Monday, December 22, 2014

Bring On The Hyperbolic Superlatives! My Top Books of 2014

Enjoying a book in my study
It's almost the end of another year and so we are besieged by Best-Of lists. I eagerly anticipate the book lists to see who agrees with me and whether or not I'm still hip. While there was some agreement, the books I read this year didn't make many lists and, thus, I fear my literary hipness is on the wane. It makes sense. I've been out of the "biz" now for almost five years and though I try to stay up to date, it's obvious I'm missing a lot of titles. At first, I was saddened by this and then I realized it just makes for more books for Reed to read and that is hardly a bad thing. 

As for my own list, I read about thirty-five books this year with another dozen that went unfinished. Below are my favorites:

Mad World by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein
Elephant Company by Vicki Croke
Carsick by John Waters
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
  • I want to thank Majewski & Bernstein for making me feel like a 16 year old new waver again. Where is my eyeliner? 
  • Croke introduced me to a remarkable man and an equally great tusker. 
  • John Waters delighted and repulsed me, as is his wont. It's what he does, after all. 
  • Shteyngart made me cry with laughter while breaking my heart. 
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by A. J. Jansma
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Chop Chop by Simon Wroe
Perfect by Rachel Joyce
2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
& Sons by David Gilbert
The Guts by Roddy Doyle
  • Outstanding debut authors in Jansma, Sloan and Wroe. More please, gentlemen, and soon. 
  • As for sophomore efforts, Bertino knocked me out with her main character and Joyce continues to provide us with fiction so luxurious, her books should cost more. 
  • Gilbert threw me for such a loop, I still can't even begin to write about it as I'm just not equipped. 
  • Even as the most established writer on this list, Doyle continues to amaze me and if I must pick one, my book of the year is The Guts

Thanks to the booksellers and librarians. Thanks to the authors and the publishers. Thanks to my friends in the biz who indulge me and keep me in books. Thanks to the reviewers and listmakers and, as always, thank you for reading what I write about what I read. See you back here in 2015.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Last year, Mrs. Next and I embarked on a wonderful trip to England and France. I visited France at 18 and always wanted to return. Neither of us had been to England, despite my long-held interest in the country, especially for its many cultural exports--music, film, literature, humor, oh and there was some history, as well. In fact, Mrs. Next had never made the transatlantic trip before so this was a big deal. 

In the planning stages, I realized I was over my head and turned to a dear old friend, Wendy, the former groovy ghoulie and now, so glamorous, it hurts to look at her. She plied her travel agents' experience, I brushed up on the French I failed to learn well in college, and we had a marvelous time. With each leg of the journey, Mrs. Next and I were delighted again and again. And so we found ourselves staying at le Bastide de Marie, a luscious resort in a town called Menerbes. Chatting poolside with an English couple, we learned that the book, A Year in Provence, was set in this very town. 

Flashback time!

Years ago, when I was just a cub of a bookseller, you couldn't swing a salami without running into a Peter Mayle book. He became something of his own industry with his travelogues of being a transplant in southern France. He was on the bestseller lists for ages. This book begat sequels and calendars and fifty-year old women dreamily describing how much they loved his work as you rang them out. Naturally, in my callow youth, I was a skeptic and a snob. "Who the hell cares about life in small-town France?", late-twenties Reed Next snorted, "I read heady, provocative, contemporary fiction, damnit!"

To say the least, A Year in Provence is a delight and not simply because we stayed in Menerbes. Mayle's storytelling style is so breezy and nonchalant, it belies the hard work that writing must be to be this good. He brings out the color in the characters and their many idiosyncrasies, which are likely quite maddening in real life but damned charming from a distance. He is also able to capture the beauty of the region and the French way of life as to make both irresistible to our hurried American existence. And did I mention Mayle is funny? 

I will admit to remaining skeptical and snobbish though slightly adjusted for my age. However, I'm at the very age when I look back on our trip as dreamily as the readers Peter Mayle enchanted 20 years ago. Mrs. Next and I will return to the south of France in the near future, perhaps even taking a sabbatical and teaching English or something equally silly for a middle-aged man and his ageless bride. Neither of us can wait.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Only Read It For The Cartoons by Richard Gehr

I love The New Yorker. Truth is, I am sort of obsessed with it. Many of my literary heroes wrote for it and I try to read just about everything that comes out about the mag and its' illustrious history while still trying to keep up with my subscription. (Last Summer, I got caught up for the first time in three years, a triumph known only to regular subscribers, but soon fell behind again. Currently, I'm reading the July 21st issue and Friday is Halloween.) Naturally, I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of this. 

Cartoons are part of what makes The New Yorker distinctive and enduring. Here Richard Gehr writes about and speaks with twelve prominent cartoonists whose work you'll recognize even if you don't know them by name. You get a wealth of background, back story, and behind-the-scenes stories. Some of these characters (and they are characters!) have been drawing for the magazine for decades, others far less, but they all have that certain something that makes their cartoons "New Yorker cartoons". Few other cartoons can be distinguished in such a way, especially these days, with newspapers having gone the way of the dodo and few other magazines bothering with the art form any more. Cartooning is practically an endangered species and that makes this examination of these artists all the richer.  

