Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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A little Fantasy and a little bit of Reality…

August 25, 2009

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Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Greetings all.

I hope all is well.
This time out I’ll be reviewing the last two books I read (omitting one that I tried to wade into and got stuck)
The first one is ‘Victory of Eagles’, the latest installment in Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’ series, about sentient war dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.
I know, I know, it’s a seemingly insane premise, but I assure you that Novik has, over the course of the five books proven that she is an excellent writer with a unique talent for melding fantasy and alternative history.
In brief, Temeraire, a Chinese born (laid actually, in the first book his egg is obtained by the British Navy and he actually hatches aboard an English Man-o-war.
Colonel Lawrence is Temeraire’s master/partner, and the relationship between the two is absolutely wonderfully written.
For those of you that haven’t read any of the earlier books (which I think you should) I’ll spare you the details, revealing only that Lawrence and Temeraire finally meet Napoleon on the field of battle.
Maybe not the kind of thing that everyone digs, but if you dig the genres above I think you’ll love these books.

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Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence

The second volume we concern ourselves with is Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence. The book is a weighty historical tome based around New York City DJ culture as it developed through the decade of the 1970s. I – who happen to be a DJ – found it absolutely fascinating (if a little long). The book was full of revelations, technical info, vintage playlists and great pictures.
I can’t imagine that someone without a prior interest in the subject manner would be able to withstand the ‘thoroughness’ of the book, but like I said, if you’re interested in DJ culture, dance culture (disco and house in particular) you will find this book rewarding.

Next up: Last Places: A Journey in the North by Lawrence Millman

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Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era

July 7, 2009

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Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era

Greetings all.

I said I’d be back, and this time I was (apparently) telling the truth.

About a month ago I was trolling through one of my favorite music related sites and found a couple of books I wanted to read at a steep discount, so I grabbed them.

One of these was today’s selection, ‘Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era’ by Ken Emerson.

Being a huge Leiber and Stoller fan, this book caught my eye when it first came out in hardcover, and at the time it seemed a little slim to be dropping more than twenty bucks, so I passed, figuring I’d grab it in paperback (after which I promptly forgot about it).

So I ordered it, placed it on the “to be read” stack where it sat for a few weeks. I finally finished what I’d been reading, picked it up and didn’t put it down until this afternoon when I finally got to the end.

First off, if you have any interest in American pop music of the 1960s, and the brilliant people that wrote, produced and released it, this book is indispensable. My initial mistake of assuming that the book was insubstantial (it clocks in at around 260 pages) was a huge one, since the tome is well researched and densely packed with musical history. My wife actually asked me why it was taking me so long to read, and my reply was that it was taking that long to ingest all the information.

Emerson is an excellent writer with a real feel for the people he was writing about, mainly the songwriting teams of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carol King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Jeffy Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Using those duos as a starting point, Emerson weaves his was through the song publishing and record business of the 1960s, incorporating business wizards like Don Kirshner, various and sundry gangster record label owners and (of course) musicians and performers.

The book is full of revelations about the creative processes of these composers, the ups and downs of their careers and the evolution of American popular music from the early days of rock’n’roll, through the teen pop era and right on into (and past) the psychedelic era.

If you’re a record collecting nut – like myself – you’ve been reading these names on record labels and album covers your entire life, and Emerson gives you a real feel for their lives and their art with tons of detail, laid out in an epic fashion, fitting the subject matter.

‘Always Magic In the Air’ is one of those music books that’s going to go right up on the shelf in my record room to be used a reference.

Next up: Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

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I’m Back (condensed version)

June 28, 2009

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Greetings all.

