Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ska'd For Life: A Personal Journey with The Specials

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  On my trip to the record store to purchase a little Xmas something for Mrs. Next (shhh.  Don't tell), this little black and white gem caught my eye: a memoir by the bass player from one of my 80's faves, The Specials. 

While I know their music quite well, I must confess to knowing little about the inner workings of the band aside from the basics--originally called the Coventry Automatics, they helped launch the English ska revival and created the upstart 2 Tone label. The problem with most musical memoirs is that musicians simply aren't writers so they are teamed up with a rock journalist who does the heavy lifting but mixed results are usually the end product.  In this instance, Sir Horace is listed as the only author so I'm being cautious with my expectations and hopeful he passed his A levels. 

Still, The Specials were an influential outfit whose mix of pop and politics (thank you, Billy Bragg) not only topped British charts but have remained somewhat intact through the years with several different names (Special AKA, the Special Beat, and others) and line-ups.  I'm sure their youthful angst has gone the way of the Thatcher administration but I'm eager to learn what it was like to be Special during such a tumultuous political and inspired musical era.  

Fingers crossed as I turn to chapter one.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Top Ten of 2011

Below are my favorite books from the past year.  A good mix I'm happy to have read and pleased to recommend--seven fiction, three non-fiction, a mix of male and female authors, contemporary and historical settings, debut and established authors.  

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Great House by Nicole Krauss

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

Life by Keith Richards 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

Friday, December 09, 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

This was such a wonderful surprise of a book and will make my top ten for 2011.  

Harrison Opoku is a most memorable character just on the edge of puberty and his naivete is captured perfectly and without affectation.  He struggles with the murder of an older classmate from his London neighborhood (the novel's centerpiece) and seeks to find the killer in a young-boy-who-watches-too-much-CSI manner.  

Harri is a young man with a foot in two worlds: that of an immigrant in a new land, a wide-eyed schoolboy turning into a teenager (his budding romance is one of the best accounts I've read in ages), and from childhood to manhood.  

Initially, the pigeon motif confused me but once I caught on, it added a layer to the story and to Harri's character that I found quite beautiful.  Harri's use of slang terms (his own pigeon English) was also a little tough to follow at first but it was a realistic depiction of a boy of that age.  It was a pleasure to read and has stayed with me since.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Best Books I Didn't Blog About

Here are some of the books I read that I never got around to writing about over the course of this year.  There are some real gems here.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A novel centered around the music biz?  I'm in and was more than impressed.  Good Squad won the National Critics Book Circle award last year and the Pulitzer Prize this year and I believe was deserving of both.  The multiple perspectives stood well by themselves but woven together made for an absorbing novel.  And yes, the Powerpoint chapter was absolutely fucking brilliant.  Don't miss this one.

Room by Emma Donoghue
This book got a LOT of press and while it's very compelling, it's unceasing creepiness and the fact that the main characters are so unlikeable led me to write this one off.  Others will disagree but I'm sticking to my guns.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
The epistolary format is a fave of mine and Fergus pulls it off pretty well. However, the characters--the strong, beautiful heroine, the by-the-book Army officer, the racist Southerner, the plucky German hausfrau, the cheeky Irish sisters--grew more cliche as the story went on.  It's a very cinematic book that even with an ensemble cast of good actresses would make a bad movie for the theaters.  Now a Lifetime Movie channel movie, I could see.  Still, a good vacation read.

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
The best thing about Tabloid City was re-discovering what a terrific writer Hamill remains.  Especially good was his ability to weave into the story the memories of what it was really like in the newsroom of a large, metropolitan newspaper, back when such things existed.  However, this thriller told from the viewpoints of the many inter-related characters was just a bit too neat for it to succeed fully.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto
Absolutely charming.  The rise and rise and rise of Julia Child told through her letters to one woman who started out as a stranger and became her best friend.  Published collections of a person's letters used to be quite common and provided depth and background as well as a glimpse behind the public persona.  (Sadly, this type of book is a dying breed since we no longer write letters and a collection of emails just isn't the same.)  For the foodie in us all.  

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
This inventive, rambunctious collection of stories is filled with love and loss and Vikings. Comparisons to George Saunders always crop up when stories by Tower appear but I think it's apt and should be taken as high praise.  Both write from the heart and often find beauty in the most absurd circumstances.  Among the many accolades he was already received, Tower was awarded the NYPL Young Lions fiction award and two Pushcart prizes.  In a time when the short story is getting short shrift, it gives me great pleasure to see writers continue to utilize this 
format and succeed so well. 

