A veteran cultural critic examines the rise of female-centric TV and the pioneering women showrunners behind their successes.
Groundbreaking female characters and their stories have become fixtures in American TV in recent years, but their presence hasn’t always been welcome. Press (War of the Words: 20 Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature, 2001, etc.)—former TV critic at the Village Voice and entertainment editor at Salon and the Los Angeles Times—draws from decades of interviews, research, and reporting to create a vibrant behind-the-scenes look at some of the most prominent women creatives in the industry and the role they played in bringing women-focused narratives to the forefront of modern TV and culture. She devotes the first chapter to Murphy Brown and the revolutionary sitcom’s creator, Diane English, one of the first female showrunners to prove that a woman could lead a successful show. English set an important precedent for future women showrunners and their unapologetically brazen TV heroines—Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, an industry trailblazer whose portrayal of unabashedly ambitious, sexually formidable, “unlikable” women of all different races, ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities transformed the TV landscape. Rhimes’ “color blind” casting helped her build her Shondaland TV empire and effectively normalized the idea that nonwhite, nonmales can be successful on-screen, behind-the-scenes, and in real life. In the most intriguing and intimate chapter, Press examines Transparent creator Jill Soloway, whose real life served as inspiration for her award-winning show about a family who recently learned that their parent is transgender. With a keen eye and a sharp writing style, the author presents the argument that, despite the limited power of TV and the current political backlash facing women, increased representation on-screen has the potential to inspire a cultural revolution not unlike the current revival of the feminist movement. The author also profiles Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Jenji Kohan, among others.
An urgent and entertaining history of the transformative powers of women in TV.
A thoughtful exploration of the career and elusive private life of Rock Hudson (1925-1985).
It’s surprising that in the three decades since Hudson’s death, there has been little written about him that could be considered comprehensive. Previous biographies came from past lovers and friends, and each seemed to have an agenda, often salacious. Griffin (A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, 2010) goes a long way toward rectifying this issue, casting a respectful light on some fresh as well as familiar details. The author begins with Hudson’s difficult childhood: Born Roy Scherer, he and his mother were abandoned by his father when he was just 5, and his mother would eventually remarry an abusive alcoholic. Griffin then moves on to his various jobs and his brief stint in the Navy before he arrived in Hollywood. Like Hudson’s friend Marilyn Monroe, his early recognition in Hollywood was largely attributed to his exceptional good looks, and he also experienced sexual exploitation on his path to stardom. He was taken under the wing of the powerful yet notoriously lecherous agent Henry Willson. After appearing in several largely forgettable films and signing a long-term contract with Universal Studios, Hudson established his mark as an accomplished actor and romantic lead under the guidance of talented directors such as Douglas Sirk and George Stevens. Yet it wasn’t until Pillow Talk (1959) that Hudson found his sweet spot as a versatile comedic actor. In the 1970s, he found renewed fame on TV as the star of the hit series McMillan & Wife. Griffin pays equal attention to Hudson’s private life as a sexually active yet closeted gay man, and he explores his complex relationships with both sexes. Throughout, he provides a balanced, multifaceted view of his subject. By the end of his life, having disclosed his exposure to HIV, his professional and private lives were forced to merge. Yet his death would bring much-needed recognition and funding to the AIDS epidemic.
An engrossing and carefully documented account of a beloved film icon’s life.
