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. 


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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Monday, June 15, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

 Life After Life, is termed a "companion work" to Kate Atkinson's latest epic, A God in Ruins, published this yearLife After Life's main character, Ursula, dies at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. In between, Atkinson evokes the main events of the twentieth century and provides enough revisionist history to cover any and all "what-ifs." As Francine Prose so eloquently summarized in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: 

'Life After Life makes the reader acutely conscious of an author's power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make our character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team that (in a scene with the same telling details) tries unsuccessfully to save her. 

The novel that is created using this technique is nothing short of fabulous. Just as A God in Ruins focuses on the beloved character of Teddy, Life After Life acquaints us with his sister, Ursula Todd. But in A God in Ruins, there is little belief in past lives or an after-life. There are no do-overs and certainly no opportunities to re-write history. That is the distinguishing difference between the two books.

Life After Life may be read either before or after A God in Ruins. Although each book can be read singularly, the experience will be far richer if one is better acquainted with the main characters' early lives. Fox Corner, home to young Ursula, Teddy, Pamela, Freddie and Maurice, is an idyllic place--serene and beautiful. As we see in A God in Ruins, it symbolizes an England that harkens to the past and is ultimately overrun by development and "progress."

(During The Blitz),Ursula thought that she would rather die for Fox Corner than "England." For meadow and copse and the stream that ran through the bluebell wood. Well, that was England, wasn't it? The blessed plot.

But Eden has its snake, too, albeit a somewhat comic one. Maurice, the eldest son of Sylvie and Hugh, is a callous boy, shooting every creature that crosses his path. He is depicted as a child who requires little worry--he seems remarkably resilient. Later in life, we see how his egocentric nature keeps him out of harm's way and allows him to rise in government positions. Both he and eccentric Aunt Izzie provide wry humor, and along with parents Hugh and Sylvie, underscore the complexities of family dynamics.

Indeed, Atkinson's descriptions of familial love provide some of the most moving passages in the book. They underscores how important human connections with others--including animals--are in the face of unpredictable events.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, is a saga that takes two of the main characters in her earlier work, Life After Life--Ursula and Teddy--and focuses on their lives both during and after WWII. In particular, it centers on Teddy, Ursula's brother--the heroic R.A.F. pilot who survives 70 bombing raids over Nazi Germany. The story seamlessly weaves between his harrowing experiences in the war and his later life as a civilian.

A God in Ruins is as much about England as it is about Teddy. Although not an anti-war book, Atkinson, as well as her characters, expresses moral ambivalence about the "collateral damage" wreaked upon citizens. Ursula asks Teddy whether he feels uneasy about bombing innocent civilians. His reply, at that time, reflects the certainty of a military man:

How do you define 'innocent' anyway?, Teddy rebuts...Workers in factories that are making bombs?...(Those in the Siemens factories in Berlin?--the company that supplied electrical parts to the concentration camps and 'had manufactured the ovens for the concentration camp crematoria'. And let's not forget it was the Germans who started this war.
"I rather think we started it at Versailles," Ursula said quietly.

But in later life, doubts linger:

Yet even then,...all those years later, he found that in the long dark watches of the night, plagued by insomnia, he would recite those names. Essen Bremen Wilhelmshaven Duisburg Vegesak Hamburg Saarbruken Dusseldorf Osnabruck...Some might count sheep. Teddy counted the towns and cities he had tried to destroy, that had tried to destroy him. Perhaps they had succeeded. 

Complex questions and characters abound in this thoughtful book. Nancy, a brilliant mathematician and Teddy's childhood sweetheart, gives up a promising career to become his wife. Similarly, Teddy is content as a nature writer for a small, rural press. He and Nancy find a rustic cabin to begin their companionate (if unromantic) marriage.

As Teddy ages--and he is blessed with a long life--the reader can't help but note the metaphor. His marriage to Nancy ends with her long illness, and his daughter--Viola--can only be described as a handful.

Later, in her twenties, Viola joins a commune and rebels against everything her father fought to defend. She  falls in love with a dissolute young man and becomes a neglectful mother to two children. Viola, and her children, Bertie and Sunny, are central to the plot and their lives run parallel to and intertwine with Teddy's.

A God in Ruins is considered a companion book to her earlier novel, Life After Life. The earlier book employs the artful premise of having Ursula die at the end of each chapter only to be reborn in the next. A God in Ruins, although nonlinear, is less hopeful. The characters are granted only one life--no "do-overs."  Ultimately, though, the author is not done with surprises. As The New York Times noted:

Structure, and its way of coalescing from the seemingly casual into the deliberate, has been a main attraction in other Atkinson books...As for that, Ms. Atkinson has one huge trick up her sleeve, but she saves it for the book's final moments to make it that much more devastating.

If you love character driven novels, historical or literary fiction, A God in Ruins is not to be missed.

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Jonas Karlsson is one of Sweden’s most prominent actors and a playwright. Fortunately for us, he has recently turned his considerable talent to writing fiction. 

The Room is set in a Swedish office; our main character is a new employee, Bjorn.

Bjorn has particular work habits that run counter to the norm and do not ingratiate him to the longtime employees. He works for exactly 55 minutes of each hour then takes precisely 5 minutes for a break. Each break is carefully designated for a visit to the restroom, or a snack, and no variations to the schedule are allowed. Therefore, he does not participate in group coffee breaks or lunches with his co-workers, and if that were not enough to make him stand out, he says he does his best work in – The Room. This room has the perfect desk, the most modern and efficient file cabinets, just the right lighting, formal artwork, and lush carpet. All are vastly superior to the standard issue desk and seat sprung chair adjoining other employee’s work space that he is expected to use.