A real treat comes at the end when New Yorker cartoon editor and contributor Bob Mankoff discusses the process of choosing the cartoons for each issue. As one would expect from the mag, it is a painstaking process but it obviously pays off time and again, week after week. 

That said, this might be a book for dorky New Yorker obsessives like me and not for someone who wishes to read cartoons. For that, you'll need another book entirely. May I suggest The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, a magnificent coffee table volume that will supply you with all you need and more.

Sadly, one of the greats featured in the book, Charles Barsotti, he of kings and puppies, passed away this June, just a few months before the book pubbed. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History by Mark Bailey

The film industry came of age during the Roaring '20s and Prohibition so it makes sense that Hollywood, especially Golden Age Hollywood, always had more than its' share of drunks. To read the sodden stories Mark Bailey has assembled in the delightful Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History is to learn that damn near everyone in Tinseltown was a drunk and often of epic proportions. 

Having has bellied up to the bar before with Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American WritersBailey brings artist Hemingway along for plenty of oddly twisted caricatures of all the inebriates. They also offer up forty cocktail recipes and short histories of some of the great restaurants, bars, and nightclubs of days gone by like Chasen's, Ciro's, and The Brown Derby. 

Starting with the Silent Era and ending at the end of the '70s, Bailey regales us with drunken exploits of the writers, actors, and directors who managed to have successful careers while nursing enough bad habits to outfit a softball team of fallen nuns. While all the tales are told with a light touch, the author doesn't shy away from showing us the sad side of the stars, as well. The Miley's and Lindsays of today might be amazed to learn they didn't invent trampy, bad behavior. Some of the silent films actresses of the '20s were quite the drunken, self- and sex-obsessed airheads we know so well today. 

WhiIe I had heard a few of these before like Sinatra and Ava Gardner drunkenly shooting out streetlights and the massive binges of Faulkner and Raymond Chandler, Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy, most were new to me and highly entertaining. The excesses of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, the tag team power drinking of Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole, and the wagering by Jackie Gleason and saloon keeper Toots Shor were among my favorites. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It Or Not" Ripley by Neal Thompson

Most of us grew up with Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" in one form or another but the story of the man behind it all is far more interesting than expected.

Ripley grew up poor and isolated in Santa Rosa, California which at the time was the very definition of nowhere. His father, a rather dispirited carpenter, died when Robert was a teen and his mother was left the task of providing for and raising three children. Robert himself was a shy, awkward child with a prominent set of bad teeth and a pronounced stutter. However, he began to come into his own through athletics and drawing. 

In the early part of the 20th century, newspapers were the dominant media and the cartoons within them became a vibrant part of the American culture. In 1918, Ripley sold his first cartoon to LIFE magazine and expected it would be Easy Street from there. It wasn't but it led to work at the San Francisco Chronicle and from there to the New York Globe in Manhattan. Originally, sports was his cartooning beat but he was able to convince the Globe to send him to Europe and the Middle East. There he began to flourish, turning out dispatches of oddities and what Ripley called "queeriosities". At the time, the world was a MUCH bigger place and Ripley was fascinated by the different cultures, customs, and histories and threw himself into his work. The result was a wildly popular cartoon that made him a superstar.

Even then, Ripley understood what we now call "branding" and he was wise enough to continue to build his brand. His cartoon became a syndication smash which led to his Odditoriums at World's Fairs and a succession of popular radio shows. While most Americans struggled through the Great Depression, Ripley became very wealthy, living a lavish life of first-class travel, beautiful women, and ever larger homes yet despite all his achievements and wealth, Ripley was plagued with self-doubt, loneliness, and the crushing pressures of staying on top to protect his brand and his fortune. 

Author Thompson should be commended for continually making Ripley real. Ripley was especially fascinated by what some would call "freaks", a term he refused to use, that he encountered and eventually sought out in his travels. Here Thompson is especially successful at showing us throughout the book how much Ripley related to their disfigurements, their isolation within their own societies, and the pain of being an outsider, something he felt keenly. He also portrays Ripley as a capricious playboy with a petulant streak who, as he rose higher and higher, lost touch with the stuttering boy he once was. A highly readable, entertaining story.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

In The News

Remember In The News on Saturday mornings? I do. 
Just a couple of things you might want to check out: 

Here's a terrific article by Nick Hornby entitled "The Perils of Being a Book Critic" which just ran in the Sunday Times. He raises a number of interesting points about reading, how best to keep up with the onslaught of books and recommendations (even if you aren't a book critic), and offers some sound advice. He also includes a list of books he has happened upon that he thinks deserve a look. 

Great news on the podcast front: Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie have launched their own show entitled "A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment". The two old pals talk about things literary but promise they won't be limited to just bookish pursuits. Both are rather chatty fellows and they have a strong rapport. Having listened to the first episode, I think it shows promise. 

The especially cool part of the show is that each will read from works-in-progress and unpublished material, giving the listener a rare glimpse at work that may or may never see the light of day. As a giant Alexie fan, I'm terribly excited about this. 

