Sunday, May 15, 2016

Trouble Boys: the True Story of The Replacements

Like books, music is a thing I try never to deny myself. There was always music in my house growing up. I started plunking a guitar at 12, got my first bass and amp as a bar mitzvah gift from my family, and I still play today.

In the 80's, I began to absolutely devour music. The punk explosion and the post-punk and new wave that came after truly spoke to me. The difference today is you can hear practically anything, anytime. Scarcity is a thing of the past but back then, I couldn't afford all the music I wanted and so we all borrowed cassettes from friends and "dubbed" them on the ubiquitous dual tape decks of the decade. That was a time when the major labels lamented that "home taping is killing the music industry". Actually, those dinosaurs went extinct more recently.
The Replacements were a band I had heard of but never heard much. My freshman year, a kid down the dorm hall lent me his cassette with Tim on one side and Let It Be on the other. While there were elements I liked, their music just didn't reach me and I moved on.

A few years later, The 'Mats played a sizable venue on a Saturday night and then stumbled across the street to the much smaller joint where my band was playing. As we took a break between sets, I walked up and told them they were welcome to take the stage if they wanted. Wasting no time, they immediately got shirty with me, telling me they'd blow us off the stage. In the parlance of times I could only think, "Well duh"! We were a bar band playing for small change and sandwiches. They were pros with records and tours and a legendary reputation for being drunk and pugnacious. I was merely extending my hand to a fellow, albeit much bigger, band and in their customary fashion, they bit it. I wrote them off for good.

Years later, for reasons unknown, it clicked and The Replacements finally spoke to me. I had never known much about them, just their music and that infamous reputation. Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr gives it to us straight and exhaustively, clocking in at 435 pages and a tiny font size that vexes a man my age.  Mehr, a veteran music journalist, writes nimbly and with authority. He was able to secure the surviving 'Mats, including the famously aloof Paul Westerberg, along with friends, family, fellow scenesters, and those behind the scenes, to tell all the stories that make up this much larger tale.

The trouble with Trouble Boys is that I don't think I can finish it. Not because of the length nor am I squeamish or prudish but because it's so achingly sad and I'm only as far as the band recording their breakthrough album. We already know how it ends--they never really "make it", they grow resentful of each other which leads to a terribly acrimonious break-up (is there any other kind?), Bob dies, and none of them rebound. While they re-grouped a few years back for a few festivals, it's not the same nor can fans expect it to be but to read another 200+ pages about their prolonged downward spiral is just too much for me. The tales of staggering drug abuse and boozing, the self-sabotage and self-destruction, the bitterness and pain they cause themselves and each other will only get worse and I just can't stomach it.

Please don't read this as a book I didn't like. I did indeed. ‘Mat’s fans will love it. Mehr is a writer good enough to make me put down his book because the story he writes so well causes me to flinch and cringe at the seemingly endless pain that shrouded The Replacements and their inevitable demise.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Of Penthouses, Tenements, and Thieves

Greeting Earthlings and others. I'm happy to say I've been reading a blue streak and want to pass on a few recommendations before my memory deteriorates entirely. 

Let's start a little light with The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. 

Early in his career, when Capote truly did show promise and began to find success, he inveigled himself into a social circle well above his meager beginnings. These women, wealthy, influential socialites, first regarded him as a pet but friendships emerged, none more so than with Babe Paley, wife of media baron William Paley and the leader of the group Capote called his "swans". Author Benjamin recreates the story of how Capote rose among these society swells as well as his being cast out by his own arrogance. 

In 1975, Esquire published a short story by Capote entitled La Cote Basque 1965. It was the first time he had been published in years and was part of a purported master work he would never finish. The story was a thinly-veiled tale that exposed very private details about the lives of his "swans", details only he would know. By this point in his life, Capote's writing career had stalled. Instead, he had become a "media personality", quipping his way through 70's talk shows and being "seen" at Studio 54 all while pickling himself with coke, alcohol, and self-pity.

After the story was published, they would never speak to Capote again nor would he ever regain his stature. Author Benjamin does an admirable job with this piece of fictionalized history. 

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman 

97 Orchard examines each family through the lens of what foods they ate and cooked and how they shopped. She also explains what new foods they learned to enjoy as well as which traditions were preserved from their mother countries. Germans, Russian Jews, Irish, Litvak Jews, and finally Italians all lived at 97 Orchard street and we follow them, beginning in the 1870's through the mid 1930's, and witness the vast changes happening in New York and American culture. 

Reading the book caused me to visit the Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard street in NYC. It was an absolutely fascinating view into the lives of the families about whom I'd just read. Do visit and, by all means, read 97 Orchard.

When I began Welcome Thieves, it annoyed me. Kind of that weird-just-to-be-weird thing and I considered putting it down since the To Be Read stack is large and friends and publicists have been generous with new books of late, enough so that Mrs. Next is giving me that familiar "you need to cull the herd" look. I'm really glad I stayed with it because I think Welcome Thieves is clever, funny, and deserving of your time. 

The collection is a bit out of balance but so are the characters and once you get to the third story, "Monkey Chow", you'll know whether or not you want to proceed. Beaudoin writes well AND can tell a story. Word-wise, he is real gunslinger.  A line I particularly liked comes from one of my faves in the collection, "All Dreams Are Night Dreams": 

"She grabs a towel, removes her makeup with a swipe. Beneath is the expression I once saw on the face of man who'd been stabbed with a pen over a game of dice". 

If that grabs you, you'll dig the sweet and sad "Comedy Hour" and the remarkable "You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics". Fans of George Saunders and, especially, Karen Russell, will groove to this collection of oddballs, weirdos, and bruised hearts.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reed Next? I thought you were dead!

I was going to come to you hat in hand, all apologies as Kurt used to sing, but I've ridden that bus already. No doubt, it's been months, MONTHS, since I've posted anything but there are no rules to this thing. Why? 'Cause I sez so.

As a small gesture in catching up, I just saw the movie version of The Martian, the last book about which I posted here. Loved the book and, happy to say, loved the movie. Matt Damon was well-cast as Mark Watney and the effects were much as I imagined. 

As is often the case with a film, there was less development and some characters were abridged, Kristin Wiig's character in particular, which is too bad because in the book, NASA PR director Annie Montrose is delightfully hell on heels. Much along these lines, the film felt a bit rushed. In the book, time is practically a character, maybe even an enemy, to Mark's potential rescue and survival. Still, well done but read the book.  

Last year, I was lucky enough to read an unsigned novel by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen which I thought was wonderful and deserved to be published. I'm so happy to report the book got signed to a great house, St. Martins Griffin, and will be published November 1. As good is the cover art. 

I'm especially pleased this is being marketed to a YA audience as it should hit home with "kids these days" but all you 80's refugees out there, read this one. You may very well find yourselves on the pages still wearing that awful beret and smoking clove cigarettes. 

You can pre-order at Shmamazon or wait and buy it at your favorite indie. And yes, I'll be glad to remind you before the book comes out. 

Finally, an upcoming title you must read is Dodgers by Bill Beverly. Due out in April from Crown, this book is part buddy picture and part road novel/coming of age tale. The road trip is a long journey from a bad LA neighborhood known as the Boxes to kill a witness in Wisconsin whose testimony has the potential to undo the drug gang to which they belong.  

The "buddies" are anything but. In fact, they are not acquainted at all until we learn that East, a devoted soldier, and Ty, already a cold-blooded killer, is his 13 year old brother. I was especially taken with the character Walter who provides a worldly counterpoint to East's narrow naivete. He brings some light and some oxygen to the tiny world East has inhabited his entire young life. 

Beverly's prose is short and sharp and he is skillful at creating and maintaining a gnawing tension that hangs over the road trip like a cement cloud. I was moved by this story and these characters, East most of all, and hope Dodgers finds the broad audience it deserves. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

This weekend's release of the film version of The Martian, starring Matt Damon, has thus far received almost universal acclaim. This makes me happy because the book lends itself to a film adaptation. In fact, it screamed "Make me into a movie!" when I read it on vacation a few months back. From the hype and reviews of the film, it sounds like they got it right. Now it is my hope people will go back to read the book because it is terrific. Author Andy Weir has given us an engrossing, wildly funny, and action-packed story.

