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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Groove Bookstand - Four Books we're lovin' lately

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World - Nell Stevens (MacMillan $37.99)

A whimsical blend of memoir and travelogue, laced with wry and indispensable writing advice, Bleaker House is a story of creative struggle that brilliantly captures the self-torture of the writing life. Twenty-seven-year-old Nell Stevens was determined to write a novel, but somehow life kept getting in the way. Then came a game-changing opportunity: she won a fellowship that let her spend three months, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world to research and write a book. Would she choose a glittering metropolis, a romantic village, an exotic paradise? Um, no. Nell chose Bleaker Island, a snowy, windswept pile of rock in the Falklands. There, in a guesthouse where she would be the only guest, she could finally rid herself of distractions and write her 2,500 words a day. In three months, surely she'd have a novel. And sure enough, other than sheep, penguins, paranoia, and the weather, there aren't many distractions on Bleaker. Nell gets to work on her novel—a delightful Dickensian fiction she calls  'Bleaker House' —only to discover that an excruciatingly erratic internet connection and 1100 calories a day (as much food as she could carry in her suitcase, budgeted to the raisin) are far from ideal conditions for literary production. With deft humor, the memoir traces Nell's island days and slowly reveals details of the life and people she has left behind in pursuit of her art. They pop up in her novel, as well, and in other fictional pieces that dot the book. It seems that there is nowhere Nell can run to escape herself. With winning honesty and wit, Nell's race to finish her book slowly emerges as an irresistible narrative in its own right.  Original, funny and entertaining in all the right ways.

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal - David E.Hoffman (Allen and Unwin $32.99)

On a cold winter’s evening in 1977, the Russian engineer approached a car at a gas station in Moscow and handed a note to the driver — the chief of the CIA’s Moscow station, as it happened.

“In the note, the man said he wanted to ‘discuss matters’ on a ‘strictly confidential’ basis with an ‘appropriate American official,’ ” David E. Hoffman writes in his riveting new account, “The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal.”  Unfortunately, the CIA wasn’t keen to accept the offer, fearing a KGB trap.

Tolkachev, who worked in a top-secret Soviet design lab, persisted, though, and two years after that first failed approach, he finally met a CIA case officer and began providing more information than the agency had dreamed of getting.  Think of him as the spy who forced his way in from the cold.

Tolkachev’s motives for betraying his country were complicated, as Hoffman reveals, but his explanation at that first meeting was laconic. He was, he said, “a dissident at heart.”  He was also, it turned out, a dissident with valuable information.

“Tolkachev was providing a road map to the United States for compromising and defeating two critical Soviet weapons systems: the radars on the ground that defended it from attack, and the radars on warplanes that gave it capacity to attack others,” Hoffman writes. “This was an incomparable advantage in the Cold War competition.”  In time, Tolkachev’s information saved the U.S. government more than $2 billion in research and development costs.

A painting of  Adolf Tolkachev by Kathy Kranz Fieramosca that hangs CIA Headquarters
In exchange, Tolkachev asked for relatively little. He seemed less interested in the cash the CIA put into an escrow account than he was in relatively modest goods he couldn’t easily acquire in the Soviet marketplace — particularly items for his teenage son, such as rock albums and headphones, as well as medicine and eyeglasses for Tolkachev and his wife.  “His son, Oleg, had entered an architect’s training institute, and drafting equipment in the Soviet Union was poor,” Hoffman writes. “Could the CIA find a better-quality set in Eastern Europe or the West? Even the erasers in Moscow were shoddy, Tolkachev complained. They left greasy marks on the drawings. Could the CIA find four or five better-quality erasers? … He also wanted two or three large bricks of Chinese dry black drafting ink and three or four high-quality drawing pens.”

Not especially interested in poignant details like those? No worries. “The Billion Dollar Spy” has enough spy gear and contretemps — including spy cameras, cyanide pills and clandestine meetings on dark, abandoned Moscow streets — to drive a summer’s worth of blockbuster movies.  And Hoffman, a contributing editor at The Washington Post and a correspondent for PBS’ “Frontline,” knows how to make a nonfiction book as suspenseful as a John le Carré-penned thriller.

He never lets readers forget what was at stake, though.  Which is very smart.  “Tolkachev opened a window on Soviet intentions and capabilities, which were at the core of the CIA’s mission,” Hoffman writes. “For the leadership of the United States, it was vitally important to know Soviet priorities in military research and development, as well as capabilities — what they could do and could not do. For decades, there were holes and misjudgments in U.S. intelligence on Soviet intentions and capabilities. But when it came to air defenses, Soviet tactical fighters, interceptors, radars, avionics, and guidance systems that would confront Americans in any hot war, Tolkachev delivered.”

In fact, Tolkachev’s information helped the United States enjoy “almost total air superiority over Soviet-built fighters for more than two decades,” Hoffman writes.  That’s pretty impressive for a dissident engineer whose espionage offers were rebuffed for two years.

