January, for many people in our area, is the quiet time.
Often, the weather makes it difficult to impossible, to be out and around. Our local arts organizations tend to schedule their productions for times when performers can get to rehearsals more easily and audiences can be depended upon to show up.
Those of us who rush through other seasons, desperately wishing for some quiet time to gather our scattered thoughts and to give our lives some direction - rather than just rocketing forward without steering, like a roller coaster which has left the station - now find ourselves with our wishes granted. We have time to read something more stimulating than beach reading, to watch films which ask more of us than that we just sit back and watch the special effects, and to seriously consider creating something of our own: a painting, an original book, or perhaps some serious poetry.
History’s Greatest Conspiracies
If we plan now, we can make a special birthday celebration for someone special, or we can finally plan that trip we've been dreaming of, for decades. If we don't plan now, we may well find ourselves defrosting a frozen dinner on our anniversary or sitting in front of re-runs of less-than-wonderful reality shows on television, for our birthday, because they came on and we don't want to go to the trouble of hunting up the remote.
As usual, the first half of December was jammed with places to go and people to contact. Then, suddenly, no one in town was seeking our attention, and we find ourselves sharing ideas, thoughts and feelings, instead of just observations of things others are doing.
My stacks of books, sent by publishers in search of reviews, or books purchased on a run-through of an interesting book store, are on the verge of tumbling over, so let's reduce the height of the pile by using some quiet time for reflection on things we read, while the wind was whipping up snow drifts, outside the windows.
BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS
Every few years, an actor comes along who touches a chord in national and international audiences. That inspires them to try to dress like the actor, to wear their hair like him, even to try to live their lives like him.
Naturally, I'm using the term ''actor'' in its modern, non-gender specific meaning.
Once such iconic actor was James Dean. Born in 1931, in small town Indiana, he would live only long enough to make three films before he was killed at the age of 25, in the wreck of an exotic sports car which he was famed for driving too fast.
Some of his fame is due to a coincidence of time and place. He reached adulthood at the end of World War II, just at a time when young people had only recently learned about concentration camps and death marches and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. It was a time when young people were learning that to model their parents' thinking and their way of life was possibly to re-create the conditions which had created those horrible things, about which earlier generations knew little or nothing.
The U.S. came out of the war with the only economy which was still functioning. The whole world was trying to rebuild from all the bombing and the years of destruction, and virtually the only factories which were working and the farms which were producing food were in North America.
Even here in North America, Canadians had joined the war, with its massive loss of lives and economic destruction, two and a half years before we did, so even they were struggling to catch up with us economically.
Young people had time and money which earlier generations had never enjoyed, so they were relatively free to re-imagine how life could be.
Author Paul Alexander originally wrote his biography, ''Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean,'' in 1994. The book has recently been re-released, in a paper-bound edition, which offers an interesting perspective on the 1940s and 50s, and the thinking and living which created them, as well as on the entertainment industry, then and now.
Had he been born a few years earlier, Dean would have had difficulty establishing a career with his naturalistic style of speaking. To those who became his fans, he talked as a real person would talk, while other actors projected their voices unnaturally. As it happens, inventions made during the war, of better microphones and better sound recreation systems made it possible for what critics would call Dean's ''mumbling'' to be heard by his adoring audiences, when it would have been impossible, only a few years earlier.
Dean's short life wasn't a happy one, by any means. When he was still very young, his father decided he would have better chances of finding a job if he moved the family to California. Not long after they made the move, Dean's mother was diagnosed with cancer.
When she died, her husband decided that he would never be able to raise a child by himself, and he sent his young son back to Indiana, where his sister and her husband took him into their farm household, and did their best not to make him feel like an outsider in their family.
The boy grew up very slender and extremely near-sighted, in a community which paused in their worship of high school football, only to indulge their love of high school basketball. Although he did play some third-string basketball, it was the theater club which provided him with a place to belong and to know some success.
On graduation from high school, Dean moved back to California, hoping to reconnect with his newly remarried father. He attended a community college for a year, then was accepted to the theater program at UCLA, but after attending and finding the classes focused on screen acting, he dropped out and moved to New York City. In both cities, he seems to have supported his living expenses and gotten himself auditions and small parts by his willingness to be very friendly to those who were in a position to help him, both men and women.
James Dean is both famous and highly respected, so it is no surprise that there are a great many people who want to claim that they were his lovers, and all of his biographers have made some effort to sort through which of them actually were romantically involved with the actor and which are simply hoping to advance their own reputations, although Alexander focuses far too much on matters which might sell books, but couldn't have much affected Dean's talent as an actor and his role in our culture.
I enjoyed reading the book. I think it taught me a good deal about the culture of celebrity and the development of both our film and stage industries.
If you're interested, ''Boulevard of Broken Dreams'' has 306 pages in paperbound edition. It was published by Plume Books, which are an imprint of Penguin Books. It's priced to sell for $16. Find it with ISBN number 0-452-27840-6. The online catalog shows no copies available from any of the libraries in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System.
HISTORY'S GREAEST CONSPIRACIES
With the possible exception of murder, few things stimulate the public's interest as much as the thought of conspiracy.