Mark Watney is a crew member on a Mars mission when a violent storm separates him from his crew who, thinking him dead, abort their mission and head back to Earth. As you can guess, Mark isn't dead and now he's stuck alone on Mars and must fend for himself. It is a bit Robinson Crusoe on Mars though fortunately not this Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney is a plucky sort as well as a very able scientist who can assess his situation and work toward his goal of staying alive. His other challenge is to find a way to communicate with Earth to let them know he's very much alive and really needs a lift home. 

Weir is a first-time novelist who never thought The Martian would get published, so much so, he posted the book online for free before an agent made hay with the book and turned it into a bestseller. In interviews, Weir talks about how hard he worked on the science of the book and it shows. While some of it was well over my head, it only slowed down the pace of the book a wee bit. Readers smarter than me may not be slowed down at all.

Provided director Ridley Scott has done his job successfully, and by all accounts, he has, audiences will be cheering in the theaters much like I did in a Nags Head beach house. The Martian is a great, big, rousing success of a story, book, and author. Don't just see the movie. Read the book. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Wonder Garden and Fortune Smiles

Hey! Remember me? I used to intermittently blog about books. Then, in early May, I got a new job and have been hunkered down, desperately trying to master my new duties. It hasn't allowed for much in the way of writing so if you're still with me, I appreciate your patience. As you might imagine, I have some catching up to do.  

There is a sizable stack of books which I call the "guilt pile" to remind me that these are the books I need to tell you about. It's unlikely I'll get to them all but I thought I'd begin with two short story collections. 

The first is The Wonder Garden by Laura Acampora. In a set of linked stories that take place in the small town of Old Cranbury, Connecticut, the author introduces us to a dark group of denizens. The concept of house and home as far more than where people simply live crops up in almost every story. In fact, many of the stories are disturbing, such as Afterglow, in which a husband works out a deal to watch his wife's brain surgery up close or the creepy absurdity of the story, The Virginals

What struck me most about the collection was how unlikable most of the characters are. They are weirdos and oddballs but they aren't charming weirdos and oddballs in the vein of a Lewis Nordan nor are these traits played for laughs as is often the case in fiction. I never came away liking them or feeling as though they had grown in a positive way. While the stories are very compelling and the author is very gifted--Acampora has a way with words that I found very satisfying and re-readable--I think I was just happy to get away from them. Still, I recommend this collection.

Like The Wonder Garden, Adam Johnson's forthcoming collection, Fortune Smiles, is also peopled with unlikable characters. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation in them and a lack of honesty with themselves. This is perhaps most prominent in "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine", which tells the story of a former Stasi prison warden who simply will not allow, despite the wealth of the evidence of history, that he did anything wrong. These themes also play out to great effect in the title story. Unlike The Wonder Garden, Johnson's characters are not irredeemable. At best, they are adrift. At worst, they are lost. 

Having never read The Orphan Master's Son, which won the Pulitzer two years ago, I thought his sense of voice was astoundingly good and his characters were rich. Nonc, a character in Hurricanes Anonymous and DJ in the title story were especially memorable. 

Fortune Smiles hits bookstores August 18 and should be added to your list. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

In high school, I participated in linguistics competitions that pitted students from area schools against each other. I was very good at prepared speeches but extemp was my domain. I owned it. In one of these winners, I referred to kids my age as "the Sesame Street Generation". For some reason, the judges, a panel of smart teachers, thought this terribly clever though I'm not certain why because we were the "Sesame Street Generation". I was only two years old when it debuted on TV but it seemed a constant to me the way the Steelers always won the Super Bowl in the '70's or FDR was always president to my Dad's generation. Michael Davis does a tremendous job of giving us a very complete picture in this worthwhile 2008 history. 

Street Gang is a story of wannabes, gonnabes, lesser-knowns, and more than a few rebels at all levels, Jim Henson and the Muppets the most prominent. However, without the alchemy of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Tom Whedon (Joss Whedon's dad!), and others, Henson would likely never have gone into children's TV and without Henson, no Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster or Big Bird, no Frank Oz, Carol Spinney, or Kermit. 

