Bill McKeen’s Book Blog

Thursday, November 14, 2013

We're off to see the wizard — again and again and again

Posted By on Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 6:39 PM


Remember the joy of seeing The Wizard of Oz the first time?
Boomers! Remember how CBS used to show the movie just once a year, then open it for us in prime time as a holiday gift? It was an Event, right up there with Halloween, Christmas and birthdays.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stuffing the beach bag for a summer full of reading

Posted By on Thu, Jul 11, 2013 at 11:26 AM


Time to load up the beach bag for summer reading. Here’s what I have so far, with some new additions:

Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville by Michael Stressguth (It Books, $26.99). This is a great book idea whose time has come. The hit television series Nashville tells tales of the singer-songwriters trying to make their mark in today’s Music City. Outlaw is a group biography of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, mostly about their formative years in the early 1960s and their attempts to break away from the city’s mainstream music industry. We can forgive the occasional error (Streissguth puts the venue Panther Hall in Dallas, not Fort Worth), because Outlaw is a wonderful narrative about three wild and original talents.

Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). This is a real-life horror story rooted in that sometimes odd and obsessive relationship between teacher and student. “Relationship” is not quite the right word to describe the fantasies and imaginings of an obsessive student who creates an alternate universe in which she and her mentor have an affair. Lasdun tells us how he rebuffed the student, who then launched an assault on his character. Reads like a thriller, though this story is true.

Springsteen on Springsteen by Jeff Burger (Chicago Review Press, $27.95). Think you have enough Springsteen books? Think again, Bubba. Until the boss writes an autobiography, this is the next-closest thing: a collection of interviews, speeches and the occasional letter to the editor by Bruce. A highlight: his beautiful speech inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. It’s a superb collection.

That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein (W.W. Norton, $27.95). This is a terrific narrative of the comic revolution at the dawn of the 1970s. The book focuses on the epicenter of this comedy, National Lampoon, and its stars, Doug Kenney, Michael O’Donoghue and P.J. O’Rouke. The Lampoon was wickedly funny then and this well-crafted saga ought to help you appreciate the breakthroughs. One complaint: no illustrations. What’s up with that?

Lee Marvin Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein (Schaffner Press, @27.95). It’s time to revisit this movie tough guy, who’s been gone now for a quarter century. Epstein covers Marvin’s early life, his war record, and his steady rise from tough-guy and heavy roles to brutal leading man. Seems that Marvin excelled in every role he attempted, even as a singer in “Paint Your Wagon.”

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Friday, July 27, 2012

More summer reading — for the beach, the mountain cabin or even just your couch

Posted By on Fri, Jul 27, 2012 at 12:23 PM


Here are some more things to consider for room in your beach bag or your knapsack, depending on your destination.

Short story collections are a tough sell, but nothing is better for the short-bite approach to reading than a good book of stories. I've always been fond of the Flannery O'Connor and John Cheever collections, but Alix Ohlin's new book, Signs and Wonders (Vintage, $15) is one of the best story collections I've read in a decade. These are some cracking-good tales — deep and rich as any novel, with twists and turns you don't expect. We encounter fascinating characters at just the moment their will and mettle are tested. How many story collections fall into that can't-put-it-down category? This one does. These are tough, original, funny and tragic, all at once. Cannot recommend this book highly enough. By the way, Ohlin published Signs and Wonders the same day she published her novel, Inside (Knopf, $25). Can't recall anyone being so logo-audacious since that day in 1968 when Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Pump-House Gang. The New York Times raved: "The SAME Day: heeeeeewack!!!; Too Freakin' MUCH!!!" We might echo the Times' sentiment.

