During an interview following Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, his mother remarked, "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club." Journalists began referring to “the curse of the 27 Club” when writing about the surprisingly large group of musicians whose lives were all cut tragically short when they were 27 years old. Howard Sounes explores this sad coincidence in 27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
While Sounes lists 50 musicians who died at age 27, he examines the facts surrounding the lives and deaths of the six most iconic in his book. He calls the idea of the 27 Club a media construct and maintains that their deaths at the same age are merely a coincidence. In reality, the common factors in their lives were difficult childhoods, addiction, personality disorders, self-destructive behavior and a fast rise to fame during their early 20s. Given these circumstances, Sounes argues that the fact that each died at such a young age was not surprising. This book is an antidote to the media hype and Internet mythology surrounding the 27 Club. The author brings a measured examination of these stars’ lives and tragic deaths.
Sounes recently recounted the events of the final hours of some of these musicians’ lives in this Rolling Stone feature.
Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Three starlets share very different stories of life during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In Rita Moreno: a Memoir, the actress recalls her childhood move from lush Puerto Rico to gritty New York City where she found her passion for singing and dancing. She made her Broadway debut at 13 and eventually headed to Hollywood where she changed her name and coped with constant typecasting. Moreno shares the details behind her relationships with some of Tinseltown’s heaviest hitters, including Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, and Marlon Brando. Eventually, Moreno found happiness in marriage and motherhood and she remains one of the few performers, and the only Hispanic, to win two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
Two years before her death in 1990, Ava Gardner was strapped for cash and didn’t want to part with her jewels so she decided to sell her unvarnished story. She had a change of heart when she felt the conversations exposed her as too vulgar. Her ghost writer Peter Evans unearthed those bawdy recollections and with permission of her estate shares them in Ava Gardner: the Secret Conversations. Readers will savor the particulars of her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, as well as her flings with George C. Scott and Howard Hughes (again!). Gardner, one of the great beauties to grace the silver screen, is no-nonsense and her stories are indeed salty, but she is also funny, frank and reflective.
Dolores Hart catapulted to fame when she starred opposite Elvis Presley in her 1957 film debut, Loving You. Nine films, a Broadway appearance, and several television roles later, Hart stunned the world when she turned away from Hollywood and her fiancé, and took the vows of a contemplative Benedictine nun. In The Ear of the Heart: An Actresses’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, Hart and co-author Richard DeNeut, share her insider’s perspectives of such wildly different worlds and her serenity shines through the pages. Check out God is the Bigger Elvis, the Oscar winning short film for more on the remarkable Mother Hart.
British historian Kathleen Walker-Meikle collects centuries-old examples of canine representation in her succinct but illuminating work Medieval Dogs, published by the British Library. While there has been considerable research into the earliest beginnings of the human/canine relationship, and countless looks into how dogs and people complement each other today, it is fascinating to look at the ways dogs were portrayed in what is considered to be a less enlightened historical time.
Brilliantly illustrated and well captioned manuscripts and paintings from around Europe are featured, along with brief but telling text. The pre-Renaissance art, without linear perspective, speaks to a bygone age. Stories of how dogs were part of abbey life among monks and nuns show a push/pull acceptance of the animals. In some cases, dogs were happily allowed to run free throughout abbeys, while in other cases, they were more grudgingly permitted — aside from sanctuaries and dining areas. As with medical treatment for humans, veterinary skills during the medieval years were basic and often fraught with suggestions that are chilling today. It's surprising to see how many breeds from our era, such as Greyhounds, terriers and spaniels, were already classified as early as the 16th century.
Loyalty is shown in many drawings of canines that remained with their fallen masters after a battle. Representations of the dogs in these and other illustrations (such as the many lapdogs depicted in royal settings) show how people of the period valued their animal companions. While rampant superstition during medieval times did not always portray dogs in the best light, their frequent appearances within the art and manuscripts of the period show the evolution of the human/dog relationship to what it now has become.
The darling daughters of Downton Abbey would surely have shopped at Selfridge’s, England’s first modern department store. In Shopping, Seduction, & Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead transports readers to a bygone era when nattily dressed ladies and gentlemen made shopping an event. Woodhead also shines a light on the man behind the mannequins, the inimitable Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Selfridge began as a stock boy working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and eventually became a partner in that established business. His dreams were big and at the turn of the century he was able to make his magic happen in England. He wanted to bring to London a store that was unrivaled in extravagance. It took several years, but London’s first dedicated department store built from scratch opened in a halo of hype. The publicity was well-deserved, as the store really was larger than life. With six acres of floor space and every conceivable amenity, Selfridge’s was a legacy to limitless luxury. There were elevators and a bank, an ice skating rink and a restaurant with a full orchestra. Shopping was like an entertainment at Selfridge’s, where regular customers could mingle with celebrities such as Anna Pavlova and Noel Coward.
Woodhead tells the story of the retail revolution of the early twentieth century, but also focuses on the rise and fall of one visionary, but ultimately doomed man. Selfridge’s life was as large as his store and filled with mistresses, mansions, and money. This is the fascinating true story that inspired the Masterpiece series Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven, currently airing on PBS.
