movie: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

A few days of wifi access have yielded a few movies, beginning with this one. From Sundance to Netflix comes Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a recent biopic about Ted Bundy.

Bundy was known to be a handsome guy, and here played by Zac Ephron, he comes off handsomer than in real life – I’d rate the real Bundy average, not remarkable, where Ephron is eye-catching. His long-term girlfriend Liz is played by Lily Collins. The movie is based on a book that the real-life Liz wrote: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym). The movie takes Liz’s perspective at times, but at times gets well away from her, as she distances herself from Bundy during his incarceration and trials, and the film follows the courtroom drama and Bundy’s developing relationship with Carol Anne (Kaya Scodelario).

I have mixed feeling about the way Bundy was portrayed. I think the idea may have been to show the extreme creepiness of how truly everyday a serial killer can be: this is the guy next door, with arguably better-than-average good looks but otherwise unremarkable. That’s what is showed here, and that’s what’s so scary, right? But in showing how everyday (and charming and handsome) Bundy was, the film skirts the edges of the strange fandom of the gushing young women attending Bundy’s murder trial: we’re getting a little into hero worship. And that’s even creepier. This may be the trouble with telling a story like Bundy’s at all. Maybe we should be less obsessed with serial killers in the first place…

I watched the movie, though, and I have to say it was entertaining, or at least mesmerizing. Ephron’s cute; Liz is compelling, and I feel her pain. I think she could probably have used some more screen time, and somewhere I read the reasonable criticism that her decision to get sober is covered in a mere montage scene, in which she wordlessly throws away half-empty liquor bottles. For such a major life event, and for the movie’s arguable heroine (spoilers aside, she wrote the book that gave us the film, for dog’s sake), I think she may deserve more. But an engaging evening’s viewing, sure.


Rating: 5 butterflies.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter prĂ©cis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Extra brief today, and then you can get back to your Wednesday and I’ll get back to some better reading.

This book got away from me a little bit, in that I waited too long after finishing it to write this review. But that’s okay, because of my reaction to the book itself: I think it will be an easier-than-usual review to write. In a word, I love Guy Clark, and enjoyed learning more about his life and music. But as a book, I’m not blown away.

Tamara Saviano is a co-producer of the two-disc album This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, for which I’m very grateful, and she’s made other contribution to Clark’s and other musical legacies. But I feel that this authorized biography fell into the trap that they tend to fall into. It’s overly praising of its subject, and not critical enough, in the sense not that I want Guy criticized but that I want him critiqued. I want to know the finer points, the rough edges, the ambiguities and the anecdotes that don’t fit into the picture that we fans have developed of him. I wanted to find a Guy Clark who was more Hemingway or Hefner–more complicated, contradictory, and intermittently less-than-likeable–and less a saint.

I’m a big Guy Clark fan, and I loved seeing views of him at different ages, through his life: helping to repair boats in Rockport, meeting guests at his grandmother’s hotel in Monahans, playing music in my old neighborhood in Houston, meeting Susanna under the worst of circumstances. It was good to learn more about his life (and the lives of Townes and Susanna, each of them inextricable from the other two). It felt nice to sort of roll around in Guy Clark while I read this book. I loved the pictures. And I especially reveled in the details that tie Guy’s life to my own: the Montrose neighborhood in Houston where his music career got started and where I lived in high school and for some years after; the cancer hospital where I worked, and where he spent a summer working on a National Science Foundation award; the southeast-side neighborhood where he recorded “Cotton Mill Girls” just down the road from my childhood home. I used to ride my bicycle down that street, where the recording studio was. I’ve said it before: there is nothing like a strong sense of place, especially when the place in question is real and matters to the reader, to make a story feel authentic and important. These ties to Guy Clark mean the world to me.

There was value here, clearly, but it felt more like reading a lengthy pamphlet produced by the late artist’s estate, than a book with artistic value for its own sake. Maybe I’ve been in creative nonfiction for too long and forgotten how to appreciate “straight” biography. I wonder what I’d find if I reread Mr. Playboy or one of the Hemingway biographies I’ve enjoyed in years past. But I really think the problem here for me was the stance taken on the subject: that this is a fan’s authorized biography, and not a close and clear look at a multifaceted human being. In the end, while I enjoyed some aspects of what I found, I’m disappointed.

