Book Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain


Author: Mark Twain
TitleThe Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info:  Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
Summary/Review:

I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip.  It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print.  The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing.  Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society.  All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne


Author: A.A. Milne
TitleWinnie the Pooh
Narrator: Peter Dennis
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2005
Summary/Review:

I listened to this audiobook on a recent road trip with my children.  It had been a long time since I read Milne’s book with many viewings of Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the intervening years.  The surprising thing for me is just how much of the dialogue for the film is taken right from the book.  Of course there are many differences as well.  Rabbit seems to be a meaner character and by the time he plotted to have Kanga and Roo removed from The Hundred Acre Woods, I figured he was the type who voted for Brexit.

The kids enjoyed listening to this book and there was much laughter.  I especially enjoy Milne’s playful narration that has the seemingly omniscient narrator interacting with a child presumably listening to him reading, much as a parent may when making up stories using a child’s toys.  And Peter Dennis’ audiobook narration is delightful.  A forever classic in any format!
Rating: *****

Book Review: Evicted by Mathew Desmond


Author: Matthew Desmond
TitleEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Narrator: Dion Graham
Publication Info: Penguin Random House, 2016
Summary/Review:

Using the methods of ethnography, Matthew Desmond lives among the poor in Milwaukee’s most distressed urban neighborhood and in a trailer park on Milwaukee’s outskirts.  The product of this research is a book filled with dialogue and everyday vignettes which reads like a novel, but illustrates the very real dilemmas of America’s working poor facing eviction from their homes.  Once rare, eviction is now so common in the United States that entire industries have emerged to profit off moving and storing the property of evicted tenants.  And that is only scraping the surface of the wealth created by managing the properties in the poorest neighborhoods.

Desmond provides a glimpse into the lives of both tenants and landlords, often providing a sympathetic portrait of people trying their best under tenuous conditions. Yet there are no angels here.  Tenants steal, vandalize, or just flake out on paying rent, while landlords fail to provide even basic upkeep of their properties and taken advantage of their position of power to exploit their tenants. In a lot of ways both tenants and landlords are in the same boat, victims of a larger repressive system that enslaves them both.  One scene that illustrates this is when after a contentious faceoff in court, a tenant asks her landlord for a ride home.

This book is an eye-opening glimpse into the realities of far too many Americans suffering under a system built into our law.  Desmond concludes with suggestions on how to reform the broken system to be more fair to both tenants and landlords.  This is definitely a must read book.
Favorite Passages:

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Book Reviews: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney


Author: Jeff Kinney
Title:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2007

Title:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2011

TitleDiary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2012

TitleDiary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2016
Summary/Review:

I started reading these books with my 9-year-old son and then more surprisingly my 5-year-old daughter took an interest.  So I dove deep in Wimpy Kid books for a while.  The books are purported to be the journal of  middle-schooler Greg Heffley complete with hand-drawn illustrations.  The books are generally a series of humorous events as Greg gets himself into various scrapes.  While depicted as an unpopular weakling and thus a sympathetic character, Greg can also be arrogant and insensitive to others.  In short, a typical teenager.  Greg frequently is embarrassed by/tries to change his nerdy friend Rowley to help him fit in, although the irony is that Rowley by being cluelessly unreflective of himself, ends up more popular.  These are funny books that occasionally touch upon more serious issues (dating, puberty, honesty, responsibility, etc.).  I expect I’ll end up reading more.

Book Review: Our revolution : a future to believe in by Bernard Sanders


Author: Bernard Sanders
TitleOur revolution : a future to believe in
Publication Info: New York : Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This memoir/political treatise starts with a short background of Sanders’ life and then a more detailed account of the 2016 election campaign. It’s still pretty remarkable how in a short time a little known Senator from a small state was able to bring together so many people and win 23 primary elections, get millions of votes in other primaries, and win nearly half of the elected delegates.  Although the 2016 election ended in the triumph of evil, there’s a lot of inspiration of reading this story of what can be done when bringing together a movement based on equality, progressive values, and social democracy.  The second part of the book diagnoses the political ills of America and what can be done to heal them.  It’s preaching to the choir for me, but a handy guide that I hope will be relied on in the coming years.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 27: The Whisperer War by Robert Kirkman


