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: ****

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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

 

Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickeyi


Author: Colin Dickey
TitleGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Narrator: Jon Lindstrom
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book is a travelogue of haunted places in the United States, but it’s not the anthology of creepy stories you may expect.  While the author is skeptical of ghosts and hauntings, this is also not a work of debunking.  Instead it’s a deeper analysis of the stories as folklore that explain the hidden parts of the human psyche as well as how Americans deal with the past (or more commonly, how we hide from it).

Stops on his tour include places known for traumatic events and exploitation, such as brothels, prisons, asylums, ghost towns, sites connected with slavery, and even hotels.  Dickey visits several cities that have made an industry of monetizing their traumatic history as ghost stories for tourists, including Salem, Savannah, and New Orleans.  These stories can sanitize past tragedies while clearing us of wrongdoing. Then there’s the message of the ruin porn of Detroit where the message is that someone’s hubris is definitely to blame, although that may also be a deferral.

In short, one may open a book of ghost stories and find oneself reading a social justice critique of the United States instead.  And a good one at that.

Favorite Passages:

“… all of these stories, in one way or another, respond to history.  Ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.” – p. 48

“If the Kirkbride asylums are haunted, they are haunted by the difference between how history is conceived and how it plays out.” – p. 185

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping.” – p. 200

“Ghosts stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future. ” – p. 248

Recommended booksBeloved by Toni Morrison, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson


Author: Joshilyn Jackson
TitleGods in Alabama
Narrator: Catherine Taber
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2005)
Summary/Review:

This is a novel I saw highly recommended but didn’t know too much about going into it.  And since it jumps among many genres – romantic comedy, mystery, Southern gothic – it kept me guessing what would happen next (in a good way).  The narrator Arlene Fleet leaves her hometown in rural Alabama after a “miracle,” and promises God three things: never to lie, never to fornicate, and to never return to Possett, Alabama. 10 years later, an old classmate from Possett appears in Arlene’s life and forces her to make the decision to break all three promises.

Accompanying Arlene on her journey back to Alabama is her African-American boyfriend/potential fiance, setting up a confrontation with Arlene’s racist relatives. Arlene also has to contend with her strong-willed Aunt Florence, who raised her when her own mother suffered mental illness.  And she has to contend with the legacy of the popular high school quarterback, Jim Beverly.  There’s also an unsolved murder.  The murder is mentioned early in the book, so this is no spoiler, but the how and the why of the murder unfold over the narrative.

It’s an interesting and entertaining book that shifts from funny to dark on a dime.  I think it gets a bit too contrived toward the end, but by that time I was too invested in the characters to be bothered too much.  Of course, not knowing what exactly type of book this is helps in not anticipating its many twists.

Recommended books:

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price, The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann,  and Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell


Author:W. Kamau Bell
TitleThe Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Narrator: W. Kamau Bell
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, and television host.  I’m aware of him through his terrific Politically Re-Active podcast with Hari Kondabolu (currently on hiatus).  I liked him enough from that to want to read his book.  Much of The Awkward Thoughts is straight memoir.  Bell’s parents divorced when he was young and he grew up in Boston attending predominately white private schools.  He describes himself as a “blerd” or Black nerd and distanced from the identifiers of Black culture. Since Bell and I were born in the same year, I found I could relate to a lot of the pop culture events he recounts.

As a teenager he moved to Chicago at a time when Harold Washington was mayor and Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey were beginning their reign as world changing Black super-celebrities.  Bell attended University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out, and then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s to attempt  to break into the stand-up comedy scene right as the big stand-up boom of the 70s and 80s went bust.  He finds his niche in a one-man show in which he made comedic observations on the state of racism in America.  This lead to work on television, hosting Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX and then United Shades of America on CNN, as well as many, many podcasts.

Among the memoir bits, Bell reflects on many topics including sports (and why he doesn’t enjoy them), Denzel Washington as the greatest actor of all time, the significance of Doc McStuffins, and the Rocky movies.  He also worries about racism in America and the very real threat of a Black man like himself being killed by police or a vigilante.  He details a significant incident when he was harassed by the staff of a coffee shop in his hometown of Berkeley, CA when he stopped to talk to his wife (who is white) and her friends at the sidewalk cafe.  As a white reader, I was grateful that Bell takes the time to address what white people can do to confront racism (and give us a pep talk in the process) while relating his own experiences of what definitely does not help with racism.

This is a funny and insightful book, and the audiobook is extra special in that Bell reads it in his warm voice.

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
Rating: ****

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***