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All, in which he read the 32-volume Encyclopedia Brittanica in its entirety, and is Esquire's Answer Fella, decided to take on religion by trying to live the Bible literally for one year. It was an eye-opener for the author and is for the reader.  Modern times make this difficult but not entirely impossible though very inconvenient.  I had some small hope it would enlighten me spiritually (who couldn't use that?) but on finishing the book I found that likely wasn't the point.  Despite the author's immersion in the subject matter, he somehow remains a skeptic though one who has a far better understanding than before he began.  Very entertaining.

I'd also like to mention a few titles that I didn't read but which Mrs. Next liked immensely: 

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Reed Next, tastemaker?

Not bloody likely but it was kind of cool that the day after I post about author Karen Russell, her latest book, Swamplandia!, is lauded as one of The NYT's Top Ten books of 2011.

Her publisher posted a link to an interview with her where she discusses the HBO adaptation of the book.  It might make a bit more sense to me now (and I love her idea of casting Bill Murray as The Chief) but for now, I remain a skeptic.  You can read it here: http://goo.gl/Au2sp

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Times and The Swamp

Author Karen Russell and friend

Here the NY Times weighs in with their notable picks of the year.  It is a good solid list though with few surprises. 

I was pleased to see Swamplandia! by Karen Russell make the cut. 
My two cents on that book can be read here: 
http://goo.gl/a3Bi9.  Don't miss out on this book or her first short story collection, the brilliant St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  Russell is an immense talent.

Oddly, the book is to be adapted by HBO and producer Scott Rudin as a "half hour comedy project"(!) with the author consulting.  While HBO has created some real magic, this leaves me baffled.  If it ever makes it to the screen, my high hopes for it will be matched with low expectations.  Then again, I would love to see HBO prove me wrong.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Another Best-Of List

This also gets my pick for best book cover of 2011
Here's another Best-Of (http://goo.gl/lXc97), this time from Publishers Weekly.  Unlike the Kirkus Reviews list, I'm much more in step with PW's fiction picks.  

Readers of this blog will see two books I raved about making the cut; the charming The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and the unsettling The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock.  

Should you choose, you can read my respective posts here: http://goo.gl/dXclJ

DeWitt has won the Governor General's Prize in Canada and I just read John C. Reilly bought the right to make the film.  I can certainly see him as a Sister. 

Don't Tell Me What The Poets Are Doing

Our friends at Shelf-Awareness ran this photo from the Fifth Annual Poets Forum, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets.  Pictured prior to the Chancellor's Reading are the poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds and Ron Padgett.

Wonderful writers, all, who know how to plumb the very depths of the soul.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for their abilities in making fashionable footwear choices.   

Ah, the life of the mind.

Speaking of Shelf Awareness, you can see I've added a widget on the right side of this page where you can sign up for their bi-weekly newsletter, Shelf Awareness For Readers, and enter to win a signed, first edition of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography.  I have a huge fan-crush on the good folks at Shelf and hope you'll avail yourselves of their excellent newsletter which is packed with news and reviews you can really use. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Best Books I've Never Read

As the year end Best-Of lists start to roll in, here's one from the esteemed Kirkus Reviews that struck me, not because I agree or disagree with their choices, but that I haven't read a SINGLE one of them.  Many I'm familiar with, some I hope to read, others I don't know a thing about.  Shows you how vast publishing still is and that makes me happy (or are just too damned many books being published each year?). 

As for Best-Of Lists, I'll pass them on in case you're interested and I'll also start to put forth my own faves from 2011, some of which I haven't blogged about yet.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Strangers On A Train by Patricia Highsmith

I believe I have mentioned here before that my beloved Father told me when I was young the legacy he would leave me wouldn't be financial; it would be an appreciation for books, music, and films.  I have scads of fond memories of watching movies with him, Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train among them.  Watching those same films without him always takes me back to my childhood and presents a happiness and sadness all its own. 

There was something about Hitchcock's movie: Robert Walker alternately oozing easy charm and icy menace while Farley Granger was all curly-headed, desperate and decked out in tennis whites;  the murder scene shot as though through eyeglasses on the ground, appropriately distorted; the merry-go-round scene where the story, quite literally, comes crashing down.   