Author: Robert Kirkman
Title:The Walking Dead Vol. 27: The Whisperer War
Publication Info: Image Comics (2017)
Summary/Review:

In the repeated plot that occurs about every 4-5 volumes of The Walking Dead, the survivors go to war.  Things go wrong, people die, there is infighting, blah, blah, blah.  Meanwhile, Negan is playing a long game, or is truly reformed?  It’s a possibly interesting plot.

Rating: **

Book Review: I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis


Author:Lauren Tarshis
TitleI Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by
NarratorP. J. Ochlan
Publication Info: Scholastic on Brilliance Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

I listened to this gripping audiobook with my son.  It’s based on the real events of a shark attacking and killing 4 people and injuring one on the Jersey Shore, including a more inland attack on the Matawan Creek.   The book though is a fictional novel about a 10-year-old boy Chet who is living with his uncle and trying to fit in with the kids in his new community.  The story a child just trying to make friends and not succeeding in a series of pranks leading up to the actual shark attacks is actually well-told and relatable.  The shark attacks are hard to believe, but as noted, they’re the actual true story!

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey


Author: Sam Gennawey
TitleThe Disneyland Story
Publication Info: Birmingham, AL : Keen Communications, LLC 2014.
Summary/Review:

This book caught my eye when I was looking for guide books for our Walt Disney World trip and since I’ve long had a fascination with amusement park history, I decided to read it.  The story documents the origins of Disneyland in California from Walt Disney’s fascination with model trains and miniature villages and the desire to give something for fans of Disney films to do when they requested to visit the studios in Burbank.  It eventually grew to be the theme park built in an orange grove near the then remote town of Anaheim.  Disney’s monomaniacal commitment to building and then tinkering with Disneyland over the last 15 years of his life makes one wonder how he found time to work on the studio’s film and television project. This is doubly true since he was bringing a lot of the talent from the studios to work on Disneyland, becoming the first imagineers.  For all the artifice of Disneyland it is fascinating how many real things – from train engines to architectural details – were salvaged to build the park.

The book is basically in two parts.  The 1950s and 1960s are more intricately covered with the focus on Disney’s dream and the projects completed and started in his lifetime.  From the 1970s to the present, the book is more of a listing of annual changes to the park, and the sense that Disneyland is getting neglected due to the company’s focus on new parks in Florida, Japan, France, and China.  The Michael Eisner era seems to be wrapped up in red tape and bad ideas as the company continually fails to expand Disneyland and the initial disappointment of the Disney California Adventure when it finally opens in 2001.  This period is also marked by the Disney company seemingly doing everything in their power to avoid ever paying any taxes to the city of Anaheim.   Nevertheless, while the book is rightly critical it also celebrates the imagination that went into creating and changing Disneyland and the joyous role it plays in American culture.
Favorite Passages:

Disney archivist Dave Smith said, “Disneyland’s true appeal, we admit now, is to adults. Children don’t need it. Their imaginations are enough. For them, Disneyland is only another kind of reality, somewhat less marvelous than their own fantasies.”

According to architect Robert A. M. Stern, “Ironically, Main Street and the very way the theme parks are designed would probably be, much to Walt Disney’s surprise, the actual genius of American Urbanism captured at a time when it had no value to most people, certainly in the architecture and planning profession.”

According to Crump, when he started working on the project, Ken Anderson took him aside and said, “Now you guys remember that when you’re designing anything for Disneyland, you’re the gods! You tell them what you want, and you make sure that they do it your way no matter what!” Then Crump met with Walt, who told him, “You gotta remember that there are electricians, there are plumbers, there’s air conditioning … you’ve got to work around that … they’re just as important as you are.”

