Thursday, September 19, 2013

Arnie Bernstein

Arnie Bernstein learned firsthand about American Nazis as a high school student, when a group of neo-fascists threatened to march in his neighborhood, known for its large Jewish population. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, BBC Radio, NPR, PBS, and numerous documentaries. He’s lectured at DePaul University, the Chicago History Museum, and other venues, and appeared on C-SPAN's Book-TV. Bernstein's nonfiction tale Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing was honored as a Notable Book of the Year by the State Library of Michigan. He lives in Chicago.

Bernstein's new book is Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.

Earlier this month I asked the author about what he was reading. Bernstein's reply:
I have eclectic tastes in reading, and always seem to be juggling multiple books, depending on mood, latest passion, and time. Since I’m a nonfiction writer, I mostly stick to biography and history, which is fine by me since those have always been my favorite kinds of books since childhood. On the other hand, this summer I resolved to start reading some fiction again. Fiction writing techniques are vital to good nonfiction. I want my words to come alive on the page, and novels often do that far better than dry historical accounts. Delving back into fiction has given me great insight into how other writers get their voice on the page, which helped enlighten my own work. So what am I reading at the moment or in recent past?

Insurgent Mexico by John Reed.

Most modern audiences know Reed from Warren Beatty’s epic biopic Reds. He picked a great character. John Reed was a vibrant and hard working writer of the early 20th century who pioneered the kind of participatory journalism we take for granted today. Insurgent Mexico is a series of dispatches Reed wrote from the field for The Masses magazine during the Mexican Revolution, compiled into book form. He was on the front lines, riding with Pancho Villa and foot soldiers alike, spending nights with local peasants; bonding with them over bullets dodged, tequila consumed, tortillas eaten, and card games won and lost. The writing is vivid and exciting. You can feel the desert heat, see the bright colors of the blooming cactuses, and smell the rich miasma of sweat, gunpowder smoke, tobacco, and food. Reed’s description of Villa accepting an impromptu medal from his acolytes is a wonderful comic portrait. And his participation in an illegal casino crammed into a ramshackle hotel in 1913 Mexico could easily describe a similar gambling den of 2013. This is a century old book that is far ahead of its time. Reed’s account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World is his best-known work, but this earlier book is his finest.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

I haven’t read this one since high school, but it’s something I’ve been to wanting to reread for years. Finally I picked it up and I’m glad I did. Forsyth’s writes the story as an alternating criminal and police procedural, giving readers a streamlined dual narrative of a hired assassin’s careful planning to take out French President Charles de Gaulle as a French police force conducts a swift but methodical search to find “the Jackal” before he can complete his well-paid assignment. It’s a straightforward storyline with intriguing characters and a myriad of unexpected plot twists. Forsyth plays it subtle and understated from start to finish, which ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hollywood Nocturnes by James Ellroy.

Ellroy can be tough going. His plots are dense thickets that are not easily navigated, seething with complicated characters of varying ethical behaviors. But I do enjoy his work, which reads like equal parts low budget film noir and Jim Thompson pulp novel. Ellroy’s American Tabloid is about as compelling a fantasia on the JFK assassination as you’ll ever see. Hollywood Nocturnes is a collection of shorter works, which is more accessible to an Ellroy neophyte. His opening novella “Dick Contino’s Blues” is the best of the lot. Dick Contino, an obscure professional accordion player who appeared in the grade Z 1958 film Daddy-O, fascinated Ellroy. With Contino’s blessing, Ellroy ripped out a fictitious criminal counter life for the man. The reimagined Contino is our escort through the Dante’s Inferno of post WWII Los Angeles, a lowlife world jam-packed with movie star wannabes, two-bit filmmakers, crooked cops, serial murderers, scams sabotaged by reversal scams, and a TV amateur hour talent contest starring pizza delivering hookers of varying sexual preferences. The oddball crime tale pulls together a few loose facts into hardcore fiction using a terse prose style that doesn’t flinch in action or word choices. Ellroy’s gift for fresh takes on familiar stories is at its best here as he nimbly careens through the seamy milieu. Not for all tastes, but a dark diversion filled with scattershot violence and degenerate eroticism that makes for an enthralling read.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw.

Joseph P. Kennedy is a rich subject for any biographer. In this definitive work, historian David Nasaw gets it right. His subject is a maddening (and sometimes self-damning) contradiction of a man: a loyal husband and father with a string of beautiful mistresses, including screen star Gloria Swanson; an intelligent and savvy diplomat who thinks that England and the United States can negotiate with Adolf Hitler; a philanthropist whose love for public service is countered by his career as a ruthless businessman with strong distaste for anything that infringes on his corporate practices. Nasaw had access to Kennedy’s private papers and correspondence, which makes for keen insights. I was especially was moved by Nasaw’s portrayals of Kennedy’s emotional reactions to the violent deaths of four of his nine children, and the personal horror he felt in the wake of the well-meaning but botched lobotomy he approved of for his developmentally disabled daughter Rosemary. The Kennedy clan and their decades-long impact on national, if not world history everywhere continues to fascinate. This biography gets it right in showing the genesis of a profoundly influential dynasty.

Rubber Balls and Liquor by Gilbert Gottfried.

Rude. Crude. Laugh out loud funny. Smutty jokes. Crackpot stories of voicing Disney characters and TV commercials. More smutty jokes. Tales of life on the road as the comedian people love to hate. Still more smutty jokes. Hey, it’s not great art but I didn’t pick it up for the literary insights. Just good clean dirty fun, and nice diversion from some of my heavier reading.
Visit Arnie Bernstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue