Book Review: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella


Author: W.P. Kinsella
Title: Shoeless Joe
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Blackstone Publishing, 2011 (originally published 1982)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

    • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    • Box Socials
    • The Thrill of the Grass
    • The Mocassin Telegraph and Other Stories
    • The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories
    • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories
    • The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories
    • Red Wolf, Red Wolf: Stories
    • Magic Time

Summary/Review:

W.P. Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growin up and this is one of his classic books. Most people will be familiar with this novel as the source for the movie Field of Dreams.  The basic gist is that a baseball crazy man named Ray Kinsella marries a woman from Iowa and together they purchase a farm.  Ray gets a mystical message “If you build it, he will come” and knows that it refers to disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson.  He builds a baseball field on his farm, and Shoeless Joe appears, followed by the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the World Series.

Ray gets more missions from the mysterious voice: to take reclusive author J.D. Salinger to a game at Fenway Park, find the curiously named Moonlight Graham who played in one baseball game and never came to bat, and the Oldest Living Chicago Cub player.  Bringing this odd group together, Ray is also able to reunite with his (dead) father who played baseball in his youth, and his (living) identical twin brother who ran away from the circus.

What I forgot about this book is that it is largely a series of conversations focusing on philosophy, dreams, American identity, and fatherhood.  It’s a great blend of magic and the quotidian.  And the fictional version of J.D. Salinger is a hoot, and one can only hope the real Salinger was something like that.  The book holds up and perhaps even better than I remembered from an adult perspective.

Favorite Passages:

“You don’t have any witnesses.  What if it was all a hallucination? Religous fanatics are known to have delirious visions.  You’re obviously a baseball fanatic.”

Recommended books:
Rating: *****

Book Review:Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration by Thomas Brothers


Author: Thomas Brothers
Title: Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration
Narrator: Keith Sellon-Wright
Publication Info: HighBridge Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance review copy of this audiobook through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

The author of this book is a Duke University musicologist, and I don’t think I will represent the musicology well in this summary, although I did find it interesting to listen to. Brothers uses two popular music acts of the 20th century to illustrate the creative genius of musicians collaborating together to create new tunes: Duke Ellington and The Beatles.  This is basically two books in one with half the book about each group of artists.

Ellington is generally depicted as a lone genius composer, but Brothers states that he was more of an arranger than a composer.  He relied on others – particularly Bubber Miley and later Billy Stayhorn – to write the songs, and his entire band contributed parts as they worked on a tune.  That Ellington frequently gave himself sole writing credit was a recurring source of disgruntlement for Ellington’s band members.

The Beatles are more widely recognized as a collaboration – Lennon-McCartney – although it’s commonly believed that John Lennon and Paul McCartney only composed songs together in The Beatles’ early years.  Brothers breaks down the recordings and shows that not only were Lennon and McCartney were collaborating right up until the Beatles broke up, but a wider group of collaborators contributed to creating the Beatles music including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, producer George Martin, sound engineer Geoff Emerick, guest artists like Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and yes, even Yoko Ono.

Brothers makes the controversial, but accurate, statement that Strayhorn was musically more talented than Ellington, and that McCartney’s musical talent outclassed Lennon’s.  But Ellington had the ability to listen to various solos by the artists in his band and arrange them tunefully, while Lennon brought a rock & roll edge and lyrical bite to McCartney’s music.  As I noted, there’s an academic level to this book that is perhaps beyond a novice to me, but I still enjoyed reading about these great artists and how they made their most memorable tunes.  But mostly, I want to listen to some Duke Ellington and The Beatles now.

Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald, Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier

Rating: ***

Book Review: What is Yours is Not Yours  by Helen Oyeyemi


Author: Helen Oyeyemi
TitleWhat is Yours is Not Yours
Narrator: Ann Marie Gideon, Piter Marek, Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

What is Yours is Not Yours is a collection of linked short stories, all of the stories including keys as a symbol, with some characters from earlier stories reappearing in later stories.  Oyeyemi creates a wide diversity of characters and settings while keeping a natural flow that veers among the weird, humorous, and practical. The stories contain elements of magical realism and mythological ideas in a contemporary setting.  This is one of those books where I feel I missed a lot of things in the reading and would definitely be worth revisiting.