You can listen to it here:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Sometimes you just get lucky and come across a terrific book by accident. That was the case with this delightful story which I devoured in two sittings and longed for more. Bertino is the author of the short story collection Safe As Houses, which received considerable praise and several awards. 2 A.M pubbed just this month.

"It is dark, dark 7 am on Christmas Eve Eve" the book begins and, in a linear fashion, concludes close to the time in the title. We are lucky to meet 9 year old Madeleine Altimari, a cigarette-smoking, budding jazz singer as she practices in front of the mirror and grades herself harshly. Her mother has died a year before and her father has withdrawn from the world in his grief. Mrs. Rose Santiago, a neighborhood shopkeeper, looks after Madeleine but mostly the kid is raising herself. 

She yearns to sing at her school, St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, but that's never going to happen. Her rival, Clare Kelly, always gets to lead the class at Mass. Madeleine hates the way Clare sings, entirely without soul. The bright spot of the coming day is that her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had one and wants to try one desperately. While I was immediately smitten with Madeleine, her yearning for a caramel apple was where I knew Bertino had me on the hook. This poor child, with all the grief and loss and disappointment that hangs over her like the inkiest of clouds, and she still has that child-like intensity for something so simple.  

From there we move through the day and several Philadelphia neighborhoods. We are introduced to a number of colorful characters but the three main threads that tie together 2 A.M. are Madeleine, her teacher, Sarina Greene, and Lorca, owner of the jazz club, the Cat's Pajamas. Each has their own worries. Miss Greene, a recent divorcee, is attending a dinner party that night with old friends including an ex-beau. Lorca may lose the club by closing time (2 A.M.) if he can't raise the money to offset serious violations brought on by a new, by-the-book, neighborhood cop. 

Bertino has a light touch and a wonderful way with words. Some readers may find some of the storylines a little too tidy but the story is such fun, these minor issues are easy to overlook. Besides, not everyone has to write The bloody Goldfinch. Where the writing shines most is in the humor and pathos surrounding Madeleine. She has the mouth of a dock worker, the burning desire to sing torch songs, and the pain and sadness of a little girl who has lost one parent to death and the other to grief. The other characters that people the novel are inspired and interesting, full of tics and truths, but if I had my choice, I wanted MORE Madeleine. Which leads to the question I must ask aloud: can we expect more Madeleine, Ms. Bertino? Are you through with this marvelous character or will we be lucky enough to cross paths with her again? I can only hope so.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Cooks and Books and Leopards

Round-up time, kids! I have been so busy (and so busy procrastinating) that I'm going to give these three books the quick and dirty treatment.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This debut was an absolute winner. The book follows two young men who yearn to become writers. As their relationship blooms into a best friendship, success for one creates a rift between them as does the presence of an unattainable woman. From there, author Jansma deftly utilizes a series of funhouse mirrors to turn the book on its head and not just for the sake of doing so as young writers sometimes do. There is a mood that the author is able to conjure and maintain throughout that feels claustrophobic and desperate and reminded me of The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, another clever debut from a few years back. A challenging read and a writer of great promise.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The pre-publication hype on this book was huge, particularly from friends whose opinions I trust and value, as well as a publisher that is tops on my list. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. While I enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had hoped. It is a light, engaging read with likable characters and is especially appealing to booksellers and people in publishing. Despite that, it just didn't grab me as especially good storytelling or writing. That said, it has sold by the barge load, so you may need to read it for yourself. 

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

Another sparkling debut that takes us into the world of the restaurant kitchen and all the sadism that goes with it. Our hero is an aspiring writer who can't seem to write much and whose dwindling savings force him to get a kitchen job in a restaurant that has seen better days. With no experience, he is hired as the lowest of the low, the kitchen bitch. When the staff learns of his literary aspirations, he is nicknamed Monocle. 

The cast of the kitchen is perfect: Racist Dave, so named because, well, duh; Ramilov, the pugnacious Russian; Dibden, the hapless pastry chef; Camp Charles, the swishy maitre d'; the quiet girl, Harmony, and the evil head chef, Bob. Wroe perfectly captures the testosterone-fueled boys club that is the kitchen and its endless cruelties, insults, and pissing contests. It is that harshness that also manages to turn these oddballs and assholes into something vaguely resembling a family. 

Soon we are introduced to a disturbing character who looms large in both physical presence and in the story, a customer known as The Fat Man. Somehow, he knows everyone's dirty secrets, vices, and peccadilloes and is able to use them to his advantage. His character is memorable for how absolutely distasteful he is; a glutton with power, money, and influence. 

Since we fixate on food to the point of exhaustion (let's put bacon on absolutely everything and then act as though we discovered bacon and agree how delicious bacon is!), since there are endless cooking shows (remember when Food Network aired shows about cooking and not just crappy reality show contests?), since everyone fancies themselves a "foodie" these days (see you at Whole Foods where you'll buy a watermelon for $12, dumbass!), Chop Chop should have broad appeal. It is funny without being obvious and thoughtful without being maudlin. A dash of romance, yearning, and redemption even find their way into the kitchen. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Anarchists' Convention by John Sayles

John Sayles has made a couple of my favorite films. Eight Men Out is in my top 5 baseball movies and I believe Matewan is criminally underseen. It's not even on Netflix. Should you get the opportunity, watch it. 

