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