Books

The Fall of Gondolin

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Christopher Tolkien has published what appears to be the final book written by his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. No one expected to see The Fall of Gondolin, so it is quite a surprise:

While this story may be the last Tolkien book to be published, it is actually an early tale and foundational to the author’s entire concept of Middle-earth. It was first written in 1917 while Tolkien was recuperating in a hospital from trench fever after the Battle of the Somme. “It’s a quest story with a reluctant hero who turns into a genuine hero—it’s a template for everything Tolkien wrote afterwards,” John Garth, author of a book about Tolkien’s experience in World War I tells Alison Flood at The Guardian. “It has a dark lord, our first encounter with orcs and balrogs—it’s really Tolkien limbering up for what he would be doing later.”

Christian Holub at Entertainment Weekly explains that the new book tells the tale of Tuor, a man living in an age where the world is dominated by the dark lord Melko—known in other Tolkien books as Morgoth. Only one place, the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin has resisted his reign, and Tuor is sent to find the place. He does, but so do the dark forces of Melko. In the grandest Tolkien battle scene outside of The Lord of the Rings, the author describes a mechanized army, similar to the newly introduced mechanized warfare he’d witnessed during the Great War, falling on the city.

I am not a fan of the Hobbit movies; Tolkien gave us battles, but not of the size and scope that were depicted. I do not believe Peter Jackson was ever the right filmmaker for The Lord of the Rings, either; his movies are beautifully framed junk and everything is a near-miss and, hey, what if we spin the camera around this way and that way? Everyone seemed stiff at times, but you really have to credit what Elijah Wood and Sean Astin did to make it all seem like an actual epic quest. It wasn't all bad, of course.

The best description for Jackson's approach would be to call it expensive fan fiction. Beyond that, everything I actually liked about the books disappeared. If they can make a movie about Han Solo, why the hell can't they make a movie about Elrond?

The Fall of Gondolin explores the history of Middle Earth, and gives you a sense of Tolkien's decision to build the languages, the different inhabitants, their entire, well-imagined back stories, and their place in the story. It's not enough to talk about the tribes of Elves or Men or Dwarves--their foundational epics and their sense of who they were had to be built, painstakingly, one generation at a time.

Aside from George R. R. Martin, who does this anymore? Plenty of writers make the attempt, but Tolkien, being an academic, had the knowledge to create the framework that his son has spent decades trying to organize and preserve for proper release. His achievement as a curator is no less of an accomplishment than his father's as the creator.

If someone else decides to make films of these stories, I'm fine with that. I really don't need to see any more of Jackson's vision. To me, it was always about the history and the relationships, and not so much the sword play and the massed formations of troops. Having seen the horrors of war, I don't think Tolkien wanted it to be fetishized in the manner in which it was, I really don't. There was always a purpose to the violence, and that's where all of the effort went.

Michelle McNamara

 Patton Oswalt, Michelle McNamara

Patton Oswalt, Michelle McNamara

The late Michelle McNamara was a true crime writer who died in 2016 before solving one of the subjects that obsessed her. McNamara was the sort of person who threw herself into a subject and didn't let up. She was also the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, and today she would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they caught "The Golden State Killer" decades after eluding the police:

A suspect has been arrested in connection to a decades-old cold case involving more than 10 people who were murdered, known as the Golden State Killer case.

Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested early Wednesday morning on two counts of murder, according to the Sacramento Bee and Fox40 Sacramento. A spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has not yet responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.

The Golden State Killer was linked by DNA and method to 12 murders, 45 sexual assaults and more than 120 burglaries from Sacramento to Orange County between 1976 and 1986.

This was one of the last things McNamara worked on before her passing:

The Golden State Killer case was also the subject of a true-crime book titled “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” by Michelle McNamara, Patton Oswalt’s late wife. McNamara worked with investigators on the case but died before the book was published. It was finished by co-writer Billy Jensen, researcher Paul Haynes and Oswalt.

In regards to news that an arrest had been made, Oswalt tweeted, “If they’ve really caught the #GoldenStateKiller I hope I get to visit him. Not to gloat or gawk — to ask him the questions that @TrueCrimeDiarywanted answered in her ‘Letter To An Old Man’ at the end of #IllBeGoneInTheDark.”

