Archive for Book Reviews

Plan Your Trip by The Kentucky Barbecue Book

ky-bbq-wes-berry

The Food Network and other outlets churn out insufferable amounts of coverage devoted to barbecue in Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas City. With good reason, admittedly. Like anything, there are places where people simply do things right. And those locales should be celebrated and honored.

But by falling back on these old faithful locations time and time again (I mean, do we really need another peek at the Salt Lick in Austin, no matter how great the place is?), we miss the opportunity to explore lesser-known, but equally vibrant cultures of cooking.

For me, that oversight was rectified this past weekend when I was finally able to do a bit of exploring of my old stomping grounds, using Wes Berry’s excellent The Kentucky Barbecue Book. The end result was 4 barbecue joints in less than 48 hours and a great excuse to get off the highway and explore something more unique than just the fast food dumps that litter the exits.

An Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University, Berry wanted to document the barbecue customs and, more importantly, the people who dedicate their lives to it, from his home state. Along the way, he uncovered highly unique and diverse ways of treating barbecue that varied from, literally, county to county. What he calls “micro-regional” cuisine changes from Hopkinsville to Madisonville. And while the big time TV shows and annual New York Times roundups stick with only the most prominent representations of the genre, Berry goes deeper to show how two towns, just separated by a few miles, might go about things completely differently.

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Reviews that Say Nothing

A while ago, there was an uproar of discussion regarding the nature of book reviews and whether the critic should be, in the most simplistic way of speaking, “nice” or not. Quite a bit of the conversation centered on William Giraldi’s self-congratulatory, excessively assholish, show offy, “Let’s see how many references and allusions I can cram in because I’m so smart” critique of Alix Ohlin’s work.

As a rule, I don’t think book reviews have an obligation to bend over backwards to be complimentary, nor do I think critics should be hard-hearted, impossible-to-please ogres either.

But lost in this discussion of nice-versus-mean was another problem that plagues many book reviews: Critics who don’t criticize positively or negatively.

Check out this entirely non-commital Janet Maslin review of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

I’ve read this review three times now and I’m still not sure if Maslin likes the book or not. There are a handful of seemingly positive comments tossed in:

–A series of fantasy novels “are parodied here with great affection…”
–The author’s characters are “wittily-drawn…”
–The author “niftily embellishes his book…” with another character.

But that’s about it. There are no outright declarations of success or failure. Take for example the following passage: “Mr. Sloan is intent on connecting these Tokeinesque types to the bookstore’s real-world existence. That’s a big burden to place on such a mild-mannered, easygoing novel.” But instead of following up with letting us know about Sloan’s skill at shouldering that burden or his weakness under the weight, Maslin goes back to plot summary.

Ultimately, reviews like this are little more than book reports. And while I don’t believe readers need to be spoon-fed with explicit star systems or thumbs up/thumbs down methods of conveying quality at a glance, it is frustrating to read a review and not know whether the book is any good or not.

AP Says Power Chord ‘Hits All the Right Notes’

I was thrilled to read the great review of Power Chord by the Associated Press. Linked here to the Washington Post publication of the review, the key takeaway is that PC is “entertaining travelogue of sorts that hits all the right notes.”

Be sure to the entire review here!

Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying… by Ryan Holiday

If you spend any amount of time online, either writing blogs or reading blogs, then prepare to have one of two reactions when you read Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday:

1) You will read nothing you didn’t already know and you will be decidedly nonplussed.
2) You will be aghast at the nature of online media and you will feel like all hope is gone.

Now, I don’t exactly consider myself to be an online media babe in the woods. In fact, as a point of disclosure, I am close friends with someone quoted positively in the book as well as someone listed in the acknowledgements. (Also, I just think the cover and the design is cool as hell, while I’m opening up about things.) But the point is that I would not have previously considered myself to be naive about the way things work.

But goddamn.

There’s a level of gore and viscera revealed in the media slaughterhouse that was still shocking to me. It’s possible that you have spent years inside what Holiday calls the “boiler room” of professional blogging so maybe you’ll fall into the nonplussed category. But more likely, you’ll be shocked and surprised like I was.

Page after page is devoted to explaining how bloggers regurgitate press releases, mercilessly attack subjects, and generally sling shit around without any regard to veracity, thoughtful explication, or expertise. Although I like to think that lit blogging is a tiny bit of a different world than covering celebrities or politicians, it’s entirely possible that I’ve committed some of the crimes that Holiday details. Certainly, after finishing the book, I find myself examining my blogging and journalistic past and digging through my own dirt.

