Monday, July 29, 2013

The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey

The Queen: A Life in Brief
by Robert Lacey

With a newly arrived Royal Baby (capitalization probably required), it seems appropriate to read about the child's great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II. What got me picking up this indeed brief book, however, was The King's Speech. I'd finished watching it on Netflix and remembered seeing screenwriter David Seidler on Charlie Rose when the film was first released. He said that he'd wanted to explore the story of King George VI's stutter and relationship to his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, but that the Queen mother asked him to wait until she died. Then, of course, she went on to live a total 102 years. Nine years later, The King's Speech won 4 Oscars, 7 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe, and 2 SAG awards. It is an outstanding film, and I wanted some additional information about the family.

I've never really been a royalist, but my interest stems from how odd their insular experience must be. In The King's Speech, the Queen Mother, then the Duchess of York (played by Helena Bonham Carter), makes a joke that being royalty is like “indentured servitude,” which isn't too far off — though it's still a very pampered, privileged life, despite its obligations. The Queen: A Life in Brief condenses much of the information found in Robert Lacey's other book, Monarch (also known as Royal, in the Great Britain edition), which was the basis for the Helen Mirren film, The Queen. When a family is so private, the sources all seem to feed into one another.

Despite being a slim book with thick pages and fair amount of photos, Lacey still provides plenty of information about Elizabeth Windsor, from her birth on April 26, 1926, to her irregular ascension to the crown in 1953, then on to all the Diana-Charles-Camilla chaos, and her current existence up until last year's Diamond Jubilee. The impetus for publishing this biography was probably because of that anniversary and the subsequent renewed interest in royalty — a move I can't begrudge, given my timing for publishing this review.

There's a little bit of background information on Queen Elizabeth's father, Prince Albert, who would eventually become King George VI, when his brother David (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne. I found myself wanting more than what was mentioned, but I suspect I will have to choose another book listed in Lacey's bibliography for any more information. Other family members get more time — not so much Elizabeth's sister, Margaret (who died in 2002), but certainly her children and her husband, Prince Phillip. Lacey recounts her courtship with Prince Phillip as a long and drawn out affair, punctuated by interference from family in the name of “duty.” He also talks about the strained relationship she's had with her children, Charles and Andrew, and the grandmotherly way in which she renewed public support after Princess Diana died.

Lacey writes in a simple way that's not overly fawning. He points out the difficulties and criticisms the Queen has faced over her reign, but he does not become gossipy or overly malicious. He's a very good biographer in that there is not much conjecture. The facts are presented, he cites his reference material, and he makes it all interesting.

Only six months older than the Queen, Margaret Thatcher was Elizabeth's first Prime Minister of her own generation, and would turn out to be her longest-serving premier ever. For the entire decade of the 1980s, male chauvinist Britain was unique in the world in having a female head of state alongside a female head of government. But they were women of very different styles. A prime minister who loved a row was teamed with a monarch who would do anything she could to avoid one.

What's also refreshing is that Lacey talks about the recession and awful practices Thatcher employed, but he doesn't do it in a way that criticizes Thatcher because she's a woman. Blessedly little page space is given to things like clothing and style matters — though with Princess Diana, some of that is unavoidable. Everyone is talked about in regards to their actions, not their gender.

I finished the book in about two nights, and it nicely sated my curiosity about the Queen. I don't know that I'm so enamored with British royalty that I'll pick up Lacey's other books, but I would definitely recommend The Queen: A Life in Brief to anyone looking for a basic rundown of recent history. This book accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, and for that, it is worth mentioning.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

This review now also appears on Pajiba.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Massive Internal News Update as of 7-20-13

The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971)
Wow, we have a lot of catching up to do, don't we? July has been a rather busy month for me, so let's get right to what I've been doing when I haven't been posting here.