Since the massively successful reality competition show Survivor debuted in 2000, there have been hundreds of articles and books about reality TV. This one, by Mann (Creative Writing/Univ. of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Lord Fear, 2015, etc.), is enlivened and distinguished by the author’s genuine appreciation for the genre’s form and content. Mann has a shrewd eye for exposing the formulaic production values inherent in these programs, and he clearly sees beneath the celebrity ambitions of the reality stars. Yet he remains a devoted fan, understanding and sometimes reveling in who is compulsively watchable, whether it’s any one of the Kardashians, NeNe Leakes from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Jax Taylor from Vanderpump Rules, or any of the family members who inhabit the bizarre universe of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The author ably identifies the authentic elements in these programs that make them so compelling, and he considers how these heightened dramas and extreme personalities serve as mirrors to our lives—and, more personally, to his relationship with his wife. Their enduring bond often revolves around their shared fascination (obsessions?) with the characters who inhabit these shows, and his reflections on his marriage frequently reflect the dramas that unfold. “Somewhere in here I’m telling our story, right? That’s at least part of the idea,” he writes. “But look how it has streamlined. Look at how little life there is—just sporadic emotional plot points—even as I felt I was revealing so much. Look how I focus on the loud bangs and the sulky silences…refusing to let you and me be fully realized on the page, to be human in any way beyond broad, emotive strokes.” If Mann doesn’t quite elevate reality TV to an art form—and that’s unlikely his intention—he makes a persuasive argument for readers to sit up and take notice. The cultural implications are perhaps more potent than we’d like to believe.
An immensely captivating consideration of reality TV and a moving reflection on marriage.
Polymath Rossellini shares the fruits of her broad knowledge of literature, philosophy, art, and history in this dense yet highly rewarding work in which readers “return to the early times of our history with the intention of rediscovering the building blocks of our contemporary personality.”
The author, who has taught at Columbia, Harvard, and other prestigious universities, begins with the ancient Greeks and works her way through the eras of the Romans, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Collaborating with others is an innate human characteristic, and few civilizations illustrated that trait better than the Spartans and Athenians. The Spartans were isolationist while the Athenians were open and embracing of their culture. In both societies, a person’s social group determined who they were and what was expected of them. The author appropriately devotes a good portion of the book to Greece and the development of philosophy, focusing on the legacies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great as well as the development of art, drama, and the theater and the role of mixed government. The Roman Republic carried that idea through with a perfect mix of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, which prevented the tyranny of the few or the many. Rossellini then moves on to the growth of Christianity, which distrusted reason and separated the mind from the soul. Suddenly the church, rather than the state, was essential to survival. Art was idolatry; doubt denied salvation, and guilt became the overriding mood. The church became a temporal leader, controlling kings and calling for the rise of the Crusades. In the Middle Ages, cities grew rapidly while infrastructure improved and universities and scholarship flourished. The author ends with humanism and the Renaissance, completing a highly satisfying journey across centuries of culture.
This is no beach book. Rossellini gives us illuminating classes in art history, Western civilization, philosophy, and religion, all rolled into one book that must be read closely and pondered fully.
A captivating triple biography reveals the women who inspired Marcel Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes.
In his seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, Proust drew on his astute observations of Parisian high society: the dazzling glamour, effete customs, and, as he increasingly noted, superficiality and banality. Focusing on three alluring women who were objects of Proust’s fascination, Weber (French and Comparative Literature/Barnard Coll.; Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, 2006, etc.) portrays in rich detail a French aristocracy threatened by profound social and political change. Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus (widow of the composer Georges Bizet); Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné (a descendent of the Marquis de Sade); and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Vicomtesse Greffulhe were the grandes dames who fueled Proust’s “dream of patrician elegance and grace.” Each assiduously developed “a conscious strategy of self-promotion,” honing a distinctive image to achieve recognition and admiration. Élisabeth traded on her beauty, wearing only clothing “designed by her and for her.” Laure, with a particular talent for self-aggrandizement and tireless indulgence for “wild nights” at the notorious Chat-Noir, made sure to publicize her Sadean lineage. Geneviève, who entertained wearing “silky, mauve peignoirs,” had a reputation as “the neurasthenic queen of Montmartre.” Each was married, unhappily, and strived for some measure of independence at a time when women “had the legal status of minors.” As Élisabeth wrote, “women are meant to be trophies, pretty possessions….Smiling, placid, charming. Not leaving the nest, staying in the aviary.” Weber offers intimate details of their love affairs, betrayals, friendships, and rivalries; their worries over money and status; and their “grappl[ing] with mental illness and drug addiction.” She recounts vividly the plush ambience, dress, and décor of their châteaux and palaces as well as the parties and salons peopled by royalty, artists, and writers who mesmerized the young, aspiring, impressionable Proust.