None of this is intended as a criticism towards Trust Me, I’m Lying. The book is engagingly written and offers a detailed explanation of the concepts that shape media coverage today. Wide-ranging sources and references from Perez Hilton to Wharton School research projects to Kierkegaard provide a wealth of support for Holiday’s arguments. And if you want to pick up some how-to tips about generating buzz for your new book or new video project or whatever, that information is certainly present. But it’s just as likely that you’ll end up depressed as you finish the book. Holiday offers no easy answers, no quick fixes for the state of our current media industry. Rather, he’s providing an dirty and grimy look inside the factory that shapes our cultural opinions and perspectives.

I’m not necessarily happy that I read Trust Me: I’m Lying. I don’t feel good right now. But that wasn’t Holiday’s intention. His goal was to explain, and he does that, candidly and openly.

Great Review of Growing Up Dead in Texas

David Duhr at The Dallas Morning News had a great review of Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones.

The payoff of the review? Without giving away any spoilers, Duhr calls Jones’ latest, “one of the truest, and finest, war stories you’re likely to read.”

I’ve been running behind so I’m just starting the book myself, but in typical SGJ fashion, it’s intriguing and never takes the easy way out of a sentence. I’ll have more to come on Growing Up Dead in Texas but the initial thoughts are supremely positive, so pick up a copy today.

Living in The World Without You

In The World Without You, Joshua Henkin explores the different ways in which family members grieve after a journalist is murdered in a warzone.

The novel centers around the Frankels, a financially comfortable Jewish family from Manhattan who spend the weekends and summers in their Berkshires country house. The clan is composed of Gretchen, a wealthy but difficult grandmother; David and Marilyn, grieving parents facing the dissolution of their marriage; daughters Clarissa, Noelle, who Lilly bring along their attendent spouses, significant others, and children into the tale. And then there is Leo.

In a way the main character, if in absentia, Leo was a journalist covering the war in Iraq. Captured and murdered in a very public way, Leo’s death reflects the real life Daniel Pearl tragedy, although Henkin has stated in interviews that the connection was not intentional.

The book isn’t so much about Leo’s murder, but how the family members go about their various ways of dealing with the loss. Henkin has stated (including this great quote from an engrossing Rumpus interview) that the tale was inspired by a very personal experience.

I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew.

The official timeline of the novel focuses on the Frankels gathering for the one year memorial of Leo’s death. It’s just a couple of days. But Henkin’s skill is displayed as he deftly packs years of family history into such a short “real time” period. As each family member is introduced, Henkin moves backward to introduce us to the character’s personality and past experiences. These shifts are seamless, gentle, and feel very nature.

Joshua Henkin’s last novel, Matrimony, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and The World Without You is certainly well-positioned and deserving of similar accolades.

Realistic Absurdity in a Compelling Read

In My Date with Neanderthal Woman by David Galef, there’s an intriguing amount of absurdity and fantasy that remains rooted in reality. Winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition, the book plants outlandish situations into normal, mundane circumstances to which we can all relate. [Disclosure: Galef sat on my thesis committee in graduate school.]

In “An Academic Proposition,” Professor Twistle throws out a casual reference to how students can get an easy A as disinterested pupils race towards the exit. Although few professional educators would admit to having such a thought, it’s not a stretch to imagine that all teachers have — at one point or another — wanted to shock their students in such a way.

I’m reminded of one of my high school teachers who often shared the story of how, one frustrating afternoon, she exclaimed to her class, “I could stand here naked and you all wouldn’t even notice.” She always smiled as she said that a student in the back of the room responded with the zinger, “We’d notice. We might not be impressed, but we’d notice.”

Clearly, hours upon hours addressing disinterest students can weigh on any teacher.

“Hiatus,” “What the Thunder Said,” and other stories feature university settings. A professor at Montclair State University, Galef captures the academic atmosphere without falling into many of the “small” and overly-introspective traps that trouble many college stories.

In “Crusade,” a fish-out-of-water professor creates a novel way to endear his cycling habit with the locals. And the charade works out very well for him, for a while, until he eventually encounters someone on the road that he can’t outrun.

Previously published in outlets like The Texas Review, Cimarron Review, and others, the stories in My Date with Neanderthal Woman by David Galef is a compelling read, fun and thought-provoking. The key strength of this book is Galef’s ability to anchor such borderline ridiculous plots and twists in recognizable and relatable realities.

