Author: Alison Bechdel
Title: Are You My Mother?
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)
Previously Read By the Same Author: Fun Home
Summary/Review: The follow-up to Fun Home, Bechdel’s graphic biography of her father, this book deals with Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s actually about a lot more than that as center to the story is the process of Bechdel writing the story about her father and how that was troubling to her mother. Psychology is also central to the narrative as Bechdel details decades of sessions with her therapists and the book is heavily illustrated with quotes from the writing of the psychologist Donald Winnicot. My favorite aspect of Fun Home was how Bechdel worked in literary allusions into her story and that is at play here, most fantastically in she compares Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with the plexiglass dome in Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book. The psychology stuff is rather heavy and kind of weighs down the story that it makes it less perfect than Fun Home for me, but nevertheless an excellent examination of the human condition.
Recommended Books: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Author: Keith Richards with James Fox
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2010)
Summary/Review: I generally shy away from celebrity autobiographies but with the audiobook read by Johnny Depp and Richards himself, I had to give it a listen. I figured that Richards would be a good storyteller and was not disappointed. At its best, Life allows Richards to talk about the music he loves, the creative process, and songwriting which is all very insightful. He also talks about musicians he loves such as saxophonist Bobby Keys and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons. Richards can also be very catty. More than 40 years after Brian Jones death, Richards does not let bygones be bygones and is very dismissive of his former bandmate. On the other hand, Bill Wyman is virtually ignored. Most of his venom is reserved for Mick Jagger, although it’s a brotherly kind of hate, and frankly Mick deserves it. The book reflects the career arc of the Rolling Stones in that the best parts are at the beginning depicting Richards’ early life, the formation of the stones, their rise to fame, and their greatest artistic successes in the late 60s and early 70s. The middle part of the book is bogged down by endless stories of drugs and excess as well as Richards’ legal battles. The final part of the book is more of a hodgepodge with some humorous anecdotes and a few moments where the reader feels the triumph of 50 years of the Stones, but at the same time one is left mostly wondering why this is still going on. I think the audiobook narration really helps make this book, so I expect it would not be as good to read in print.
Author: Rob Sheffield
Title: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Group (USA), 2010.
Summary/Review: Sheffield, a music critic for Rolling Stone, writes an amusing and touching depiction of his life growing up in the 1980s with each chapter built around a song from that misunderstood decade. Sheffield stands out from the stereotypical music critic as he declares a true love for a lot of this music, even the songs and bands he knows aren’t very good. The book resonates with me because so much of his life story is similar to my own. We both grew up in the 80s fascinated with the music and culture of the decade, we lived in New England suburbs, we had Irish-American families, we were unusually active in the Catholic church at a young age, we had sisters who influenced us greatly (he has three younger sisters, I have one older sister) and we went to college in Virginia (I went to William & Mary for undergrad, while Sheffield went to University of Virginia for graduate studies). Perhaps the most eerie similarities are when he (like I) works at a Harvard University library and he shares a house with his grandfather in the same neighborhood, and possibly even the same street, where I now live. So, if I never write my own biography, this book will give you the gist. Even if you have nothing in common with Sheffield I recommend this book for Sheffield’s humor, cheerful optimism, and deep love for the 1980s.
“When I started out as a music journalist, at the end of the 1980s, it was generally assumed that we were living through the lamest music era the world would ever see. But those were also the years when hip-hop exploded, beatbox disco soared, indie rock took off, and new wave invented a new language of teen angst. All sorts of futuristic electronic music machines offered obnoxious noises for plundering. All kind of bold feminist ideas were inspiring pop stars to play around with gender roles and sexual politics, on a lever that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.” p. 4
Recommended Books: American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald.
Title: The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times
Publication Info: Lanham, Md : Taylor Trade, 2011.
Summary/Review: I received a free advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program. The biography of the great Mets pitcher and Hall of Fame baseball star is generally a hagiography from the title to the conclusion. Not that I would prefer a hatchet job but depicting Seaver as near-superhuman does him no favors in my opinion. Also, Travers and Seaver share the same alma mater of USC and Travers doesn’t miss any opportunity to mention it. I did learn some interesting things about Seaver such as the fact that he was a late bloomer and didn’t become a great pitcher until his college years. There are also some interesting details of his Mets years and relationships with coaches and players. The diehard Mets or baseball fan may want to read this book but otherwise I think the great Seaver biography remains to be written.
Recommended books: Gil Hodges: The Quiet Man by Marino Amoruso, The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove and If at First: A Season With the Mets by Keith Hernandez.
Author: Lauren Hillenbrand
Publication Info: Random House (2010)
Summary/Review: This improbable true-life adventure tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner (who even met Hitler at the 1936 games, naturally) who goes to war in the South Pacific, survives a plane crash at sea, spends weeks adrift on a life raft (surviving strafing and shark attacks), and then is taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp. There due to his fame as an athlete he is singled out for abuse by the cruel commandant. Historically, this book illustrates a level of cruelty of World War II era Japanese that I’d previously not been familiar with. This book is a stunning depiction of survival against unrelenting attacks on the human body and psyche. It’s also a story of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Title: Sleepwalk With Me
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, c2010.