Honky Tonk (W.W. Norton, $50) is a glorious, big book of photographs, so it deserves its own beach towel. Henry Horenstein here collects 40 years of photographs of great country musicians — many of them while performing near his New England home, but many of them at the old Ryman Auditorium or Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville. There are classic portraits of Mother Maybelle Carter, Speck Rhodes, Harmonica Frank Floyd, and other entertainers, but the book also turns the camera toward the audience for a loving and leering look at the Country Music Fan. Some of them have hair that defies all laws of nature. It's a fascinating look at that time and a celebration of the closeness between artist and audience in country music. Great to see some of those faces of the old, traditional country music and contrast them with today's bland, middle-of-the-road country singers. There are still great, authentic country singers today, but few of them reach the sort of audience that the manufactured ones do.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

This ain't your father's "beach reading"

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 5:08 PM


It’s that time of year when people start asking me about good “beach reads.” I’ve never been sure what makes a beach read. Is it a book you don’t mind getting slick with sweat and suntan oil (and perhaps an errant drop of beer)? Does that mean it’s a broken-spined, raggedy-ass old paperback?

I don’t know. But I thought I’d spend these summer-month blogs telling you about a bunch of worthwhile books to spend some time with during vacation season. Because that’s a “beach read” to me. It means that finally the assholery of work is left behind at the office and you have time to relax with a few good books.

Alas, Stieg Larsson is still dead, so there’s no new volume in the Lisbeth Salander series, but here are some things you might like (below). These are mostly hardcovers, so if you take them to the beach, use rubber gloves when turning the pages.

SOPHIA LOREN and JAYNE MANSFIELD (from <i>Breasts</i>)
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (WW Norton, $25.95) is a funny-but-serious survey of those things so often exposed on beaches. Reminds me of the great science writing of Mary Roach, who wrote Stiffs, about what happens to bodies after they are dead, and Bonk, about what it’s like to be in a sex study. This book by Florence Williams deals both with the science and the obsession and we learn a lot about humans and human nature. (Alert to dude readers: No, it’s not illustrated with those kinds of pictures. This picture with Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield is the best image in the book.)

Live Fast, Die Young (Summersdale, $13.95) gives the impression that it will catalog all of the great American burned-out rock stars during a cross-country road trip. Not quite. Authors Chris Price and Joe Harland are mostly concerned with one rock star, the late Gram Parsons. He came from Winter Haven, Fla., and ascended the rock’n’roll throne with the Byrds and then the Flying Burrito Brothers. He was a musical pioneer and genre bender, but seems most remembered for dying young and having his body stolen and burned in a dessert ceremony by friends. Key scenes take place at Gram’s Place in Tampa. It’s a fun book, but if you have a Gram fixation, stay tuned for Calling Me Home, a serious look at Parsons’ life and influence by Orlando-based writer Bob Kealing.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The golden age of rock'n'roll autobiographies

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2012 at 10:18 AM


We may look back on this era someday and realize that this was the golden age of rock’n’roll autobiographies.
Or not.
Duane and Gregg Allman as teenagers
  • Duane and Gregg Allman as teenagers

But you have to agree that we are on a roll.
First we had Eric Clapton’s wonderful, soul-searching Autobiography. You could imagine Slowhand sitting at his laptop, twisting the chin hairs of his neatly trimmed beard as he struggled over telling the story of his son’s tragic death, his heart-ripping love for his best friend’s wife, and his imprisoning addictions. Few autobiographies of any kind have been as searingly honest.
Then came Life by Keith Richards, a work of masterful storytelling. We could say it was remarkably lucid, but one of the things we find out in Life is that a good part of the Keith-Richards-is-burned-out act is just that – an act. Offstage, he is a master of lucidity. He is an extremely intelligent and literate man who plays bad-ass guitar and has substance-abuse issues.
And now we have the Gregg Allman autobiography, My Cross to Bear (William Morrow, $27.99). Allman has been such a strong presence in the fabric of American music for more than 40 years – so much so — that we’ve probably taken him for granted.
All I can tell you is that after a drought of non-Allman music, when he pops up on my office iTunes or on the radio, I never fail to turn up the volume. He may be the most under-rated singer in the history of rock.
All of these books – Clapton’s, Richards’ and Allman’s – were done with collaborators. With the Clapton and Richards volumes, the ghost writers had some sort of literary purpose. They wanted to elevate their subject’s stories, and in those cases they worked spectacularly well. Allman’s collaborator, a much-honored music journalist named Alan Light, has tried to present his book as an intimate monologue. Imagine you’re sitting in a room with Allman, you’ve got your glass of ginger ale (he's booze-free now, of course), and perhaps a surgical mask in an effort to combat second-hand smoke. Gregg’s got some stories to tell.
It’s written in the honest, direct style of a conversation with a good old boy. Allman holds back nothing.
We learn mostly about his brother Duane and how that guitar genius and his early death haunted Gregg his whole life. Gregg Allman’s greatest regret appears to be that in this last conversation with his older brother, he lied – for the first and only time in his life, he lied to his beloved big brother. A few hours later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Jubilee Hitchhiker: An epic bio of ’60s icon Richard Brautigan

