Reading the holidays right
by Tavo Amador
After years of being hurt by Amazon, brick-and-mortar bookstores are enjoying a comeback. Sales in the last few years have increased. It's easy to see why: walking into a book-filled space, browsing through the selections, or having a light refreshment is a civilized way to spend time. It's also a great way to find the right selection for people on your holiday gift-list.
John Preston's A Very English Scandal – Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment (Other Press, $27.95) is a spell-binding true account of Jeremy Thorpe (1929-2014), a Member of Parliament and head of the Liberal Party from 1967-76. He was among the most popular and charismatic politicians of the era. Few knew of his secret homosexual life. He often harassed his ex-partners, embezzled funds, and was involved in other unsavory and dangerous undertakings. In 1979, in a real-life event right out of a classic British mystery, the upper-class Oxford graduate's life came undone. On a dark night he met an ex-lover on a moor. Also present was a hired killer and a dog. The consequences rocked the country. Thorpe was charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey. Not since Oscar Wilde had the United Kingdom been shocked by such a scandal. Preston's research is thorough, and he resists the temptation to sensationalize the narrative. He doesn't have to.
American author Gore Vidal (1925-2012), a self-described "homosexualist," was no stranger to politics or the foibles of the upper classes. Grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore, he was born into privilege. In 1948, his groundbreaking novel The City and the Pillar, a homosexual love story, caused a furor. The New York Times refused to review any of his subsequent books, a ban that remained in place for many years. Jay Parini's Empire of Self (Anchor Books, $18) is a sympathetic but honest biography of a fine, versatile writer, a superb raconteur, an astringent critic of America, a one-time intimate of the Kennedys, and an emotionally frigid man who eventually followed his dazzling mother Nina into alcoholism and a life of name-dropping snobbery. It's a cautionary tale well-told.
Movie buffs and anyone who believes that creativity doesn't diminish with age will enjoy Jason Solomon's Woody Allen, Film by Film (Carlton Books, $40). It's a well-illustrated assessment of Allen's (b. 1935) exceptional oeuvre, which ranges from the neurotic comedy of Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall (1977) to the emotionally repressed and chilly family in Interiors (1978), to the charmingly romantic magical realism of Midnight in Paris (2011), to his most recent, Cafe Society (2016). Allen's self-involved obsessions are well known: Manhattan (as seen through the eyes of a Brooklyn native), death, Ingmar Bergman, the meaning of life, the small, homely, nerdy man's need to woo and win beautiful women: all are on display. The book includes an introductory interview with Allen.
The election of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and their administration may usher in a new age of government-sponsored homophobia. A past one is documented by Douglas M. Charles in his Hoover's War on Gays (University Press of Kansas, $34.95). J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) founded the F.B.I. in 1935 and remained its head until his death. A rabid right-winger, he suffered tremendously from internalized homophobia, which drove him to prosecute gay men and lesbians so as to dispel rumors about his own sexual orientation. His most important relationship was with associate Clyde Tolson, who was likely his lover. This ugly but important story is covered in great detail by Charles. Countless lives were ruined and many more people were pushed into closets, felt compelled to marry, and led frightened lives of quiet desperation.
Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68) was once so famous that she successfully sued Prell shampoo to prevent them from using an advertising slogan that included the line, "I'm Tallulah, the tube of Prell." Born into a prominent political family in Alabama (her father would become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators), she became a successful actress as celebrated for her beauty, outrageous behavior and dazzling wit as she was for her stage and occasional cinematic triumphs. She called herself "ambisextrous" and had affairs with women ("Hello, dahling, I'm Tallulah Bankhead and I'm a lesbian. What do you do?") and men ("I want to fuck that divine Gary Cooper"). Her sanitized memoirs Tallulah, originally published in 1952, have been reissued by the University of Mississippi Press ($25) and are hugely entertaining. "When it comes to Davis, I'll take Jefferson, you can have Bette," she said of her alleged rival, who often starred in the movie versions of roles Bankhead created on stage, including 1938's Jezebel and 1941's The Little Foxes. Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Thornton Wilder, Ethel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich are among Bankhead's famous contemporaries making appearances in this autobiography.
Mystery-lovers will be delighted with Rhys Bowen's latest Lady Georgiana tale Crowned and Dangerous (Berkeley Crime, $26). Georgie is 35th in line to the English throne, occupied by King George V and Queen Mary of Teck. She and her longtime love, broke Irish peer Darcy O'Meara, want to marry, but he's a Catholic and she will need royal permission to wed him. But that obstacle pales when the two are once again investigating a murder, this time involving Darcy's father. Bowen's wit, her bemused portrayal of English high society in the 1930s, and Georgie's engaging personality make this series a continuing delight.