Book Review: It’s So Easy by Duff McKagan

Duff McKagan's It So Easy Book Review

When the house lights go down and the crowd jumps to its feet and the spotlight operators squint through the dry ice, seeking musicians on the stage, the bass player is often the last rocker they highlight. Singers and guitarists generally get most of the attention. So perhaps it’s fitting that Duff McKagan released It’s So Easy (and Other Lies) after a veritable library had been published about his bands. In doing so, he allowed other people to cover the gossip, conflict, and controversy, turning It’s So Easy into a surprisingly sincere and heartfelt memoir.

McKagan is, of course, most well-known for being the bassist for Guns N’ Roses during their reign of the rock world in the eighties and early nineties. More recently, he has manned the bottom end for Velvet Revolver and even did a fill-in stint in Jane’s Addiction while also fronting his own band Loaded. He has also developed an impressive writing resume, penning articles for Playboy, ESPN.com, SeattleWeekly.com, and others.

The first indicator that It’s So Easy is different than so many by-the-numbers hard rock memoirs is the prologue. The default in situations like this is to begin on a grimy bathroom floor with a bloody needle dangling from a skinny forearm and a .12 gauge propped nearby. The narrator usually croacks, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But after achieving my dreams, there wasn’t anything left to do. I had everything in the world, but no reason to live.” With that dramatic scene set, the book cuts away, and goes back to the beginning with a bushy haired child strumming a tennis racket in a seventies suburban ranch home to the chronological start of the story.

In contrast, McKagan begins his tale with worries about teenage shenanigans at his daughter’s party. The birthday girl is thirteen and she, like most kids, is embarrassed of her parents, in spite of their rockstar and fashion model backgrounds. The girl begs the old folks to get in the house before her friends arrive. It’s a touching scene of domesticity. Scattered throughout the parental reflections, McKagan manages to weave in enough references to his own edgy past of drugs and larceny to indicate that his is not a “normal” life. But after many decades of addiction, wealth, and wealth lost, It’s So Easy illustrates that McKagan has achieved as close to a normal life as possible for someone in his situation.

Another unique aspect of the book is how McKagan simply avoids huge chunks of Guns N’ Roses history. Generally, a celebrity would be criticized for omitting certain time periods. But in this instance, it’s a blessing to the most hardcore GN’R fans. Sitting on my shelf right now are seven books about the Sunset Strip rockers and we still have the on-again, off-again book from a GN’R mother to look forward to. This band has been exhaustively researched and written about so when McKagan devotes slightly more than a single page to the recording of the seminal Appetite for Destruction record, I for one, cheered. By leaving well-worn topics to the other books, McKagan can focus on more personal recollections and experiences, such as documenting his brother Bruce’s excitement as the record climbed the Billboard charts.

To be sure, It’s So Easy is not the tale of a choir boy. There are plenty of narcotics and liquor scattered throughout these pages. Those vices just aren’t the focus of the book. They’re a bit of spice, not the main dish. And when the musician does turn to those foggy, staggering times, he does so in a poignant manner, as opposed to a chest-pounding, “Look at me! I did sooo many drugs” manner. For example, during a new, shaky attempt at sobriety, McKagan struggles to complete a simple everyday transaction.

One of the first things I did was go to the grocery store to buy food. It was a novel idea at the time — it had been years since I really shopped for food. Now here I was, thirty years old, an adult with a credit card, a checkbook, and an ATM card. I could buy whatever I wanted in the store, but I had no idea where to start. I thought everyone was staring at me — I was sure my shaking was freakishly visible…

I looked at the girl at the cash register.

“I give you this money, right”

My shirt was drenched in sweat and I was having a full-blown panic attack.

She nodded nervously, barely able to disguise her disgust. She gingerly took the money from my hand, trying to avoid actually touching me.

While examining the influence of drugs and decadence, McKagan makes a statement about some fellow Los Angeles rockers that can be equally applied to the hard rock memoir genre as a whole.

Back in the halcyon days of GN’R, when everyone in L.A. thought we were the most badass hard-drinking and hard-drugging motherfuckers around (and maybe we thought so, too), we quickly found out we were in the minor league compared to Motley Crue. After their shows, we often ended up partying together, learning their code names for different drugs, even flying on their private jet a few times. Our peek into their world was a look into an abyss. They’d found a way of skating around the edge of that abyss while perfecting the dark art of drinking and drugging for a while back there in the 1980s.