This post has been a long time coming, and thanks to a lack of time right now will not follow the previous format. Hopefully I can get it together and start posting again, as I have been remiss.
The last time I posted a review (back in February?!?) I was in the middle of the book ‘In Search of Captain Zero’, which if you dig wonderfully written prose about surfing, is a must read, I found the story arc running through those descriptions to be anti-climactic, but I’d go as far as to say that if that if surfing interests you, it’d be worth picking up.
Around the time I was reading that book I underwent a serious life change, that being I left my job of 24 years to be a stay at home Dad for my two sons. I won’t go into too much detail, but my wife and I decided that for the sake of the kids, and for the continued sanity of the entire family, this would be the way to go.
This change disrupted my reading for quite some time as I became acclimated to the new routine. It was sometime in the spring that I was in the book store when I happened upon a display of various post-apocalyptic novels, many of which (including ‘Alas Babylon’ and ‘Earth Abides’) I had already read. One series, written by S.M. Stirling caught my eye, but thanks to the numbskulls at his publishing company, it wasn’t readily apparent which book was the first in the series, so I made a note, picked up something else (the excellent ‘World War Z’ by Max Brooks), went home and did a little research.
Good thing, too, because Stirling is a prolific author with several series to his name, including two related series that included the book I was looking for.
That series (known as the Emberverse) starting with ‘Dies the Fire’ has to do with a world beset by a mysterious, apocalyptic “change” that renders all electricity, internal combustion engines and explosives useless. It starts in the late 90s and progresses more than a decade over the course of the first three novels (numbers two and three are ‘The Protectors War’ and ‘Meeting at Corvallis’).
Stirling’s books drew me in right away. He has a real talent for plotting, creating compelling characters and researching the hell out of just about every topic covered in the novels.
I’ve read complaints about one of the major characters/settings in these books, but they didn’t bother me as much as the fact that if these books have a fault it’s an excess of “medieval battle porn”, i.e. constant, deeply detailed descriptions of arms and armor that got to be a little repetitive after a while.
That said, if you have an interest in good stories in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I would recommend the first three novels in the Emberverse series. I read straight through all three (more than 1500 pages) and decided to take a break and read some other stuff before moving on to the next two (more are planned) which take up two decades after the end of ‘Meeting at Corvallis’.
After finishing those books I rambled and meandered through bits of non-fiction, magazines etc, before starting Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. I only got about two-thirds of the way into it when I decided that it was too dark and depressing, but vowed to pick it up and finish it soon.
Right now I’m reading the autobiography of comedian Tom Davis (of Franken and Davis) which was a fathers day gift. I’m enjoying it so far and will report back as soon as I’m finished.

Next up – 39 Years of Short Term Memory Loss

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Tim and Tom: An American Comedy In Black and White

February 18, 2009

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Tim and Tom: An American Comedy In Black and White

Greetings all.

I have returned once again, far too long between posts. However, this time it’s not because I haven’t been reading. I relocated my biblio-groove about six weeks ago and have been reading at a fairly steady pace ever since. Now I have to catch up on the blog(ging)…
This is partly due to the annual Christmas flood of prime reading material, and partly due to the conspiracy of the fates in which my brain and my outer time clock fall into synch. There’s not telling how long this bit of temporal synchronicity will last, so to borrow yet another cliché, one must strike while the iron is hot.
The book I’m reviewing today was in fact a Christmas gift (from my wonderful sister) who managed to grab me something off of my Amazon wish list before I grabbed it myself (you usually have to move pretty quickly to pull that one off, but these days my spending has dwindled to almost nil).
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard that Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen had once been a comedy team, but I do recall that it came as something of a shock. I (like most everyone else my age) knew Reid as Venus Flytrap on the TV series ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’. I had no idea that he was anything more than an accomplished character actor.
Tom Dreesen was familiar to me from countless Tonight Show appearances, as well as the fact that he was Frank Sinatra’s regular opening act during the last part of the Chairman’s career.
Sometime toward the end of last year I happened upon Reid, who was appearing on DL Hughley’s show to promote this very book. I added it to my wishlist immediately, and because Santa Claus (and my sister) was watching, it dropped into my stocking shortly afterward.
‘Tim and Tom’ is a well written, and surprisingly bittersweet memoir of the comedy team of the same name. It describes the austere upbringings of both men, their meeting in the suburbs of Chicago, and their years of struggle as perhaps the only integrated comedy team in the country. While there are lots of familiar sounding anecdotes about showbiz struggles, they are all viewed through the lens of late 1960s race relations, and both men are painstakingly honest about their feelings about the partnership and each other.
I won’t be giving away any spoilers when I mention that ultimately they met only with limited success (as a pair).
It’s a great read as a unique story, but also for anyone interested in stand up comedy.

Next up – In Search of Captain Zero

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The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music

January 4, 2009

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The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music by Ben Ratliff

Greetings all.