Except - Bjorn is the only one who can see The Room. Everyone else simply sees Bjorn standing and staring for minutes at a time at a blank wall near the restrooms. They complain that he is crazy and needs to be fired. But when Bjorn starts turning out superior quality reports that draw the attention of the higher ups and says that he produces them in the that no one else can see, you begin to wonder who is crazy.

The Room is entertaining and somewhat reminiscent of the TV show The Office. It is also a small paperback (186 pages) that is just the right size for travel or commuting.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

People often say they can't put a book down.  I can.  If the dog comes to me with a ball, the book goes down. If the now adult child wants to show me something on YouTube, the books goes down.  If the husband offers a trip to Baskin Robbins, well, you can guess what comes next.

But I couldn't put down Our Souls at Night.  Granted, at 192 pages, the book is short.  But when I described it to someone today, I said it had only about 100 pages -- those extra 92 just flew by.

The story is simple.  Addie, a widow in a small Colorado town, knocks on the door of Louis, a widower who lives in the neighborhood, and she asks if he would sleep with her.  The invitation is not for sex, but for comfort.  For someone to talk to in the dark.  For a hand to hold before sleep comes.  After mulling the invitation over, Louis thinks why not?  At first he comes to her backdoor, pajamas and toothbrush hidden by a newspaper, so that neighbors won't talk.  But like the Bonnie Raitt song suggests, the two septuagenarians soon decide "Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About" and the pair is strolling down the main street of town, arm in arm, she is a yellow sundress, and he is a wild western shirt.  Their relationship blossoms as they share sandwiches at lunch and tell each other their backstories. Complications, however, occur when Addie's young grandson comes to stay, but a couple of baseball mitts and a new rescue dog help smooth over the transition.  In beautiful language, the book celebrates the everyday and shows that simple pleasures can indeed be the best.  Like a dog with a ball, a kid with a video he want so share, a kind husband with an offer of ice-cream, a good book you can't put down.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen

We live in a world where anyone with a computer can have a platform for their opinion, start a business or download any type of media that they're interest in, often at low or no-cost. But what have been the consequences to people left out of the internet boom? And what lessons can we learn now that the internet has become so tightly integrated into all of our lives? Andrew Keen, the Christopher Hitchens of technology writing, uses his new book The Internet is Not the Answer to act the contrarian to today's full-speed ahead approach to the internet and to ask the important questions that often get pushed aside in our quest for the newest cool thing or the next Google.

The book's backdrop is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which Keen observes have become increasingly divided been haves, who attend exclusive clubs that claim to cater to all types, and have-nots who live on the streets in front. What concerns Keen beyond the destruction of the middle class that has accompanied the internet economy, as jobs have simply vanished (with desolate Rochester, New York, the home of the dead film industry provided as an example), is the fact that internet "gurus" and their acolytes keep preaching job creation and freedom when evidence points to the demolition of entire industries. While the early history of the internet is based philosophically around a sharing economy, Amazon has accumulated enough power to put retailers out of business and to run modern sweatshops. Meanwhile, Uber is one of the hottest businesses around, and while it has created some jobs it has also put traditional taxi drivers out of work. And what will be the effect when driverless cars appear on the landscape? And are jobs really being created when a successful company like Instagram gets purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars when it has only thirteen full-time employees?

Keen also ponders the new narcissism of the Facebook/Instagram internet "selfie" existence, in which we all become celebrities in our own minds to a small circle of likeminded friends. Paired with a world where online journalism is defined by the self-publishing of Huffington Post while professional newspaper reporting is seemingly slipping into extinction, we have to wonder whether the internet that was supposed to open our world has actually trapped us in boxes in which the only opinions that matter to us are ones that mirror our own and we cease to exist if we are not sharing our faces and location with our friends. Our online lives themselves are becoming commodities for companies offering free services and between our willingness to share everything and a world where the government can potentially track our every online and physical movement, perhaps it's time to take a step back and consider how connected we actually want to be.

Keen even tackles the current "maker" craze, wondering whether the potential for people to create goods in their own homes is just a repeat of previous empty promises of every musician being able to have an equal platform on the internet, when the current situation of music streaming that pays artists almost nothing is much more complicated than originally envisioned. Could 3-D printing mean the end of sweatshops, as fabrics become easy to create in the home, or the end of an industry, displacing thousands of workers? Obviously the answers are not simple but at least someone is asking the questions. However, as the title of the book states, the internet itself is not the answer to anything.

Often The Internet is Not the Answer comes off as a humorless screed but that does not diminish the importance of Keen's writing. As a parent, I have often found myself wondering if the current enthusiasm in STEM education needs to be accompanied by an equal reemphasis of philosophy, ethics and critical thinking, and this book does nothing to change my opinion. In the meantime, this book will certainly get you thinking about the potential societal impact of the next Amazon purchase or Uber ride.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson

A few years ago Bob Dylan was quoted in an interview saying "I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65," and Andrew Grant Jackson, in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, sets out to lay out the reasons that this is the case. In roughly chronological order, Jackson sums up the year in politics, civil rights and (of course) music and shows us how the country pivoted in this tumultuous year. It's an ambitious task that Jackson is not quite up to, but the book remains a fun read of a year of change in music and culture.

The book is divided into four sections, based on the seasons of the year. 1965 began with the recording of The Rolling Stones' early self-penned numbers The Last Time and Bob Dylan's transitional Bringing it All Back Home album in January and ends in December with The Beatles' experimental Rubber Soul and the heavy debut by The Who (as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas special, to which Jackson points out the oddness of launching a neurotic cartoon character with jazz accompaniment to massive appeal).

