Saturday, July 18, 2015

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

Note to celebrities looking to publish their memoirs: forget about the ghost writer trying to tell your story in your own voice. Find a quality writer who has some knowledge about what it is that you do and let do what they do best and articulate your story. That's what Jerry Lee Lewis did with Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, author of All Over But the Shoutin' and The Prince of Frogtown. Bragg does an outstanding job of capturing Lewis' story and voice and has produced a real page-turner.

Born in poverty in Louisiana, at first glance Lewis seemed unlikely to take the world by storm with his music (he had one formal piano lesson in his life) Lewis spends much of his early life trying to reconcile his family's religious convictions with his desire to play the devil's music. Growing up close to his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis bounced between playing churches and juke joints and even enrolled in seminary for a short while. He was too rough hewn for many established record labels but found a home at Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Lewis's insights on contemporaries such as Elvis, Cash, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry are some of the highlights of this book.

Lewis's career was starting to flounder when he convinced Sam Phillips to send him to New York City for a last ditch attempt to give him some national exposure. The gamble paid off when a rollicking version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (complete with piano bench being kicked across the studio floor) on The Steve Allen Show let the world know that he was a special talent. Great Balls of Fire and Breathless would soon follow and these great singles as well as half-crazed marathon shows made him the hottest star in the country.

Unfortunately, Lewis's fall would be swift, as he took his new bride Myra with him on his first tour of  Great Britain. When the British tabloids got word that his third wife was not only 13 when they were married but was a cousin as well, he was hounded and run out of the country before he could play all of his shows. While he had been advised to leave her at home, his orneriness became apparent in his insistence that he had done nothing wrong and would bring her with him, reporters be damned. Unfortunately this bad press sent his career into a long drought, although Lewis would never quit producing records or performing.

Following years of drug abuse, car wrecks (including a fantastic one at Graceland), concert fights, near-death hospital stays and even a role in a modern adaptation of Shakespeare, Lewis started to get the recognition that he deserved as he was initiated in the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Amazingly, at 79 Lewis is still producing albums and playing live. In this book he is fiercely unrepentant about a life that has brought him seven marriages, IRS troubles and a constant internal struggle between darkness and light.

Bragg does a fantastic job at bringing Lewis's colorful history into the light without making any of it seem trashy, which could have been easy given the material. He gives readers a sympathetic taste of the South in which Lewis was raised, which is as familiar as Mars to me. Bragg nicely colors the facts of Lewis's life with Lewis's own takes on his motivations and desires. All-in-all this book was everything that a memoir should be - a well-written fresh look at a fascinating person.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen


 At the Water's Edge, the latest novel from Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), transports us to a small Scottish village at the height of World War II. Our heroine, Maddie Hyde, is a young woman who has come from a wealthy but loveless home. When she is sent away to a prestigious school, she meets Ellis, her future (and worthless) husband, heir to the Hyde fortune. When she and Ellis make a serious faux pas at a Philadelphia New Year's Eve party, they are thrown out of the Hyde mansion and Ellis' allowance is severely cut. In an attempt to redeem the family honor, Ellis, school chum, Hank, and less willingly, Maddie, embark on an adventure to find the Loch Ness monster.

This is an adventure story that employs a journey motif. Staying in an inn without running water or electricity and surrounded by a cast of quirky characters, Maddie senses the shallowness of her life. But most important, she sees the truth about her marriage. As she struggles to find the Loch Ness monster, she discovers something far more important--the monsters within oneself.

If you are a fan of Sara Gruen, or simply looking for a light read, you will enjoy At the Water's Edge.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

 The Secret Wisdom of the Earth has been compared to To Kill A Mockingbird (for its small town aura), Cold Mountain (for its gorgeous descriptions of mountainous nature) and Flight Behavior (for presenting the reader with environmental information in the context of a page-turning novel.) Scotton’s writing has further been compared to that of Mark Twain and John Irving.

14-year old Kevin and his mother Anne arrive from Indiana to spend the summer at Anne’s father’s house in Medgar, Kentucky, deep in coal mining country. Kevin’s younger brother died in a tragic accident, and his father hopes that he and his mother will benefit from time away at Anne’s childhood home. 

“Pops,” Anne’s father, is the revered town veterinarian. He enlists Kevin as his assistant, taking him in and out of the rural hollers to treat animals of all kinds. Kevin makes friends with a local boy, Buzzy Fink, who introduces Kevin to swimming holes, hiking trails, and long standing country traditions. Pops takes the boys on a ritual two week “tramp” through the mountains, during which time they will live off the land, and fend for themselves. The three of them face unexpected obstacles on their journey; roles switch as Kevin and Buzzy take their turns as the hero.

Several subplots simmer beneath the surface of this coming of age/journey novel.

Mining has long been a source of jobs in Medgar, but the new method of coal mining, which involves literally blowing the tops off of the mountains, has pitted the locals against each other. Set in 1985, the story also addresses the small town resident’s attitudes toward homosexuality. Mr. Paul has grown up among them, and everyone has known that he has a special relationship with his housemate. When Mr. Paul organizes locals in protest against the mountain top removal of coal, things get ugly, and his personal life is exposed in public.

I recommend this book for so many reasons. It is old fashioned story telling at its best: the book spans one summer without jumping back in forth in time, or using multiple narrative points of view.  Christopher Scotton’s powers of description are amazing, his characters vivd. 