We can only hope that they got the right man, due in no small part to McNamara's work.

The York Gospels

This is beyond neat:

The York Gospels were assembled more than a thousand years ago. Bound in leather, illustrated, and illuminated, the book contains the four gospels of the Bible as well as land records and oaths taken by clergymen who read, rubbed, and kissed its pages over centuries. The Archbishops of York still swear their oaths on this book.

The York Gospels are also, quite literally, a bunch of old cow and sheep skins. Skin has DNA, and DNA has its own story to tell.

A group of archaeologists and geneticists in the United Kingdom have now analyzed the remarkably rich DNA reservoir of the York Gospels. They found DNA from humans who swore oaths on its pages and from bacteria likely originating on the hands and mouths of those humans. Best of all though, they found 1,000-year-old DNA from the cows and sheep whose skin became the parchment on which the book is written.

Remarkably, the authors say they extracted all this DNA without destroying even a tiny piece of parchment. All they needed were the crumbs from rubbing the book with erasers, which conservationists routinely use to clean manuscripts. The authors report their findings in a preprint that has not yet been peer-reviewed, though they plan to submit it to a scientific journal.

Settled

Well, this is a relief:

Warner Bros. and the estate of author J.R.R. Tolkien announced Monday that they amicably resolved an $80 million lawsuit over the alleged digital exploitation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien estate and book publisher HarperCollins filed the lawsuit against Warner Bros. in 2012 alleging that the company had breached contract by marketing online games, slot machines, and other gambling-related merchandise based on Tolkien's books. The estate claimed the 1969 rights agreement entitled the studio to create only “tangible” merchandise associated with the books.

I was worried that the Tolkien estate was going broke. Hopefully, they ended up with somewhere close to half of the $80 million they were suing for. If you're like me, and I know I am, then you prefer your Tolkien on the printed page and not on the silver screen or some Blu-Ray player.  I mean, the movies were good, and they really exceeded expectations, but aren't you wondering when they'll just reboot the whole thing and cash in again?

Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain are a band that defies every label that you can throw at them. They have built a career out of being difficult on purpose, no matter what the cost. 

If they became disciples of feedback in the eyes of the media, they would abandon feedback and hire a drum machine. If they became a little too dance oriented, then they'd swallow their pride and hire a real drummer. If the songs became too poppy, they'd throw violent imagery into the lyrics and abandon all pretense of being commercial. And just when their music label would reject an album, they would sign with the original label that discovered them and forge ahead.

No one ever did more to sabotage their career than the Jesus and Mary Chain. They would turn up drunk, alienate the promotional apparatus of the entire British music industry, and play 15 minutes before walking off of the stage. Whenever they needed to speak to someone influential or important, they would take the piss and say the wrong things. They soared high with Creation's Alan McGee and dumped him as soon as they saw the bags of cash that a major label were willing to throw at them. When years of debauchery and infighting left them "stoned and dethroned," no one wanted to put out their album Munki. But it was McGee who welcomed them back into the fold and saved them from embarrassment. Loyalty is hardly the watchword for a band that dispensed with members as often as the Mary Chain. It has always been a William and Jim Reid situation; they even sacked their faithful drum machine. The book should have spelled out what happened to the device that featured so prominently in their early years. Were it not for the fickle, drum machine-averse American audiences, that thing would probably still be on tour with the bad this very summer.

Reading this book made me angry that I can't go see them. All they had to do was find a way to make it to Texas, and I would be there. Hey, maybe next time.

Everything is chronological, and that makes sense in that the story of the Mary Chain is one of rolling through the thick fog of pop music history. This is primarily how the book flows. The band would do something massive, and then fuck it all up. They would write a beautiful song and mangle how it would be presented to the public. At exactly the point where appearing on Top of the Pops or the BBC would have thrown them into the realm of superstar acts, they got themselves banned. When they needed to play a great show in front of a large crowd, they would walk off after abusing them with curses and feedback. It is exhausting to read, but essential for understanding how they created artistic success without ever selling out. That's the explosive, vital lesson of the Mary Chain--you can make it in spite of yourself, and you can do great things without having to compromise your integrity. Rock and Roll is not about playing a perfect set for 90 minutes to an adoring crowd that gets every hit they want to hear. It's about danger, mistakes, and passionately fucking everything up in front of people who get everything they weren't expecting.

Several celebrities have cameos in the book, but none more hilarious than a hapless Paul Weller, who crossed paths with the band and gave them passive aggressive advice and things to laugh at. None of this degrades the legend of the Modfather in any way, shape or form.

I have a very personal connection to how they subverted everything in the 1980s, but I would not consider myself an obsession fan. I discovered them on MTV like everyone else because the American Midwest was never friendly for Indie bands from England.

The very first thing I ever read about them was a baffled album review in People Magazine from 1985. What the hell was Psychocandy? Who the hell were these guys? Good God, no one knew, but they were slightly blasphemous and they had the right hair so they had to be good, right? It was the innovation, dummy. They were influencers without figuring anything out. They were shy but abusive, reclusive but on tour constantly.

Nobody ever took a bigger right turn from a debut album to a second album than the Mary Chain. Go back and listen to "April Skies" and then listen to anything from Psychocandy. Who reinvents themselves like that? Who says, "Alright, that's enough of what just made us huge. Here's something completely different." No two albums sound alike and nothing could illustrate their artistic merit better than the diversity of their sound and the reach of their efforts to eliminate everything boring from music.

Where do you slot them? Which genre describes them? Who gets to claim them--noise merchants, shoegazers, 90s alt-legends, or aging hipsters? They have credibility everywhere and belong to no one. They are the closest thing there is to a slightly different, but wholly separate version of Echo & the Bunnymen; when all other comparisons fail, just put them in the bucket with "English and accomplished" and leave it at that. The parallels are stark, but the Mary Chain never made an Electrafixion record and they never made a sleepy stinker like What Are You Going to Do With Your Life. They have their clunkers, but don't we all? Show me a great, interesting band and there will be at least one or two things that make you look away out of embarrassment.

The reason why this book works as a career narrative is because it doesn't shy away from explaining just exactly what they did right and wrong in equal measures. It focuses on the songs, the albums, and the tours and it breaks down the way they dissolved into dysfunction and thrown punches. It takes you through the embarrassing, cliched use of alcohol and drugs without looking for pathos.

There's even a disastrous detour through the Far East, replete with cancelled gigs and confused fans. The band went from broke to rich to broke to whatever they are now without abandoning whatever it is that passes for artistic credibility. There isn't even a butter ad in their immediate past, but how could you sell butter with one of their songs? You might be able to sell your soul to the devil for an album like Automatic, but why would you want to? The Reid brothers were there first, and they suffered on the cross for everything they did. They have lived and died for your rock and roll sins.

Isn't that enough?

Carrie Fisher Was a Hell of a Writer

Carrie Fisher was never given enough acclaim for her talents and abilities while she was alive:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson has revealed that Carrie Fisher helped write the script for the forthcoming movie.

The late actress penned in the past both the book and the screenplay adaptation for Postcards From The Edge, along with episodes of Roseanne, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a number of TV specials and special material for the Academy Awards in 1997, 2002 and 2007, along with the 2010 TV documentary Wishful Drinking, during her career.

Johnson recently revealed at a Star Wars fan convention in Orlando that she also had a hand in writing the script for the latest movie.

“I’d go to her house and we’d sit on her bed for hours, going through the script,” he revealed.

“(We) would just have these kind of stream-of-consciousness, Jazz poetry, ad-lib sessions, and I would just scribble down everything she said on my script. And then at the end of six hours, there would be this four word line of dialogue that would be the distillation of all that, that was brilliant.”

She understood the human condition and had a hilarious point of view. She was a great, great writer and a performer who could hold her own with everyone on a stage, including her own mother. The fact that Harrison Ford, who routinely blew people off the screen (and will be considered the greatest actor to never win an Academy Award unless they get him one, soon), never so much as put a dent in her on screen is hardly recognized, either.

Creation Stories

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Creation Stories is a book I enjoyed reading, but it did leave me wanting more.

I should state, up front, this review of the book is not a normal one. The book came out two years ago, and I just got around to it recently. I do recommend this for fans of the British music genre known as "Britpop" because you'll get a fair amount of background information from the book. You'll want to view it as a historical look at British independent music from the early Eighties until the end of the Nineties. It is not comprehensive, but there are a fair amount of good anecdotes to give you a superficial understanding of where Creation Records and Alan McGee fit into everything.