It has been an unforgivably long time since I posted here, but I must admit that it’s been just as long since I finished reading a book.

If you follow the goings on over at Funky16Corners you’ve surely encountered my grousing about life and how it happens to be abusing me these past few months. One unfortunate byproduct of that abuse is a collision between a lack of time in which to read and a lack of inclination to do the same.

I’m just not the kind of person that can get any reading done when I’m tired and stressed out, and I have been both of those things – in excess – for quite some time now.

However, sometimes, and this is one of those rare occasions, I reach an intersection in which just the right reading material arrives, as a previously unknown surplus of intellectual energy is discovered, and the reading train is placed back on the rails.

Thanks go out to my Mom and Pop who gave me Ben Ratliff’s ‘The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music’ as a Christmas gift. Ratliff was familiar to me as the jazz columnist for the New York Times, and the format of the book – relatively short chapters devoted to conversations with interesting jazz musicians – seemed like a perfect fit for my damaged attention span.

Best of all, as soon as I started reading I discovered that Ratliff had invited each of these musicians to pick the music they wanted to discuss, and though they are all jazz artists, many of them decided to bring along non-jazz music (which made for some very interesting discussions).

There were lots of personal faves (Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Pat Metheny, Andrew Hill, Bob Brookmeyer) as well as many artists who I’m not familiar with. The format is (in some cases) a great window into the thought processes – musical and otherwise – of some very interesting people, and provides food for thought (and listening).

Very cool.

Now reading – Tim & Tom: An American Comedy In Black and White

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Catching Up (sort of…)

November 14, 2008

Greetings all.

It’s been a long time since I posted here due in large part to the fact that in the few, rare moments when I’ve had time to read, I’ve been book-hopping like a sonofabitch.
Thanks to lots of music blog related work (including an upcoming internet radio show), sick kids, various and sundry parental/household responsibilities and a ton of other shit (including a near crippling case of political angst) reading time has – as I said – been at a premium.
I’m one of those folks that can’t read when I’m fatigued. I’ll prop myself up in bed with my book light, and before long, after I’ve dropped my book six or seven times, I pack it in and succumb to sleep.
When last we met, I had begun to read a collection of stories by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. I read four or five of them – which I was enjoying – when I had to get back to some non-recreational reading, and Gogol fell by the wayside (albeit temporarily).
Then, following the whitewater section of my stream of consciousness, I discovered, ordered, received, and then struggled with Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’.
I was shocked when I saw the book on a list of dystopian novels (I’d never heard of it before), and after seeing a synopsis I got myself a copy. While the subject matter is incredibly compelling, and both prescient and relevant, London’s style in ‘The Iron Heel’ was a little hard to wade through, and I fought valiantly with it until I completed it a few weeks later.
By that point I had already stockpiled a few other books (some new from the store, some passed along by my always thoughtful and generous in-laws and some left over from days of yore). Fortunately, one of these was a short story anthology, entitled ‘Wastelands’, which collected tales with an apocalyptic (pre/post and during) theme. I was just starting that one when I heard that the mighty John Leonard had passed away.
I watched Leonard for years in his capacity as a cultural critic on CBS Sunday Morning, as well as following his TV writing in New York Magazine. Leonard was possessed of a singular, towering intellect and I admired him greatly.
When I saw his obituary, I wondered why I had never sought out any collections of his essays and criticisms. I remedied the situation immediately and am currently deep into the 1997 collection ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures’. Reading John Leonard is like strapping yourself (or at least your brain) into a pop-cult roller coaster. What separates Leonard from so many brilliant – yet boring – thinkers, is an ability to embrace popular culture in an unironic way with an incredibly broad frame of reference that makes reading the thoughts he has applied to paper genuinely exciting.
So, that’s where I’m at.
I suspect that when I complete this Leonard anthology (I have another one on the way) I’ll post a full review.
Until then….
Peace
Larry

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The Armageddon Rag

October 2, 2008

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The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Greetings all.

