Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Untouchable

Posted: December 28, 2012 in Books, Music
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I recently read Randall Sullivan’s new book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first attempt by a journalist at a comprehensive review of Jackson’s later years and all the controversies during this period, as well as the posthumous legal wrangling for control of his estate and custody of his children.

Sullivan’s book mainly focuses on the legal and financial issues which dominated Michael’s life during the final two decades or so of his life, beginning with the Jordie Chandler scandal in 1993 through his death in 2009. There is some reporting about the making of the Jackson 5 and solo albums, as well as the tours, but it’s secondary reporting that comes across almost as an afterthought at times.

This is not an easy read. The sheer volume of information Sullivan had to go through and write about – collected from interviews, police and court records – is comparable to drinking water from a fire hose. There are also a lot of characters and moving parts to keep in mind throughout the course of the story that make it difficult to for a reader to keep up. Also making it somewhat tricky to follow is that Sullivan occasionally jumps back and forth in terms of the chronology of events, from Michael’s childhood to the Jackson 5 to his solo years. Ultimately, this is editorially necessary not just because of its relevance to Michael’s life story, but to see how he grew up in the business, how it shaped his worldview, and how he built the massive financial juggernaut that he eventually became.

Very few people come out looking good by the end of the story – not Michael’s managers and handlers, his doctors, the people in his entourage, the media, the police and prosecutors who investigated him, the people on the inside or the periphery who tried to exploit their connections to Michael for financial gain, members of the Jackson family, and even Michael himself. The impression one comes away with repeatedly is that he never knew who he could really trust. He was simultaneously enabled and exploited by the people around him, from a very early age and even after his death.

This is not to say Michael was a naive and innocent victim, either. He could be shrewd, manipulative, and even show flashes of brilliance when it came to his business affairs. It was after a casual conversation in the studio with Paul McCartney that he got the idea to buy the rights to the Beatles catalog. In the late 1990s, he developed a proposal to buy Marvel Comics for about $1.4 billion and develop a Spider-Man movie. The deal fell through when Sony wouldn’t let him use the Sony/ATV catalog as collateral for the deal. Michael’s business instincts were ultimately proven correct a decade later, when Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion and four Spider-Man movies had grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

One of the few who does come across as a decent and honorable person that was truly looking out for Michael’s interests was Tom Mesereau, his defense attorney during the Gavin Arvizo trial from 2003-2005. Not surprisingly perhaps, he was also a key source for Sullivan.

Perhaps the most tantalizing details in the book for fans of Michael Jackson’s music are the comments from musicians, producers, and record executives hinting at just how many songs he had written and recorded – potentially in the hundreds – but ultimately shelved, for a variety of reasons. If released, those songs could potentially generate millions, if not tens of millions of dollars for the estate. Example: When Michael Jackson found out Tim Burton was working on a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he went into a studio and wrote and recorded a soundtrack for the movie to offer to the studio, on the condition that he be offered the lead role of Willy Wonka. The studio didn’t want to give him the lead role, but were willing to work him into the movie for any other role. Michael turned down the offer and wound up shelving the album. Whether it will ever see the light of day or not remains to be seen.

Bottom line: it’s a terrific read, but it requires an attention span because it’s not the easiest subject matter to follow. It’s not a hagiography for Michael Jackson’s fans either.

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Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp, August 2008

The Atlantic just published my story about Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance during World War II who volunteered for an assignment inside Auschwitz. Check it out.

Also, I would highly recommend buying a copy of The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, an English translation of Pilecki’s report about his time in the camp.

Holiday Reading List

Posted: December 25, 2011 in Books
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Here’s my literary to-do list for the next two weeks:

Angel Rabasa, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jeremy J. Ghez, and Christopher Boucek, Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists
Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
Lesley-Ann Jones, Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography

I highly recommend all of them.

Would-be modern day saint Greg Mortenson got hit by a devastating one-two journalistic punch courtesy of Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes pointing out his nonexistent loose relationship with the truth as it relates to some anecdotes and details in his best-selling books.

In making the comparison between Mortenson and James Frey, Krakauer notes, “Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers.”

Beyond the literary embellishment or outright fabrication alleged in both reports, the charges that Mortenson has mismanaged or used CAI funds for personal use, or claimed credit for building nonexistant schools raise even more troubling questions.  The fact that President Obama gave $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize money to Mortenson’s charity will bring even more scrutiny to what he’s done with the millions of dollars he’s raised over the years.

Again, I quote the Beatles: “Sexy Sadie what have you done / You made a fool of everyone.”

Fantastic news. From the LA Times:

In the hunt for a new spy series, Universal Pictures has acquired the rights to Daniel Silva’s books about Gabriel Allon, a former Israeli intelligence operative turned art restorer. Jeff Zucker, who stepped down as NBC Universal CEO in January, has come on board to produce.

Allon has appeared in ten of Silva’s books, beginning with 2001’s “The Kill Artist” and continuing through the recent “The Rembrandt Affair.” The latest installment, “Portrait of a Spy,” will be published by Harper in July.

Universal has picked up rights to all past and future books in the series, which have an estimated 25 million books in print.

The books are terrific. If you haven’t read any of them, imagine if Jack Bauer worked for the Mossad. The fact that Daniel Silva will be involved with the movie as an executive producer hopefully means that the script will stay as true to his book as possible.