Summary/Review: Stand-up comedian, monologist, and This American Life regular Mike Birbiglia writes about his life and sleepwalking issues in this collection of autobiographical essays. In the early going, I was disappointed because these were the same exact stories I’ve heard before but lacking the same resonance they have when you hear Birbilia’s voice. Later on, the book improves as the written form of his storytelling gets better for less familiar stories. If you like Birbiglia’s work in stand-up, storytelling, or even his upcoming movie you might like this book. On the other hand, he may just work better in those other media and this book is extraneous.
p. 102 – “Data entry is a fascinating job where you .. type … in … data….that’s been…written on something else. You can press tab and jump from field to field, and you need to remember to capitalize proper nouns like people’s names and their streets. The first ten minutes of data entry fly by, because you’re really getting the hang of it. The remaining seven hours and fifty minutes go a lot more slowly, because you glance at the clock after you finish every entry. Data entry is the white-collar equivalent of potato peeling.”
Recommended books: Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg and Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Author: Eric Foner
Title: The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
Publication Info: New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2010.
Every year on or around Lincoln’s Birthday I read a book about Abraham Lincoln, and this year I read this study about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. Some people consider him the great emancipator while others think he was racist and never freed a slave. Both views have an aspect of truth. Foner shows that Lincoln was anti-slavery from early in his life but did not think freed black persons were equal or capable of living alongside white Americans. Until late in his Presidency he held true to a plan of colonization and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa or Latin America. Yet, even these views were modified over time as during his Presidency he was actually exposed to meeting and respecting black individuals on a regular basis. It’s an interesting look at how a mind changes and how the country changes as Lincoln was often just a step ahead of popular opinion.
Recommended books: The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes
- The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
Author: Dave Eggers
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2009
This work of literary non-fiction captures the harrowing story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun immediately before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun, by all accounts a decent and honest man, is a hardworking Syrian immigrant who runs a contracting business. When the storm comes, he has his family evacuate, while he stays to keep an eye on some properties he manages. The scenes immediately after the storm are eerily beautiful with Zeitoun paddling a canoe through the streets of New Orleans joining up with other survivors to rescue people and care for dogs left behind. Then mysteriously Zeitoun and his companions are arrested. He is held under shockingly cruel conditions, abused, and not allowed to contact family or a lawyer for several weeks. It’s a chilling tale of injustice in America and indictment of the nation’s values in the post-September 11th paradigm. Most telling is how government agencies were unable to coordinate rescuing survivors, yet within days after the storm had constructed a large, high-security prison in a bus station parking lot. Eggers writing is straightforward and fleshed out with flashbacks to Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria and his wife Kathy’s conversion to Islam. The writing style is a delight to read but the story makes me angry and depressed.
Recommended books: The Day the World Came to Town
by Jim Defede, In the Name of the Father by Gerry Conlon and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
by Greg Palast.
Author: David Bianculli
Title: Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2010)
Summary/Review: When I was young I discovered records by The Smothers Brothers in my family records collections and became a fan of their witty interpretations of folk music classics. I even went to see them perform live one time and was sorely disappointed by what felt like a phoned-in performance. The show was days after The Gulf War began in 1991 and since I knew the Smothers Brothers’ tv show was notoriously anti-war during the Vietnam era and expected some commentary on the contemporary situation but there was none to be had.
Well, I can’t explain that bad show but after reading Bianculli’s book I’ve learned much about their great show that aired for three seasons on CBS in the the late 1960s. The first thing I learned is that the Smothers Brothers are unlike their onstage personas. Tommy Smothers, the dumb brat in the act is actually the brains behind it all. Bianculli depicts Tom as a keen talent scout giving young musicians tv exposure before they had mainstream appeal and hiring great comedians and writers (many of the musicians, comedians, and writers would go on to greater fame). It was also Tommy who would lead the fight against network censors to who tried to squelch political and anti-war speech in the show. While the network censorship battles are detailed with all the gory details and seem unfair (and often absurd due to how tame the Smother Brothers show seems in retrospect), Bianculli also show that Tom Smother over-earnest desire to fight fanned the flames of the show’s demise.
Each episode is described in detail with Bianculli emphasizing the innovation, stand-out performances, and counter-cultural undertones of the shows. The backstage story is also rollicking with humorous anecdotes of multiple generations of entertainers working on the show. The show didn’t last long but its legacy remains. Bianculli credits the Smothers Brothers with laying the groundwork for innovative shows of the 1970s from Saturday Night Live to M*A*S*H to the comedies of Norman Lear. I need to find the DVDs and catch up.
Recommended Books: Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales &James A. Miller, Life of Python by George Perry, and Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth by Jeff Greenwald.
Author: Fred Kaplan
Title: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, c2008.
A different approach Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his life and legacy through the lens of his writing. Kaplan contends that Lincoln may be of few Presidents to write his own speeches and probably the last one. In addition to his oratory Kaplan analyzes Lincoln’s political writings, poetry, and even his raunchy jokes and puns. As a self-taught man, writing played an important role in Lincoln’s education as well. This book provides a unique take on the life of the great leader.
Recommended books: Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills and The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie.