Ray Charles’s oldest son already told his dad’s story when he produced the movie Ray, but here he tries to give an intimate touch to familiar information.
The story is full of low points: Robinson finds Charles in his office, having cut his wrists after a drug binge, “bleeding, twitching and flailing around.” Later, after Charles goes into rehab, Robinson realizes that his father was not the “bigger than life” superhuman the world thought he was. And when Charles’s wife finally gets the self-confidence to confront him about his adultery, he gets “physical” with her, putting an end to the marriage. But like the movie, the book follows a hopeful arc, as Robinson bonds with his father over the one thing anyone can admire: his talent. Robinson becomes part of Ray Charles Enterprises, helping guide his father’s pop-culture comeback in the ’90s, and finally setting up the big Hollywood biopic that wasn’t finished until after Charles was dead.
As the title suggests, Robinson didn’t know his father all that well, which means he and co-writer Mary Jane Ross have to spend much of their time telling us what we knew already: Charles was an addict, had mistresses and lots of illegitimate children, and didn’t do his best work after he broke up with arranger Sid Feller. But Robinson’s own life does shed some indirect light on his father’s: the son becomes a drug addict, too, and finds himself unable to give his life meaning because he doesn’t have his father’s musical talent.The worst thing a celebrity father does, it seems, is produce children who inherit only his problems, not his greatness.
– Jaime J. Weinman
Originally titled The Squeeze for the less literalist U.K. market, Oil would be a good book anyway. But the April 20 explosion and sinking of BP’s offshore rig Deepwater Horizon and the subsequent uncontrolled leakage of millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico have made it an important book.
In the laconic manner of a medieval annalist, Oil covers the last 20 years of history for the oil industry’s super-majors, with some attention devoted to the trading game that has grown up around them in the era of complex financial instruments. (The merely large international oil companies and the national champions created by expropriation stand offstage in Bower’s drama, darting into the scene where appropriate.) Major themes include the race for unexploited fields in post-Communist Russia and the debate over peak oil. By a stroke of fate and geography, BP was a special focus for the Brit investigator, probably best known in Canada for his unapologetically vicious 2006 book about Conrad Black.
In sketching the corporate personalities who control the world’s hydrocarbons, Bower has provided an anticipatory diagnosis of one of the most spectacular eco-disasters of our time. In his account, BP comes off as a daring, hyperactive younger sibling to ExxonMobil, which achieves excellence and consistency by means of an oppressive culture of button-down propriety, and Shell, a technocracy where the fever dreams of ambitious managers have often been thwarted by an awkward Dutch-British power structure.
Bower constructs a key set piece out of BP’s troubles during the hurricane-plagued summer of 2005 in the Gulf. BP had been able to capture valuable property in the Gulf through fiendishly clever deal-making and technical innovation, but hurricane Dennis, a Katrina precursor, disclosed simple engineering faults in the company’s Thunder Horse platform and knocked the rig on its keister. Thunder Horse was righted and survived Katrina unscathed, but today the snide quotes Bower gathered from BP rivals—“Poor design and supervision; BP always shoot from the hip”—send a chill up the spine.
– Colby Cosh
On Sept. 30, 2006, Chinese border troops opened fire on a group of Tibetans trying to escape their occupied land over the icy Nangpa La pass at Cho Oyu Mountain, the world’s sixth-tallest peak. One refugee was killed, a 17-year-old Buddhist nun named Kelsang Namtso, shot in the back only moments away from the top of the pass and safety in Nepal. There are about 30 shooting incidents a year, barely noticed in the West, at the border. But there was something different about this one: it took place in full view of dozens of Western mountain climbers, some of whom captured it on film.
And thereby hangs a tale, spun wonderfully in Green’s morally ambiguous account. He follows two parallel-track stories: life in Tibet under the Chinese heel, and the booming commercial world of Himalayan mountaineering, today a reserve of the super-rich. In 2006 alone there were 388 expeditions, more than twice as many as a decade before; Cho Oyu, a relatively easy and safe climb, is a favourite for amateurs warming up (at $20,000 each) for later attempts at Mt. Everest. Suppliers made millions, while the guides were media stars pulling in six-figure salaries, plus gifts from grateful clients—a Canadian entrepreneur gave one guide a $7,000 Rolex. Base camps took on aspects of frontier towns, complete with theft, drugs and prostitutes. On that September day, 40 expeditions jostled for space at the base of Cho Oyu.
Green’s twin storylines converge from the general to the particular—which Tibetans, which Westerners, were present—and then into a single account. Despite their satellite connections, at first no news leaked out from the climbers. They had a lot at stake: money, ego, safety and, for some—but not all—their souls. Some were afraid the Chinese would not let them out if they broke the silence, others that they would not be allowed back in for the next lucrative climbing season. Who spoke out and who did not, and why, is at the heart of one of the most unsettling books of recent years.