I come to you today, a full week after having finished this book, only having found time to write a review now.
George RR Martin’s ‘Armageddon Rag’ is yet another book that I first heard about via BoingBoing.net.
Martin is best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Though I knew his name, I hadn’t read any of his other work.
‘The Armageddon Rag’ was first published in 1983, and takes place in and around that time. It is the story of Sandy Blair, once a prominent journalist of the 60s underground press, now a novelist with a career that seems to be fading. The fact that he’s struggling with writers block isn’t helping any, so when he gets a call from his old publisher, to cover a murder of a prominent promoter, he jumps at the chance.
The murder victim had been the manager of a band called the Nazgul, who’s lead singer was murdered at the height of an Altamont-like concert many years before. The Nazgul now seem – against all odds – to be coming back together, and Blair wants to be there to cover the story.
Though I’ve seen ‘The Armageddon Rag’ described as a mystery, it has elements of horror, social history and fantasy.
Once Blair starts investigating the murder, he starts to reconnect to the scene he was such a part of in the 60s. He travels across the country, tracking down the members of the Nazgul, as well as touching base with his old friends who have all left their old lives behind to widely varying degrees.
Through his portrayals of Blair and his friends, Martin touches on many familiar archetypes, from commune dwellers to generational sellouts that’ve packed away their tie-dyes and moved on to the executive suite. That he manages to portray these characters so vividly without resorting to the kind of ‘Big Chill’ clichés that have saturated the image of the 60s in our collective rear-view mirror.
My only criticism of the book – and it’s entirely possible that this was Martin’s intention – is that I was never really sure (and this wasn’t resolved) whether or not there really was a supernatural element operating in the background.
That said, ‘The Armageddon Rag’ was briskly plotted, suspenseful and often touching in the way Martin portrays how the various threads of the 60s counterculture had, or had not resolved themselves fifteen years on. ‘The Armageddon Rag’ would make a great movie.
Now reading – The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

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My Booky Wook

September 13, 2008

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My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

Greetings all.

I know the last time I posted I said I was reading the ‘Fables’ graphic novel series, but volume 1 turned out to be one of those half-an-hour specials, and though interesting, not terribly captivating, so I put volume two on hold and fell right into another book.
Those of you stateside who know the name Russell Brand have either seen ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ – in which he played the rock star Aldous Snow – or saw him tear it up on the otherwise stultifying MTV Video Awards (in which he rightly made light of one of the more plastic, idiotic and ultimately forgettable corners of our current pop culture).
Brand’s a funny guy.
I can’t remember where I read about ‘My Booky Wook’, but I do recall that I was intrigued enough to order a copy from the UK (it has yet to be published stateside). While I can’t explain the hoodoo that got the book here from England in less than a week for under $5 postage (I’m not sure I could reproduce that kind of speed for the same price from one destination to another domestically), I applaud the Royal Postal Service for their efficiency.
‘My Booky Wook’ is an autobiographical volume, which may seem odd for someone who is barely known over here, but we’ll overlook your assumption that if someone is not famous here in the US that they simply cannot be famous anywhere else – and continue with the review.
Brand is actually quite well know (maybe notorious) in the UK where he’s worked for the last several years as a stand up comedian, actor, TV host and renowned libertine. The book is a well written, humorous and – believe it or not – poignant look at Brand’s life, from his childhood, through his first recognition as an actor/comedian, right on through a long period of self destructive debauchery and on to a conclusion that is every bit as satisfying as it is expected.
I found Brand to be the best thing about ‘…Sarah Marshall’, loved his utterly disrespectful approach to the MTV thing (take that you pompous little Republicans. How about a promise ring that symbolizes a pledge to mind your own fucking business???), and the tales of his TV work in the UK made me eager for a time when his star rises enough over here that some of it gets released on DVD (or at least shown on BBC America, where I first encountered the brilliant ‘Little Britain’).
I’ll certainly read anything else he choose to write in the future.
Currently reading: Not sure, really. I have yet to make up my mind between a graphic novel, a sci-fi horror thing or a huge hardcover book on avant garde jazz that I got for my birthday…

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Two Novels, One Graphic, One Not…

September 2, 2008

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Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson

Greetings all.
Though I mentioned at the end of the last review that my current reading was of the decidedly non-recreational variety, I decided that my weary brain needed a break so I set aside the heavy (in all senses of the word) text that had taken over my reading life.
Fortunately I had a couple of things waiting in the on-deck circle, neither of which was particularly heavy, so I took myself a small reading vacation.
The first thing I read was a short graphic novel – another BoingBoing recommendation – ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ by Alex Robinson.
I’ve gone on in this space before about my experiences (often positive) with the graphic novel format, and I’m happy to say that ‘Too Cool…’ is very, cool that is.
“Graphic Novel” has become a catch-all for any long(er) form comic with literary pretensions (sometimes actually delivered upon). Alex Robinson’s ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ is probably closer to a longer short story than a novel. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d be the first to admit that some of the greatest writers have worked in the form. Robinson is both an excellent storyteller – in both words and pictures – and I found ‘Too Cool…’ to be one of the more moving entries in the genre.
I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that the book is a fantastic look at adolescence and high school as seen through the eyes of approaching middle age. Maybe it hits closer to the bone because I’m about the same age as the protagonist, and have many of the same regrets about my high school years (and I’d be suspicious of anyone that didn’t). I suspect however that anyone that’s experienced high school from anything but the very top of the social heap will find a great deal of truth in this book.
Highly recommended.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My most recent read came along unexpectedly in a box of books mailed to us by my in-laws. I’d heard a lot about ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, and as it was among the shortest book in the pile that interested me, I grabbed it and plowed through it in a few days. Though the first impression, via the title (a Sherlock Holmes reference), word of mouth and the jacket copy, suggested to me that this was a mystery of sorts, in the end the book is more an impression (from within) of the world of a teenager with Aspergers Syndrome, and how he navigates (with varying degrees of success) the world around him.
The author, Mark Haddon tells most of the story from the point of view of the protagonist Christopher Boone, but manages to move the story, and put events in context using the actions and reactions of those around him, some who know Christopher and are aware of (and often sympathetic to) his condition, and many who are not.
Though I can’t say with any certainty how accurate the portrayal of Aspergers is – and there have apparently been many (some with the condition) who have disagreed with Haddon’s portrayal of his main character – I have been doing some reading about this end of the Autism Spectrum, and I applaud Haddon for attempting to shine some light on a condition that is increasingly common, yet barely known to most people.
That said, ‘The Curious Incident…’ is a very interesting and thought provoking book, and the literary device he employs, while drawing tangents to the “outside” world, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (there is a mystery of sorts here, just not what you’d expect) really drew me in.
Also highly recommended.
Now reading – Vols. 1&2 of the Fables graphic novel by Bill Willingham.

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Stardust

August 24, 2008

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Greetings all.

I found my way to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’ via a circuitous route. My wife read a review of ‘Good Omens’ – which Gaiman wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett – it sounded interesting, so I grabbed a copy, read it and liked it.
Not too long after that we put the film adaptation of ‘Stardust’ on the Netflix queue. We both like it a lot, so I promised myself that the next time there was an opening in the reading list I’d pick up a copy of the book.
I took a trip to ye olde book barn and headed over to the ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ aisle to look for the Neil Gaiman section. Gaiman has been very prolific, writing novels, graphic novels (the acclaimed ‘Sandman’ series) and even childrens books. When I saw Gaiman’s name on the shelf I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were still stocking copies of the movie tie-in paperback of ‘Stardust’. It was sitting directly adjacent to the “quality paperback” version of the book, which was almost twice as expensive as the corny looking book with the pictures of Robert DeNiro and Michele Pfeiffer on the cover.
Naturally, I grabbed the cheap copy.
I’m always a little cautious when it comes to reading a book when I’ve already seen a film adaptation. Though most of these films manage to corrupt the books horribly, occasionally you run across one (like the novel ‘Last Orders’) where the film was a scrupulously faithful adaptation and the book hold no surprises whatsoever.
Happily this was not the case with ‘Stardust’. The film was a substantial departure from the book, with some characters/events amplified (substantially), others cut from whole cloth and others diminished.
The novel ‘Stardust’ contained a lot more story than the film (a good thing) and in the end I found that I had enjoyed the book a lot as well as having a newfound respect for the film adaptation, in which the spirit of the book was kept intact and deviations from the novel didn’t dishonor the original material.
‘Stardust’ was a quick read, and managed to be a ‘fantasy’ novel that was almost entirely devoid of the kind of clichés that usually cause me to roll my eyes.
Recommended.
Now reading – non-pleasure reading…