Naturally, there are a number of names that loom largely over the year 1965's music. Bob Dylan shifts from protest singer to rocker when controversially bringing out an electric backing band at the Newport Folk Festival (and later attacks the folkies with Positively 7th Street). The Rolling Stones were transitioning from an R&B group to one that favored exotic instrumentation in its hard rock hits. The Beatles try LSD for the first time in March and mix new Dylan influences with sitars and string quartets. Brian Wilson brings the Beach Boys to a new experimental level as he shifts from surf to Pet Sounds. James Brown creates a new kind of funk. The Byrds bring jangly Dylan covers to the masses. All in all it was not a bad year for music!

Lurking in the background of these musical changes are the societal crises that influenced a new kind of musician and music consumer. 1965 was the year of the Selma to Montgomery march, the assassination of Malcolm X, the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam (and protests spurred in response), new sexual freedom and increased drug experimentation. The author tries hard to make sure that we know the background behind the changing sounds.

Jackson works hard to integrate these threads into the overall story, and while they are essential to know about, they don't necessarily fit his chronological structure. Likewise, while it's great to hear about the development of the various subgenres of music that rose during the year, many of the sections of the book come off as long, interesting sidelights. But while Jackson probably bit off more than he could chew in trying to link politics and music, it still remains an enjoyable snapshot of a particularly eventful year.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

When I think of black diamonds, I think of the black gem stone, not coal. But coal and coal mining is the subject of this account of the aristocratic Fitzwilliam family and their Yorkshire coal mines. This fast-paced social history shows how coal gave this family its fortunes yet also caused its rapid downfall.

The family owned not only a vast estate but most important, the mineral rights to the coal below ground. The villages the coal miners lived in, the schools, hospitals, stores, everything that touched the miners' lives was dependent on the Fitzwilliam family. By all accounts they were decent people to work for and the mines were productive and successful. When the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902 he left an estate among the richest in England.

The family lived in the 300-plus room Wentworth House, once the largest privately owned house in England. But the politics that emerged after the great wars changed the family's fortunes in a spectacularly short time. The Labour government that came to power after the first World War levied massive taxes on the great landed estates; the government nationalized the country's mines following World War II. Today the Fitzwilliam estate is a wasteland and the once great Wentworth House a ruin.

Bailey writes books about the British aristocracy and their failings and foibles. In this fascinating book she lays the family's affairs, politics, deaths, alcoholism, illegitimate children, the cutting off of heirs and its ties to the Kennedy family bare for all to see. The story of their spectacular downfall reads like a novel. I found it fascinating.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

 Hausfrau is sure to evoke strong reactions. Its publisher, Random House, is extoling it as "a literary 50 Shades of Grey." It  has sold publishing rights in 14 international markets and ordered a third printing.

The book is a modern re-telling of Anna Karenina. In Hausfrau, Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her austere and handsome Swiss husband, mother-in-law, and three young children. Her lack of language skills and her own aloofness contribute to her ongoing sense of alienation. Yet, the main characteristic of our protagonist is her passivity.

As the novel progresses, we realize that Anna lacks all sense of direction. She has no moral core. Adultery, in the form of casual sex, is her escape from boredom and her acquiescence to a need to be desired.

Essbaum is a poet and her novel's language substantiates this. Her characters are well-drawn. Yet the difficulty in loving this book rests in Anna's unlikeability. We learn, through Anna's sessions with her psychoanalist, that she lost both her parents at a critical age. She felt unloved by others who cared for her. This may have contributed to her need to be dominated by men. However, Anna is so self-absorbed and uncaring of others that the reader finds it hard to understand her.

Hausfrau is definitely a well-written book with lots of explicit sex scenes. Anna is a complicated character, the subject of which might ignite heated debate at a book club. As Anna Russell wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "(Hausfrau) is guarenteed to be a hit. Nothing sells better than a large group of people complaining about the content...Now we just want to see what the fuss is about."

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

The book opens on the morning of Lord and Lady Montfort's annual summer ball. Iyntwood, a Downton Abbey-like house is in an uproar. Guests are arriving, supplies being delivered and the family black sheep, Teddy Mallory, Lord Montfort's nephew and ward, who has just been tossed out of Oxford for bad behavior, is on his way home. His removal from Oxford is just another incident in a long list of indiscretions.

The ball moves ahead as planned and everyone is having a good time, including Teddy who is being his usual horrible self. Things take a very bad turn the next morning, however, when the estate's gamekeeper finds a man  hanging from a gibbet in the woods. He turns out to be a family member and the guests are now sequestered at Iyntwood while the police investigate.

This book reads like a Downton Abbey episode as the very proper upper crust try to deal with a family scandal while around them there are more scandals, involving yet more guests and staff.  One murder, a missing guest, secrets and a missing house maid all make for a light mystery read. If you are a Downton Abbey fan this book is for you!  If you like cozy mysteries this book is for you. And if you are looking for a new mystery author, this book is for you!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production by Paul Fischer

Bizarre. It's hard to write about North Korea without using that word. By now, we've heard so much about the cultlike devotion to the late Kim Jong-il (and now his son, Kim Jong-un), dictators whose starving citizens are forced to listen to propaganda pumped through home speakers propped above portraits of the country's leader, that we move to the next overheard bizarre North Korea story without blinking an eye. A Kim Jong-il Production is a recently published book filled with accumulated details that illuminate a strange-but-true tale, one that might be difficult to accept if a reader lacked previous knowledge of North Korea's history. Even knowing quite a bit about the country I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

The stars of the story are Shin Sang-ok, a well-known South Korean filmmaker; Choi Eun-hee, his film star wife; and the aforementioned Kim Jong-il, whose rise to the country's highest post started with his role masterminding the Ministry of Propaganda, which included the country's filmmaking division. Jong-il was a massive film buff who had collected thousands of movies from around the world and kept them in a secure bunker, for his eyes only. When North Korea's economy started to dry up, he decided that exporting motion pictures was a way to bring revenue into the country. This is where the story's weirdness begins.