At Persephone Magazine:


And now for so many Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:

  • June 7th: Featuring cool Poe book art, writing fantasies, good interviews, Scrabble and more.
  • June 15th: literary cats, gendered covers, more good interviews, Patricia Highsmith and more.
  • June 28th: Jess Walter being awesome, Jami Attenberg being awesome, other people being awesome,  MORE Patricia Highsmith, etc.
  • July 5th: More book arts, Neil Gaiman, foot-in-mouth on Twitter, Adulting, other things.
  • July 20th: Contests! Advice! Lists! Oh My!
Geez, that better be all, shouldn't it?

Until next time!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group by Ian F. Svenonius

Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group
by Ian F. Svenious

What a delightfully odd little book this is. Presented as an old manual mixed with a narrator that's rather Lemony-Snicket-meets-Ted-Wilson, Supernatural Strategies For Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group manages to be just as funny as it is strange. Throughout, Ian F. Svenious injects enough knowing truth that anyone who has ever involved themselves with musicians will recognize.

The idea is this: During a séance, the ghost of The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones offered advice on forming a group, “accompanied by a vague scent of Moroccan spice and the rustling sound of suede on corduroy.” I let out an audible Ha! when I read the following:

Can we somehow become renowned without dying?
Faking one's death is an obvious route, and is often accomplished — albeit in a metaphorical sense — in collusion with the PR Industry. First one must create a record which is sensationally acclaimed. Then one must explode at the apex of its career.
[…]The La's, the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, the Sex Pistols, and The Specials all successfully used this virtual death technique to ensure renown, as did David Bowie when he fired his group Spiders From Mars onstage while their concert was being filmed at the Hammersmith Odeon for theatrical release.

Which is, of course, completely true until festival season 25 years from that “death,” when the living members of three-quarters of those bands reunite for a bit of Rock 'n' Roll Church at Glastonbury or Coachella. A tidy profit and a bit of personal nostalgia — They can be loved as before.

(Lest you think I'm making fun: With Noel Gallagher as my witness, I would succumb to my own metaphorical perishing if I could see the Stone Roses live.)

Eventually the spirit of Brian Jones signs off, and this séance group contacts Richard Berry (composer of “Louie, Louie”), who tells them all about how rock 'n' roll relates to the history of the US and its military industrial complex. Somehow, it makes a certain sort of sense. The spirit of Mary Wells continues these thoughts while also tying them to the music's origins within blues and doo-wop. “Her spirit (or what announced itself as such) communicated by spelling out letters in cooked spaghetti on the wall.”

Of course she does.

As Mary Wells was neatly explaining the origins of the group model, a ghost claiming to be Sir Paul McCartney interrupted and began to fill us in on the next stage of historical development. “So the rumors where true!” we joked, but he assured us it wasn't so. He explained that, though he is not dead, he does spend a lot of time in the spirit world while meditating or tending to his garden in Scotland.

What, was George Harrison not available? Or is he too busy to offer his thoughts on the British “colonizing” rock music? (That colonization has to do with “the founding fathers' teenage tantrum called 'The American Revolution," by the way.)

The spirits and the advice and the historical context continue, and I suppose it's meant to be funny that every spirit speaks in a dry, lecturing way and not in their own voices. That trick gets a bit old as the book goes on, so blessedly, the book is not very long.

Still, I did really enjoy all the talk of bands to which I listen. Besides the Stone Roses, The Small Faces get a mention, and then there's a whole rundown of musicians and their astrological signs. Identities within the band, their outward image, sex and drugs are all discussed, and perhaps what I found most amusing was that I'd already written about a fictional band that quite mirrored these traits.

Bass players are usually picked for their style and are often quiet and/or affable. Guitar players are often controlling, temperamental, and fastidious. Singers, insecure because of the highly personal nature of their contribution, behave like politicians. Drummers are gregarious, but have style and anger issues.

Did I write about a band this way because I have studied real life counterparts, decades' worth of bands, and therefore had absorbed this “supernatural” knowledge? It's very funny to me, though I understand that it probably isn't as much to you reading this.

However, if you've been in a band, managed or dated a musicians, or have just spent a lot of time thinking about music, this book is worth a look. The pairing of ridiculousness with facts makes the theories all the more plausible. While I didn't love this book, I liked it, and it reminded me of all the great rock 'n' roll stories I love to hear about, and all the analysis I love to provide.

Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.