What I didn't know was his literary history. As a bookseller, I remember Los Gusanos from 1991 but I had no idea he was publishing as far back as 1975 and winning O. Henry awards shortly afterward. His novel, Union Dues, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978. After that, it appears he threw himself into film and as we know, that worked out pretty damned well. 

I came to this collection by way of the marvelous radio program, and one of my essential podcasts, Selected Shorts. Earlier this year, an episode aired that featured Jerry Stiller reading the title story before a live audience. It couldn't have been more perfect and I have listened to it over and over since. Stiller was just the right actor to read the story and the story knocked me over so I wanted to see what the rest of the stories in the collection were like.  

While I think the title story remains my favorite, the rest are rich with troubled characters, loneliness, and black humor. About a third of the book features stories with a young seeker named Brian McNeil who is going wherever the wind blows him. Some work well while others lack bite. Another is a moving story set in a bowling alley called 7-10 Split. The last story, I-80 Nebraska, m.490-m.205, found its way into Best American Short Stories in 1980. 

If you are a fan of the films, you would be wise to read his writings. Smart guy, great characters, terrific dialogue--just what you would expect from John Sayles. 

Here's a link to the show if you'd like to hear it:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Carsick by John Waters

At a college fair our junior year of high school, I met Rocky and we became fast friends. We were both weirdos at our respective high schools and you know what happens when weirdos meet. 

Rocky has always been more thoughtful than me and throughout the years, he has peppered the post with trinkets and tchotchkes, all of which catch me by surprise and unfailingly make my day. 

In early December 1987, I received the gift of a book from Rocky, a copy of Crackpot by John Waters. I had read a few of these pieces in Rolling Stone (back when it was still vital) and devoured the collection. His piece "Ladies and Gentlemen...the Nicest Kids in Town" was the basis for Hairspray. His twin commentaries, "Puff Piece (101 Things I Love)" and "Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)", are still two of my favorites and I've turned back to the book again and again over the years. 

On the title page, Rocky inscribed "A gift by the King of Sleaze from one Prince of Sleaze to another. Enjoy the madness. Love, Rocky". We weren't sleazy in the traditional sense. For the most part, we were nice, small-town boys, but our interests lay well beyond our hometown. Ours was the sleaze of the Ramones, Rocky Horror, and old black and white movies. While Freddy Krueger was grossing millions that year, we preferred Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death, who was forty years Freddy's senior

Somehow over these thirty years, Rocky has come to know John Waters a bit. They have dined together and Rocky has been invited to the infamous John Waters Christmas party. How a small-town "prince" has managed this has made me marvel but it also makes me incredibly happy. More selfishly, by Rocky knowing John (can I call you John, John?), it places me a mere degree away from Waters and I pretend as I read his books (and I always read his books) that I know him a bit, too. 

Carsick is Waters' latest and it is great fun. The premise is simple: he will hitchhike across the United States "from my Baltimore house to the door of my San Francisco apartment building" primarily by way of Interstate 70. He keeps his trip a secret from the media and attempts not to use his celebrity to hasten the trip though that is often undone by the fact that he is a celebrity and a recognizable one, at that. And just to make it more interesting, Waters breaks the book into three parts: two are fictional and the last, the truth.

Part one, The Best That Could Happen, is what Waters imagines his dream rides would be like. In this section, he encounters freaks aplenty but they are kind, respectful, and ultimately good-hearted freaks like Lucas, a handsome demolition derby driver, a pair of millionaire potheads who offer to finance Waters' next movie, a trucker hauling a load of candy and appropriately named Gumdrop, ex-porn stars, even Edith Massey who starred alongside Divine in Polyester. For Waters, it is one fever dream ride of fun from one car to the next as he wends his way cross country.

Part two, The Worst That Could Happen, is just that. The freaks are freakier, uglier, and downright mean and, to be honest, this is where I thought the book dragged. I am by no means squeamish but I found the bad rides so sadistically over the top that it sucked out the fun. Perhaps this was by design but going back to the two essays from Crackpot (Hatchet Piece and Puff Piece) reminded me that Waters could pull off this good v. bad device with ease without making the reader want to scrub their brain with Clorox and a toilet brush until all the convolutions are flattened like a a stick of taffy. 

Fortunately, the book is righted by the true account of the journey. Waters finds rides from very average folks, especially as he traverses the vast Midwest. Some recognize him and some don't but he writes with lavish praise and finds how generous people can be. For all his life experience (the man had never been in a Wal-Mart before!), he encounters people and situations he might be quick to judge in other situations but comes to appreciate the simplicity of kindness. As he says at the very end of the acknowledgements, "If I ever hear another elitist jerk use the term flyover people, I'll punch him in the mouth." 