The idea to utilize public television to teach poor, inner-city pre-schoolers began as dinner party conversation in 1966, when Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, and Green Acres were top-rated programs. It was an incalculable gamble though many thought it sheer folly. Remarkably, the right people came together to create a landmark in television, one that broke socio-economic, racial, and educational boundaries forever.

We know now that young kids in poverty have fewer opportunities than other kids and it is accepted wisdom that educating them at such a young age is vital to their academic success, earning potential, and ability to break the cycle of poverty. That kids, poor and otherwise, could learn from television (public television, no less) was astounding in 1968 and that the show succeeded to such an extent was without precedent. 

For kids of color to see themselves on TV was groundbreaking but it was also meaningful to a kid like me who grew up in a world of white. Of course I didn't realize it at the time but seeing those faces made them less exotic, less unusual, more real. They were just kids like me so when I met them later on, I didn't fear them in the manner of the generations before me. 

I was, however, a bit intimidated by the small font size of this generously footnoted, 350 pager but Davis writes with ease and authority. The story is informative, entertaining, and, at times, gossipy. Turns out Bert was sleeping with Ernie. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Yesterday, I meandered into my favorite second-hand book bazaar to kill some time before treating a friend to a belated birthday lunch at the diner of a nearby bowling alley (his choice). Pickings were slim on this visit but I was fortunate to find a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher which I began reading in the car while waiting for the birthday boy to arrive and completed it by beddy-bye. As regular Reed-ers know, I'm a sucker for an epistolary novel and this slender collection of letters of recommendation doesn't disappoint. 

The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is a creative writing professor at the appropriately named Payne University, a small Midwestern school whose English department has seen far better days. He labors in a building that is under extensive construction, mostly for the benefit of the Economics department whose upstairs offices are getting a royal makeover while his department suffers toxic dust, loud noises, and foul, leaky restrooms. Retired professors aren't being replaced, funding has gone the way of the dodo, grad students aren't being added, and the new department head is (gasp!) a sociologist. 

Like the department, Fitger, a once promising novelist whose backlist is largely out of print, is slowly spiraling into literary obscurity. His spark for academia no longer burns brightly and his personal relationships are in tatters. Like Sid Straw in Michael Kun's delightful The Locklear Letters, Fitger can't get out of his own way. Unlike Sid, he is not a likeable man. He is bombastic, cranky, misanthropic, sexist, and unpopular with colleagues and administrators, all of which he is acutely self-aware. Seemingly, he spends more time writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues than he does teaching or other more literary pursuits. But oh, the letters! 

Schumacher, herself an academic at the University of Minnesota, is obviously no stranger to the folderol but she imbues Fitger's considerable ire with biting commentary on the state of academia and publishing to great effect. In one instance, he writes on a friends' behalf to a Dean of a school he believes entirely unworthy of her. And so:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university--dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question--but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently--correct me if I'm wrong--atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas". Ouch.

Later in the novel, he grudgingly defends his own department head to Payne's Dean of Arts & Sciences: "In my wildest nightmares I never imagined that I would make or endorse such a recommendation, akin to Hamlet naming Uncle Claudius counsel (Hamlet is a play by a writer named William Shakespeare: I'll send you a copy on some other occasion.)"

While it might have been enough to let Fitger froth at the mouth for the entire 180 pages, Schumacher wisely and slowly brings about a sense of decency in the man, mostly in his desire to help a promising grad student in whose novel, a re-telling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener set in the accounting department of a 1960's Vegas casino, he believes and the reappearance of an old friend with whom he studied at an Iowa-like writing program years before. On their behalves, Fitger reaches out to agents, publishers, and academics in a knowing effort to do something for someone other than himself. While he doesn't spare his spleen with any of these recipients, he makes an uncharacteristically sincere effort with mixed results. 

If I had a criticism, it is that the ending came too quickly, both in the narrative sense and for my own selfish reason that I didn't want the book to end. Both of these are small beer compared to the joy the book brought me. Find a copy soon.