Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

I love movies, so as a result it should come as no surprise that I would love a book about the Bacchanalian excess of the 70’s in Hollywood. In fact, the book is so convincing and compelling that it actually yielded that same kind of easy, lucid narrative style that good movies usually succeed in accomplishing. Beginning with a look at the fall of the all-powerful studio system in the late 60’s, and the groundbreaking and critical success of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider,” Biskind primarily examines the producers and directors who managed to redefine Hollywood during the 70’s.

When Warren Beatty managed to convince a studio to allow him to make “Bonnie and Clyde” it took a critic to rescue the film from obscurity. Pauline Kael, who would arguably become one of the most influential film critics there will ever be, was also, in some ways, the savior of Hollywood. Her endorsement was often the straw that kept a movie in theaters and her love of non-traditional subjects and themes allowed creative luminaries to make films that didn’t necessarily need to reach a massive audience. And so, we are told, the film industry was reinvented.
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The Story of Junk by Linda Yablonsky

The Story of Junk by Linda Yablonsky

I’ve read my fair share of drug books over the years (“Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” “The Basketball Diaries,” “Dead Babies,” “Naked Lunch,” etc.). Most of these classics derive much of their uniqueness from the fact that they describe a sensation that most people haven’t or will never experience. Often these drug-oriented books breathe a strange stream-of-consciousness language that, for obvious reasons, just sounds differently than most other fiction. If anything is certain, it is that drugs, even when used recreationally, can and do generally change people. They provide a frame of reference, often impossible to achieve, without the drug-induced effect. In the end, it is either the long-term mental repercussions or the resulting addiction that really causes the transformation.

Addiction is usually conveyed, in books, movies and real life as this pathetic, debilitating evil that strips away humanity leaving only bones and disease in its wake. But in the “The Story of Junk,” the page turning, modern-epic about becoming a junkie in New York City 1982-6, Linda Yablonsky manages to tell about the experience of being and becoming a junkie by using a narrator who, through it all, still seems to understand the physical and emotional ramifications of her lifestyle.

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The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor

1997 Pen/Faulkner Prize Recipient

The characters in most of the novels I read focus on real people living in our own real world doing mostly real things. Occasionally a writer is able to come up with that rarely truly unique addition to the world in which we live. Tolkien had Hobbits, Katherine Dunn had the freaks in “Geek Love,” C.S. Lewis had the characters from Narnia, and now Rafi Zabor brings us a talking bear who plays alto sax almost as well as his idols Sonny Rollins, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

“The Bear Comes Home” is a first novel by a journalist and part time jazz drummer. With all the enthusiasm and urgency that make most first novels an author’s best, Zabor has succeeded in creating a truly epic tale. Not only does he confidently navigate the bear through the emotionally turbulent struggle to fit in as a talking bear in a human’s world, he also manages to so accurately describe the pain associated with being an artist. The bear’s struggle becomes the metaphorical voyage of a person’s race to discover what it’s going to take to make life worth living.

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Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser is a contemporary American author who writes and sees through wonderfully Dickensian eyes. His stories are filled with characters whose faces and voices become incredibly distinctive within the first few pages. With “Martin Dressler,” Millhauser follows the life and dreams of an ambitious child growing into adulthood in America at the turn of the century.

We first meet Martin Dressler in the early 1890’s as a child helping his father run a small cigar store in Manhattan. At this time New York was still a city filled with pastoral spaces, undeveloped lots, and infinite possibilities for anyone with a dream and the courage to make it real. At the age of 14 Martin leaves his father’s store to go work at a fancy hotel as a bellboy. Eventually he works himself up to assistant manager and is being groomed to eventually become the manager. But Martin’s dreams are bigger and more entrepreneurial, first opening a cigar store in the hotel lobby and then a franchise of profitable upscale lunchrooms throughout the city and Brooklyn. But it is not the money that drives him, rather it is the desire to break the mold.
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Into The Wild by John Krakauer

Into The Wild by John Krakauer

I haven’t read John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” Why bother when you’ve already seen “Everest,” and the made for TV version of the same story. However, I always did enjoy reading John Krakauer’s work in Outside magazine. My favorite of his stories included a long article about a 24 year-old boy found starved to death in an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan wilderness. This article soon became “Into the Wild,” Krakauer’s Sherlock Holmesian detective job tracking down the where and how Christopher McCandless spent the last three years of his life.

This book works for a couple different reasons: Krakauer is both a good writer and a good reporter; and he has honed in on a fascinating subject with which you can’t help becoming involved with for a few hundred pages. The premise of this true story is relatively simple: an upper middle class kid named Christopher McCandless graduates with honors from Emory University, gives away his $25,000 savings and disappears from the lives of his family without a note or a phone call. A few years later he is found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, alone and emaciated. Given only a beginning and an end, Krakauer was able to piece together what seems like a seamless recounting of the time that elapsed in between.
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