Jong-il's plan involved kidnapping Sang-ok and Eun-hee, bringing them to North Korea and forcing them make films for the glory of the country. And believe it or not, he succeeded. The book gives us a litany of North Korean kidnappings in the 1970s - their heyday - of which Sang-ok and Eun-hee were but two victims. While Eun-hee found it best to play along, Sang-ok tried multiple escapes, which eventually landed him years in some very harsh prisons. After his "reeducation", Sang-ok decided to play along and make movies for North Korea, a role which gave him unpredecedented freedom and produced movies like North Korea had never been able to create on its own.

This book does a great job providing the history of North Korea and Jong-il and building up suspense towards Sang-ok and Eun-hee's eventual - **spoiler alert** - escape to the West after eight years. Following their getaway, many questioned their account and wondered if they had voluntarily gone to North Korea in order to resurrect careers that had run aground in South Korea, despite much evidence that the kidnapping did indeed happen. While leaving a number of great South Korean films (and even some highly regarded North Korean ones) Sang-ok's post North Korea career was spent in the US creating the likes of the Disney Channel rerun fodder, 3 Ninjas, before he eventually returned  to South Korea.

This book was the essence of readable history and once the story got rolling I found it difficult to put  down until I found out how the couple would make their getaway. Fischer does a great job of telling a story with only a limited number of available resources about their North Korea stay. I also found myself fascinated by Jong-il's quirks, charms and obsessions. If you're looking for a little bit of bizarre (there's that word again) post-Cold War history then this book should definitely be added to your "to-read" list.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

Who's your favorite Beatle? Are you into winky, cutesy Paul? Is John's politicizing where it's at? Or maybe you're a Ringo person...if you're 5 years old. Let's face it though - by any possible means of measure, George was the coolest Beatle. He might not have been the best songwriter of the four but he did write Something, which has been covered by everyone from James Brown to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra (who supposedly called it his favorite Lennon-McCartney tune). When Paul was escaping to his farm and John was shuttling between New York and L.A., Harrison purchased the 120-room gothic mansion Friar Park, which included extensive gardens and underground tunnels - UNDERGROUND TUNNELS!!! And while Ringo brought us the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show and McCartney birthed the woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street, Harrison was responsible for producing Monty Python's greatest film, Life of Brian!

If I haven't convinced that Harrison was the coolest Beatle then you really owe it to yourself to pick up the new biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson. If you already love the man then you definitely need to read the book. It's a comprehensive warts-and-all look at "the quiet Beatle" that at 400 pages does not overstay its welcome.

Despite being with the Beatles from the very beginning, George's status as the youngest Beatle seemed to define his relationship with the others. A strong guitarist who was more comfortable playing set parts than improvising, George found himself in one of the most popular bands in the world by 21. At an age when most of us were looking for our first post-college jobs, George was one of the most recognizable people on the planet. As his songwriting progressed, he found it hard to convince the others in the band of his skills - somewhat understandable when he was competing with the likes of Lennon and McCartney to get songs on albums. Many people don't realize that not only was Harrison the first to leave the band, over frustration with the other musicians' dominance (he'd soon return) but he was also the first to release a solo album, with the experimental soundtrack Wonderwall Music.

While Harrison may not have been the musical leader of the band, he was the one who initiated the spiritual quests of the Beatles, leading them on trips to India to meet the Maharishi and meditate. While Ringo had very little interest and John a little bit more, the effect of Indian religion on George lasted his whole life, influencing his outlook on life, death and celebrity. More noticeably to the rest of us it also affected his role in the Beatles music, with exotic sitar colorings bubbling to the top of their songs.

There are many well-documented reasons behind why the Beatles broke up and certainly the release of Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass (the first triple album in rock) shows that he had more material available than The Beatles could ever handle. The rest of the book follows Harrison through a long career decline, as his limited writing skills became more evident. Following the charity Concert for Bangladesh event and his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour he retreated, as he attempted to reconcile his fame with his desire for peace and quiet. He was able to launch a late career comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine and his Travelling Wilbury's supergroup but without a desire to tour and lacking any massive hits from a number of subdued and sometimes lazily produced albums, the late 1970s and early 1980s remained quiet musically. He claimed many times that he simply wanted to be a guitar player and not a Beatle.

Harrison died a tragically young 58, though arguably his spirituality allowed him to accept his cancer diagnosis as well as a person reasonably could. He had been quoted many times as saying that he saw no difference between life and death as far as the spirit was concerned. Be assured, however, that the book does not paint him to be an angel. The author makes us aware of many of the material world struggles that Harrison dealt with - from drugs and alcohol to interpersonal relationships - and it points out that while having a serene and accepting outlook on life he also had an acidic side.

I really enjoyed this look at Harrison's life. It's a comprehensive look at a private person thrust into celebrity and dealing with all that followed. Even more importantly, despite the author's reservations about the quality of certain Harrison releases, it did get me listening to some of his albums again and appreciating his unique slide guitar sound once again.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Aquarium by David Vann

 David Vann is an internationally acclaimed author whose oeuvre has garnered fifteen awards, including best foreign novel in France and Spain. His book have been on 75 Best Books of the Year lists in 12 countries.