At lunch with Walt one day, Ray Bradbury asked, “Walt, why don’t you hire me to come in and help you with ideas to rebuild Tomorrowland?” Walt replied, “Ray, it’s no use … you’re a genius and I’m a genius … after two weeks we’d kill each other!” Bradbury was flattered, “That’s the nicest turndown I’ve ever had, having Walt Disney call me a genius.”

Ray Bradbury recalled a time when Walt told him “Nothing has to die.” He wrote, “Walt was right. Nothing has to die. Just rebuild it. Steamboat America, lost? Carve a river bottom, flood it, and send your Mark Twain paddle wheel down the riverway. Victorian train travel, gone? Nail up a rococo scrimshaw station, steam in the 19th-century locomotive, carry passengers from Civil War territories through African jungles into AD 2000.” Disneyland was a way to live forever.

Recommended booksInside the Mouse by The Project on Disney, Mouse Tales by David Koenig, and Amusing the Million by John F. Kasson
Rating: ****

Book Review: Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen


Author: Bob Boilen
TitleYour song changed my life : from Jimmy Page to St. Vincent, Smokey Robinson to Hozier, thirty-five beloved artists on their journey and the music that inspired it
Narrator: Bob Boilen
Publication Info: New York, NY : William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2016]
Summary/Review:

Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered interviews about three dozen musical artists, focusing on the music that influences those artists.  The subjects are quiet varied in representing different areas of popular music from Jimmy Page to St. Vincent to Smokey Robinson to Iain Mackaye to Phillip Glass to Lucinda Williams.  Some of the influences are what you’d expect, but then they’re surprises like Trey Anastassio of Phish citing Leonard Bernstein or Jenny Lewis drawing on hip-hop.  Some of the best interviews are with artists I otherwise knew nothing about such as Hozier and Fantastic Negrito.  A significant part of this book is also about Boilen’s own experience as a kid first hearing the Beatles, working in a record store, and starting a band.  He frequently relates the artists’ experience back to his own and indirectly to the reader’s as we all have our own experiences of being exposed to music.  This is a good book for music fans, and even if you don’t read it cover to cover, it’s worth checking out some of the interviews.
Recommended booksTalking to girls about Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll by Elijah Wald, and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell


Author: Sarah Vowell
TitleUnfamiliar Fishes
Narrator: Sarah Vowell, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2011.
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Partly Cloudy Patriot, The Wordy Shipmates, and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Summary/Review:

As an East Coaster, my knowledge of Hawaiian history is close to nothing.  And yet it was New Englander’s like myself who initiated the process that transformed Hawaii into a United States territory.  Well, maybe not entirely like myself as they were missionaries who insisted that the indigenous Hawaiians should become industrious Protestants.  Arriving in the 1820s, the New England missionaries would be followed by the industrialist who sought to raise sugar and the imperialists who sought naval bases.  If you know anything about how things works with Americans and native populations, the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 by a group of American business leaders seems inevitable.  Vowell does an excellent job of piecing together the clashes of culture and swiftly changing alliances that occurred in this century of turbulent change that still leaves its mark on modern Hawaii.  Like other Sarah Vowell audiobooks, the voices of historic figures are read by an all-star cast.

Recommended booksBlue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa


Author: Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa
TitleThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 
Publication Info: Unofficial Guides (2016), Edition: 2017 ed
Summary/Review:

I did not read this cover to cover, for it is a massive tome containing information about all the Walt Disney World and Universal resorts – theme parks, attractions, hotels, dining, shopping, and more – but I did find it useful for the portions relevant to planning my own trip.  The distinctive feature of this guidebook is the touring plan, suggested itineraries that take one through the attractions at the theme parks in a way to best avoid long waits in line based on collected data.  The book also includes lots of tips submitted by readers offering contrasting perspectives from the authors.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Summary/Review:

In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon


Author: Kekla Magoon
TitleHow It Went Down
Narrators: Cherise Boothe , Shari Peele , Kevin R. Free , Avery R. Glymph , and Patricia Lucretia Floyd
Publication Info: Recorded Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