For example, was President John Kennedy murdered by a lone gunman, or by a plot by the KGB, the Cuban Underground, the Mafia, the F.B.I., or the Real Housewives of Dallas? Such discussions have inspired hundreds of books, films, television documentaries, plays, and other examinations.
Author H. Paul Jeffers has published a book with what he considers the 100 greatest conspiracies in all of history.
The book is badly flawed. For one thing, to arrive at the full hundred plots, he includes issues such as whether Adam and Eve conspired to hide their eating of the forbidden fruit from an angry God. That may be begging the question a bit much, for nearly anyone.
His analysis of what happened in historical situations and the meaning of what happened seems to be colored by a rather right wing point of view. It's rather the Fox News version of the truth, in some cases.
Still, many of us have heard somewhere in our past about Sacco and Venzetti, about the only Vice President of the U.S. to be charged with treason, and about how the executives of Enron managed to destroy the finances and, in many cases, the lives of thousands of Americans, while apparently convincing themselves they were just ''playing the game'' of good financial officers, everywhere.
It does us good to learn when these things happened, who was involved, and the basic facts of the issues.
Even the author's facts are sometimes plain wrong, although fortunately, those situations tend to happen in side issues. The example which comes immediately to mind came in the segment dealing with the plot to assassinate Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas A. Becket, in the 12th Century.
Jeffers reports correctly that a film was made about Becket's murder which starred Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O'Toole as English King Henry II, who brought about the bishop's murder. He then adds that not long after the film was made, O'Toole would play King Henry again, in the film ''A Man for All Seasons.'' In fact, that film was about Thomas More, not Thomas Becket, and O'Toole wasn't part of the cast. He's thinking of ''The Lion in Winter,'' in which O'Toole did return to the role of Henry II.
It's an error which is not vital to understanding the plot being described, yet it can be easily researched in less than a minute, so it impeaches the author's believability.
Still, the book is divided into three to five page segments, which mostly recount accurate history. It's not a tool for serious research, but not a bad way to while away some time, while learning about the forces which have shaped our world.
''History's Greatest Conspiracies'' has 314 pages, in hard bound edition. It is dated 2004, and is intended to be priced at $22.95, although I found it for less on a number of web sites.
It was published by Fall River Press. Find it with ISBN number 0-7607-7843-4. I couldn't find any copies for borrowing from the Library System.
VAMPYRES OF HOLLYWOOD
I know I said in the introduction to this column that January is a great time to do more serious reading and thinking. On the other hand, a good piece of trash can brighten your outlook, any time of the year, as long as you know and accept that it's junk reading.
''Vampyres of Hollywood,'' is a novel by Adrienne Barbeau and Michael Scott. Scott is an Irish novelist, whose work I haven't read before. Ms. Barbeau is better known as an actor, probably best recognized as Carol, the hapless daughter of Beatrice Arthur in the television series ''Maude.'' After that very successful show, she enjoyed an extensive career as a ''scream queen,'' in such cheap horror films as ''Swamp Thing,'' ''Creepshow,'' and many others.
In this novel, the authors combine celebrity gossip, gore, police procedure work, and plenty of sex appeal, to produce a light confection which won't expand your mind, nor teach you anything about anything, but which will entertain you and provide you some instantaneous escape from slippery streets, head colds, and the general woes from which we all suffer.
The novel is presented by two alternating narrators. Ovsanna Moore is the beautiful and sexually adventurous head of a minor film studio, who entertains and further enriches herself with leading roles in comic horror films. She's also a 500-year-old vampire. Actually, you may have noticed, the book faithfully uses the less-accepted but more exotic spelling ''vampyre,'' so I'll try to do it, as well.
Peter King is the other narrator. He is the stereotypical handsome, clever, successful, but too independent for his own good detective who is always two heartbeats from being fired, because he does what he thinks is right, regardless of the effect on higher-ups' reputations.
One thing which eventually saved me a lot of confusion: at the beginning of each chapter, there is either a small image of a pair of red lips, punctuated by a pair of fangs, protruding between them, or else a smoking hand gun. Chapters beginning with the fangs are narrated by the vampyre, and those beginning with the gun are narrated by the cop. While reading the first couple of chapters, I found myself searching for clues whether I was reading the actions of one or the other, until I figured out the code.
The plot of the book concerns a growing series of gruesome murders, of Hollywood insiders. At each murder scene, clues have been carefully left to implicate Ovsanna. Because we have her narration, we know that she has learned to live by taking only small amounts of blood from living and willing donors, who receive other favors in return for their contribution.
But, the Queen of all the Vampyres is coming to town, and she is known for destroying members of the clan who allow to slip out any hint that Vampyres actually exist. As long as people believe the myths, and that they are myths, the vampyres can continue to go about their business without worries about crusaders with wooden stakes.
Will Ovsanna or Peter, or the pair of them, working very closely together, solve the murders and unmask the real killer, before the Queen comes round and believes that Ovsanna is the killer? Will Peter keep his badge, not to mention his heart and his blood supply?