Recommended books: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard


Author: Annie Dillard
TitleAn American Childhood
Narrator:  Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., p2011.
Summary/Review:

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek many years ago and so I’ve long meant to read another of her books.  An American Childhood is a memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s.  The early chapters are vivid descriptions of her inner life as a child focusing on her imagination. A particular compelling passage describes her horror at a figure crossing her room at night which later realizes is only light from passing cars, but nevertheless she continues to imagine that something is really in her room.  From an early age, Dillard is fascinated by nature and she describes learning about it from books at the library and experience much of nature even in her urban environment.  As she gets older the narrative grows into more of a traditional memoir more focused on people in her life and her experiences at school and church.  Dillard’s prose is beautiful, but I didn’t find this book nearly as engaging as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Recommended booksOne Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem


Author:  Jon Mooallem
TitleThe Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Wild Ones is an honest look into the status of endangered species and their relationship to humans in the present day.  Mooallem makes three trips – sometimes bringing his young daughter – to see animals who may be extinct within our lifetimes.  He first visits Churchill, Ontario, the only location where polar bears live adjacent to a human community and their strange celebrity status there.  Next, he visits the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in the Bay Area of California where Lange’s metalmark butterfly clings to survival in a post-industrial environment.  Finally, he visits the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) breeding centers that attempt repopulate whooping crane populations with minimal interaction with humans (the staff where crane-like disguises) and follows the annual Operation Migration where cranes are lead by light aircraft. At each spot, Mooallem interviews the people trying to rehabilitate the endangered animal populations as well as amateur participants and observers.

Supporting his journalistic endeavors, Mooallem also researches the relationships of humanity to animals in America, focusing on figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to 19th-century zoologist William Temple Hornaday to 1970s whale advocate Joan McIntyre.  Mooallem frequently recognizes that the idea of wilderness is impossible in a world so widely-populated with humans.  The idea that endangered species can be simply rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild is being replaced with the reality that they will require perpetual management to survive.  He also notes how people’s appreciation of wild animals is inversely proportional to their populations, and animals once endangered – such as Canada geese and white-tailed deer – are now considered pests.  But Mooallem also sees hope in a world where humans and animals are more interconnected as the ideas of a seperate wilderness are dismissed.

Mooallem writes in a snarky, fatalistic tone that, while understandable, I find off-putting.  Nevertheless, I find this an informative and thought-provoking book.

Recommended booksWhere the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg, Central Park in the dark : more mysteries of urban wildlife by Marie Winn
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja


AuthorThomas Dyja
TitleThe Third Coast
Narrator:  David Drummond
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2013
Summary/Review:

Watching television and the movies, one could be fooled into thinking that everyone in the U.S.A. lives in either Southern California or a very large apartment in Manhattan.  When I was a kid, some of the more “ordinary” people I saw in tv and movies were instead from Chicago, ranging from the working class family on Good Times, to the professional couple on The Bob Newhart Show, to the suburban teenagers of John Hughes movies.

In this sprawling work of cultural history, Thomas Dyja explores how mid-century Chicago became the template for a lot of what was considered the typical American experience for “regular” people.  Freed from the restraints of New York and Los Angeles to be extraordinary, Chicagoans could excel at being ordinary in architecture, books, music, arts, and television.  At the same time, though, racist white communities rose up in violence against the increasing number of Black families moving into the city (or they fled the city entirely) and the Richard Daley political machine rose up by exploiting the city’s divisions.

  • Nelson Algren becomes Chicago’s leading writer through his gritty novels and also has an on-again/off-again affair with  Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry informed by the experience of growing up on the South Side.
  • Chess Records unleashes electric blues music and early Rock & Roll with artists like Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry.
  • Hugh Hefner commodifies sexual liberation (for men).
  • Mahalia Jackson sings songs of praise and fights for civil rights.
  • Ray Kroc introduces order and consistency to dining through the McDonald’s franchise.
  • “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Stud’s Place,” and other innovative and influential early television programs of the “Chicago School of Television” before New York and Los Angeles completely took over television production.
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe heads the architecture school at Illinois Institute of Technology and inspires the adoption of the International Style of architecture in Chicago and then throughout the U.S.
  • Elaine May and Mike Nichols improvise a new form of comic theater.
  • Sun Ra creates jazz for the space age.

For a book that is all over the place in the topic it covers, Dyja is good at focusing in on the details of the characters’ stories and connecting them to the theme of the mid-century Chicago aesthetic.  He also has a lively writing style that incorporates quotations in their unvarnished vulgarity.  This is an interesting book for understanding a city at certain time, and an entertaining read.

Favorite Passages:

“Daley’s retail politics was to democratic government what McDonald’s was to food and Playboy to sex: a processed and mass-marketed simulation.”

“Before they were even completed, the Near South Side projects – which had started the city toward its Daley-era regeneration, and whose strategies, laws, and designs had created the template for much of the nation’s urban renewal – were quietly deemed not worth repeating. In the end, the planners had loved their theories more than they loved Chicago.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music.  Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.”  Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.

As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw.  They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.

This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind.  It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself.  It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.