Aquarium is a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a 12-year old girl. Caitlin is a sensitive and resilient child for whom the local aquarium becomes both sanctuary and her place for scientific exploration. Her environment is bleak. She lives surrounded by factories and concrete. Only a few trees line the subsidized development where she lives with her mother, Sheri, a dock worker at a container port who works long hours. As a result, Caitlin must fend for herself and she makes the aquarium her after-school destination. It is there that she meets a mysterious old man who shares her love of fishes and whose past nearly shatters her life.

Caitlin is a very lonely child who feels safest in the aquarium's cave-like atmosphere that mimics the ocean. She is comforted by the anonymity the darkness gives her; the uniqueness of the fish mirrors her own sense of being different. The fish, caged as they are, also mirror her own feeling of entrapment.

What distinguishes this book from other bildungsromans is that it builds on the many personal secrets of its characters. Sheri never discusses her painful childhood with Caitlin but it soon becomes clear that it has damaged her badly. Just how badly drives the novel and is the foundation of the co-dependency she and her daughter share.

Aquarium is a spellbinding novel that analyses the lasting impact of childhood trauma. Ultimately, it is a redemptive work that explores the limits of love and the healing aspect of forgiveness. Its crystalline prose and three dimensional characters make this book a must-read for everyone--young adults included.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk has already garnered two literary awards in Britain, where it was first published last year. The book has received the Costa Prize for book of the year and the Samuel Johnson prize for best work of nonfiction. It is a captivating memoir combining literary history, a treatise on falconry, nature writing, and an analysis of personal grief. Macdonald's prose is crystalline; the reader is transported into her world and into her sense of loss.

When Macdonald was a doctoral student at Cambridge, her father died suddenly of a heart attack. He was a photo-journalist and a man equally sensitive to nature and his surroundings. As Macdonald describes him, it is easy to understand her great sense of loss.

Yet her process of mourning is unusual. Captivated by the author T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and inspired by White's own tragic attempt at training a goshawk, Macdonald procures and sets about the task of training the hawk she names Mabel. As she explains:

Falconry for me was about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought...But that was not why I needed (Mabel). To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. 

Intermingled within the book's chapters are references to White's memoir, The Goshawk, that details his struggle, and eventual failure, to train his own bird. Macdonald had read this book as a child and been captivated by it. Re-reading it as an adult, and having had experience with raptors, she is upset by his ineptitude. Yet she also empathizes with him in his desire to escape his sorrow through an animal. Macdonald's digressions into White's tormented soul, along with passages from The Goshawk, are masterfully woven into her own story. Having loved The Once and Future King and all the Arthurian legends, this reader greatly valued Macdonald's insights into the author and the book that made him famous.

Barbara Brotman, writing in the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Journal, captures the essence of H is for Hawk:

The story begun in grief returns to it, as Macdonald brings her observer's eye and poet's voice to the universal experience of sorrow and loss. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end, she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Explorers

"Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit"
Frank Borman, Apollo Astronaut

The Explorers is a book about the hunt for the headwaters of the Nile River, except when it is a book about the quirky people who personify the word "explorer." It is September 1854, Jack Speke, 27 years old, has just finished a 10 year tour with the British Army in India. Born to a family with an ancient estate in rural England he was a loner who had not done well in school. He loved to hunt and collect game specimens and killed "anything new and unique that wandered into his path" shipping the heads and pelts back to his ancestral home.

Speke left the army one day and the next day boarded a ship for Calcutta. He was going to give big game hunting in Africa a try. The problem was he was woefully unprepared and totally ignorant of the African continent. Forbidden from setting off on his journey, he met Richard Francis Burton. Burton was an experienced adventurer and famous in England. Burton spoke multiple languages, had traveled to Mecca, and translated the Kama Sutra into English.  He was also one man short on his expedition so he asked Speke to join. They received permission and set off. Their fate twined together. By the end of this journey after being taken hostage, tortured, suffering from medical ailments no one had ever experienced before, they hated each other.  So it was a surprise when they teamed up again to find the source of the Nile. Their relationship did not improve.

In a conversational tone the book tells of other explorers, their mistakes (lucky and otherwise), and the seven traits that all explorers must possess. Each chapter deals with one trait, applying it to Speke, Burton and others. The history of exploration is looked at, as well as where exploration stands today. The book contains a lot history and some information didn't know about, always a plus! I love a book about explorers, I love sagas. This book was both.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You is Richard Ford's fourth book with Frank Bascombe as its main character. "The Bascombe Trilogy" begins with The Sportswriter (1986), when Frank is 38 years old. He is adjusting to having lost his son, his marriage, and a career as a novelist. Introspection--the trait needed to be a fiction writer-- is one Frank currently avoids. Now a sportswriter, he uses his fine skills of observation without analyzing his own grief. In that first book, we come to see Frank as a man who is not to be defeated--someone who firmly believes that optimism is an essential part of existence.

Independence Day (1995), book two of the trilogy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, continues the saga as Frank makes his way from his home in Haddam, New Jersey to his son Paul's home in Connecticut. Frank's destination is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which he hopes will be therapeutic for his teenage son. Frank is no longer a sportswriter. Instead, he lives in the home he shared with his former wife and sells real estate. He seems particularly suited to this job, enjoying the tangential companionship of the client/realtor relationship.

In The Lay of the Land (2006), the third book of the trilogy, Frank is 55 and still working as a realtor. The year is 2000. Frank has moved to a very expensive house overlooking the ocean. Sally, his second wife, has left him and he is recovering from treatment for prostate cancer. Once again, "life" has hit him squarely in the face.

Thus, when we meet Frank again in Let Me Be Frank With You, he is in his late 60s and clearly dealing with issues of late middle age. In the first story, "I Am Here," Sally and he have sold their home by the ocean. They have returned to Haddam in what turns out to be a propitious move. Frank is retired and filling his time with some volunteer work. Hurricane Sandy has struck and Sally is busy doing grief counseling in the worst hit areas. He is downsizing his life--getting rid of non-essential words, belongings, and so-called "friends."