It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned Patricia Highsmith had worked on the screenplay but it was a novel well before that, her first.  In fact, I knew very little about Highsmith until recently.   I knew of her Ripley character (I had seen the Matt Damon film) but that was about it, despite years as a bookseller and even more as a devout reader.  My friend Susan was kind enough to set me straight, lending me Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short StoriesThe bio in the introduction is that of a saucy Southerner well ahead of her time and answering to no one's definitions of normalcy, especially in 1950's America.  

That said, the novel Strangers On A Train bears only a passing resemblance to Hitchcock's film so I was really torn at first.  In the book, Guy Haines is an architect, Bruno is the character's last name, there's no tennis, no potentially incriminating cigarette lighter, no merry-go-round.  However, if you can get the film out of your head, the novel is a well-written, taut story of crime, punishment, and self-punishment.  She writes with a hard-bitten tightness reminiscent of Chandler or Jim Thompson, like when she describes how Bruno becomes resolved to kill Guy's soon-to-be ex-wife, "Miriam had become an object, small and hard" and how quickly he grew to hate everything about her ("The red socks with the red sandals infuriated him").  There is a strong homo-erotic subtext between Guy and Bruno throughout the novel that must have been practically scandalous in 1950.  

I do think the second half of the novel dragged a bit and the events leading up to the second murder were less believable but she does manage to get it back by the end.  The collection includes another non-Ripley novel, The Price of Salt, and over a dozen short stories.  There is a great deal to this author's work and the woman herself and I plan on reading more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

By end of day (as opposed to End of Days), I will finish The Last Testament: A Memoir by God, co-written by David Javerbaum which Simon & Schuster will release November 1st.  Javerbaum is a former writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and was involved in both Daily Show books, America and Earth.  It is, indeed, the Big Guy's memoir.  In it He tells us how He has done what He's done (Creation, Noah's Ark, plagues, etc.) and why as well as giving us a glimpse of the future.  It is clever, funny, and timely, which I hope won't date the book too quickly.  

Of course, there are those who may take offense but they are a singularly humorless lot who are looking to be offended.  If that is you, don't read this book and go back to preachy Ziggy cartoons or the Family Circus for your chuckles.  I found this book to be more along the lines of Christopher Moore's brilliant Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood PalInstead of being profane for the sake of doing so, both authors approached their subjects with considerable respect and knowledge.  What comes through on the page is that the authors have done their homework before unleashing their potentially controversial humor and barbed wit on the world. 

Here is a book trailer that will give you a good idea of what's inside the book:  http://goo.gl/fOf3h

I do hope The Holiest of Holies does a book tour.

In other news, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize last week for his latest novel The Sense of an Ending.  I read a novel of his a few years back and found it capable but unrewarding (http://goo.gl/PEyIG).  As a result, I'm in no rush to get to his latest though I probably should since it won the Man Booker Prize. 

Finally, I have to say that I'm just chuffed to have been spoken of so kindly here: http://goo.gl/6U5Xw 

Man of the House is a very useful blog that speaks to men, specifically Dads, who could use some practical advice, tips or a few minutes to catch up on info they need, all under one web site.  Best of all, you don't have to be a Dad to enjoy it. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You Made the List

Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Archer and Julian Barnes out on the town.

Bless their hearts, the British really do make me smile.  The link above is a power ranking of the top 100 "people exercising the greatest influence over the UK's reading habits - right now" as compiled by two non-tabloid papers, The Guardian and The Observer.  Better still, a portion of the British public actually care.  Certainly not all of them but it is heartening to see that this list even exists in a mainstream publication, let alone two.  Then again, Britain is also a country whose bookmakers post odds on the shortlisted authors for the Man Booker Prize. 

Here in the US, we'd be far more likely to compile the top 50 nip slips seen on network television or the biggest blunders on Dancing With Survivors at the Bachelor Pad while Hoarding and Hillbilly Handfishin' with an Ice Road Trucker.  

Now I'm not idealizing the Britons, as they certainly have their ways and stays, but can you imagine The New York Times and US Today compiling such a list and the American public giving a shite?  

Now THAT would make me smile.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra

In 1953, George Jacobs became Frank Sinatra's valet, when Sinatra 'stole' him away from super-publicist Swifty Lazar. To be 'valet' to Sinatra meant being more than his butler.  It encompassed being his aide de camp, his enabler, his babysitter, his beard, his bitch, his alibi, his whipping boy and perhaps his closest friend while keeping in mind he was always and ever Sinatra's employee.  A tightrope at best but by Jacobs' account, he loved his job and his boss and was adept at wearing the many hats it took to be that close to Mr. S. He stayed with Sinatra for fifteen years until 1968 when he was shown the door because he danced with Mia Farrow, then Sinatra's wife, at a club in Los Angeles.

