What I Read In February

Screenshot 2024-02-03 at 11.50.58Barbra Streisand: My Name Is Barbra I first came across Barbra Streisand with a fluffy comic song in my parents’ record collection. It was ‘Second-Hand Rose’, which I now know was written in 1921 and originally performed by the music-hall comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. It was in a Broadway musical about Brice that Streisand made her name and shot to stardom. That was Funny Girl. Streisand was just 21. As a child she was practically feral. Her father died when she was an infant. Plainly an inconvenience to her cold stepfather and uncaring mother, she left home in her mid teens and hustled for acting and singing jobs, eventually scoring a residency at a well-known Manhattan night spot as well as stealing the show, aged just nineteen, with a supporting role in a Broadway production, I Can Get It For You Wholesale.  Her talents as singer and actor were spotted and she was cast as the lead in Funny Girl. That was made into a movie in which Streisand starred opposite Omar Sharif, and she never looked back. Dozens and dozens of albums followed, along with films, in which she played an ever more active part behind as well as in front of the camera. This culminated in Yentl, the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl who impersonates a man so she can acquire learning, in which Streisand not only starred, but wrote the screenplay, produced and directed — a first for a woman.  There are parallels with Streisand’s life and that of rock star Geddy Lee, whose memoir My Effin’ Life I reviewed last month. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine musicians as different as Lee and Streisand. But look closer: they are both Jewish; their fathers died when they were very young; neither went to college (which perhaps explains the ferocious curiosity of the autodidact); both are entirely self-taught as musicians, and have enjoyed lifelong and lauded careers. This mammoth memoir goes into immense detail about every project Streisand was involved in, her loves, and her hates. She settles old scores, talks about food (a lot), and recalls every outfit she’s every worn, anywhere. At almost 1,000 pages, it was (unusually for a celeb autobiography) written without literary assistance. Perhaps Streisand’s greatest coup was that she had written into her contracts, from a very early age, that she would have total creative control of any recording project she would be involved in. I suspect that this applied to this book, too. My Name Is Barbra is an enjoyable if over-long read, but somewhere there’s a place for us in Manhattan is a book editor sobbing into her skinny latte in frustration.

UPDATE: Since reading this I’ve started to listen to the audiobook. This makes more sense than the dead-tree version. It’s narrated by Barbra herself, naturally, and also has clips of the music she mentions along the way. It’s amazingly long — about 48 hours — so is likely to keep me out off mischief on dog walks for some time.


UntitledIain Banks: Espedair Street Danny Weir is a gangly bug-eyed kid from a sink estate in Paisley, Scotland, who goes by the name of ‘Weird’ (a school joke: he was ‘Weir, D.’ in the school roll). He has just one talent – writing songs. In the early 70’s he linked up with a promising rock band, became their bass player and main songwriter, and enjoyed (if that’s the word) the life of 1970s rock excess. Years later, he lives in a converted folly in Glasgow, fabulously rich but somehow aimless. A concatenation of events leads him to contemplate suicide. That’s when his rockstar past collides with an uncertain future. But which will he choose? Espedair Street comes from the literary-novel side of Banks’ personality. With his middle initial ‘M’ he wrote brilliantly realised and influential space operas. I’ve read all of those, some of them many times, but haven’t read so many of his M-free works. Those I have read are varied in character and tone, from the ghoulishly gruesome Complicity to the affectionately dotty Whit to the readable but strangely heartless The Business to the fantastical Transitions to his gleefully revolting debut The Wasp Factory. Okay, perhaps I have read more of them than I first thought. Espedair Street tends to the darkly comic, with some amazing sitcom-style set pieces (always involving a great deal of alcohol and drugs), but is on the more affectionate side of his writing. I once met Banks in the coffee queue at a SF conference, and considering that many of his works are very dark, sometimes violent, he was the nicest, kindest, sweetest person imaginable. Perhaps he exorcised his demons in his writing. He died of cancer aged just 59: even with his prodigious literary output, he left us far too early.

UntitledMartin Popoff: Queen: Album By Album I rarely read, still less buy, books about rock musicians written by fans or journalists, even books about Queen, a band I’ve been fond of since I was eleven. I confess that I bought it by mistake, on eBay. I thought I was bidding on a book of Queen sheet music, as I have just joined a Queen tribute band as piano player and need to sort my Galileos from my Bismillahs (I bought that too, in the end). Still, it didn’t cost much, and when it arrived, I read it. It’s a series of transcribed interviews with various Queen fans, musicians and journalists conducted by rock journalist Popoff, each chapter analysing one of their many albums in chronological order from the self-titled debut in 1973 to their final record, Made In Heaven in 1995, released four years after Freddie Mercury’s death. I was pleased to see that not everyone agreed with one another, nor did they have universal praise for everything Queen did. Hot Space came in for a critical panning, which one would expect, but to my surprise A Kind Of Magic came off worse. Reading this did make me realise that no Queen album can be seen as a coherent whole. This is perhaps a function of the band having four strong-minded songwriters with very different tastes. That they worked so long together and produced (in my opinion) some fantastic and enduring music is all the more mysterious.

UntitledHarry Sidebottom: The Mad Emperor Until recently perhaps the only time anyone heard the name of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (reigned 218-222CE) was in the Gilbert and Sullivan song sung by the Modern Major General:

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s/ I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for Paradox/ I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus/ In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.

But who was Heliogabalus, and what exactly were the crimes, so proverbially well-known in Victorian times that Gilbert and Sullivan’s audience would immediately have understood? History has painted Heliogabalus as the most depraved and dissolute of all the Roman Emperors (something that takes some doing). He was perhaps most notorious for his many extravagant banquets, which were not only decadent but dangerous. This idea was cemented in the 1888 painting The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a fine example of High Victoriana, showing guests at one of his soirees suffocating in a blizzard of rose petals. Lately, Heliogabalus has become a minor icon in parts of the LGBTQ+ movement, as a man who wanted to be regarded as a woman, and even (legend has it) that he inquired about having surgery to create a vagina. Wherefore the modern gender-fluid ideation?  Historian Harry Sidebottom tries to separate the man from the myth in this excellent book which — be warned — is much drier than you’d expect from the subject matter. The problem is that almost all we know of Heliogabalus comes from three sauces tzores sources, all variously unreliable, only two of which were written by contemporaries, and only one by someone who ever stood in the same room as Heliogabalus. What is certain is that Heliogabalus was a spectacularly incompetent Emperor. His lavish spending depleted the Imperial coffers; his habits alienated the Senate, the Army, the Plebs and the Imperial Household — the four constituencies that any competent Emperor would have to mollify; and, worst of all, he tried to introduce a new religion to Rome. Heliogabalus, although born in Rome, was raised in his family’s ancestral home of Emesa (modern-day Homs) in Syria, where the local god was Elagabal, a solar deity manifested as a large conical black stone. Heliogabalus was a High Priest of Elagabal and brought the god to Rome, where he insisted that it assume primacy over Jupiter, father of the Roman pantheon. Romans didn’t mind adding another God to their pantheon (they did it all the time) but objected to the demotion of Jupiter. That, along with the fact that Heliogabalus often wore priestly robes rather than a toga (a habit that the Romans found effeminate); was circumcised and didn’t eat pork (A similarity to Judaism — antisemitism, then as now, lurked close to the surface); and tended to promote people to high office on the basis of penis size — all contributed to his downfall. What Sidebottom doesn’t explain is how, a century or so later, Jupiter and the entire Roman pantheon were not only demoted but completely swept away by another obscure Oriental cult, an offshoot of the despised Judaism, that venerated a man nailed to a cross. But perhaps Constantine had better PR.

UntitledRichard Shepherd: Unnatural Causes When I was an undergraduate I went to a talk given by a forensic pathologist who recounted some grimly hilarious episodes from his casebook, many of which have stuck in the memory but which are probably unrepeatable nowadays. Imagine my anticipation when I was recommended this book by a colleague who, like me, enjoys a televisual emission called Silent Witness, which follows the lives of forensic pathologists as they solve mysterious deaths from the many clues that silent corpses can reveal — if you know where to look. Unlike Silent Witness, Unnatural Causes is the memoir of the real-life work of a forensic pathologist, one Richard Shepherd, who was switched on to cutting up dead bodies in his earliest youth, and ended up involved, directly or indirectly, in many celebrated cases, including the Marchioness river boat disaster, the Clapham rail crash, the 9/11 outrage, and the inquiry into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.  The personal cost of such work proved to be enormous. His first marriage was sacrificed to his devotion to slicing and dicing, along with his mental health (in later life he suffered from PTSD) and — very nearly — his reputation, when he was referred to the General Medical Council over a trivial error (the case was dismissed). Shepherd clearly prefers the company of the dead, who, unlike the living, are unlikely to overload one with emotional demands (his young baby, his frustrated wife, the grieving relatives of the dead) or indulge in personal character assassinations (attack-dog barristers in court-room cross examinations). His only solace seems to have come from flying, an occupation that took him far away from the cares of the everyday. I have to say I found this a grim read, though I stuck it out doggedly to the end.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
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