Later, McKagan reiterates, “But for the second time in my life I realized that nobody — not even me at the time — could hang with the dudes in Motley Crue: within two months of buying the house at Lake Arrowhead, I was throwing up blood at Tommy Lee’s cabin.”

The point here is that the amplifier hum of the Crue’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band looms so large over the hard rock memoir genre that most musicians feel they have to live up to those almost unimaginably sleaze-dripped pages. Other rockers strive to surpass the decadence. Ratt vocalist Stephen Pearcy said in a recent television interview that his book-in-progress will make “The Dirt look like a sandbox.” This attitude towards the Motley text is one of the main reasons why so many hard rock memoirs have been so similar and so disappointing. None of these guys would say, “My goal is to ‘out Zeppelin’ Led Zeppelin” in reference to their music. They would discuss creating their own sound, doing something different, something unique. But when it comes to books, they all seem incapable of escaping that singularly Dirt-y influence.

McKagan goes the opposite route, telling the story he wants to tell as opposed to setting his sights on a previously published book. He also doesn’t go out of his way to “set the record straight” by pointing out errors in other GN’R books, a common trend amongst bands with several literary efforts. This attitude allows him to explore his attempts at sobriety, the shakes, the shady drug dealers, and all that. But it also allows him to discuss investing in Starbucks and Microsoft. It allows him to write emotionally about his beloved pets. It makes it possible to devote as much passion and determination to his attempts at higher education as his attempts to master music. It enables him to begin — and finish — It’s So Easy with scenes of domestic bliss.

Early in the book, Duff McKagan explains how he was an outsider to the Los Angeles glam metal scene. He came from a punk background and rocked short spiky hair and a Sid Vicious-wannabe padlock necklace while most people were teasing their hair and wearing spandex.* All these decades later, McKagan is still taking a slightly different tact. It’s So Easy belongs on any hard rock fan’s bookshelf, amongst all the other required books. But it also stands apart in many very positive ways.

[*Not to perpetuate the flawed concept that punk was somehow more organic, more real, more honest than hard rock and glam metal. Here, I’m simply making the point that McKagan had a different — not necessarily better — perspective at that point in his life.]

Larry Brown Bio Reviewed in WSJ

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Carl Rollyson examines Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life by Jean W. Cash. The late, great Southern literary icon’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a man are described in this book. I’ll have my own comments on Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life shortly. But in the meantime, it’s simply nice to see major publications giving some focus to this biography and, by extension, Brown’s body of work.

Another Ho Hum: Surprise! The New York Times Hates Bret Easton Ellis

It seems like every other day, someone in our bookish blogging world offers a theory for why major media book coverage is shrinking. Generally, these concepts involve the economy, the proliferation of blogs, the short attention spans of today’s consumers, and a few little green martians. But today, I’m going to offer another, admittedly outlandish, explanation:

One of the many reasons that major media markets are losing ground with their book coverage because they waste space and words providing criticisms that astound no one, surprise no one, and are in no way shocking, educational, or illuminating. In short, they waste our fucking time. They squander the precious little coverage on books they don’t like. A more effective strategy might be to focus on some hidden gem that is being overlooked. Maybe introduce new writers to the culture at large. But my advice to at least a certain segment of critics is “Stop your petty bullshit crusades against writers that, in the whole scheme of things, don’t make much of a dent in our pop culture.”

Case in point, the recent New York Times coverage of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel Imperial Bedrooms. Now, in the interest of full disclosure: I am an unabashed Ellis fan. I did not like the new book quite as much as I had hoped, but as a whole, I am a huge fan of his body of work. I’ve stood in line at those sketchy booksignings he describes in Lunar Park, you know, the ones where the author sucked on throat lozanges and was sick with a “head cold” the whole time. I am an Ellis admirer and I honestly do think he gets a raw deal in my ways. With that out of the way, let’s look at the matter at hand.

The esteemed Gray Lady saw fit to publish not one, but two negative reviews of Imperial Bedrooms. First, Erica Wagner wrote on Thursday, June 17 that “I can well believe the haunted fascination that sparked off Imperial Bedrooms.” But the resulting novel falls flat.”

Okay, fine. Critics don’t have to enjoy every thing they read.

Then Janet Maslin wrote on Wednesday, June 23 that the book “is without shock value. It’s a work of limited imagination that all too deftly simulates the effects of having no imagination at all.” She even goes so far as to state that the sense of dread in the novel is because the “options have narrowed” for the author himself.

Which brings me to my point… well two points actually:

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