Some might read my post and think Waters has gone soft in his sixties, that his meanderings have made him mawkish and if that's the case, I have done the book a disservice. While Waters will forever be known for his outrageousness and his utter delight in the tacky and wacky, if one follows his career, it is easy to see that he has simply opened himself up. The 1970's John Waters would likely have driven through the Midwest pointing fingers at the townies and yokels because they were "townies and yokels". Back then the chasm of differences between them and himself was wide. At sixty-six, he can see the differences have shrunk considerably in the intervening years and that there are only a few lessons to be learned:  
You're either a good person or you're not. 
It doesn't take much work to be kind. 
Show people what they mean to you.  
We are all bound together. 

Thirty years ago, when Rocky and I met, the world was a bigger place, especially to a couple of small-town weirdos. It isn't any longer but the basics are still the same and mean more to me now than ever. John Waters gets it. I hope you do, too. 

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

All it takes are two seconds for everything to change forever in the second novel from Rachel Joyce whose debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was one of my favorites of the last few years. 

In 1972, it was necessary to add two seconds to the world atomic clock to make it more accurate and eleven year-old Byron and his classmate, James, privileged English schoolboys both, become fascinated with the concept. Byron lives on a country estate with his little sister and his lovely mother, Diana. She is the Perfect of the title and the centerpiece of the book. Byron's strict father, Seymour, works in finance in London. He only visits on weekends but his stern, demanding presence is felt even in his absence.

The two seconds come into play when Diana drives the children to school on a foggy morning and goes through a "bad" neighborhood. Just as Byron believes he sees the hands on his watch go back two seconds, Diana may or may not have hit a little girl on her bicycle. Byron is certain she has and becomes obsessed with trying to protect Diana. 

There is also a second, present-day narrative that takes place alongside the Byron and Diana storyline. It is the story of Jim, who at 16 was committed to a mental hospital where he spent most of his life. However, when it closed, Jim was released to fend for himself, something of which he is barely capable. Now in his 50's, he is held prisoner by his own OCD and works wiping down tables in an unpopular cafe and living in a camper van.

Does this all sound like a lot to take in? It is and I haven't even gotten to the meat of the Diana storyline and it gets as meaty as a butcher's shop. So if there's one problem with the book, it's that it can be a little hard to follow. But here's the kicker: it pays off. Stay with it. Be rewarded. Thank me later. 

I say Rachel Joyce is two for two and has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sound advice

If only all the bottles I've opened contained this much actual wisdom. 

For the first time since 2012, I took Mrs. Next to the movies as part of her birthday celebrations. We saw The Fault In Our Stars and I have to say, it was very faithful to the book and we enjoyed it very much, if you call sobbing throughout enjoyable. We had both loved John Green's book and knew what we were in for. 

The casting was just about perfect. You couldn't take your eyes off either of the two leads and it was shot beautifully, especially the Amsterdam scenes. The use of animation for the texting between Gus and Hazel Grace was also very well done and useful to the story. I hope the author is happy with it. 

While millions have read the book, it is always my hope that the movie will lead those who've yet to read it, to do so. For those of you who still believe that reading YA is beneath you, think again. You can go here to read my thoughts on the book: 

Friday, June 13, 2014

New from Lewis Nordan!

Exciting news for fans of the late Lewis Nordan: Algonquin Books has released a short piece of his that can be downloaded here:

Now I'm not a read-it-off-the-screen kind of guy but for new Nordan, I took the plunge and downloaded it to my laptop via an app from Kobo. You tablet users, I-Tunes-ers, and those who read on your phones (the horror!) can do the same. 

Apparently, Nordan was putting together a collection of short stories prior to his death in 2012 and the piece, entitled "Would You Shut Up, Please" (ahhhh. Nordan-y!), was part of those writings. I have contacted the publisher to see if they are planning to publish a full collection and should I hear back, I'll be certain to pass it on. 

If you're not a fan of Lewis Nordan, you can read my appreciation of him here: 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mad World: An oral history of new wave artists and songs that defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein

A delightful look at three dozen or so of the most prominent 80's new wave bands written in a format similar to Legs McNeil's classic punk rock paean, Please Kill Me. Each chapter begins with a band and a particular song the authors felt was definitive followed by each of the authors' recollections of the band and song. Bernstein is the curmudgeon; Majewski, the fan-girl. They are honest in their opinions, adulation, and disdain but explain why that song, of the many, many songs in a band's catalog, was chosen for inclusion. Like the New Wave itself, the bands are mostly British with a smattering of American acts. 

From there a member or members of each band recall how the song came to be, what it meant to them at the time, their thoughts on quick success and quicker failure, and a few cheap shots at other artists. Not surprisingly Ian McCullough gives Bono a drubbing, heavy on the vitriol, and Spandau Ballet's Gary Kemp remains convinced his was the greatest band ever. Silly person.

Finally there is a That Was Then, But This Is Now section (love the ABC nod) that catches us up with the musicians, most of whom seem to be still flogging it on the reunion circuit or who have made some peace with their musical pasts. It also gives them a chance to get in one more knock at former bandmates (Thompson Twin Tom Bailey says frankly "...when Alannah's out of money, she'll be on the phone wanting to do it [a reunion]".)