Juxtaposed with his own physical decline (poor guy is suffering from neck and back pain) is the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy. As Frank observes:

Sea-Clift, when I drive south on Central, gives to the world the sad look of having taken a near fatal punch in the nose...Roofs, windows, front stoops, exterior walling, garages, boats--all look as if a giant has strode out of the gray sea and kicked the shit out of everything.  (Loc. 309, Kindle edition)

But this is a humorous book. Frank's complete irreverence and dark wit endear him to the reader.  He also exhibits much compassion, albeit reluctantly.Whether visiting a dying friend or agreeing to meet a former real estate client at his now-destroyed house, Frank's essential humanity shines through.

Similarly, in the short story, "The New Normal," Frank drives out to see his ex-wife in a nearby "state-of the art, staged-care facility," (Loc 1229) aptly named, "Carnage Hill." His mission is to give her an orthopedic pillow for Christmas--one that will "homeopathically 'treat' Parkinson's..." (loc 1235)

The description of the facility and its residents is replete with black humor-- including that of Ann, his feng shui obsessed ex-wife. The walls of her beautiful apartment display pictures that border on the pornographic and are embedded with sensors measuring her vital signs. As Frank looks dispassionately at Ann's new surroundings, he assesses his own recent move to "downsize." He reflects:

Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry--all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done. (Loc 1315)

If you enjoyed reading the earlier books by Richard Ford featuring Frank Bascombe, you will not want to miss this book of interlocking short stories. But you need not have read the trilogy. Let Me Be Frank With You can stand on its own merits. It is a wry, and sadly, realistic portrait of aging in America.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

How We Got to Now by Steve Johnson

Did you ever wonder how sometimes something leads to something else that appears to be totally unrelated? In this book, Steve Johnson a New York Times bestselling author and host of the PBS/BBC series How We Got to Now will explain just how that happens.

Johnson terms the book " a work of history written sometime in the future by some form of artificial intelligence, mapping out the history of the preceding millennium." Doesn't that explain it? But what the book does talk about is how 6 ideas and innovations have triggered changes that seem to have nothing to do with the original idea. Johnson's 6 ideas: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light.

He starts by explaining that innovations usually begin with an attempt to solve a specific problem but end up triggering changes that have seemingly nothing to do with the original problem (think Velcro). A new innovation is really a network of new ideas. For example, the printing press. The printing press created a demand for eyeglasses so people could see the printed word more clearly which led to experiments with lenses which led to the microscope. Johnson calls this the hummingbird effect.

The focus is on North American and European ideas and innovations and the book doesn't deal with the relative value of the idea. His example is air conditioning which has allowed people to live in the desert and that negatively affects water supply. Johnson starts with glass, starting with an event 26 million years ago in the Libyan desert and continuing right up to today's fiber optics.

The whole book is like this and it is fascinating. Short, each innovation chapter is less than 50 pages in length and chocked full of interesting tidbits. Not only interesting, the book gives a little bit of history and science in the deal.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Driving the King by Ravi Howard

In 1956, Nat King Cole was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama by three members of the North Alabama White Citizens Council. The three male attackers ran down the aisles of the auditorium towards Cole and his band. Although local law enforcement quickly ended the invasion of the stage, the ensuing melee toppled Cole from his piano bench and injured his back. Cole did not finish the concert and never again performed in the South.

This description of the assault at a concert which is the focus of Driving the King is quoted directly from the website:

Driving the King is a fictional memoir told by Nathaniel Weary. The fictional Weary was born in Montgomery, Alabama and grew up with Nat King Cole, who actually was born in and lived in Montgomery as a young boy. In the novel, Weary saves Cole from an assault at a concert in Montgomery and spends 10 years in prison for his actions.  Following his release from prison, at Cole's request, Weary moves to Los Angeles, at the time of Cole's TV show, to be chauffeur and bodyguard for Cole.  Weary rebuilds his personal life, including new friendships and love.  He is also at the center of civil rights history - bus boycotts, bombings, and the entertainment industry's treatment of Nat King Cole. Weary and Cole return to Montgomery for a second concert, despite the tension and fears for their safety. 

Again, some facts from
In October 1956, Nat started his own TV show. Cole's popularity allowed him to become the first African American to host a network variety program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC television in 1956. The show fell victim to the bigotry of the times, however, and was canceled after one season; few sponsors were willing to be associated with a black entertainer.
Cole fought racism all his life and refused to perform in segregated venues. In 1948, Cole purchased a house in the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Ku Klux Klan, still active in Los Angeles well into the 1950s, responded by placing a burning cross on his front lawn. Members of the property-owners association told Cole they did not want any undesirables moving in. Cole retorted, "Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I'll be the first to complain."

Driving the King is a fictionalized account that details some historical facts and interprets others. Details of time and place and characters are excellently done.  Driving the King allows the reader to live through historic moments with someone who is there.  It is a story of history and of courage.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead by Peter Richardson

The biggest concert news this year for Chicagoland and perhaps the entire United States was that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead will be reuniting for the last time ever at Soldier Field. Tickets are now being sold for (this is not a typo) over $100,000, after the entire batch sold out in mere minutes. There is hardly a vacant hotel room to be found in downtown Chicago that weekend. How is it that this band that didn't manage to place a single into Billboard's Top 10 until 1987's Touch of Grey (their only song to reach the Top 40 in Billboard's Hot 100 chart) has managed to build such a cross-generational following? Author Peter Richardson tries to answer this question by looking at the Grateful Dead in the context of their times.