A story familiar to any American: in a poor urban neighborhood, there’s a scuffle.  A white man in a passing car, stops, draws his gun, fires, and a black teenager Tariq Johnson is dead.  The police let the shooter go claiming he was exercising self-defense.  The novel is told from many voices of Tariq’s family, friends, neighbors, and a visiting minister (who is also running for office) who arrives in town to offer his support.  They offer conflicting views – was Tariq a gang member or not, did he have a gun or not – as well as memories of Tariq, and their part in the communal grieving process.   This highly nuanced book shows that there are no angels but also that there is no one unworthy of empathy.  Excellent reading by a cast of actors performing the various characters’ parts.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Rating: ****

Book Review: Frozen: The Cinestory by Robert Simpson


Author: Robert Simpson
TitleFrozen: The Cinestory
Publication Info: Joe Books Inc. (2014)
Summary/Review:

I read this adaptation of the Disney musical Frozen with my daughter over the course of several bedtimes.  It’s essentially scenes from the film arranged in a comic book format.  Strangely enough, none of the lyrics to the songs that made this musical famous are included in the book.  Instead the same basic ideas are related in the dialogue.  I don’t know if this is a licensing issue or if they just thought it would work better in comic form without the songs.  Nevertheless, if you and your children enjoy Frozen, this is an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 26: Call To Arms by Robert Kirkman


AuthorRobert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead Vol. 26: Call To Arms
Publication Info: Image Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

I’ve never been much too impressed with the character of Negan, so color me surprised that in this story of Negan escaping and joining The Whisperers, I find him funny, interesting, and even a voice of conscience!  It’s the little surprises like this that keep me reading when this series often seems to just retread that same things again and again.  Plus there’s quite a cliffhanger at the end, but Negan isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator so who knows where it will lead to next.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 25: No Turning Back by Robert Kirkman


AuthorRobert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead Vol. 25: No Turning Back
Publication Info: Image Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

It seems not that long ago Rick Grimes decided that the way forward was to stop fighting and to work together to create a new society among the dead.  Well, since the creators of The Walking Dead seem only about to work with one or two ideas (while tantalizingly dancing around something more brilliant) we’re back to all out war as the central narrative of the ongoing zombie story.  Rick gets advice from Negan of all people and takes on an authoritarian leadership role to channel the Alexandrians rage at against the Whisperers.  Plus ça change…

Rating: **

Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson


Author: Jacqueline Woodson 
TitleAnother Brooklyn 
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info:  HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This short novel is the reminiscences of the narrator August reflecting on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn.  It’s a period piece that recreates a place and time so different from the Brooklyn of today, and very specifically the challenges of joys of being an African-American girl in that place and time.  It’s also a meditation on friendship, as August recalls the tight relationships with her friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia, friendships that at the time seemed permanent but have long since faded away.  The book is permeated with a nostalgic sense of loss, and is a poetic rumination of the more complex themes underlying everyday childhood.

Recommended booksSula by Toni Morrison and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr


Author: Bob Mehr
TitleTrouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
Publication Info: Boston, MA : Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, [2016]
Summary/Review:

The Replacements are a band that have left a legacy of great music, yet always seemed to have the potential to do much more.  After reading this book though, it seems amazing that they even accomplished what they did.  Beyond their music, The Replacements are known for their heavy alcohol and substance abuse and their disastrous antics on-stage.  Turns out that they actually played better when drunk, and their worst performances were a rebellion against perceived hostility in the crowd or plain old self-sabotage. From the beginning, the band is riven by conflicts among its members and with their managers, producers, and record labels.

Mehr’s book traces the band back to their childhoods which were troubled indeed, especially for the Stinson brothers who suffered from abuse and neglect.  Each member of the band is well-developed within the narrative of the band’s rise and fall:

Bob Stinson – The founder of the band who always resented Paul Westerberg essentially taking over, and disliked the move to more melodic pop songs.  Stinson’s substance abuse problems were the most serious of all The Replacements, and he was forced out of the band in 1986.