I marked this line, attributed to Guy by Roseanne Cash: “You have to throw out the best line of your song if it doesn’t serve the rest of the song.” Fine advice for a writer. This book feels like it tried to serve Guy Clark’s memory more than its own song.


Rating: generously, 6 fifths of Palomino Whiskey, if I give credit for the subject matter.

Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation by Robert J. Norrell

History and literary criticism enrich the first biography of Alex Haley, author of Roots and Malcolm X’s Autobiography.

alex haley

Alex Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to him), and Roots, the story of his family from Africa through slavery and the Civil War. Separately, these books had a profound impact on how the United States viewed race relations and its own history. Together, their influence could hardly be overstated, and that is what Robert J. Norrell argues in Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, the first biography of Haley and a study of his two seminal works and the controversies they fostered.

Norrell covers Haley’s forebears and Tennessee childhood, his three marriages and a writing career growing from the Coast Guard (where ghost-writing personal letters led to public relations assignments) to magazine work, which led to his interviewing Malcolm X for Reader’s Digest and Playboy. The process for Malcolm’s Autobiography (1965) was dynamic, as Haley walked the fine line between Malcolm’s voice and Haley’s more moderate political position, and as Malcolm’s views on race relations evolved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots (1976) was even harder won, as Haley drew a short book contract out over more than 11 years of research and travel. The effect of the book, and its accompanying television miniseries, was astounding. And yet the rest of his life and work would be shadowed by accusations of copyright infringements and invention in what Haley called a work of nonfiction.

With sensitivity and careful study, Norrell examines Haley’s embattled life and extraordinary achievements. His final conclusion about this “likeable narcissist” is that despite Haley’s imperfections, his influence was prodigious and deserves our respect and continued study today.


This review originally ran in the December 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 pieces of gossip.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.


Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 Christmas parties.

South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby

A selective survey of Southern literature and its value to the South and the world.

south toward home

In her introduction to South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, Margaret Eby points out that “there is no popular category known as Northern literature.” The South and its literary products have been admired and maligned; it is a region and a body of work that are considered sometimes inspired and sometimes devoid of culture and intelligence. But for a Southerner, it is simply (or complexly) home. Raised in Alabama, Eby undertakes a tour of the literary sites that speak to her, acknowledging that the authors whose legacies she ponders make a less than comprehensive list.

Eby visits the well-preserved homes of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, along with the sadly less appreciated (or appreciative) areas in which Richard Wright and Harry Crews grew up. She contemplates the complicated relationship of Harper Lee with her birthplace; John Kennedy Toole’s mysterious life story; and the recent marks left by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown in Faulkner’s hometown. In making a physical journey, Eby breathes the air of these literary greats, and takes the time to share their histories in coming to tentative conclusions about what their work contributes. She also includes a list of recommended reading. As its title (a reference to Willie Morris’s North Toward Home) suggests, this study pursues a sense of Southern identity through its literature, and along the way helps to elucidate what makes Faulkner’s challenging writing so rewarding and why Toole’s New Orleans lives and breathes. South Toward Home is a thoughtful, well-informed evocation of both South and home.


This review originally ran in the September 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 peacock feathers.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mary mcgrory

I am reading a delightful biography of a groundbreaking newspaperwoman, who wrote book reviews (ahem!) before her political coverage began; she would cover 12 political campaigns (and everything in between) in her lengthy and influential career. I am reminded somewhat of Newspaper Titan. But John Norris can tell it better than I can, of course.

In many ways, Mary was as much an anolmaly at the end of her career as she was at its beginning. When she broke through, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, she was the lone female reporter in the room. On the campaign trail, she was one woman surrounded by a hundred men. By the end of her career, she was working in an environment where there were more and more women, most female reporters were married, and employers like the Post provided maternity leave and benefits. To this new generation of women, Mary was a throwback: the woman who took on McCarthy and Nixon; the pioneer who was forced to decide between career and love; a beloved relic from an earlier era who drank with the Kennedys and crafted handwritten thank-you notes. Mary had gone an entire career without ever being the norm.

Stay tuned for my review of the book, followed by my interview with the author.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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