Formed as The Warlocks in 1965, The Grateful Dead soon became the quintessential San Francisco band, with their initial self-titled album released in the March preceding the Summer of Love. Despite this album setting a precedent of poor sales, their appearances at Ken Kesey's acid tests and other events and theaters in northern and southern California earned them a reputation as THE live band for the drug culture. Eventually, they moved their operations outside San Francisco to Marin County in order to get away from the scene that they had helped create, which was now being overrun by outsiders.

Richardson focuses on the creation of the Haight-Ashbury scene from its early roots in art school students, folk musicians and writers and and shows how the members of the Grateful Dead fed off of these early ideas in the creation of their sound. While their albums never sold particularly well, the Dead were present at both Woodstock (where they refused to sell their movie rights, thus ensuring that they would not be seen in the successful film of the same name) and Altamont (where they refused to play, after hearing about the conflict between the crowd and the Hell's Angels - incidentally, a group with whom they had many close connections). Somehow their music continued to touch a nerve despite changes in its sound and the community of Dead Heads that followed them across the country grew.

One of the cultural threads running through the book is Reaganism, as he was Governor of California during the sixties - a position from which he decried the youth and drug culture - and then later as President he launched the War on Drugs, which ran contrary to a scene in which drugs were encouraged by both band and audience members. The Grateful Dead were never a political band though, instead trying to nurture a community that existed outside politics.

Also interesting are the Grateful Dead's link to early cyberspace, as Dead Heads would launch one of the first online communities, The WELL. The Dead's attempt to continue to nurture community even as they played larger venues was a challenge, but early newsletters, the trading of fan-made cassettes and cyberspace all allowed fans to connect, even when The Grateful Dead took their occasional touring sabbaticals.

Ultimately, while this book spends much time trying to sort out the cultural reasons behind the continued existence of the Grateful Dead's immense fanbase, it ends up being enjoyable simply as band biography. It's not a perfect book, as the balance between telling the story of a band and its followers and analyzing the world around sometimes coexist awkwardly. But if this summer's shows have got you salivating for anything Grateful Dead then this book is certainly a good one to visit before you pack your patchouli.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

One of the key elements in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the Booker short-listed novel by Karen Joy Fowler, is the depiction of chimpanzees in captivity and their affect upon their human caregivers. Similarly, in Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult analyzes the nature of mothering and grieving in elephants, substantiating the existence of emotions and cognitive thought. And she creates the complicated character of Alice Metcalf, elephant researcher and mother, who is completing her PhD by studying the grieving process in these majestic creatures.

The book is written in the first person and our narrator is a precocious 13-year-old named Jenna Metcalf. Jenna is searching for her mother--the scientist Alice Metcalf--who disappeared ten years ago when Jenna was a toddler. At that time, Jenna lived with her mother, father, and 3 related staff members in a New Hampshire elephant sanctuary. Then, a horrific accident occurred. The elephant, Maura, trampled a caretaker and knocked Alice unconscious. After she regained consciousness in the hospital, Alice disappeared and was never found. The caretaker's death was marked accidental. But was it? Where was Thomas when the incident occurred? He is now psychotic and living in an institution. Why has Alice not returned for her child? Is she guilty of murder? Is she still alive?

Jenna is haunted by these questions. The novel continues in the first person as various characters give an accounting of the incident and those events preceding and following it. Alice's journals, which Jenna has practically memorized, and a blue scarf are the only remnants she has of her mother.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Jenna cannot believe her mother abandoned her. She does online searches and looks for her name in scientific articles. She tracks down the detective who worked on the case ten years ago - a detective who was so disturbed by the closing of the case that he resigned from the police force. He now has his own agency. Jenna also finds an inexpensive psychic to help in the search.

Both Virgil, the alcoholic detective, and Serenity, the has-been psychic, are empathic characters. They provide humor to what would otherwise be a tragic novel. Cynical and world-weary, they reluctantly team up with the wise-cracking Jenna. The adventure that ensues will provide a page-turning experience filled with suspense and awe.

Aside from rich, believable characters, Picoult's extensive research on elephants will enthrall any person interested in wildlife. Her juxtaposition of elephant and human grief is a major theme in the book. Indeed, by the novel's end, the reader will wonder whose evolution is greater - that of the elephant or that of man.

Leaving Time is both a mystery and a contemporary morality tale. It combines realistic fiction with the occult. Exploring the many facets of love and loss, the book examines the price we pay for being human.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern

For those of you still paying off your holiday shopping, Jake Halpern has written a book about the state of debt collecting in the United States. It will  make you never want to carry a credit card balance. Americans owe $411.28 trillion. $831 billion is delinquent or unpaid. 30 million consumers owe an average of $1,458.

Banks, credit card companies and other debt holders bundle and sell off these IOU's they can't collect on. Companies then buy this debt for pennies on the dollar usually, try to collect on it and then keep what they collect. It can be very lucrative. Once they think they can't collect any more, they in turn sell it again - and so on down the line. Outside of the biggest debt collection companies, the business is a seedy one and is largely unregulated. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau focuses on the largest 175 collection companies while thousands of smaller ones go unregulated.

This book is the story of Aaron Siegel who left his Wall Street job in 2005 to move back to Buffalo, NY. He took a job in private wealth management but since there is little private wealth in Buffalo (the debt collection capital of the U.S.) he was bored and decided to switch careers again. Using $125,000 of his own money he bought some "paper" and started trying to collect on it. He hired some veteran collectors to help him. Some of them were of an unsavory sort - ex-cons, drug addicts, con-men - so he hired a floor manager to deal with them. Aaron was making tons of money with 199% returns, 264% returns, 20% returns and on. When Aaron was done with the paper he sold it to Brandon, an ex-con with a decidedly ungentle approach to collecting on the debts.