Nancy

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

William Marshall was born the younger son of a minor English noble and as a result, was legally landless. His life was also chaotic; when he was only five years old his father gave him to the king as surety for a debt. While this solved some of his father's problems it was dangerous for William. Enraged that the debt was not paid in money the king sentenced the five-year old William to death by hanging. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and William escaped the noose. He grew up to become  a wealthy knight and in time, rose to the rank of Earl.

William was the consummate knight, both battle tested and a tournament champion. The model of the chivalrous knight, William was was anything but soft  toward his enemies. He served five British kings, beginning with Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. William's influence extended to his helping negotiate the terms of the Magna Carta. His life was never a calm one as the politics of the time required shifting alliances and a cool head.

Thomas Asbridge was able to tell William's colorful story thanks to the earthing of a 13th century biography of the knight. In 1861, a French scholar bought the volume, the only known copy, at auction and it has been kept in various private collections. This book is rich in historical detail and includes genealogical charts and maps, which add to the story.

Friday, June 26, 2015

What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas

Even before I opened the book, I was intrigued by its title: What Comes Next and How to Like It, as well as the author photo. Thomas, a beautiful woman "of a certain age" is seated in an idyllic wooded landscape and surrounded by four dogs.

From the first page, I was captivated by her writing. The book is arranged in chronological vignettes that comprise the thoughts of and the key events in the author's life. Her comments range from the most mundane (a broken dishwasher) to the most sacrosanct (the bond between a mother and her daughter; the love for a best friend). Interspersed among these reflections are hilarious observations, such as when she reflects on her youthful sexual exploits when seeing a new gynecologist.

"Have you had more than one sexual partner?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," I said. Land sakes, yes.
"More than five?"
"Quite a few more," I said, as modestly as I could. I didn't want to appear to be bragging, so I added, by way of explanation, "It was the sixties."
It turned out that Medicare will pay for certain yearly exams if you have had more than five sexual partners. Who knew?" 

Wry observations about aging abound in this wonderful book. I laughed aloud at many passages while others brought me to tears. Thomas details her deep friendship with a literary agent, Chuck Verrel. Their friendship spans 35 years and includes a sexual betrayal that a lesser person may not have forgiven.

Because this is written in first person narration, the reader follows her as death flirts with those Ms. Thomas holds most dear. Depression and alcoholism trail closely behind.

Ultimately, What Comes Next and How to Like It is an inspirational book portraying an all-too-human narrator as she copes with the travails that are part of living. Above all, it details friendship and familial love that triumphs over devastating obstacles--and does so with humor and grace. In the author's words:

"Love can accommodate all sorts of misshapen objects: a door held open for a city dog who runs into the woods; fences down; some role you didn't ask for, didn't want. Love allows for betrayal and loss and dread. Love is roomy. Love can change its shape, be known by different names. Love is elastic.

And the dog comes back."


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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham

Looking for something funny, clever and amusing to read? If so, this is the book for you!

I laughed out loud while reading it and have been recommending it ever since.

Read Bottom Up is about the treacherous and amusing world of  modern dating. Two young single New Yorkers, Madeline and Elliott, meet at a restaurant opening and attempt to date and form a relationship which is aided and abetted by technology.   

What makes this book work is the way that the story is told: Madeline and Elliot’s relationship develops in a series of emails and texts sent between them. Immediately the reader sees how easy it is for each of them to misinterpret the other’s words, sent flying through cyberspace. 

Adding another layer to their communication woes is that Madeline also texts and emails her best friend, Emily, often including portions of Elliot’s communiqu├ęs for Emily’s interpretation and analysis. Elliot is texting and emailing his best friend, David, asking him for advice on Madeline’s emails and texts. The reader has to laugh as these emails are played out on the page, every word and punctuation mark worried over for hidden meaning. Then add in the ability for Madeline and Elliot to follow each other’s Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts - there is so much room for error!

 Read Bottom Up is a quick read and complete with a happily ever after ending.



Friday, June 19, 2015

It's a Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson

I can't stop reading rock and roll memoirs! The latest is Willie Nelson's It's a Long Story: My Life. I find Nelson's approach to life inspirational; he follows his muse from moment to moment, despite occasional doubts from people in his personal or business life.

Nelson's music has never been easy to pigeonhole. Ostensibly cataloged as country, his recordings include his takes on jazz, rock and the great American songbook. Nelson recounts instances where producers and record companies tried to get him to change his approach but in light of his success, it seems that the Willie Nelson sound trumps any genre.

It's a Long Story follows Nelson as he chases his muse from tiny Abbott, Texas to Nashville to Hawaii, with lots of stops between. His career got a boost in Nashville when he wrote hit songs for the likes of Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison but Nashville's cookie cutter style never seemed to fit Nelson. It wasn't until he teamed up with Columbia Records' Jerry Wexler that he became a star. Wexler was wise enough to let Willie be Willie and not overproduce his unique sound.

Of course the book also treats us to Willie's thoughts on marijuana (and related incidents), as he has become its outspoken proponent over the years. His battle with the IRS (blamed on a corrupt business manager) and many acting gigs are also discussed, as are a number of "life on the road" stories. He doesn't go into a ton of detail about family and personal life but guides us through his many marriages (and divorces) in a gentle way that makes us realize that there's probably not a lot of bitterness there.

This book is a fun read and captures Willie Nelson's easygoing life philosophy quite well. It reads like an old bandana and pair of blue jeans. If you're a fan of Nelson's music or just want a peek at his personal journey you'll like It's a Long Story.

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