the next 27 years.

Levitt writes the book from two points of view, his own and that of Frank Garr, the police detective who doggedly pursued the case and arguably solved it long before Dominick Dunne or Mark Fuhrman happened on the scene. Both POVs are enjoyable but Garr is allowed to react to Skakel family shenanigans with remarks like "What a bunch of lunatics" which makes his sections a bit more fun to read. It was hard to read any two sentences about life at Casa Skakel without the words "are you kidding me" forming in my mind. Imagine if the boys from Delta Thau Chi co-wrote a book on child-rearing along with NKVD mastermind Lavrenty Beria: alcohol sodden slapstick combined with staggering abuse and neglect.

The Martha Moxley case has inspired at least four books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and multiple TV show episodes. Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder is the best of the pack, deservedly winning an Edgar Award in 2005. A must for any serious true crime fan and highly recommended for any non-fiction reader.

Greentown by Timothy Dumas is also quite good though more of an "inside peak" at Greenwich. It's more informative than gossipy but highly enjoyable. (I haven't read the newly released second edition.) Dumas provides the best sense of what it was like to live in Greenwich in the 1970s, the combination of privilege, hormones and relative innocence propelled Martha and her peers. Like Levitt, Dumas is none too impressed with Mark Fuhrman. If you have time for a second book on the Moxley case, this is the one to pick.

Lord of the Flies on Long Island

At the heart of Against Her Will is an appalling, gruesome crime - the murder and mutilation of a 13-year-old Kelly Tinyes. This sort of crime brings out the exploitation writers of the true crime genre. Fortunately, Ronald J. Watkins devotes these pages to the investigation and impact on the community, not on salacious details of the crime.

This book was written outside in. It does not appear that Watkins interviewed either family involved. That leaves readers observing the Tinyes and Golubs (family of the accused) from a distance. We see them in pain, we hear their anguished cries, angry outbursts and words crafted for public consumption. Watkins gets us closer to the investigating officers but only in the context of their work. There are no fashion tips from the men and women in blue.

In some ways the distance is appropriate to this case. The Tinyes and Golub families turned on each other in a manner reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. The ghastly murder of Kelly became quickly subsumed in the outrageous, petty, hateful, hate-filled, frightening acts they perpetrated against each other. While some of the neighbors join in, others watch in disbelief as their quiet little street turns into first a scene of horror and then a scene of daily emotional savagery. The war between these two families ends up being just as shocking as the crime that inspired it.

This book surprised me. I was expecting run-of-the-mill decent true crime. Watkins keeps the pace going without shorting on the emotional impact of the crime. He doesn't indulge in homilies to the victim's utter perfection, he shows us an average 13-year-old girl through the eyes of her friends.  Watkins has an eye for the perversely amusing detail, the phrase "former nun turned police officer" will stay with me. Even the chapters devoted to the trial aren't the usual slog although I'd guess that the author wasn't in attendance. Watkins manages to paraphrase testimony in a way that illuminates and moves the narrative along.

All together this earns Against Her Will four stars. Solid, readable true crime the reminds us that crime itself is often the beginning of the story.

Kindle note: Human copy editing is apparently a thing of the past so readers are treated to a few typos. Also, there are no photos in the Kindle version.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills is not a true crime book and Janet Malcolm is not an author who seeks to entertain. Nor is she the sort of author who fades into the background of her writing. More often than not, a critique of any of her books becomes a critique of her. Fortunately Malcolm is as ready to rumble as any star of the WWE. To read any of Malcolm's work for a dispassionate recitation of events is to be disappointed and to, well, miss the point. She seeks to understand what the events reveal about us. She does not stand on the sidelines and pretend to be unbiased - she has an opinion and she draws conclusions.

The bare facts are: Mazoltuv Borukhova is accused of hiring an assassin to murder his husband in front of her. Borukhova and the hired killer are put on trial, a highly imperfect trial in Malcolm's estimation. Her idiosyncratic take is on every page: "But rooting is in our blood; we take sides as we take breaths." It takes a bold writer to indulge in this herself: "That's what I think was going on. No one will ever be able to prove it. But that's exactly what happened."

Malcolm wants readers to see that we all impose our own interpretation on the testimony. We construct our own narrative, based on our own experiences and prejudices. We may seek the truth, but our version becomes the truth. "We explain and blame. We are connoisseurs of certainty." She offers her own version and, be warned, she is sympathetic to Borukhova. Malcolm wants to know what drove events and expands her search beyond what is said in court.

If you haven't like Malcolm's earlier books, you won't like this one. I have a soft spot for a writer who can sidle up to a prospective interview and offer the following reporter's come on "I went up to him and asked if Anna Freud's project ... had been an influence on his work." Combine that unashamedly intellectually approach with Malcolm's pointed ruminations on the impossibility of narrowing accountability for a crime into a narrative that will fit into a courtroom and you have a compelling, unsettling book.