A palpable, engrossing portrait of three extraordinary women and their tempestuous, fragile world.
In his second departure from quiz-show fare, Jennings (Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, 2012, etc.) tracks the development of an abiding personal passion: comedy.
The author assembles a concise but thorough history of the sweeping trends in American humor that have led to our present situation, in which comedy serves as the cultural lingua franca, so central to our ways of interacting, consuming, and producing that it is taken for granted. In this groundswell of “laughterhood,” Jennings hears the rumblings of a not-so-distant time when we will reach “peak comedy,” an opinion he shares with Simpsons writer Tim Long: “I don’t think you can go that much faster than people are going now.” Jennings frets over oversaturation and whether the increasingly frenetic pace of comedy (measured in JPM, or jokes per minute) might feed into our widespread anxieties, with a worldwide web of people typing “that’s funny” but never really laughing, too caught up in getting the next joke to pause and develop deeper senses of humor and too busy searching for the laugh to deal with the tragic or the truly serious. In a more hopeful projection, the author sees Twitter exchanges making us all funnier, its circulating joke cycle forming the training wheels for quick thinking, the learnable part of wit. Jennings downplays his fame as a “professional ex-game show contestant” (the winningest champion on Jeopardy! to date, for all the Rip van Winkles out there). A self-professed comedy geek, he switches from the funnyman’s thinking guy to the thinking man’s funny guy depending on whether the comedy or the geek is uppermost. Let us hope that the author has geeked out in some other areas he’d like to share with the class.
This book is full of good sense and meaningful interviews, and it would be difficult to find a smarter or more satisfying treatment of a subject so evanescent and idiosyncratic as comedy.
A sensitively discerning examination of a 19th-century superstar.
Citing a proliferation of newly available material relating to Chopin (1810-1849), award-winning musicologist Walker (Emeritus, Music/McMaster Univ.; Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times, 2009, etc.) delivers a magnificent, elegantly written biography of the famed composer. Besides Chopin’s revealing correspondence and recollections of him by childhood friends, the author’s extensive sources include a 26-volume edition of George Sand’s letters as well as a groundbreaking biography of Sand, which illuminate the French writer’s liaison with Chopin; and two recent, richly detailed studies of Chopin’s family and youth in Warsaw. Although Walker admits that Chopin’s “life and music unfolded along parallel planes, with no point of intersection,” his findings amply support the contention that the composer’s works “are woven so closely into the fabric of his personality that the one becomes a seamless extension of the other.” Investigating his life and times, the author argues persuasively, illuminates “the conditions that aroused the creative process from its slumbers.” Chopin was a prodigy: Before he turned 8, he gave his first public concert, and by 12, he dispensed with lessons, developing into “a fully formed virtuoso” by age 19. Although he gave fewer than 20 public concerts, Chopin became renowned for the grace and sweetness of his technique. “The lightness with which those velvet fingers glide, or rather flit across the keyboard is astonishing,” one listener remarked. Chopin the man was hardly sweet: He coveted admiration, became terribly upset over any change to his daily routine, could be irritatingly demanding of friends, and, according to Sand, was “terrifying when angry.” But he was indisputably a genius whose composing process, wrote Sand, “was spontaneous, miraculous.” Walker authoritatively analyzes his compositions and closely examines his friendships, relationships with family, early loves, tormented affair with Sand, debilitating illnesses, and, above all, his desire to create “a new world” with his composing.
An absorbing biography unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
The lead singer of The Who tells all—sometimes laconically, sometimes archly, but always unflinchingly.