Oddly, the most insight is proffered in the foreword by Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes and the afterword by Moby, much to my chagrin. (I've always held that Moby is a bloviating pretender. Others disagree. I don't care.) I thought Rhodes was especially thoughtful and generous in his appraisal of the era and his place in it. Moby was perceptive in describing New Wave music as gentle but sexless. 

Mad World is a jaunty romp, heavy on eyeliner and the authors are still inspired by the music though informed by the distance thirty years provides. As we all know, some of this music holds up and much of it is like a fossil--once alive & kicking (sorry) but now preserved in whatever substance shoulder pads are made from. There is talk of a Mad World 2 and should it come to pass, I will gladly fork over my hard-earned simoleons for another helping of New Wave lore. 

Check out

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I was excited to receive this well before publication (it pubs today, May 6) but I have to say I'm confounded by the book. The premise: Dr. Paul O'Rourke has a successful Manhattan dental practice, is a devout Red Sox fan, as well as a devoted atheist. One day he finds he is being impersonated online though not in the way the reader expects: someone has built a viable website for his dental practice, something Paul has been unwilling to do despite the need to do so. Then he finds a Facebook page and a Twitter account in his name where he finds someone quoting Biblical scripture. Odd biblical scripture at that. His search leads him to question if the online Paul is a better man than the real one. It also leads to a strange religion, The Ulms, whose core belief is doubting G-d.

As we know, Ferris writes beautifully and the book is engrossing but I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled by it. As a character, Paul is annoying, his emotions are misplaced and I question his beliefs. He follows the Red Sox with intensity and ritual (he eats the same meal before the game, skips watching the 6th inning, etc.) but pines for the days when he could count on them to be losers. As much as he says he loves their recent championships, Paul prefers them the way they were.

Much the same can be said of his atheism. A lot of this Ferris works out in conversations between Paul and his head hygienist, Mrs. Convoy, a woman of deep belief, and some of these are very funny. There have also been two relationships Paul has had, one with a Catholic woman and one with a Jewish woman, in which he became consumed by their religious beliefs and their families. He became desperate to be part of those families which he thought he loved for their respective Catholic-ness and Jewishness but he is unable to see them for what they are. While both families are indeed observant and their religion binds them together, he mistakes their loving family ways for deep belief.

Then you have the whole thing with this secret religion, The Ulms. Turns out the guy who creates Paul's online persona is beseeching him to come to Israel where the Ulms have a community and where Paul can learn of his true lineage and be accepted. The reader would think this would be the perfect fit for a doubtful atheist but Paul can't quite buy in to this either.

Perhaps I've missed the point Ferris is trying to make. Is it that Paul can't have it both ways or that despite what Paul thinks he believes in, he doesn't really believe in much of anything? I can't say and that is why, even halfway through the novel, I felt, while it was highly readable, like Paul, it was working hard to get nowhere.

Friday, May 02, 2014

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life in Comedy by Carol Leifer

Regular Reed-ers know I enjoy the comedy and I'm a sucker for a comedian's memoir/autobiography with its attendant yuck-yucks, ha-has, and squirting flowers. In the '90's and early '00's, you couldn't shake a salami without hitting this type of book and they all seemed to have made it to the bestseller lists: Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Cosby, Louie Anderson. Even hacks like Tim Allen and Brett Butler sold a ton of books.

However, it appears that formula is no longer a way to move the comedian book any more. Instead of funny stories about breaking into the biz and some personal anecdotes meant to show how they're just reg'lar though funny folks, now the book needs to serve another function. Carol Leifer's book is a thinly veiled business self-help book. In it, she tells her story and passes on wisdom that is designed to help you “get ahead”. Oy.

Now I realize Leifer isn't the household name that Jerry Seinfeld is but she rode that same bus, performing alongside most of the aforementioned comics and is a successful stand up and comedy writer (including writing for Seinfeld and Modern Family). She was among the small group of successful women who stood in front of fake brick walls with a mic and a stool and did her bit and I was the dorky kid who devoured all those specials and syndicated shows on TV and watched all those comics stand in front of fake brick walls and do their bits.

Certainly, the stories are there but they feel watered down. Reimagining the stories as a way up the ladder, “whatever your business”, left me flat. The chief cruelty is the use of parenthetical statements in which “joke goes here” as though with a wink.

Carol, I've always enjoyed your work but this book just doesn't do right by you. I wish it had. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes

When I first heard about this book, I thought "A '40's movie star was the inventor a technology that is now used in cell phones and GPS? How fascinating". Certainly, as a film fan, I was familiar with the name, Hedy Lamarr, but when I thought about it, I couldn't recall a single movie in which she starred. In fact, I realized I knew her name best from the running gag in Blazing Saddles ("Its 1874. You can sue her!"). Still, it was intriguing enough for me to borrow the book from the library. 