McGee downplays himself throughout the book. He could rightly call himself a genius at several things, but specifically he was enormously gifted when it came to spotting talent. This is a combination of knowing how to size up people, evaluate their skills, hear what they could do on stage, and make a business judgment about them relative to the music industry. Many people have done this and done quite well; McGee found the biggest band since U2 and a dozen other bands that were both commercially and artistically successful. He found Oasis, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and a slew of other bands. He made millions for himself and for the artists that he worked with. He had his finger on the pulse and built a successful company.

Now, the fact that he did all of that while out of his mind on drugs is neither here nor there. The book details his prowess finding artists and it reveals the failures he had both professionally and personally. This is an honest book, through and through.

McGee could have been more specific and he could have researched dates and times and really looked at how Creation Records moved and shaped the culture. He could have done one book separately on Oasis and one on the company; it all blends together after a while. He is probably on the hook for another telling of these stories, and that's all right--there's so much more happening that you miss out on. I would have liked more focus on the business side of things, just to get more of a feel for how he ran things. What I came away with was an understanding that this wasn't a madcap laugh or a lucky break. Building Creation Records wasn't just what he did while on drug holiday or while sleeping on trains. He bridged the music scenes from Manchester, Glasgow, and London and made local acts global stars. He put music in the hands of people who never would have discovered it. He spent millions on records that otherwise would have never been heard. 

I do think it was a good read. I do wish there were specific year by year breakdowns and summaries of how big the company got, how big was the roster, why bands would come and go, and how it all compared to other labels in the same business. He breezes through some of these details and you don't really get the whole story of what happened when Oasis dwarfed the rest of their roster of bands and why some acts broke out and why some faded away. I don't know if he's trying to be even-handed or spare feelings, but he's relentlessly hard on himself and honest about his failings. In and of itself, McGee's harrowing descriptions of life at home and his health scares makes this a worthy read.

If McGee gets around to writing about more of the things I've outlined above, then all the better.

Simon and Schuster is Making Hate Safe For the Mainstream

I think a boycott of CBS as a whole would be more appropriate, but what do I know?

Yiannopoulos’s payday was met with calls for a boycott of Simon and Schuster’s entire catalogue, which spans 35 imprints, including a call by a literary journal to not review any of the company’s books in 2017.

A representative for the company did not confirm the reported financial advance amount and said they do not comment on those figures. The literary agent working with Yiannopoulos has not responded to a request for comment from The Daily Beast either.

In response to the announcement, The Chicago Review of Books vowed not to review a single Simon & Schuster book in 2017 due to the new book deal. The company typically publishes about 2,000 books per year.

“In response to this disgusting validation of hate, we will not cover a single @simonschuster book in 2017,” the journal announced on its Twitter account.

Some Simon & Schuster authors struggled with the boycott of their own publisher, noting that they don’t agree with Yiannopoulos’ views, but still need to sell books.

“(That face when your) publisher signs a hate troll & people call for a boycott & you’re like well yeah but um,” Simon & Schuster author Michael Robbins wrote on Twitter. “(It’s the) same imprint (that) published Trump’s ‘Crippled America.”

If you're going to take a racist hate monger, and give him a publishing deal, then you have to accept the fact that people are not going to stand for it. If that hurts Les Moonves and the CBS media empire, so be it. Making hate a mainstream product you can buy in stores is not a marketing plan I would want to be a part of. I have no idea what the management at that particular imprint of Simon and Schuster was thinking when they gave this Milo character a quarter of a million dollars. Perhaps they weren't thinking at all.

Everyone and everything surrounding the "Alt Right" is so toxic right now that for a major American media company to lavish money on someone with those ties is absolutely reprehensible. Clearly, this is never going to be acceptable.

There already is a vast "wingnut welfare" infrastructure that publishes this material and puts it into the marketplace. Anti-liberal books were all the rage for years until they stopped selling in adequate numbers. No one is censoring these ideas, but they should be subjected to the marketplace. Whatever a boycott of Simon and Schuster accomplishes is fine by me. You cannot and should not mainstream hate in America and not pay a significant price for it at the cash register.