Making Friends

Readers will be excused if they mistake Making Friends With Hitler for a self-help book designed to assist us all in dealing with the despots in our lives. This is not a how-to, rather it's more of a "why did anyone bother in the first place." Specifically, this is an exploration of the not uncommon view circa 1935 that Britain should seek some sort of accommodation with Hitler rather than oppose him.

The idea of making friends was born in part of a belief that Germany's Versailles grievances were justified and a view that accession to power had matured Hitler out of his Mein Kampf "excesses." At its root was the assumption that Hitler's appetite for conquest could be sated.

Lord Londonderry is representative of the more benignly deluded adherents of this belief. He wanted to be a statesman of the caliber of his famous ancestor Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh's legacy is a bit of a mixed bag - revered as a diplomat today but in his time reviled by the likes of as an elitist and a reactionary by the likes of Byron and Shelley. It's difficult to find any evidence that Londonderry understood Castlereagh's accomplishments - he seemed fixated instead on the glory of his legend, glory he very much wanted for himself. Kershaw's character sketch of Londonderry fascinated me nearly as much as Londonderry's gusto for socializing with the likes of Goering and Goebbels repelled me. It is nearly impossible to put aside what we know of their monumental crimes and imagine a time when they might be viewed as moderating influences on the "more extreme" elements of the Nazi party.

A less talented historian would spend time decrying the lunacy of hanging out with Adolf, Hermann and the boys in hopes of avoiding war. Ian Kershaw is a very talented historian with the ability to remind readers that what is in the past and seems inevitable, once lay in the future and was not at all certain. His approach is detailed, likely too detailed for the casual reader, but it is compelling for anyone interested in the topic.


Let's face it, even by 16th century royalty standards Henry VIII was not a good husband. He was accustomed to getting his own way - absolute monarchs are like that, a bit of a romance junkie, known to sample the ladies in waiting on occasion and fixated on having a son to inherit his crown. Then there is that unfortunate habit of executing former loved ones.

Kyra Cornelius Kramer promises to explain this all to us in Blood Will Tell. Which is part of the problem. When the title of a book promises an "explanation" a certain of amount of explaining is required, particularly if the explanation is medical. The average reader does not possess an advanced degree in medicine so antigens and syndromes will need to be explained. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, the author of this book chooses to give the most cursory once-over-lightly to both the all important Kell antigen and McLeod Syndrome. Is McLeod common? Rare? Hereditary? Does one inherit it from one parent? Is it recessive? Co-morbid? Fatal? You won't find any of the answers here. You won't even find a reasonably detailed explanation of its symptoms. This "explanation" doesn't get an explanation.

Given the weakness of the medical case, it is somewhat amazing that the weakest links in this thesis are Kramer's interpretation of Henry's behavior and analysis of events. She offers no evidence that Henry was any more tyrannical than his father (Henry VII) or his contemporaries. She lists the number of executions during his reign but does not compare this to what was going on elsewhere. Just to put this in context, at the same time Henry reigned Ivan the Terrible was earning his nickname Tsar in Russia and Francis I was ordering entire villages and cities destroyed on grounds of disloyalty. Kramer never convinced me that, as she contends, Henry's behavior suddenly changed when he turned 40 (she offers no real evidence) nor that he was any more paranoid than his fellow monarchs during this time of extreme religious unrest.

The examination of Henry's wives is something special. Maybe Kramer is reaching for a feminist interpretation of the famous half-dozen but if that's the goal, she fails. Karen Lindsey's Divorced, Beheaded, Survived covers this idiosyncratic ground much more effectively. Kramer doesn't take into account the various factions at court or the accepted policy of putting attractive women in the king's path in hopes that her favors would earn favors for her family. She sees Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as victims (and, in Kramer's mind, practically girlfriends if only fate hadn't intervened) and Jane Seymour as a petty schemer. Why? Because that's how Kramer - clearly not a historian - sees it. She judges 16th century behaviors by 21st century standards and prejudices.

Kramer presents Henry's domestic arrangements as if history were a soap opera. The influence of Wolsey, More, Cromwell and Cranmer influence never registers. The complex political theories of Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, and Alison Weir make no impact here. There are no factions, no powerful advisers, no foreign intrigue; just a boy and his hormones, and his Kell antigen. 

What we have here is a serious of suppositions, ifs and sweeping unsupported statements such as:
"Henry would probably have left a very different mark on history if his mind had remained intact." Like, what? On the other hand I did learn some interesting things about how the medical community viewed female reproductive organs - think upside-down-inside-out male organs. Still, Kramer's aside that "It really wasn't a great time for medical wisdom" is a juvenile assessment.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history beyond the least demanding historical fiction is strongly advised to stay away. Even when Kramer is sticking to known ground, her replays of the events of Henry's life reminded me of the famous Heaven's Gate review - "like a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Despite interesting phrases such as "obstetrical tribulations" this book is not recommended for any reader.