Hedy's Folly is a breezy read. It tells the story of Austrian-born Hedwig Kiesler, a beauty who pined for the stage, married a munitions mogul, and then made her way to Hollywood where she became part of the MGM stable of stars. It was there she met George Antheil, an avant garde composer and a lover of gadgets and gear even then. One of his compositions, Ballet Mecanique, was written to be performed by syncing sixteen player pianos, a difficult technological feat at the time. Author Rhodes gives almost as much of the book to Antheil as he does Hedy. 

Their idea that received a patent was for a technology known as frequency hopping which allowed radio control of a torpedo (at least in its original intent) that would jump radio frequencies so as not to be jammed by the enemy, thus making the torpedoes more efficient in actually hitting their targets. The U.S. Navy, initially supportive of it, never adopted it and it was shelved. Later the technology would become standard throughout telecommunications and, now known as spread spectrum, is utilized by the cell phone in your pocket. 

While Lamarr and Antheil did indeed receive a patent for the technology, it remains somewhat vague in detail. The author attributes some of it to Lamarr's lifelong fascination with invention and that her father explained complicated machinery to her as a child (!). Rhodes also posits that she was able to learn about some of the technology by overhearing conversations while married to the munitions mogul. No doubt Antheil was a gearhead but it all sounds a little far-fetched to me. I don't doubt that it's true but it seems the author wasn't able to make clear just how it all came to be. In fact, all this talk of invention and patents doesn't really become the main subject of the book until the last ninety pages in a book that is only two hundred twenty pages long. 

Perhaps I'm a little thick (Mrs. Next is likely to agree with that) but, if nothing else, it left me feeling unsatisfied with an otherwise lively and entertaining tale.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

So we've come full circle. Roddy Doyle began his esteemed career with The Commitments, his novel which focused on Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. as he forms a soul band in Dublin. In it, we get to know Jimmy and his large family, especially his father, Jimmy Sr., as well as a marvelous cast of characters that make up the ragtag group. It was a strong start and was the first of four books set in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown. By the fourth book, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, Doyle would win The Booker Prize. 

The Guts picks up with Jimmy twenty-seven years later (though it should be noted that we got to look in on him in the 2007 short story, The Deportees). Today, Jimmy is 47, happily married with his own four kids, and still working in the Irish music biz albeit in a pronounced niche market (Celtic Punk and one-off Irish punk rock re-releases). He has also been diagnosed with bowel cancer. 

Few authors are successful when revisiting characters from earlier works but as we saw a few years back with Paula Spencer, a sequel to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Doyle is more than able to reignite the proper spark and he does so here with Jimmy. It's like finding your old pal with whom you've lost touch, doing well all these years later. Except for the bowel cancer, of course. 

As Jimmy is treated and tries to keep it all together, we see some faces from the past in the book: Commitments co-founder and guitarist Outspan Foster, who is also suffering from cancer though his diagnosis is far more grim; Imelda Quirk, the former Commitments backup singer, still as beautiful as ever, and Jimmy's estranged brother, Derek, who left for England years ago and cut off communication with the Rabbitte clan. Happily, Jimmy meets his Da, Jimmy Sr., for pints on a regular basis and we get to see he's doing well in retirement. 

For me, this book succeeds for so many reasons. Aside from being a huge fan of Doyle's work, I'm the same age as Jimmy and a number of the issues that Doyle addresses in the book have become all too familiar to me. People I know are getting sick and I'm at the age when I'm attending more funerals and fewer weddings. One scene in particular, about having fewer and fewer male friends in middle age, caused me to double over in actual sobs. Few writers, even my very favorites, have the ability to affect me so. Too, Jimmy and I are turning into our fathers, anathema to us in our youth but a comfort now. 

It isn't all a lively romp with a bit of mortality thrown in to counterbalance the levity. Jimmy makes at least one terrible decision that made me angry with him but Doyle manages to make Jimmy all the more human. And as always, the dialogue crackles with life--so profane, so real so funny.

I can't say if we'll see Jimmy again in print though I'd love to check in with him when he and I are pushing sixty. By then, I'd like to think we'll have a learned a few things about what's most important and what matters least. I hope we have friends, we have love in our lives, we have our health, and we are content. Perhaps we can even get the band back together. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Before he was Gary, he was Igor. Born in Leningrad, sickly and asthmatic like the Soviet society as it entered its own death throes, his family emigrated to the US in 1979 as part of a deal struck between Brezhnev and Carter that lifted a long enforced limbo for Soviet Jews in exchange for wheat. As Shteyngart puts it, "Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal". 

His Russian relatives already in America explain in letters that, yes, "the streets are paved with gold. We can sell leather jackets at the flea market!" but it isn't easy. He is an anxious boy in a country that he was taught was the enemy, raised by parents who fought constantly, and who put tremendous pressure on him to succeed, Harvard Law being their ultimate goal for him. He works hard and gets good grades but he drinks like a Russian and smokes dope like Tommy Chong. Most of all, he feels completely unloved. 

At a young age, his beloved grandmother, who was left behind in Russia (another super sad true love story) plied him with sandwiches in exchange for stories. This was a love he sought the rest of his life and so stories have always poured out of him. His father is jealous of him, his mother lacks compassion and Gary is lost. 