Daltrey begins and ends his charming, too-short memoir with a common trope: a teacher who tells him he’ll never amount to anything. He reveals a rosebud early on, too: a flannel shirt that his loving mother bought him so that he wouldn’t have to suffer his school’s “itchy, scratchy, horrible, bloody pullover.” Toughened by the hardscrabble neighborhood in which he was raised, beaten up for his refusal to back down, Daltrey earned a reputation for bellicosity, including punching out his band mates in The Who, the band he founded and to which longtime foil Pete Townshend was a latecomer. (In one notorious row, Townshend punched first, getting knocked out for his troubles.) The author’s affection for his band mates is evident, though he is less than patient with the late bassist John Entwistle, who never played at any volume other than loud and spent his considerable fortune on drugs. Along the way, Daltrey reveals a few tricks of the trade, including how he came to swing his microphone so vigorously and potentially lethally. “I started twirling my microphone not because of my ego,” he writes, “but because I didn’t know what to do with my hands during the solos.” He also reveals how the band’s considerable stagecraft evolved as a way to fill a stadium that, unlike the Beatles’ audiences, was not overrun by screaming girls. Thus they made their own deafening roar, for which reason, notes Daltrey with pleasing self-deprecation, “septuagenarian Pete and me have to ask you to say that again, only a bit louder.” The author praises Townshend for his indefatigability and work ethic, but it’s clear he lacks neither: After all, while his mates were doing drugs, he was stripping varnish off medieval beams and building lakes on his country estate, a pastime he recommends. Throughout, he allows, he’s been “a lucky bugger.”
Unaffected, lucid, and entertaining: One of the best rock memoirs in recent memory.
From 1929 to 1959, five women were central to a profound artistic revolution.
Drawing on memoirs, more than 200 interviews, a huge trove of archival material, and a wide range of books and articles, Gabriel (Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, 2011, etc.) has created an ambitious, comprehensive, and impressively detailed history of abstract expressionism focused on the lives and works of Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. The author effectively sets her subjects in historical and cultural context, including “the ever-changing role of women in U.S. society, and the often overlooked spiritual importance of art to humankind.” The last goal is realized best through the testimonies of the women themselves about the significance of art to their spiritual well-being. Of different generations and often rivals, they did not cohere into a group, but they shared “courage, a spirit of rebellion, and a commitment to create.” They noisily railed against being ignored by the art establishment, angry that their husbands or lovers (Elaine’s Willem de Kooning and Krasner’s Jackson Pollock, for example) won attention and accolades while they were assumed “to accept the part of a grateful appendage” or, at best, a muse. Pollock, touted in a Life magazine profile as possibly “the greatest living painter in the United States,” emerged as the first artist celebrity. Gabriel takes her title from a groundbreaking exhibition organized, mounted, and publicized by artists in May 1951 that made the New York School of painters—the term was coined by Robert Motherwell—instantly visible. Although gaining critical attention, the first generation of New School artists struggled financially, working and living in unheated studios, subsisting on meager meals, trading art for food, and fueling themselves with copious amounts of alcohol. Their “community of goodwill and creativity” was undermined by betrayal, infidelity, and drunkenness. The author traces the changing art world with the influx of new galleries and “a tidal wave of money” as art caught on as an investment.
A sympathetic, authoritative collective biography.
An eminent scholar and critic collects her essays from 30 years of writing about art.
