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Holiday Reading 2004

Truman Capote, the Battle of the Bulge, Hollywood, the Antichrist, and more.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2004 • By TWS STAFF
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Anything by P. G. Wodehouse.

Anything by Leo Strauss.

Anything by Donald Westlake.

--William Kristol

The best almost-new book I read this year, by a long stretch, was Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, by Joan Acocella, which came out in 2000. At 125 generously typeset pages, it's more of an essay than a book, but it has more interesting information in it, and more wisdom, than most books 10 times the length. Acocella's subject, as the title says, is the great novelist Cather and the mostly unkind and quite often clueless treatment she has received at the hands of critics and other eggheads since the publication of her first novel a century ago. But as you read along you see that Acocella is after bigger game. What she's really laying out is a clear-eyed and courageous expose of the superficiality, the wind-sniffing trendiness, the thinly disguised self-interestedness that have corrupted the critical establishment itself, and brought the country's intellectual life to its present unhappy state. Literary critics don't read a writer like Cather any longer, they just use her for their own, often idiotic, purposes. Acocella herself isn't a literary critic--she writes subtly and beautifully on dance for the New Yorker--and maybe that's why she sees so clearly what has happened. Anyway, it's a lovely book, as unsentimental and passionate as Cather's finest stories.

--Andrew Ferguson

In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that Hollywood can be understood, but only dimly, and in flashes. That was nearly 65 years ago. And while the industry has been sanitized and corporatized since, his assessment remains mostly true: Hollywood, the thing, is difficult to fully comprehend.

Every year we get books which try to make sense of one part or another of the Hollywood equation. This year we had mediocre offerings from Joe Eszterhas on the culture of Hollywood (Hollywood Animal) and David Hayes and Jonathan Bing on the economics of Hollywood (Open Wide). Neither is much worth you time.

What is worthy, is an older book I stumbled upon this year: Steven Bach's Final Cut. Written in the wake of the Heaven's Gate disaster, Final Cut is the definitive chronicle of a train wreck. It is definitive because (a) Bach is an elegant writer and unsparing observer and (b) because he was the United Artists executive who greenlit the doomed picture. It is one of the three indispensable books about the movie business.

In one striking vignette, Bach visits the filming of Heaven's Gate deep in the wilderness of Montana. He has been sent by his corporate bosses, who are concerned with the movie's rapidly growing budget, and arrives to find a production in disarray. Bach begins to grasp the magnitude of the situation only when he overhears one actress furtively asking, "Who do I have to f*** to get off this picture?"

For a flickering moment, all of Hollywood comes clear.

--Jonathan V. Last

In the category of books I've read, there are two I find particularly appropriate for the season. The first is The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw. It is the story of the most decorated American platoon in World War II--from their training in Texas to the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge to some of the most dreaded POW camps in the Reich. This month also marks the 60th anniversary of the Bulge, a battle that ultimately claimed some 19,000 American lives. The second is the reprinted Between Meals by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. It is a gastropornographic journey through France from the early 1900s through the 1950s. Along the way, Liebling shares some of his favorite French fare ("truite au bleu--a live trout simply done to death in hot water, like a Roman emperor in his bath") and some of the worst (he calls rosé wine the "Pink Plague"). Liebling takes his "feeding" to Caligulan heights. It may inspire you to eat as bravely--at least just for the holidays.

In the category of books I haven't read (yet), I'd like to mention two: my friend David Evanier's Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin, which has become a movie starring Kevin Spacey, and Michael Crichton's State of Fear--a book that's got the environmental movement up in arms over Crichton's calling their global-warming concerns over-exaggerated. Other books have done this before but not one penned by a mainstream bestselling author.

--Victorino Matus

If anyone consistently gets short shrift around Christmas time, it's the Antichrist. Make it up to him by reading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's fantastic novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, in which Satan stars.