Naturally, I expected it to be very funny, and it certainly is, screamingly so at times, but the real power is in the pain that is inflicted and dealt with and not dealt with that makes Little Failure a bitter yet rewarding pill throughout its nearly 400 pages. 

Face it: we all think we are honest with ourselves and, truth be told, it's bullshit. As I try to write pieces other than blog entries, it is my own lack of honesty that prevents me from getting anywhere beyond writing about the works of others. So it goes for me but my admiration for Shteyngart rose considerably as a result of this book. He was a goob and a rube and he smelled funny. He was teased and bullied and ignored. Who wants to revisit these pains and indignities? And who in hell would want to tell the world? These days, every book reviewer and jacket copy writer describes damn near every memoir as "unflinchingly honest" but it was this honesty that made me angry and made me cry for little Igor. 

Little Failure is a love letter to America, to Russia, and to his parents. If you've read any or all of Shteyngarts' three novels, you know how funny and smart his writing is and you'll appreciate his memoir knowing what to expect. If you haven't, reading the memoir will lead you to the novels so you win no matter what. Say what you will about Eggers but I think this is actually a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like Eggers, that's overselling it just a skosh but it's damned close. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Quick and Dirty

In an effort to clean house and get caught up, here are some titles I read to close out 2013 and begin 2014. Not a bad start to the year. 

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I found a copy in a chateau where we stayed in France this past summer. It was on a shelf with other books you could borrow during your stay though most were in French. Even better, this was a signed copy and since I was fairly certain most vacationers wouldn't appreciate that as much as I would, I nicked it. Just call me the Book Thief.  

Petty larceny aside, I enjoyed the book immensely. Jordan crafts a story told from multiple viewpoints about love, temptation, race, PTSD, mud, and one bitter bastard of an old man. The book moves swiftly and deserves the many accolades it has received. Add it to your stack.

Giving Up The Ghost by Eric Nuzum

I'm a sucker for books set in the 80's but more often than not I end up hating them. This was no exception. I should have seen it coming when I saw blurbs by Chuck Klosterman AND Rob Sheffield, whose books I also hated. Even setting it in Canton, Ohio couldn't save this mess. You're welcome to my copy.

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Let's see, some biting social satire and a secret society set in an odd, always-open San Fran bookstore? Where do I sign up? I absolutely loved this book. It reminded me a bit of Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection though it wasn't quite as dark. Sloan gives us a memorable debut and some great characters, particularly Mr. Penumbra himself. I didn't want it to end. More please, Mr. Sloan, and soon. 

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak

Too clever by half for my money. Either that or I've aged out of hip-lit. Some short pieces and some VERY short pieces make for an easy read but once I reached the hundred page mark and still felt nothing for it, I put it down and moved on to something better.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Regular Reed-ers know of my deep and abiding love for the work of Sherman Alexie and also my many snobbish tendencies. Until this past year, when I finally relented and started taking YA seriously, I always held this book at arm's length despite knowing damn well that Alexie could write a great book for that audience. Still, I never bothered with it. Stupid me. This was a complete delight.

The story isn't unfamiliar to me; in fact, he has touched on many of these tales in his adult work (including the short story What You Pawn, I Will Redeem) but he manages to make these stories funny and poignant without dumbing them down. I laughed throughout, I cried when I was supposed to, and, as ever, I marveled at his ability to tell the story so well. The accompanying illustrations by Ellen Forney are the perfect complement to the prose and are as vital to the story as the narrative itself. 

As is often the case, you don't need my thumbs-up. The book has won many awards, including the National Book Award, and it continues to be taught AND banned in schools throughout the country. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

My Top Books of 2013

It wouldn't be overstatement to say I got lost in December. I got busy doing things I needed to do instead of things I want to do, like this mess of a blog. However, since there have been inquiries as to my whereabouts and to my top book recommendations for the past year, well, here goes:

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Battleborn by Clare Vaye Watkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
NW by Zadie Smith
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I Shudder by Paul Rudnick
Ready, Steady, Go by Shawn Levy
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David McLean

Three striking fiction debuts (Watkins, Marra, Miller), two brilliant YA novels (Green & Zusak), Saunders at what could be the peak of his career (though I hope not), and Smith making certain I don't forget how great she is. 

In non-fiction, Rudnick made me roar with laughter, Hillenbrand made me feel despair and triumph, Levy thoroughly entertained me, and McLean scared the shit out of me (the book pubs January 14th so go buy it). 

In all, I finished 35 books and read some or most of another 15. There were some books I read that I never posted about--some were good enough and others were disappointments. A few made me angry for wasting my time and others I'd re-read if I could find the time because they gave me such joy. Looking over my blog and my master list, it was a fiction-heavy year and my choices lean just a little more heavily that way. 

You can read more about all these titles on the blog. I hope you manage to avoid the post-holiday doldrums but if you don't, the titles here may help get you through. 

As always, special thanks to friends in the book biz who still keep me in the pipeline, to authors who have been kind enough to contact me after reading my posts, and to you, my regular readers. Happy new year.