President of the Royal Society of Literature and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Warner (Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction, 2018, etc.) brings her capacious knowledge of myth, fairy tale, aesthetics, religion, and literature to these erudite and luminous essays on art and artists. Previously published between the 1980s and 2017, the essays fall into four sections: “Playing in the Dark,” which examines connections to child’s play in the works of artists such as Paula Rego and Kiki Smith; “Bodies of Sense,” focused on how bodies become “theme and instrument” for five artists who investigate their own “teeth, hair, feet, skin, blood, semen, sweat” as “the principal arena of debate and the chief subject of representation”; “Spectral Technologies,” which considers artists’ “desire to capture mental images beyond empirical experience”; and “Iconclashes,” which examines artists as diverse as Hieronymus Bosch and Damien Hirst, whose work speaks to the “struggle over images today: over what they mean, how we interact with them and why they matter so much.” Warner sees art criticism as an aesthetic project in its own right, not merely “an accompaniment, as a pianist plays for a singer.” When writing about artists, “I try to unite my imagination with theirs, in an act of absorption that corresponds to the pleasure of looking at art.” She succeeds impressively. In a sensitive appraisal of Felicity Powell, whose art includes iconoclastic medallions, Warner describes Powell as “elegant, thoughtful, fascinating,” with “an unusual and poetic imagination and great curiosity about lesser-known corners of mythology and art.” That description could apply to Warner’s writing, whether she’s discussing Louise Bourgeois’ decapitated nudes and aggressively maternal spiders; Smith’s astonishing “inverse paradise” and “creaturely empathy”; Sigmar Polke’s interest in materials’ “capacity for transformation, their powers to poison and heal”; or her disappointment in Hirst’s art, which has “too many comprehensible metaphors with no outer rings of mystery and resonance.”
Fertile, probing responses to the transformative power of art.
The second volume of a multipart biography of Bing Crosby (1903-1977), concentrating on his remarkable achievements during the war years.
In a long career, the years 1940-1946 represent the most lucrative period for Crosby as a pre-eminent multimedia talent. Having already established fame as a top-selling recording artist, his work on film would reach unprecedented box office success and critical heights. At the same time, he continued as a leading radio star on the popular Kraft Music Hall. Noted jazz critic Giddins (Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, 2013, etc.), a winner of a Peabody and National Book Critics Circle Award, among others, focuses much of the narrative on Crosby’s notable career accomplishments, recounting a tireless work and travel schedule to rival any artist. In addition to chronicling Crosby’s generous efforts on behalf of the enlisted men during the war that included several USO tours, the author provides extensive details on the production of each of Crosby’s films, radio broadcasts, and recording sessions, including his contributions as a businessman and entrepreneur in the further expansion of these industries. The author doesn’t shy away from his subject’s personal limitations and his often remote behavior within his family, exploring his long and often troubled first marriage to former actress and nightclub singer, Dixie Lee. Giddins also examines Crosby’s harsh disciplinary approach to raising his four sons from his marriage to Lee. Later to be recounted in Going My Own Way, son Gary’s memoir, this aspect of the artist’s life would somewhat tarnish his reputation among contemporary audiences. Throughout the book, the author impressively maintains a balanced view of Crosby’s complex character: an affable, hardworking performer admired by his peers and audience but also a man with values and ideas representative of his generation and piously Catholic upbringing. Ultimately, the author establishes Crosby’s relevancy as an indisputable talent worth fair consideration from future generations.
A deeply researched and thoroughly engrossing biography that confirms Crosby’s essential role in the history of American music and film during a crucial period of the 20th century.
A creative portal into the life of the enigmatic, reclusive, modernist painter.
It’s appropriate that a poet would write the first biography and comprehensive assessment of the paintings, sculptures, and photographs of Cy Twombly (1928-2011). His often massive art is as much lined poetry as it is scribbled, smudged paint, explosions of color, many marked with his unique chalk flourishes. “White paint,” Twombly said, “is my marble.” When young Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg were students at Black Mountain College in 1952, Charles Olson wrote to Robert Creeley admiringly about Rauschenberg’s very close friend and lover, the “clear genius of this lad.” Like Olson’s Call Me Ishmael (1947), Rivkin’s portrait of Twombly is meditative, personally reflective, and poetic. He’s traveled and done all the research, interviewed many key figures in Twombly’s life, and observed and felt the wonder of an “ecstatic” art he greatly admires. For Rivkin, “every painting [is] a self-portrait, not of the surface, the face in the mirror, but a reflection of that wilderness inside.” Twombly was a Southerner his whole life. He favored long-sleeve white shirts and suspenders. He was born in Lexington, Virginia, and his mother saw to it that he had a fine artistic education. As he traveled all over, he painted, always worried that his works weren’t selling. He married an Italian artist, Tatiana Franchetti, and they had a son, Alexander. In 1959, Twombly painted the massive “The Age of Alexander.” “Literary and historical and personal,” it is “both wild abandon and careful mark. A space that’s both, paradoxically, full and empty.” In 1964, he met Nicola Del Roscio, who would become his longtime companion and assistant. The author eagerly roams throughout the oeuvre, tracing Twombly’s growth as an artist, from the blackboard paintings, “minimal, ahistorical, singular,” to the “meditative and gracious” Green Paintings, and beyond.