Online poker was a hot phenomenon in the early 2000s, and Ship It Holla Ballas! by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback traces the trend by focusing on some of the hottest players. Ship It Holla Ballas is a name coined from a poker term, a celebratory cheer, and urban slang and was chosen as the crew name by an elite group of poker players who studied the online game and figured out how to win. This group of college dropouts met on a popular message board and soon got together in person. While the authors introduce the main players using their online handles, all of them, including, Irieguy, Raptor, and Good2cu, are real guys who got to live lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Most of these young men weren’t even old enough to gamble in a casino when the crew was formed, but they took advantage of the online games to win millions of dollars. Those millions helped these enterprising, if nerdy, teens transform themselves into players with fast cars, big houses, and beautiful women. They eventually took on Vegas, winning some of the biggest poker tournaments in the world, and garnering even more attention.
Readers will get a sense of the personalities of these players and their individual motivations behind dominating this complex card game. The authors frame the story of the crew by outlining the rapid rise and fall of online poker. At one point as many as 15 million people were betting online. But on April 15, 2011, the government shut down the three largest sites, effectively killing the games. This is a story filled with ego, dedication, success, and excess. It is also the story of how the smartest guys in the room parlayed their brains into big bucks.
The shroud of secrecy which surrounds an elusive artist is at the heart of Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones. This former journalist presents an in-depth look at the reclusive artist from his beginnings as a nobody vandal all the way to the Academy Awards as producer of a nominated documentary. As unlikely as it would seem when reading about the beginnings of his journey, Banksy has somehow managed to become one of the world’s best known and wealthiest living artists. His pieces, which once drew anger and police attention, are now securing millions of dollars at auction.
While Banksy, via his publicity organization Pest Control, refused Ellsworth-Jones’ requests for interviews, the author manages to use secondary sources to shed light on this enigma. He talks with friends, acquaintances, and fellow artists to recount how this mystery man from Bristol, England, who refuses to be photographed or reveal his given name, turned the art world on its head. Readers will also meet fans who wait for hours to obtain limited edition prints and follow the author as he searches the streets for some of Banksy’s works. Ellsworth-Jones also addresses the paradox that Banksy’s commercial success has created for him and questions whether he is the sellout as so many of his contemporaries claim. This is a fascinating glimpse inside the world of street and outsider art, a social commentary, and a philosophical debate about the definition of art.
Many Americans probably got their first glimpse of Banksy (along with a distorted voice and hidden face) and his world in his 2009 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. This intriguing Oscar-nominated film prompted one New York Times critic to coin the term “prankumentary,” leaving viewers wondering whether the entire film is yet another hoax perpetuated by Banksy and his cult of followers.
Pete Townshend’s biography, Who I Am is not only the story of The Who but also a deeply personal memoir. Townshend shares intimate details from his sometimes bleak early childhood, revealing that these years caused him lifelong fears of abandonment. Who I Am also gives a personal view into cultural and historical developments in post-World War II England.
Compared to other rock memoirs, Townshend’s stands out for his lack of bitterness toward other members of The Who. He resists the temptation to disparage his bandmates. Given The Who’s colorful history, no doubt he has countless stories that would entertain readers but may embarrass fellow band members. Because this is such a well-crafted and honest memoir, the absence of descriptions of debauchery is not missed. Readers who prefer their musical biographies to be full of name-dropping gossip will not be disappointed, though. He shares numerous stories about Sixties icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Mick Jagger.
Who I Am will be enjoyed by fans of The Who and also readers who are interested in intimate memoirs of artists. Read by Townshend in his distinctly reedy London voice, the audiobook is highly recommended.
Always Looking: Essays on Art, by John Updike, is an invaluable collection of fourteen eloquent discussions that examine Western painting and sculpture. Although Updike was an acclaimed writer of literature, many readers might not know that he was also an art connoisseur. His skillful nonfiction reveals an astute perspective which masterfully dissects art in a way that will gratify the seasoned appreciator, as well as the casual observer who is just curious to learn more.
John Updike’s lifelong passion for visual art began in childhood when discovered comics, like Mickey Mouse in the Treasure Hunt. Into adulthood, he continued to seek out pieces that fascinated him and curiously described familiar pieces in a new way. While considering Gustav Klimt’s "The Dancer", Updike questioned if the painting is “a bold and necessary step in the direction of modernism, or an uneasy half-step, a cheaply bought glamour, a kind of higher kitsch?”
Much more than a conversation of art, Always Looking offers rich and vivid images of the very works Updike is discussing. From René Magritte’s unnervingly sensual "The Lovers" to Roy Lichtenstein’s loud pop of "In the Car", the short essay format makes this a perfect book of leisure. You might dip in for a bit and read on a topic or discover the pleasure of flipping through its pages to take in the richly dynamic selection. This stimulating reconsideration of classics will change the way you look at art.
Audiences continue to be fascinated by the life and work of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. He is the subject of the new theatrical film based on Stephen Rebello’s Hitchcock!: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Rebello begins with the story of Ed Gein, whose grisly crimes inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel Psycho. Hitchcock’s selection of Bloch’s gruesome novel was an abrupt departure from the expected, eliciting doubt from everyone including the studio. When Paramount made it clear that they wouldn’t back Psycho, Hitchcock offered to finance the movie himself if Paramount would distribute the finished product. Rebello pulls together details about the production of the film and explores the public reaction after its record-breaking openings in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago in June 1960. Hitchcock, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren, brings to life Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife Alma and their collaboration during the production of Psycho.
Audiences looking for more Hitchcock will also want to see HBO’s The Girl. The film focuses largely on Hitchcock’s dark and often abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren, leading lady in his iconic films The Birds and Marnie. Hitchcock and Hedren, played by Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, create unforgettable films together but at a steep price to Hedren’s well-being.