Those fifteen years saw Sinatra at the absolute height of his considerable powers, beginning with a career rebirth in '54 with his Academy Award for From Here to Eternity.  As you might imagine, Jacobs saw it all--the fabulous wealth and splendor of Palm Springs and Reprise Records alongside the vanity and hypocrisy that was Frank Sinatra, he of the shoe lifts and hairpieces and hookers (man, were there a lot of hookers!).  Often while reading Mr. S, it seemed as though a dumptruck pulled up and left a load on my lawn littered with Kennedys, mobsters, showgirls, and many of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Considering the wealth of existing biographies about Sinatra, what I found most interesting about Mr. S was the first-person account by Jacobs.  He was there when Bobby Kennedy boxed Mr. S out of Camelot and Jack stopped returning his calls, when Sam Giancana 'relieved' Sinatra of his precious Mob connections, when Ava and Betty Bacall and Marilyn all were in the picture and then abruptly out of it.  

As has been written in the past too, Sinatra was two people much of the time: the bully who loved to pull sophomoric pranks on his friends (cherry bombs were a Frank favorite) and the Sinatra who bought people cars because he genuinely appreciated their talent or friendship.  This was the guy who thought he'd have access to the White House but whose casino was as mobbed up as the Copa scene in Goodfellas.  

Jacobs also shows the failure of Sinatra's persona, a man afraid to be alone but who had to be the life of the party, an outright bigot but who felt persecuted for being a "Jersey dago" among the Hollywood elite. Jacobs also describes just how cruel and cowardly Sinatra could be and his description of his own ex-communication by Mr. S. is just heartbreaking. 

 Mr. S is a quick and dirty read with heavy emphasis on the dirty.  Ring-a-ding-ding indeed.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The shortlist for this year's Man Booker Prize

Here's the shortlist for the Booker:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch 
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt 
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan 
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman 
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

I've read two of them and loved both.  The Sisters Brothers was such a surprising read.  Here's what I thought of it: http://goo.gl/fozJQ

Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English was as delightful as it was haunting.  I still need to post about this but don't let that stop you from reading it.

I've no idea what kind of odds the British bookmakers are putting on these books but I'm guessing they are longshots.  The winner will be announced on October 18 in London.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I have procrastinated on this post because I want to write it perfectly.  The problem is I simply can't.  There is nothing in my tiny writing arsenal that will do justice to how good I believe this book is.  Instead I will gush.

This was one of the big buzz books, post- BEA.  Advance copies, rumored to exist in obscure places, were nowhere to be found and ultimately went the way of the dodo as Viking ran out.  Friends were asking if I'd read it, telling me how much they loved it but I couldn't get my mitts on a copy. Another friend, one of the finest booksellers I've ever known, was so impressed, she pre-ordered 10 copies so she could hand them out to people the day it pubbed.  I was enthusiastically recommending it to people and had yet to read a word.  

Fortunately and for once, I don't look like a complete ass  because The Rules of Civility is that good.   

At least to begin, all you need to know is that it is New Years Eve, 1937 in a Manhattan jazz club when a couple of regular gals from the secretarial pool, Kate Kontent (accent on the second syllable) and Eve Ross, meet a handsome, well-heeled, cashmere-coated banker, Theodore Grey.  But "my friends call me Tinker. Couldn't you have just guessed it? How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after the workaday trades: Tinker. Cooper. Smithy.  Maybe it was to hearken back to their seventeenth-century New England bootstraps--the manual trades that had made them stalwart and humble and virtuous in the eyes of their Lord.  Or maybe it was just a a way of politely understating their predestination to having it all."  

That's from page 19!  Kate's description of Eve on page 14 is so perfect, I read it four times and twice aloud to Mrs. Next.

This debut novelist (whose names sounds like Chico Marx making a room service request) will have a high mark to meet in any subsequent work as the prose is exquisite throughout, the use of alliteration artful, the characters believable and endearing.  It is a Gatsby-esque tale extremely well-told that will tug at your heart and your conscience and will leave you wanting more.  Is it a "classic"?  I'll leave that to time and taste.  Is it one of the best novels of recent memory?  I think so.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

As if I weren't wonderful enough already...

A new study from the University of Toronto suggests readers of fiction can better socialize and better empathize with others.  

You can read more here:

You may now give yourself a little hug and go back to reading your novel.