House of Names - Colm Tóibín (MacMillan $34,99)

Colm Tóibín has ventured to ancient Argos — far from the decorous, restrained worlds of Henry James, coastal Ireland, and mid-20th century Brooklyn we've seen in his earlier books — in this heart-stopping novel based on Clytemnestra's family tragedy.

Although he's taken some of his familiar, familial preoccupations with him — including strained family dynamics — House of Names is a surprising turn for Tóibín, a violent page-turner about the mother of all dysfunctional families and the insidious ravages of revenge and distrust. He has borrowed the main characters — Agememnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their three children, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes — from the ancient Greeks, and re-animated their tragedies with intimate sagas of suffering you didn't hear from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Curiously, Tóibín hasn't attempted to update the classics by fast-forwarding centuries — as Eugene O'Neill did in Mourning Becomes Electra, his retelling of Aeschylus' Oresteia, set in New England in the 1860s. Nor does he seek modern relevance by drawing explicit parallels to our times. House of Names is set firmly in ancient Greece, but in Tóibín's take, the power and influence of the ancient gods is on the wane, and with Christ still centuries off, there's a dangerous void in the sphere of divine influence on the affairs of mankind.

As in Aeschylus, the cycle of revenge vendettas are not struggles of right against wrong, but part of an inexorable, weirdly logical chain of atrocities. What's different in Tóibín's novel is that this savagery is driven not just by Fate and the Furies, but in large part by psychology. In visceral, accessible language, Tóibín brings us close to the members of the house of Atreus — who, in the absence of gods, bear responsibility for their actions.

'Testament Of Mary' Gives Fiery Voice To The Virgin
What's the worst tragedy that can befall a mother? Tóibín makes us feel Clytemnestra's anguished pain and outrage when her husband sacrifices their 16-year-old daughter Iphigenia to the gods in the hopes of favorable winds for his warships. Livid, she enlists the aid of wiley Aegisthus, her new bedmate, to plot her revenge. (There's already plenty of bad blood between Agamemnon and his cousin Aegisthus, but Tóibín wisely avoids diffusing his intense tale with too much backstory.) Upon Agamemnon's triumphant return from Troy, Clytemnestra greets him with a warm bath and sharp knife to the throat.

Although Orestes is one of few characters left standing at the end of the book, his fate is no less tragic than that of his parents and sister — and even worse than Hamlet's, for it takes years for him to learn about his father's death. Why years? Abducted by Aegisthus' minions, Orestes escapes his evil keepers with two other kidnapped boys, who grow into manhood together on an old woman's remote seaside farm. The lost boys' trials and tribulations — Tóibín's fabrications — are among the most vivid scenes in the novel.

As in the Greek sources, Orestes gradually realizes that he must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. But part of Orestes' tragedy is that he operates on partial — and often inaccurate — knowledge. In a palace of dark corridors filled with shadowy guards whose allegiances are unclear, he doesn't know whom to trust. His angry sister Electra, intent on her own revenge and power grab, is little help.

Tóibín plays all this with sinister mastery. He channels the female characters directly, while Orestes' point of view is delivered in a tight third person narrative. Clytemnestra's chilling first lines, following her murder of Agamemnon, drip with sang-froid: "I have been acquainted with the smell of death ... It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content."

The violence is staggering, with people thrown into dark dungeons for days without food or water, throats slashed, heads bashed. Turning pages with pounding heart, I wondered if I could have connected this book with Tóibín if his name weren't on it. I don't think so — despite some telltale signs, including the fraught family baggage, circumspect homosexuality, and themes of loss, exile and return. But House of Names works because of the empathy and depth Tóibín brings to these suffering, tragically fallible characters, all destined to pass on "into the abiding shadows" — yet vividly alive in this gripping novel.

Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy - Mike Love with James S. Hirsch

“California is the ultimate.”

That’s what Mike Love’s grandfather always used to say. Seems like an appropriate place to start the life story of one man who’s not only used the state as song fodder for over 50 years but also made a career out of exploiting its good vibrations.

In rock history, there probably isn’t a more divisive figure than Mike Love, who’s fronted the Beach Boys for the entirety of the band’s existence. Some fans will find almost any fault with him, from the way he sings, to the way he dresses, to all of the alleged abuse he’s doled out to his cousin Brian Wilson over the years. Sometimes it seems like the only person who sees Mike Love as a hero is Mike Love, while the rest of the world sees him as a villain.

In his new memoir, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, he spends some ink discussing one of his most famous quotes, “Don’t fuck with the formula,” supposedly born upon hearing and rejecting Wilson’s newest musical direction. Love says, “It’s the most famous thing I’ve ever said, even though I never said it. But the myth was too strong to be inconvenienced by the truth.”