Inquiry Into Me, Me, Me

This is a frustrating book. It is frustrating because of what it is and what it is not. It is not, emphatically not, an entry in the true crime genre. It contains none of the staples of true crime despite the author's admission that she is addicted to the genre. It is part exploration of how someone goes on after an event (or rupture, to use the author's term) severs the past from their future, and part exploration their own role in that event. The event in question is the Billy Gilley's murder of his father, mother and 8-year-old sister, an act committed in part, allegedly, to protect his 16-year-old sister, Jody.

Sounds interesting; so what is the problem, you may ask. The problem is the author.

As an author, Kathryn Harrison comes with a back story, one that she has previously shared with the public in fictional (Thicker Than Water) and memoir (The Kiss) form. I never can decide whether Harrison is exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-exploiting or just looking for salvation in all the wrong places. It certainly takes guts to tell the world you had a sexual relationship with your father when you were an adult. But the question that lingers is why tell the entire world? And why keep telling the world over and over no matter what the topic at hand?

"Studying the Gilleys required making inquiries into myself" - and how. Harrison can't go two pages without dragging the action back to herself.  Written in the "here's how I wrote this book" style that lets the reader in on the intricacies of note taking, personal filing systems and motel choices, I expected Harrison to be part of the narrative. I didn't expect the umpteenth recitation of her big, rupturing event.* Having dear, old, formerly absentee dad slip you the tongue during an airport goodbye is indeed a bad thing to have happen. But how about sticking with the main narrative?

The parts of the book that are genuinely focused on the Gilley family and Jody in particular aren't half bad. In the great nature vs. nurture debate Harrison is firmly Team Nurture so she's more interested in bad parenting than mental illness. She sees Jody almost as a character in a fairy tale rescued from her appalling circumstances not by her brother but by her intellect. The fact that Jody read books is treated like a magical gift - something along the lines of Rapunzel's long hair. I kept hoping Harrison would delve into this tendency to see Jody as a heroine instead of as an ordinary teenager, to explore the pressures this might have created for her. No dice.

At its best, Harrison strives to "construct a narrative" that will help her to understand Jody's story, and her own. At its worst, Harrison is prone to eye-roll worthy statements like "Eager to discover some of what informs the sixteen-year-old Jody's vision of the world, I buy myself a box of fifteen Harlequin romances" - the implication being that she certainly never read a single one herself. Or my personal favorite "Might not Jody, as young as six or seven ... have already begun ... to mourn ... all the Jodys she might have been were it not for the destructive environment into which she was born?" Might not Kathryn be full of it?

Occasionally insightful but more often banal and annoying, this book's every other paragraph belies Harrison's early assertion that she knows "my history and Jody's are not comparable." Kathryn Harrison is a good writer. If she could stop writing about herself she'd be worth reading.

*(At one point Harrison tells us that she's never confronted her own father and that stopped me dead in my tracks. Let me get this straight, she's told the entire freaking world about this to the tune of THREE BOOKS but she hasn't had a talk with the owner of the famous tongue?)

Fighting over last place

The Last Tsar

The life of a Romanov grand duke had its highs and lows. Among the highs were inconceivably large allowances, ornate living quarters, a selection of stylish uniforms, access to the entire company of the Bolshoi Ballet and trips to Monte Carlo on the family expense account. In the column marked “low” are arranged marriages, nosey relatives, pushy relatives, judgmental immediate family, and being murdered by the Bolsheviks in rustic settings. In the case of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, add in that the Bolsheviks hid his murder and claimed Michael escaped, and that history has all but forgotten him.

Donald Crawford is most upset about that last bit and The Last Tsar is his latest attempt to set the record straight. This is his second book about Michael, the first being Michael and Nastasha, co-authored with his wife Rosemary Crawford. If you’ve already read that book be warned that there is very little new material here and, oddly, some relevant material from that book is left out. For instance, Michael’s romance with cousin Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg isn’t mention here. What does get more attention is Michael’s war record. Overall, there’s no reason for the casual reader to bother with both books.

Michael’s story is interesting but Crawford doesn’t provide us with more than the bare bones of it. He references recent secondary sources, which is fine, but only to support his premise. Crawford has his opinions and his fondness for them makes this book tedious at times. Tsarina Alexandra is the villainess of the story – she’s described as “nagging,” “vindictive,” “jealous,” “hysterical” and “neurotic.” And that’s just in the first half of the book. It got on my nerves after awhile.