Tommy Stinson – Bob had his little brother take up bass, and Tommy ended up developing into the most talented instrumentalist in the band.  Tommy’s life is remarkable as he drops out of school and he essentially spends his teenage years playing and touring with The Replacements.  Eventually he grows close to Westerberg and allies with him against his own brother.

Paul Westerberg – In the story related in the book, Westerberg hears the Stinsons’ band rehearsing in their basement and pretty takes over and makes them his band.  Westerberg comes across as arrogant and dismissive, and I really felt like punching him in the face by the end of this book.  And yet, Westerberg also grows to become a talented songwriter creating introspective songs that speak for the disaffected youth of the 1980s.

Chris Mars – Every band has a “quiet one” and The Replacements’ drummer is not just a musician but an artist who finds fulfillment outside of the band.  Still the way Paul & Tommy basically ditch him in the later years is just wrong.

Slim Dunlap – A journeyman/session guitarist who takes over after Bob Stinson’s ousting, he’s older than the rest of the band and settled in his married life, creating quite a contrast.  And yet he becomes something of an enforcer for the band against outsiders.

All in all, this is a well-written book that gives the reasons that for all their flaws, we still kind of find ourselves rooting for The Replacements to succeed.
Favorite Passages:

Though the band’s drinking would come to define and even consume them in later years, in the beginning it was a perfect lubricant for the long hours of practice and their burgeoning friendship. “That was the glue that held us—ol’ Jack Daniels,” said Mars. Westerberg noted: “They weren’t heavy fall-down drunks when I met them. None of us were. We learned to be that together.”

Where other groups evinced a certain artfulness or tried to present an idealized vision of themselves, the Replacements were all rough edges and struggle. That was part of the attraction: watching them, you couldn’t help but root for the band.

When Hoeger asked about their career aspirations, Westerberg articulated a prescient vision of the Replacements’ future: “We’d like to become famous without being professional,” he said. “Maybe like a giant cult.”

“To me, the soul of rock-and-roll is mistakes. Mistakes and making them work for you,” Westerberg would note. “In general, music that’s flawless is usually uninspired.”

Over the course of their career onstage, the Replacements would happily play the role of jesters and buffoons, but their concerts were also a high-wire act as well as a geek show. On one level, it was theater, pure performance—but it was real too. The band was constitutionally unable to put on a conventional act. If they were bored, they sounded bored; if they were drunk, the sets careened; if they were angry, their playing seethed; if they felt ornery, the show might devolve into one long piss-take, a joke on the crowd. That kind of calculated authenticity—in all its paradoxical glory—would be the Replacements’ methodology moving forward.

True Replacements fans—not the ones coming to live vicariously through them or to find sanction for their own behavior—were a different breed. “When we started, we were mixed-up kids, and we wrote about it,” said Westerberg. “It’s funny that the people who related to it the most weren’t fucked-up kids, though. Our fans have always been, dare I say, a little more intelligent than the band was labeled as. I always thought that ironic.” Replacements partisans were, on the whole, literate, dark-humored, and a bit confused about their place in the world. They weren’t the go-getters or yuppie types, but they weren’t hopeless wastrels either. They were, Tommy Stinson would note, “more like us than they fuckin’ knew. They didn’t really fit anywhere. They probably didn’t aspire to a whole lot, but also didn’t aspire to doing nothing either. That’s the kind of fan we probably appealed to most: the people that were in that gray area.

Prince was rumored to have lurked in the shadows at some of the Replacements’ shows at First Avenue, but it was in the bathroom of a club in St. Paul where Westerberg finally ran into him. “Oh, hey,” said Westerberg, seeing the dolled-up singer standing next to him at the urinal. “What’s up, man?” Prince turned and responded in cryptic fashion: “Life.”

Dubbing the Replacements “America’s inebriate counterpart to the Smiths,” Reynolds was one of the few European journalists to grasp the peculiar alchemy that fueled the ’Mats: “At the heart of the Replacements lies fatigue, insecurity, a sense of wasted or denied possibilities, but this is a pain that comes out bursting and exuberant, a world weariness that’s positively, paradoxically boisterous.”

Recommended books: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
Rating: ***1/2