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 12:52 PM

I’ve written several biographies and I’m kind of proud of them. But then I got this new biography of Richard Brautigan.


Hjortsberg’s book, Jubilee Hitchhiker (Counterpoint, $42.50), will inspire biography envy in the heart of any writer who tries to tell the story of another human being’s life. This book is huge and absorbing and rich with life — and, despite its extra-small type over 852 pages, it never ceases to be absorbing.

Brautigan was a key figure in my adolescence. He was the Great Hippie Poet, the writer every wannabe artiste in my high school wanted to emulate. As the author of Trout Fishing in America, The Pill Verses the Spring Hill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar, he was the quintessence of cool for my generation during those (1968-1972) years. We were the sons and daughters of liberal America in a bohemian university community, and Brautigan was our poet laureate.

He was the right writer at the right time. His poems were sometimes complex, but could also be mere snorts of whimsy and bemusement.

Witness “Xerox Candy Bar”
you’re just a copy
of all the candy bars
I’ve ever eaten

His novels broke the proscenium and made whole careers possible for generations of writers to follow. (Insert Tom Robbins, David Foster Wallace and others here.)

And he looked out at us, from his book jackets, with that stoned and inscrutable face, droopy moustache, slouch hat, eyes crinkling at the corners with some private giggle. Hell, we all even tried to dress like him.

And then, one day in 1984, when the train was long gone, he shot himself to death. He wasn’t found for more than a month.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Baseball's classic books

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 8:53 AM


For me, it's not hard to decide what sport has produced the greatest books. It's the national pastime, of course, the game that has defined our nation. Not to go all Ken Burns on you, but this game says so much about our national character.

Boxing has inspired some of the greatest films — Raging Bull, of course, as a prime example — but I'm not sure whether that celebration of brutality, or the other, football, has produced stories that get to the core of the American being.

So here we are, with our Major League Baseball season just under way, and it's time to take a look at a few baseball classics.

No game is more immersed in history than baseball. Every time a batter comes to the plate, he's not just batting against the team out in the field — he's also taking on everyone else who's ever stood in those cleats and tapped that bat against the rubber.

Same thing with writing about baseball. If you don't believe this game has a deep bench of literature, then get hold of Baseball's Best Short Stories (Chicago Review Press, $18.95), edited by Paul D. Staudohar. This is the classic collection for the 21st century. For years, Charles Einstein produced the Fireside Books of Baseball series and his greatest hits collection, The Baseball Reader. That book was a model anthology, a collection that brought together short stories, poems, news accounts, song lyrics and, in one memorable instance, the transcript of a Vin Scully call of the end of a ballgame.

As the title indicates, this new collection focuses on short fiction. It starts with Ernest Thayer's celebrated "Casey at the Bat," but follows it with the mock news account by the great sportswriter, Frank DeFord. It counters the classic short stories of early minor league ball by Ring Lardner — the man who practically invented the genre of the baseball story — with more recent work from W.P. Kinsella, who gave the world the great baseball fantasy, Shoeless Joe (filmed as Field of Dreams).

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Swear to God, I couldn't put down these books, I really couldn't

Posted By on Fri, Apr 6, 2012 at 2:26 PM


It's one of those cliches that always rises to the top of a book critic's bag of tricks: "I couldn't out it down."

But I'm here to tell you it's true. I just ripped through two books that were stuck like glue to my fingers. i read them while walking, while standing at the urinal and at night, in those rare quiet moments alone. In fact, I started The Man from Primrose Lane after midnight on a Saturday and what woke me up was my head falling forward into the book around two in the morning.

Couldn't put it down, I tell you.