Rivkin’s first book—impeccably researched, lavishly and lovingly written, insightful and discerning—is a joy to read.
Reflections both practical and philosophical on the craft and purview of tale telling, from the creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Rather than dish out amusing quotes from fan letters or standard-issue author talk, Pullman (La Belle Sauvage, 2017, etc.) offers meaty but always lucidly argued ruminations on the nature of story. He explores folktales and why they endure and matter, parallels and differences between literary and visual arts, and, a central theme in HDM(which is not, he insists, fantasy but “a work of stark realism,” daemons and armored bears notwithstanding), the profound conflicts between the reductive, authoritarian Christian “Kingdom” and the freer, more ideologically spacious “Republic of Heaven.” Amid animated tributes to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Milton, Blake, the “vast original energy” of Dickens, and others, Pullman draws from the language of subatomic physics to discourse on the “Fundamental Particles of Narrative,” each carrying a “metaphorical charge,” and how, for writers, each event in a new story creates a “phase space” within which all subsequent ones lurk. This is all saved from earnest or recondite lit-crit not only by the author’s evident intelligence and respect for his readers, but also a gift for dandy one-liners: “If you want to write something perfect, go for a haiku”; “No man is a hero to his novelist”; “What you think ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is about when you’re six is not what you think it’s about when you’re forty”; “I strongly approve of original sin.” Published or presented between 1997 and 2014 and arranged in loose thematic order, these articles, talks, and introductory essays consistently demonstrate that Pullman—for all that his gaze is avowedly white and male—is as fine a thinker as he is a storyteller. It’s almost not fair.
A collection of pieces infused with abundant wisdom, provocative notions, and illuminating insights.
A guided tour through the life and work of Robert Schumann (1810-1956), a musical genius who viewed the sublime before a decline into a syphilitic madness.
Chernaik (Mab’s Daughters, 1991, etc.), who has taught at Columbia, Tufts, and elsewhere, has clearly devoted years of research to this lush life. Although she asserts in the introduction that she is aiming her work at “the general reader,” there are many places—especially in her analyses of individual works—where general readers will require some fairly sophisticated understandings of music. That caveat aside, Chernaik rewards those who do journey through these pages with insights and conclusions that make the reading experience both enjoyable and educative. She teaches us a lot about Schumann’s world and life, including details about his boyhood and his early love for Clara Wieck (the gifted pianist whom he would later marry), whose father’s angry opposition to their relationship courses throughout the early sections. (They had to go to court to obtain legal permission to marry.) Throughout, the author shows us a complicated composer. Fond of drink and of women, he had difficulty settling down; in later sections, we see his inability to conduct less-than-gifted musicians during a stint in Düsseldorf. Chernaik also chronicles his friendships with numerous other musical luminaries and legends, including Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Brahms also developed a crush on the older Clara Schumann, but nothing ensued. The author escorts us through Schumann’s most noteworthy works, and we see his frustration about not being able to compose a successful opera. She lets us know which works are still performed, and in agonizing detail, she rehearses Schumann’s descent into darkness in a chapter aptly titled, “The Mind Stripped Bare.”
A sturdy foundation of research and musical knowledge (and love) underlies this inspiring and wrenching account of a man who pursued, captured, and lost.