Given the chance, Love would probably say the same about his whole life. Now,  he attempts to set the record straight with his side of the story, something that fans historically weren’t, and aren’t, willing to hear. Within the pages of his book is much braggadocio, fanfare, and loftiness, but also a surprising amount of humanity. He fesses up when he was wrong, and he gives readers a glimpse behind the scenes on what it was like to be semi-sober in a band — and family — riddled with drug addicts, controlling personalities, and bad business moves.

Where Love is sentimental about the past, often reminiscing about how he was close with the Wilson family — brothers Dennis, Carl, but especially Brian — he’s also quick to dole out back-handed compliments to his revered cousin, insisting that Brian’s “genius” status was contrived by Beach Boys (and Beatles) publicist Derek Taylor. “I’m a Pisces, and Brian, a Gemini,” he writes, “and it is said that a Pisces writes out of inspiration, while a Gemini writes out of desperation.”

Though he claims to have addressed his cousin with “respect, even awe” during the experimental Pet Sounds sessions, a stance that’s controversial given the widespread opinion that he didn’t want to, well, fuck with the formula, Love implores that, given the chance, he could have made what many consider the jewel in the Beach Boys’ crown even better. “The conventional wisdom on Pet Sounds is that Brian needed a different lyricist who could connect with his feelings of longing and disillusionment…I could have done that for some of the tracks…maintaining Brian’s artistic vision while broadening its appeal.”

That may be partially true, as Pet Sounds was a commercial flop, which played a large part in Wilson’s downward spiral into drugs and depression. But Love subtly supports the skeptical notion that he wasn’t on board with the musical shift as he’d like people to, hopefully, come to believe. “I never saw [our music] as a catalyst for leading movements of changing policies,” he writes. “It was, instead, a way to lift spirits, to bring people together, to offer them an escape.”

“…One of the secrets to his genius: simplicity camouflaging complexity,” Love continues, talking about Wilson’s musical abilities. Ironically, he treats his own musicality like nothing less than a prodigal gift, even though including many of his lyrics here draws attention to their own simplicity. Not to mention that he’s once again extolling the virtues of “alliteration” when he really means another device like internal rhyming… or nothing at all.

The overarching theme of his memoir’s 400-plus pages is Love’s struggle to right the most heinous wrong of his life: the lack of credit for some of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits. He explicitly recounts the time spent penning lyrics to beloved tracks like “California Girls,” “Surfin’ USA,” and more, attempting to persuade the reader to his side instead of accepting the herd mentality that Brian Wilson is the genius and he’s just a frontman.

But as he himself says after finally winning his resulting court case against Wilson and a place for his name alongside his cousin’s on many of the Beach Boys’ songs, “The trial set the record straight, but it didn’t affect Brian’s reputation. By now, the myth was too strong, the legend too great. Brian was the tormented genius who suffered to deliver us his music — the forever victim…To Brian’s fans, he was beyond accountability.”

“For those who believe that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.”

To be fair to Love, however, he does accept and even prides himself as his role as the most “business-minded Beach Boy,” often delineating the all-important relationship between “art and commerce,” a phrase that’s tossed out many times. His work ethic is never called into question, as he’s the only Beach Boy who’s been continuously hitting the ol’ dusty trail since the early ’60s.

His reasons largely go back, again, to proving his validity as songwriter. “I realized that the only way I could claim ownership of the songs that I had written, the only way I could stay connected to them, was to be a road dog: to rejoin the guys, get back onstage, and take or music to all four corners of the country and beyond.”

Nothing is off limits for Love; he addresses dalliances with Charles Manson and his Family, including the now much-publicized incident when Dennis Wilson shakily confessed he saw Manson murder a man and stuff his body in a well.  He doesn’t pull punches on how he really feels about Beach Boys’ bandmate Al Jardine (“prickly,” “rude,” entitled”) or Brian Wilson’s wife, Melinda. He gives credit where credit is due, praising Carl Wilson, who, he says, was really the musical backbone of the Beach Boys from 1967 onward. And he’s actually — gasp! — likable at times when writing about his personal life, many failed marriages, and his attempt to rectify neglect of his kids by creating a familial atmosphere down the line.

He’s also quick to extoll the virtues of his spiritual beliefs as his center. On a fateful meditation retreat to Rishikesh, India, in 1967 — the same one that included the Beatles and their wives — Love decided to devote himself to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (The Beatles later claimed the guru duped them, provoking John Lennon to pen the song “Sexy Sadie” in retaliation.)

After that experience, Love’s spirituality becomes a major character in the book. He credits it for keeping his head on straight amid death threats, lawsuits, stressful tours, and the general hate he receives from Beach Boys fans on nearly a daily basis. Practicing transcendental meditation has, more than anything, provided him with the escape into his true self that he’s ostensibly been searching for his whole life.

“Perhaps saints or yogis have defied gravity,” he says, “but for mortals like me, I can only practice, cultivate these attributes of personal improvement, renew my energies, overcome my fears, push forward, and with the grace of God, transcend.”

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