Recommended booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***

Book Review: Astral Weeks by Ryan H. Walsh


Author:Ryan H. Walsh
TitleAstral Weeks
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This book’s title is named after Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks. The Irish singer/songwriter and his newlywed wife Janet Planet spent much of 1968 living in Cambridge where he wrote many of the songs that appeared on Astral Weeks as well as latter releases such as “Moondance.” The connecting thread of this Secret History of 1968 is Morrison touring New England with a band of Boston musicians, shifting from rock & roll to a folk jazz sound, and being awfully cantankerous and drinking too much while doing so.  The actual album was recorded in New York City with jazz session musicians, Morrison’s Boston band mates only allowed to observe what was happening in the studio, as much as Walsh tries to sell this as a Boston-based album.

A better title for the book might be Things that Happened in and Around Boston in 1968 (and a Few Years Before and After for Context).  What the book lacks in having a cohesive narrative it makes up in having lots of interesting stories of Boston in the age of the counterculture. This history is often overlooked compared with what was going on in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere that year, but it is no less interesting for being forgotten.

The other major thread of this book is the Fort Hill Community, a commune or cult based around the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury lead by the messianic Mel Lyman.  The Lyman Family seemed to have their finger into every aspect of the Boston counterculture including the folk music scene (Jim Kweskin was a member), avant guarde filmmaking, and the popular underground newspaper Avatar.

In addition to Van Morrison, Walsh covers the Boston/Cambridge music scene which was shifting from the folk revival to psychedelic rock.  Unfortunately, MGM executives targeted Boston as the next big music scene and marketed a number of Boston bounds as the “Bosstown Sound.” Fans and critics saw through the cash grab and roundly rejected the Bosstown Sound.

While Boston bands were flopping, a New York band, The Velvet Underground gained a large following in Boston and played many shows in the area.  A teenage Jonathan Richman recognized Lou Reed on the street and became the VU’s superfan/mascot.  Walsh notes that in later years as original members of the Velvet Underground left the band they were replaced with Boston artists so that the final Velvet Underground album in 1973 was actually the work of a Boston bar band.

The Velvets home away from home was the South End night club The Boston Tea Party (pictured on their White Light/White Heat album).  The Boston Tea Party became the go-to place to see the latest and best music acts of the late 60s.  At the same time WBCN-FM began experimenting with a freeform rock format, first on overnights, then 24-hours a day, playing many of the same bands that performed at the Boston Tea Party and broadcasting concerts.

On television, WGBH broadcasted the experimental television program “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?” which was part talk show, part film collage, and featured an episode that could be watched on two stations at the same time if you happened to have two TVs.

Boston also played a role in four widely diverse films in this period:

  • The Boston Strangler – a real crime drama starring Tony Curtis filmed at the time the case against Albert DeSalvo was still active.
  • The Thomas Crown Affair – a heist film with lots of scenes shot on location in Boston and vicinity.
  • Titicut Follies – a controversial documentary exposing the poor conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (or would have if the movie hadn’t been banned for two decades).
  • Zabriskie Point – Italian director  Michelangelo Antonioni’s attempt at a American countculture drama that cast a non-actor found at a Boston bus stop as a lead character.  Both the youthful leads in the movie ended up associated with the Fort Hill Commune.

Late in the book, Walsh recounts the night James Brown saved Boston by playing a concert at Boston Garden broadcast live on WGBH.  The negotiations with the square Boston mayor Kevin White and his young assistant Barney Frank are particularly amusing.  This plays into the bigger story of racial tensions in Boston and a shift to more radical civil rights actions in the African-American community.  The Lyman Family ties in once again as the all-white commune had strained relations with their Black neighbors in Roxbury.  Surprisingly, Walsh does not cover the Tent City protests in the South End which were one of the most significant events in Boston in 1968 (unless I dozed while listening or something).

If you’re interested in Boston history and/or the counterculture, this is a good book that will fill in some overlooked parts of history.

 

 

Recommended booksBaby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer


AuthorStephen Kinzer
TitleThe True Flag
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)

Previously Read by the Same Author: All the Shah’s Men

Summary/Review:

This book explores the strains of American foreign policy which veers over the course of history between imperialist and interventionist goals and isolationism. Kinzer argues that these two positions have a long history, and the tension between them has repeated since at least the turn of the twentieth century.  The imperialist urge emerges with the outbreak of the Spanish American War and the United States taking control of foreign territories for the first time in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The interventionists argue that the peoples of these lands will find freedom under American control, seemingly at odds with the democratic ideals of our own Revolution.  Anti-imperialists then as now try to get Americans to cling to these principles and restrain their militarist impulses, with Mark Twain the most prominent voice.  Theodore Roosevelt stands as the icon of imperialism in this book, although Kinzer describes Henry Cabot Lodge as the actor working behind the scenes of the imperialist cause, up to and including engineering Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency.

Recommended booksThe Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


AuthorRussell Shorto
Title:The Island at the Center of the World
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2004.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Summary/Review:

Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island.  He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when “old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him.  Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored.  Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York.  He’s remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States.  Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2