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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Rhenals

Blog Post #173: Book Report, Part 4!

Updated: Jun 10

Presenting the latest set of entries of my reading journey (est. April 2020) along with a brief review prepared for each book at the time of completion (see Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here):


40. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison



Assiduously researched and accessibly presented, clinical psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jamison clears the fog regarding the relationship between manic-depressive illness (i.e., bipolar disorder) and the artistic temperament. Her profiling of famed poets, writers, composers and other artists, in addition to many recent studies of contemporary creatives, proves beyond any measure of doubt the prevalence of mental illness among artists, past and present.


Jamison establishes the fact that manic and depressive behavior, while often dangerous and life-threatening, may actually contribute to the success of these artists. As a visual artist and filmmaker diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I found the many allusions to the intense productive periods and morbid repose of a double-edged mood disorder, in many cases from the pen of the afflicted themselves, uncanny in their accuracy.


The book concludes with an address of ethical questions related to pathopsychological treatment when a curious paradox presents itself: How do we treat a disease that harms artists (e.g., debilitation, insanity, violence, suicide, etc.) yet enables them to add to the most cherished and persistent legacy of human civilization?

39. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's by Ray Kroc



Few companies represent the scourge of Corporate America with greater opprobrium than the world's largest fast food chain - McDonald's. Nutritional deficiency, advertising largesse, career immobility and environmental harm are some of the valid reasons for such ignominy. But I can't deny the inspirational and instructional value of the personal story of the Golden Arches' founder Ray Kroc.


Music critic Tom Breihan minted a beautiful phrase which I think is particularly relevant here: "Respect motherfucking craft when you hear it." In other words, be prepared to appreciate something hard-won despite its reputation or it being outside your specific field of interest.


It requires minimal effort to dismiss the home of the Big Mac as another step on the free market abuse staircase to Hell but if you can hold your breath long enough to peer into its genesis, there is much to glean backed up by astounding success. Kroc's meteoric, institution-forming achievement communicates and underscores values indispensable to any worthwhile human endeavor; among them: enjoying your work, identifying the right partners, paying sincere attention to detail, leading with principle, helping others and cultivating vision. I know it's unusual for a radical filmmaker to seek virtue in a seeming void as this but, as Mr. Breihan would say, "Respect motherfucking craft when you hear it."

38. The Vibrational Actor: A Heart-Centered Approach to Acting by Shaun Grant



I have been immensely privileged to collaborate with actor Shaun Grant on two occasions; in 2022 on my 2nd film State v. Unknown and earlier this year on my latest film Death Cleaning. From the start of our creative partnership, Shaun has continually shown an expert command of his craft when it's time to perform on-camera and a vibrant, life-affirming personality when it's time to deliberate off-camera. As it happens when anyone I work with has published writings under their belt, I was positively thrilled to learn that Shaun is also an author of several books.


Well-organized and refreshingly efficient in length, one of The Vibrational Actor's most endearing traits is the overflowing congeniality and zeal Shaun brings to laying out his proprietary acting technique for the contemporary working actor. He lends a bevy of sensible advice involving meditation, instinct, intuition, auditioning, visualization, music, spirituality, etc. And peppered throughout are many intriguing personal anecdotes along with simple practical exercises to help reinforce the various theoretical principles introduced. Overall, I found the book a spirited creative manifesto and translucent glimpse into the mind of one of the finest and most enterprising actors I know.


37. Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifen and Gregory White Smith



At 950+ pages over the course of about four months, this recreational reading excursion represents the most significant time commitment I've made to a single title on my humble reading journey since its inception in April 2020. Primarily sourced from a lifetime's worth of written correspondences and artwork, the book offers the most exhaustive recounting of the drama-laden life of the tireless Dutch painter.


Some of the more surprising facets about the bedeviled artist which the book shed ample light on were the permeating influence of his parents ("Doing nothing is doing wrong"), his uncommon literacy and religiosity, his late-blooming as a painter in only the last ten years or so of his life, his endless sabotage of personal and professional relationships and his apprehension toward some of the only public attention and praise his work received shortly before an untimely death at age 37.


Widely considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived, I felt a powerful obligation to at last read a tome about the subject as definitive as this one undoubtedly is. While this thorough biography of the master Post-Impressionist made for a routinely appealing investment of time, it also revealed a cruel and shameful irony about so many artists: rejected in life, embraced in death.

36. Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts by Terry Burnham, Ph.D. and Jay Phelan, Ph.D.



"Our temptations are powerful and persistent, but we are not destined to succumb. Ancient and selfish, our mean genes influence us every day in almost every way. But because we can predict their influence, self-knowledge plus discipline can provide a winning strategy in the battle to lead satisfying and moral lives." -Dr. Burnham and Dr. Phelan, authors of Mean Genes


Wrestle for control of the most capable being in your stead!


35. Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict by Ronald Bergan



Our parents or childhood caregivers imprint on us in ways subtle, overt and even latent. There is little question that my artistic proclivity toward austerity and orderliness, both practically and formally, was engendered by my father's scientific temperament and my mother's penchant for neatness. And this was likely the impetus for the near-instant appeal of Soviet filmmaker and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein and the intensely rational, systematic approach to his art in my early filmmaking self-education. It also just so happens that we're both the sons of civil engineers.


Eisenstein rose to prominence in art-subsidizing, post-Revolutionary Russia as a consummate maker of silent films with a uniquely personal approach to editing referred to as "intellectual montage." The gifted polymath championed a dialectical form of filmmaking wherein a dramatic clash or juxtaposition of images is used to produce a new idea (e.g., editing shots of a woman writing with shots of a churning sea to suggest a surge of personal industry). However, the latter stretch of his career in Soviet Russia was tragically stymied by Stalinist censorship and repression; a criminal perversion of the Revolution's valiant ideals.


Overall, this book richly rewarded my career-long interest in an artist and teacher who wanted to create "an unheard-of form of cinema... a synthesis of science, art and militant class consciousness." For a medium so young in his time, this remarkable man nursed an unparalleled belief, even by contemporary standards, in the power and potential of motion pictures to advance the noblest causes of humanity. Soviet, yes; visionary, even more so.


A shout-out to my good friend Rubén Rosario for recommending this enthralling read!

34. Richard Wagner: A Life in Music by Martin Geck



One of the facets I appreciate about classical music is that it's the only major genre of music largely insulated from cults of personality or a questionable preoccupation with the personal lives of its all-too-human creators. Why? Because the creators are all long-dead.


My first sustained exposure to the music of Richard Wagner (d. 1883) occurred when I was 16. The sheer, rapturous beauty of the work would claim me as an ardent listener for the intervening years up to the present. As a long-standing tradition of mine, I listen to The Ring of the Nibelung, the composer's 4-part, 15-hour Gesamtkunstwerk (or total artwork), at least once a year. And a few months ago, I joined my dad at our local cineplex to see a live Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 'Lohengrin'. All the while, Wagner exists for me only where it truly matters - through his music.


This book, comprised of virtually every way to examine a musical canon, is the most intense exegesis I've ever encountered on the work of an artist. The density and intersectionality of the analysis was staggering! And although the book underlined the problematic, proto-fascist nature of Richard Wagner's personal views and polemics, I still say laurels to those whose fine art persists thunderously beyond the fleeting breath of their corporeal existence.

33. The Road Ahead: Completely Revised and Up-to-Date by Bill Gates



I was 15 years old when I disobediently dragged one of my family's relatively unused personal computers, which I'd recently laid claim to, into my childhood bedroom. PCs and the Internet (or some form of it) have been a staple of my household for as long as I can recall. But in my early adolescence, with this newly situated PC and its perpetual DSL connection, a parallel universe of untold information, entertainment and communication sweetly sang to me whenever I woke from restful sleep or retired from a long day at school. From then on, a PC would unerringly feature in my personal dwelling spaces.


More than two decades after his book's publication, the broad majority of famed philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates' prognostications about what lay in store for a human society making increasing and often exponential advances into the Information Age have proved uncannily prescient. But even Gates' extensive and sensibly wrought vision about the potential of a broadband-enabled "information highway" underestimated the degree to which such a development would alter the world, particularly as government, politics, media and the private lives of individuals are concerned, in the decades to follow.


Being the semi-clueless kid I was moving expensive home appliances into his bedroom for more convenient access, I was unwittingly but not untruthfully responding to a drive far greater than my own. Without establishing constant and prolonged access to my own PC, I would be far less effectual and prolific a creative person and miserably disorganized in general. I would start making my first short film less than a year later...


32. Murder in Deer Park: An Historical Mystery Novella by Gary Alan Ruse



In July of 2015, I attended a filmmaker workshop hosted by a local film networking organization. After the event, I found myself engaged in some casual banter with some of the attendees. Then, I heard it... "The pen is mightier than the sword." Although I can't recall the exact context for its summoning, I soon found myself facing the utterer of that proverb I so adore: Gary Alan Ruse. We subsequently introduced ourselves and I was immediately delighted to learn that Gary was a prolific local author and journalist. I would later add Gary to my menagerie of Facebook friends where I began keeping up with his routinely beautiful and original social media posts.


Eight years later, I invited Gary to a local library screening of my 2nd feature film State v. Unknown. Thrilled over his attendance, I engaged with him after the event and asked him to recommend one of his books for me to read (as part of my three-year-strong reading journey). He recommended a historical mystery novella titled Murder in Deer Park.


The novella is a fictional account of newlywed U.S. President Grover Cleveland and his young bride's attempt to solve a murder mystery during their luxurious honeymoon retreat in the mountains of Maryland. Yes, the 22nd president himself! The novella instantly presents a flurry of period detail heralding the author's interest in fleshing out a time long past with tall regard for authenticity and verisimilitude. Gary wields an untiring variety and harmonious clarity in his language as the events and interactions unspool over the 100-page read. While a novella about these characters and settings could easily tread into the stuffiness of their opulence, the wittiness of dialogue, swiftness of pace and cleverness of plotting successfully stave off any such offense. In short, the book was a joy to read and the outcome of the murder mystery was a perfect mix of surprise, expectation and meaning.


I love that someone responsible for such impressive work (and a body of one at that!) like Gary is practically next door in an adjacent part of Miami. We can never do enough to appreciate and support the talent in our own backyards. When we do that, we come closer to identifying and encouraging the potential within ourselves rather than relegating such notions of greatness to a distant and alien ivory tower. It's more abundant than we think.


31. The Iliad by Homer



"I'd like to read The Iliad one day," I mused as the topic of Homer's epic poem briefly came and went in a conversation between a friend and myself during a carpool ride home from Miami Killian Senior High. As far back as high school, this seminal work of antiquity held some allure for me even if it was never assigned reading in any curriculum of mine. However, it would be 20 years before I would effectively set my reticle upon the timeless classic, spurred in part by my reading of The Odyssey a year prior.


The Iliad is a fictional account of the war between the armies of invading Argos and besieged Troy in the 12th century BC - with no small amount of intervention from the gods of Olympus above. Thoroughly brutal in content but always elegant in form, the elaborate poem offers an exhaustive catalog of mortal (and immortal) contests between countless opponents locked in wearying strife. But the scenes of violence are as graphic as the recollections of peacetime are idyllic; this remarkable thematic polarity wrought with indefatigably evocative language and delightfully repeating motifs. I was smitten from beginning to end.


Over the course of the two months it took me to read the work, I was stopped by a number of strangers in public who either spoke to me to affirm its quality or simply offered a knowing thumbs-up. A new experience on my self-styled reading journey!


In a world of so much war and feuding, I hope The Iliad is ultimately renowned for the calm temperance that pervades its close and not the bloodlusting rage that characterizes its start. A vain and unlikely prospect surely but some might say this is a principal reason why art exists: to protect us from all-slaying truth. Thanks for your most noble effort, Homer.

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