James Renner creates an absorbing, fascinating world in The Man from Primrose Lane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). He begins with a flash of background on the mysterious man in an Ohio town, man known as the man with a thousand mittens, because even in the sweat-strained drench of a Midwestern summer, he always wore mittens. He's a recluse, a well-known oddball. We've all known people like that. Used to be a guy we all called Glovey in one of the towns where I lived. The dude always wore gloves, and always talked to his gloves.

So the man from Primrose Lane is just thought of as another local oddball until one day he doesn't answer his door. He usually hires a local kid to run to the store for him, and that's the only person he sees regularly. But now even the kid can't get him to answer. Then there's the smell. So when the door is forced open, they find the man with a thousand mittens dead, shot through the chest. His fingers have been systematically cut off and turned to a plasma shake in the Osterizer.

All right, James Renner, you got me.

Our central character is David Neff, a reporter at an alt weekly kind of like Creative Loafing. He becomes rich after publishing a book about a serial killer. He never gets to enjoy the taste of success, though, because his wife is dead — a suicide, from driving her car into a wall.

To tell you more would spoil it and one of the great pleasures of the book is to watch the story unspool. Renner keeps us on a short leash. He keeps surprising us, but there's nothing hokey here. The plot turns arise organically from the story.

Things are going great — and then an element of science fiction creeps in. At first, I was disappointed, but I was so invested in the book that I kept going. Eventually, I decided that I'd been short-sighted. I ended up rather liking the semi-supernatural turn.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

A great American trailer park epic

Posted By on Fri, Mar 2, 2012 at 12:33 PM


It’s a hard road for the first-time novelist.

First of all, you're confronted by a general lack of interest in fiction, unless you’re James Patterson or Stephen King.

Then there’s another Everest in your way: How do you get attention for your writing, unless you’re a serial killer, disgraced politician or a pregnant reality-show sleaze?

Tupelo Hassman
  • Tupelo Hassman

Of course, there’s also talent.

That’s the route Tupelo Hassman is using.

You’ll be hearing a lot about her first novel, Girlchild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). Mostly, it’ll have to do with the strong voice of the narrator, a young trailer dweller named Rory Dawn Hendrix. She’s third generation poor, growing up around a truck-stop bar and among legions of mouthbreathers.

But, of course, she has a voice, and a view of the world shaped by the Girl Scouts Handbook. If I tell you she’s indomitable, then you might think this is some Disneyesque rags-to-riches story. It is not. But it is a story told in a unique voice, a voice of a young girl who tries to work through the agonies and the ecstasies of modern life among the have-nots. Rory is a child left behind.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Thinkin' 'bout the blues and stuff

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 2:03 PM


These are tough days for philosophers. When any hodad with a wireless connection can present himself / herself to the world as a pundit, who has times for well-educated deep thinkers who routinely spelunk to the depths of metaphysics?

So it’s nice to encounter a series of books in a series called Philosophy for Everyone. So far, there are two dozen entries in this series, including the two latest, devoted to the Blues and to Fashion.

Blues — Philosophy for Everyone (Wiley-Blackwell, $19.95) is a collection of fairly serious writings by philosophy professors who realize their job here isn’t to impress other scholars as much as it is to provide an open door to the dedicated idea grazers among us.

The blues are a perfect vehicle to connect academia with the blues enthusiasts who show up at concerts today — usually, pony-tailed tax attorneys. The book addresses a lot of the usual questions of the day in a tone that is inclusive and not condescending — a tough tightrope for a lot of academics to walk: Do white people have the right to sing the blues? What cathartic role does the blues play in our lives? Is rock’n’roll just the diluted and ripped-off blues?

We encounter some of the usual suspects — B.B. King among them — and reading about these great artists will make you appreciate them more, and probably want to blast their music through the neighborhood.

Not being as interested in fashion (Exhibit A, today’s attire — a Red Sox hoodie, a ball cap and paint-stained jeans), I didn’t expect as much from Fashion — Philosophy for Everyone (Wiley-Blackwell, $19.95), but was pleasantly surprised by all that I learned.

As always, there are elements of history in works of philosophy, so just digesting the role fashion has played in the human parade makes for fine reading.

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