The Act You’ve Known For All These Years: The Life, And Afterlife, Of Sgt. Pepper

Another book about my favorite band, the Beatles.

It’s an older one, issued upon the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, and I read it during the 50th anniversary.

The book attempts to place the album in the context of 1967, so includes the Beach Boys, Kinks, the Who, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and all the usual suspects.


Problem is that the writer can’t decide what he ultimately feels about the album. He seems to be among those who say that Sgt. Pepper killed “pop” music – which is ridiculous. He also spends the last chapter blasting anybody who considers it one of the best albums ever released.

The writer’s style is also a hurdle – too clever by half full of puns, inside jokes and references that miss the mark.

It was a timely read (it jogged my memory about Sgt. Pepper), but I didn’t really get anything new from it. Just some slings and arrows from somebody who apparently believes he’s above liking Sgt. Pepper. 


W. C. Fields: A Biography

He was more than a gin-besotted juggler and movie funnyman. W.C. Fields was a tragic figure who worked hard for his career, even though the movie studios didn’t always cooperate.

Like many comedians, it seems, Fields worked through personal issues – drinking among them, yes, but also a loveless marriage, a series of affairs and continuing professional disappointments.

Fields went from vaudeville to radio,  from love to loneliness, and from success to failure and back again. Along the way, he wrote many of the scenes and gags that made him a known quantity. But the legend of his drinking always outweighed the reality.

Throw in a wife he left but never divorced and a handful of skits from the formative days of vaudeville that he kept resurrecting in movie after movie and you’ll see why he never quite rose up to the top until, ironically, after his death.

Fields is quoted extensively from his own memoirs and letters, and comes off as a much smarter man than I was expecting. He also was shrewd – he stashed away money at banks all over the world just in case.

One of the more amazing comedians of the era.


Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal

A great social history of the ultimate social event – eating.

This book traces the development of the American meal, from the messy subsistance meals of the colonists to the more genteel English-insprired meals, from French influences in the multiple-course meal, to a midday “dinner” that turned into the quick lunch of today.

It’s all here, from how utensils and plates developed, how snacking and TVs affected the picture, and more. As with most things “American,” the influences came from all over, and got turned into a unique national style.

Whether your breakfast is tea and toast, or coffee, eggs, bacon and pancakes, Carroll explains how you got there.

Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year

A month-by-month look at an extraordinary year for an extraordinary band.

By 1966, the Beatles had reached the end, and a new beginning. The book cheats a little by starting in December 1965, but that is only to cover the beginning of Revolver, and ends with the first recordings for Sgt. Pepper.


In between, there are drugs, tours, close calls, apologies, religion, new relationships, old relationships and more.

The Beatles take a break from each other, expand their own horizons, and bring all that back in time to record one of the seminal albums of the rock era – right after recording another of the seminal albums of the era.

Turner sums it up this way: “In December 1965 the Beatles had been fresh-faced touring idols widely thought of as a fad that was on the verge of dying out. … A year later they were studio-based artists flag-waving for the avant-garde who were maturing with their audience and gaining the respect of serious music critics.”

Would love to see Turner follow up with a Beatles ’67 book.

Paper: Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky – what’s not to love? Kurlansky, author of “Salt,” “Cod,” “The Basque History of the World” and “Birdseye,” does it again – this time on paper.

The history of paper and its impact on the world is given the Kurlansky treatment in “Paper: Paging Through History.” That is, it is a history of paper, and a history of civilization through the object of paper.

The story is well-told, starting in China, slowly moving west, with innovations along the way, including more sophisticated papermaking, printing and finally the intrusion of computers. Kurlansky makes a good case that technology doesn’t bring about change, but that change requires new technology. If the Chinese weren’t such bureaucrats, they wouldn’t have needed paper to keep records, etc.

This book proceeds chronologically, and ends by debunking the oft-held argument that computers will replace paper, but we know by now that is not the case. New technology rarely wipes out the old, it just offers a new path.

Kurlansky also manages to weave insights from his other legendary books (cited above) into his tale of paper – because everything is connected somehow, and he’s found the connections again. With Kurlansky’s next book, “Havana,” don’t be surprised if paper somehow plays a key role in it.

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots revealed more than they should have, for being simple pieces of art. They could never be reproduced (in a couple of ways), were praised and criticized, were in fashion and out of it, and his 10 simple cards became part of pop culture.

To use a metaphor that this book dismisses, the Rorschach test is itself a Rorschach test … you see what you want to see.

“The Inkblots” follows more than the development of this tool of psychology (and explains how both psychology and psychiatry changed in the intervening years). It recounts the man’s history and how it figured into this seemingly all-seeing test. We find out the long road to publication and use, and the wave upon wave of criticism after.

Even the test that you and I know now isn’t given the way Rorschach gave it. Or read the same way he did. Study after study changed, narrowed, widened, manipulated and fundamentally changed the test, to the point that its real usefulness has been clouded.

This is a challenging book, full of minutiae, and some rabbit trails and dead-ends. Also, as this was a review copy, it lacked the color plates that would explain more about the test. I don’t know if that would make any difference – the author says the real Rorschach test isn’t usually allowed to be reproduced. But I’m sure a little Googling would get you there.

Ultimately, it’s interesting but, for me, leaves more questions than answers. Is it a valid test? Maybe yes, maybe no. Was it unfairly disparaged? Maybe yes, maybe no. Is this book worth it?

Rorschach test. It’s all a Rorschach test.

It’s also a book I received for review, in case that wasn’t clear.

The Beatles and the Historians: An Analysis of Writings about the Fab Four

Some Beatles books are for everybody, some are for fans, and some are for obsessive fanatics. This is the latter, and you’d have to be a fanatic about history itself, too, for this book to reach you.

The Beatles and the Historians isn’t just a look at the Beatles and how history has measured them. This is an academic study (maybe academic-lite) about the changes in how the Beatles were covered and regarded in books and articles, from their beginning to now.


The author identifies four distinct phases of Beatles coverage: the Fab Four era, the “Lennon Remembers” era, the “Shout!” era and the latest era, identified best as the Lewisohn era. Each era is named for the distinct idea or book that defined the coverage.

The Fab Four era was the myth around the band when they were together, with the magazine interviews and official statements of the Loveable Lads from Liverpool. This was reflected in the authorized biography by Hunter Davies released in 1969. That book pushed the sanitized version of the Beatles story, only barely touching on controversy.

When the Beatles broke up, John Lennon’s interview with Rolling Stone, gathered into a book called “Lennon Remembers,” exploded the Beatles myth, but put a spin on it that made John look good and Paul look bad. That book was influential throughout the ’70s and informed much of what was written for the decade.

When Lennon was killed, the narrative changed again, and the publication of “Shout!” soon thereafter helped deify John and destroyed Paul further. “Shout!,” for all its flaws (and there were many), became the new orthodoxy of Beatles information.

Finally, in the 1990s, Mark Lewisohn gained access to the archives and started setting the record straight on the Beatles and their roles in the group. His influential books have become the latest word, and the most complete, on the group.

The book delves into these eras deeply, and discusses the process of historiography, which is a challenge if you’re just here for the music.

Again, not a book for the mere fan, but more for the obsessive fanatic.

I received this book in advance for review.