Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dave Eggers, James Shapiro and a history of anarchism.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Although he has reservations, Harry Shearer in the New Statesman welcomes this book on Hurricane Katrina: "Eggers is blessed with a story Hollywood movie-makers would kill for". In the Guardian, Valerie Martin criticises the "queasy-making hagiographic tribute that occupies the first 80 or so pages of the book", only warming to it once she has seen "what Eggers is after -- nothing less than an indictment of the entire Bush era". In the Telegraph, Sameer Rahim concurs: "Eggers clearly wants his story to be a parable about the War on Terror"; but wonders if "Eggers's good intentions might come at the expense of balanced journalism". Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Independent is not perturbed, however: "Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's documentaries, this is a true story told with the skills of a master of fiction", he writes.

The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth

John Gray, the New Statesman's lead book reviewer, describes this account of turn-of-the-century anarchism as "riveting... teeming with intrigue and adventure and packed with the most astonishing characters". In the Times, Iain Finlayson praises "an intelligent political and social overview", and in the Independent, Sheila Rowbotham says the book "conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache", even if it "leaves the reader puzzling over what exactly this world that never was actually meant to [its] protagonists." Christopher Howse of the Telegraph is less enamoured: "among the cast of Butterworth's sometimes bewildering narrative, too many simply disappear".

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Although "fully explaining the authorship controversy isn't a job for a Shakespearean scholar: it's a job for a pathologist", writes Michael Dobson in the Financial Times, the result "isn't just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question." In the Times, John Carey finds that "Shapiro's book is unlikely to cut much ice" with conspiracy theorists. "All the same, it deserves to. It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny". Hilary Mantel, writing in theGuardian, is impressed, too. Shapiro's "glinting, steely facts" are "the most riveting part of his book." She continues: "Shapiro is at his most combative when he engages with the autobiographical approach to Shakespeare studies... Self-revelation, Shapiro persuades us, was not an early modern mode."

"Contested Will" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war