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.
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.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.
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.
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).
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.
No new releases here . . . let's consider someone from the backlist . . . .
I’ve always enjoyed reading biographies of writers, which is probably why I’ve ended up writing them.
Back in my Indiana hometown recently, I made a trip to my favorite used bookstore, Caveat Emptor, in Bloomington. I didn’t know I was looking for a biography of William Saroyan, but I found it — thanks to the miracle of serendipity. God bless browsing.
Years ago, he wrote Ross and Tom, a dual biography of two young writers killed by success. Ross Lockridge wrote Raintree County, then took himself out in the garage. Tom Heggen, who gave the world Mister Roberts, died of the deadly combination of too-many sleeping pills and a full bathtub.
A recent piece in the Boston Globe lamented the closing of the huge Borders Books in that city's downtown. The point of the article was that losing the store was more than just the decline of one of those big-box booksellers, but it was an end of book culture.
A lot of shoppers would go to Borders on reconnaissance missions. They'd browse, see what they liked, then order the book online or download it to an electronic reader.
The bookstore felt so used.
The response to the article was remarkable. Poet X.J. Kennedy sent in a letter to the editor and suggested that bookstores charge people for browsing.
Interesting concept. Even though Borders is a big-box joint, I have known some intelligent employees there who knew their stuff, even if many of their colleagues looked at their job as if they were slinging hash brown ovals at McDonald's.Inkwood Books in Tampa and Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg. The Bay Area is fortunate to have these independent bookstores that do much to define "book culture" in their cities.
For all of the braying and lamenting about Borders, it seems to me the greater matter of concern ought to be the future of Inkwood and Haslam's, not just as businesses, but as centers for the community's intellectual life.at length before.
We miss a lot by crawling off to our hives to order books and not browse bookstores or visit those other magnificent institutions, our public libraries.
So get off your ass and get to a bookstore or library today.
And if you need more motivation, here is an appeal from Inkwood Books:
"As we approach Inkwood’s 20th anniversary, we have much to be grateful for and many reasons to celebrate: a perfect combination of wonderful books and extraordinary customers, and the opportunity to know and to serve, and in some small ways, to shape our community. But survival doesn't mean we are healthy or thriving.
"We knew the big box model was not sustainable, but many great locally owned independents were sacrificed on the way to the current circumstance leaving many communities without a bookstore. Those that have survived - including Inkwood - are faced with a perfect storm of challenges: the proliferation of other outlets, lack of sales tax fairness, ebook revolution, and competing distractions for shrinking leisure time contribute to a diminishing number of bookstore customers.
"We love our work - talking with readers about books; serving schools and libraries and nonprofits; helping individuals choose for themselves, for their book group, for their children and grandchildren, for other family and friends; and bringing memorable author events to the community. While we hear from customers, new and old, how much they love our bookstore, our selection, and our recommendations, we have lost many customers to the unsustainable price cutting and overbuilding, as well as to the recession. Fifteen years ago, as we watched the closing of many valued and irreplaceable local businesses, we wrote to our customers: "If you're not here this year, we won't be here next year." While we are proud of our accomplishments and believe we have enriched our community, that statement is just as true today."
Inkwood suggested that we pass along their message, so cut and paste it in emails to friends, post it on your Facebook wall, print it out and put it in bathroom stalls. And take pleasure in having something to read wherever you go.