– Brian Bethune
Before K’naan started wavin’ the flag, there was another soccer tournament in South Africa. It was a game between political prisoners, and it took place on Robben Island, a notorious and brutal prison where inmates were routinely starved and tortured. These men may not have had enough to eat but they fought for the right to play soccer and organize a league, and the game and its tournaments became a symbol of political resistance and hope.
While the title of the book may seem hyperbolic, the game gave the men on Robben Island an identity and provided community and solidarity. In a place where prisoners had only a number, the Makana Football Association addressed everyone by an honorific and their surname. In a prison system that required them to dance naked in front of guards (the “tausa dance” was a humiliating ritual to show that prisoners were not smuggling anything in their body orifices), the MFA gave them real uniforms and shoes. And it provided a way for inmates to champion their rights—to uninterrupted play, better food, exercise time, a real pitch. Later, many of those active in the MFA would become leaders in post-apartheid South Africa. Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota (the nickname “Terror” came from his soccer style) was a legendary striker; today he is president of the political party Congress of the People. Jacob Zuma, currently the country’s president, was, on Robben Island, a skilled defenceman, and a key MFA organizer. When South Africa won the bid to host the World Cup, Zuma, who had taken a lead role in the country’s hosting bid, argued the victory was “not just for South Africa, but for Africa as a whole.” In Korr and Close’s book, we see how a successful soccer league was a victory not just for prisoners, but for the whole of humanity.
– Alexandra Shimo
Books don’t, as a rule, come with guarantees. And yet this one is a lock-cinch to be the most fun you’ll ever have reading about North Korea.
To most people North Korea is a puzzling, poverty-stricken nation run by a belligerent madman continually embroiled in crisis and calamity. Egan, the owner of Cubby’s—an unprepossessing barbecue joint across the river from New York—sees things differently. Since 1993 he’s positioned himself as a kind of middleman between the Hermit Kingdom and the free world.
Egan’s lengthy friendship with earnest North Korean diplomat Han Song Ryol leads to a long series of humorous adventures, as the chef tries to apply his working-class New Jersey street smarts to international diplomacy.
At one point Egan gets into a fist fight at a war museum in North Korea. He finds himself fending off an inquisitive FBI and submitting to enemy agents wielding truth serum. He sends his commie-hating Dad to chaperone North Korean athletes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, with mixed results. He tries to broker an international peace agreement while upgrading his menu to include grilled shrimp.
The exact chain of events that leads to these various situations often seems to defy common sense and logic. But that hardly matters. The garrulous Egan is a great storyteller, and he’s got a great story to tell. Throughout the hijinks, readers may even develop a greater appreciation for the North Korean view of world affairs. Clearly anything’s possible.
It is also a surprisingly well-crafted book. The first chapter is a masterwork of pace, structure and voice. The book rarely flags the rest of the way. All of which suggests co-author Kurt Pitzer deserves as much credit as the scene-hogging, barbecue-cooking, North Korean-loving lead author. Pitzer’s previous work, The Bomb in my Garden, was a collaboration with Mahdi Obeidi, Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons mastermind. Can a behind-the-scenes look at the crazy antics of Somali pirates be far off?
-Peter Shawn Taylor
It’s been 15 years since Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen founded their movie studio, which was supposed to change U.S. filmmaking forever. LaPorte, a former reporter for Variety, tries to find out why—despite producing such important films and TV shows as Gladiator, Galaxy Quest, A Beautiful Mind and Freaks and Geeks—the studio failed, got sold off, and now exists primarily as a producer of Shrek movies and co-productions with major studios. Because none of the three big men would talk to LaPorte, she’s free to portray them as unflatteringly as she wants, showing us how Katzenberg sunk absurd amounts of money into dubious projects like the animated Biblical epic The Prince of Egypt, or why Spielberg’s “generous deals” on Saving Private Ryan prevented the studio from making much money off it.
Because the book consists largely of second-hand information or anonymous sources, it can sometimes seem no deeper than the average DVD making-of feature. We didn’t need a new book to tell us that the marketing department considered the Oscar-winning American Beauty “dark and difficult.” And though non-insiders will enjoy the tales of Katzenberg’s disastrous attempts to do traditional 2-D animation, their eyes may glaze over at LaPorte’s emphasis on deals and budgets, unless they really care how much money Katzenberg’s Sinbad cartoon feature lost the studio.
But in between the money matters, LaPorte has found some new anecdotes that add up to interesting character portraits of Katzenberg, the disgruntled ex-Disney employee who made his underlings want to “stick it to Disney,” and Spielberg, “the kid with the roving attention span,” who couldn’t focus on one studio for very long. These larger-than-life, movie-loving executives are reminiscent of the old studio system that DreamWorks tried, and failed, to revive. The book comes off as a story of how Hollywood got to where it is today: you start off trying to make movie magic, and wind up producing nothing except 3-D spectaculars and merchandise.
– Jaime J. Weinman