Crawford stubbornly presents Michael’s marriage to the twice-divorced commoner Natasha as a love story without ever giving the benefit of a hearing to Michael’s less than impressed family. It’s not a huge stretch to see that learning one’s son/brother/cousin has eloped with a woman who’s had three husbands in ten years wouldn’t inspire suggestions that “Our Love is Here to Stay” be played at the wedding reception. At a time when his nephew known to be in frail health, an uncle had recently been blown to smithereens, and it was too dangerous for his brother the Tsar to live in the capitol, I can’t blame the family for being unmoved by the power of love. Nor does Natasha come across as anything other than a beautiful woman who enjoys luxury and flattery.

Michael emerges as a someone content to “do the right thing” on a personal scale but until the war, not one to make sacrifices. Like his brother Nicholas, he is remarkable in his ordinariness. You get the impression that Michael would have made a swell house-guest but not much of a Supreme Autocrat.

In 2009 the Russian government “rehabilitated” Michael saying, in effect, that killing him was unwarranted. Whether Michael truly was the last Tsar (for a day) or not is probably best left to the experts. In my own un-expert opinion, having the Romanov dynasty begin and end with Michaels is reason enough to grant him the title it appears that he never wanted.

Spade work

The Janus Stone starts with leisurely pace. Bones are found. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called. And then ... we spend several chapters pondering the back story of Galloway, her relationship with Harry Nelson, her relationship with her spiritually-certain parents, and revisiting the events of the first entry in this series. Once the focus returns to the mystery, and that is why readers like me picked up this book in the first place, the pace picks up slightly.
With archaeology-based mysteries the first questions are often who died and when. Once that's sorted out the story moves on to a more traditional whodunit. This one isn't going to break new ground in the genre. Ruth Galloway is reasonably interesting but not fascinating. The cast of supporting characters are nicely drawn but none is outstanding. The old "someone is trying to keep the murder a secret by killing the investigator" cliche is trotted out, which left me wondering as it always does why the murderer thinks that will work. The culprit is unmasked and situations are set up for the next installment.

The Janus Stone does show the full effects of being the second in series. Where the first entry can suffer from the author trying to introduce too many characters and back story in too much detail, a second entry can suffer from too much linking to the previous book. In the hands of a master, like Louise Penny, it can inspire the reader to seek out the earlier books but still enjoy the present book on its own merits. Griffiths is a good writer but her links to Crossing Places were less intriguing hints and more, hey, you're reading this out of order. I haven't read the first book but my advice is to start there and avoid the residual guilt.

This is a slightly frustrating book. The writing and characterizations are good but it is too conscious of being an entry in a series. The narrative trudges along like, well, an archaeologist in well-worn wellingtons but it is written in present tense which struck me as at odds with the slow pace. I'm not a fan of present tense narratives - it is rarely warranted and even less rarely works. It's not a showstopper here but it doesn't add anything.

Overall, if you like mysteries of the Bones variety you'll probably enjoy this book. Recommended for mystery fans.

Blonde, Brunette or Beheaded

How did a woman rise from relative obscurity to influence the course of history and become queen of England? That is the question nearly every biography and fictional account of Anne Boleyn seeks to answer. In The Creation of Anne Boleyn Susan Bordo seeks to answer that and a less explored question: how did Anne go from historical figure to cultural touchstone?

Bordo is a cultural studies specialist rather than a historian. She is primarily interested in what Anne Boleyn means to contemporary culture but she grounds that meaning in an understanding of who Anne was. Or, perhaps better put, might have been. Given the paucity of contemporaneous first-hand accounts it is impossible to know what Anne thought or what drove her actions or what was actually said or even whether she was blonde or brunette. This incomplete picture has left room for writers and artists of all types to create Anne as they see her or need her to be to suit their narrative or world view. Bordo explores these shifting images of Anne - the shadows of the real woman, alternately larger and smaller than the long dead queen - to understand what informed and drove these depictions.

For anyone immersed in Tudoriana, this book may feel quirky in its focus: an entire chapter the 1969 movie Anne of a Thousand Days yet nothing on Evelyn Anthony's or Lozania Prole's vastly different conceptions of Anne. The same is true of Boleyn biographies where Joanna Denny's unique take is unexplored. Bordo does not pretend that this is a definitive study of every depiction of Anne Boleyn. You may find your favorites left out but you will find detailed consideration given to The Other Boleyn Girl (book, miniseries and movie) and The Tudors, among others.

I enjoyed this book overall. I found Bordo's historical analysis less compelling (but still interesting) than her cultural analysis. When Bordo brings the two together, such when she reminds readers that we must read Henry's letters to Anne's through the lens of Courtly Love instead of Showtime, this book becomes essential reading. If you know Anne Boleyn only from recent movies and miniseries, this book is a good place to start to learn more about this fascinating woman.