This book deals with the seedy side of debt collections, not the debtors. It is full of characters, most of them people you hope you never meet, let alone have to do business with. I found this an interesting book about a subject I knew nothing about.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

I hadn’t read this author for a while, and I’m really glad I picked up his newest book.

It begins in a Manhattan law firm, which is suffering massive staff layoffs after losing it’s major client, Lehman Brothers.

Our narrator is Samantha, one of a handful of lawyers who has been offered a “furlough” - if she works for one of the non profits on the list she has been handed, she *might* be offered a job back at the firm after they reorganize. This leads her to work at a legal aid society in a rural hamlet of Virginia, deep in coal mining country. Of course a handsome male lawyer there is suing coal mines for deforesting……Gray Mountain.

A good page turner, really enjoyed it.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco is a writer of beautiful poetry and prose. Much can be said about him, to identify him, factually.  He was born in Madrid in 1968. As an infant, he immigrated, with his Cuban-exile family to New York and then to Miami. He grew up and studied in Miami. At Florida International University, he earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering and an MFA in creative writing. He is an engineer, an educator, and an author. In 2013, he was the firth inaugural poet of the United States and was the youngest, the first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to have that honor. All these facts are factors in his writing. But, it is the combination of his lyrical style and his narrative skills that make his writing special.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos is a memoir of Blanco's Miami childhood. In each chapter, he tells the story of a different time and situation in his life, as he grows from a small boy to a young man about to graduate from high school. Among the stories - "The First Real San Giving Day" which includes learning to cook a turkey; "Losing the Farm" about time spent with his grandfather and the animals they raised in the backyard of their home; "Listening to Mermaids" about maturing, friendships, and loving. In more than one chapter, he describes his years working at the family market, El Cocuyito (the little firefly) and the employers, co-workers, and customers who were a part of his childhood.

Blanco writes with such a combination of insight, sensitivity and humor that I savor every word.  I know some readers do not like poetry, but in case you do or want to try his poems after you read his memoir, there are three books of his poems in our collection.  If you want to know more about Richard Blanco, here is a link to his website:

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Short Stories by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known for her historical fiction based on the life of Thomas Cromwell. The first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Man Booker Prize. Her international audience anxiously awaits the last book of the trilogy.

Her short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, exhibits all of the wit, stellar prose, and black humor that so characterizes Ms. Mantel's writing. Some of the stories capture the cruelty of childhood, as in the chilling "Comma" and "The Heart Fails Without Warning." Others, like the title story, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," reflect the author's unconcealed anger at the once all-powerful prime minister. As the narrator observes:

 I thought, there's not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey. (p. 232)

Only the most skillful of writers could write a comic story about politically-motivated murder, leaving the reader sympathizing with the killer and his surprising accomplice.

To say any more about the stories would spoil their shock value. Just know that this reader found each one a gem - an analysis of the good and evil found in every one of us.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Question of the Missing Head - An Asperger's Mystery by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen

Samuel Hoenig owns a business called "Questions Answered." He would like everyone to know that he is NOT a private detective. He simple answers questions for a living. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome and this helps him out enormously. He can always find the answer. But his most recent question has him somewhat stumped. He is asked to find out who stole a cryogenicaly preserved head from the Garden State Cryonics Institute.

He is in luck however (and this is an idiom he wouldn’t understand) because Ms. Washburn had just arrived to help with another question and now she can help him with this one. Samuel arranges to investigate the Institute and when he does he realizes his case of a missing head has turned into a murder investigation. With his methodical, precise skills Samuel and Ms. Washburn begin their investigation. They investigate everyone - the company president, the head of security and his wife, and other doctors working at the Institute. Samuel methodically eliminates suspects until he is left with the family of the woman whose head is missing. But would they make a ransom demand of themselves? Samuel keeps digging placing himself in danger until he can solve the case.

This book is short, sweet and a fast read. Somewhat quirky, it details how Samuel's Asperger’s helps him. He doesn’t consider it an affliction, but a plus in his life, and in this instance it most certainly is.  Ms.Washburn exhibits a patience for Samuel that helps him along. Her character is a perfect foil for Samuel’s.

The book is written by two men: E.J. Copperman who writes the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries, and Jeff Cohen who is the author of 2 books on Asperger's syndrome. Cohen's background gives Samuel's character a very real feel and Copperman lends his expertise to the mystery.

I liked this book. A new kind of cozy mystery, this book is perfect if you're looking for something new in mysteries.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This title is the newest addition to the psychological thriller genre made so popular by Gone Girl and Defending Jacob. It was published 1/13/15, and I am ordering more and more copies, trying to keep up with the demand!

Main character Rachel commutes back and forth to London on the train every day. As she gazes out the window, she concentrates her attention on the row of houses next to the tracks where she used to live. Her ex-husband Tom lives there now with his new wife and there is another young couple two doors down. As Rachel fantasizes about what goes on behind those closed doors the reader begins to realize that Rachel is a very unreliable narrator! Fired from her job because of her major drinking problem, Rachel continues taking the train in to London and out every day so she doesn't have to tell her roommate that she has lost another job due to drunkenness.

When a woman goes missing, the woman from the house two doors down from where Rachel used to live with Tom, Rachel is convinced that she has seen something important from the train window - and she wants to help with the investigation.

The Girl on the Train is skillfully plotted, the characters well drawn.

The author gives the reader small pieces of information, little clues, as the plot progresses and even the most astute thriller reader may be surprised by the dramatic plot twist at the end.

Author Paula Hawkins is a longtime London resident, who, like Rachel, spent a great deal of time commuting - by train.

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