Meditations, appraisals, fictions and personal inquiries about sex, race, art and more from the longtime New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic.
In the Kirkus review of Als’ (The Women, 1996, etc.) first book, we praised the author for his “ability to combine extreme honesty with sharp critical discourse, his willingness to explore the shadows of complex lives, including his own, that challenge clichés about race and gender without ever sacrificing intellectual rigor.” His follow-up collection is less cohesive but proves to be equally daring and nearly as experimental as his audacious debut. Gathering his diverse subjects under the umbrella term “white girls,” which he applies equally to Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor, Als assembles something of a greatest hits of his own strengths, which are considerable. His longer essays are the most personal; “Tristes Tropiques,” an elegant recollection of friends and lovers in the age of AIDS, opens the book. Naturally, observations on culture rise to the top as well. “White Noise,” about rap icon Eminem, and “Michael,” about the elusive pop star, offer pointed insights into American culture’s obsession with image. Readers who only know Als’ work from his insightful magazine essays may be startled by his diversions from form here. When Als summarized his feelings on Gone with the Wind in the New Yorker in 2011, he was delicate. The essay with the same title here comments on a photography exhibition, asking, “So what can I tell you about a bunch of unfortunate niggers stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched?” Leapfrogging from straightforward journalism to fiction written in other personas, the author demonstrates a practiced combination of cultural perception, keen self-awareness and principled self-assurance.
Als’ work is so much more than simply writing about being black or gay or smart. It’s about being human.
A veteran cultural critic and jazz historian tells the simultaneous stories of the rise of jazz and the emergence of one of its brightest comets, Charlie Parker (1920–1955).
Crouch (Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, 2006, etc.), whose journalism has appeared in just about every major venue and whose books have earned widespread critical appreciation, is uniquely qualified to guide readers on this tour. He begins in Des Moines, Iowa, where Parker, 21, was touring with the Jay McShann Orchestra. Here, we get an early hint of troubles to come when Crouch notes that Parker’s “disappearing acts were his specialty.” Hard drugs would limit Parker’s ascension and eventually bring him down. But Crouch’s agenda comprises not just the story of the early Parker. He tells the tales of towns (New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York), of ragtime and jazz legends (Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and others of lesser name but considerable significance), and of families and friends. We see Parker’s impecunious struggles to learn his instrument (alto sax), his repeated visits to the pawn shop (morphine was not free), his experiences of having to borrow other players’ instruments, his gift as a musician, his ferocious work ethic (striving to find his own sound) and his transformation into a dweller of the night. We learn, as well, about his youthful love affair that eventually became his first marriage. He became a father and then left his family to pursue his dreams, which no longer included them. Crouch takes us with Parker to Chicago and then to New York City, where he was just about to make it when the story stops. Crouch is a phrasemaker, and the text is chockablock with memorable lines. A friend’s death “was like drinking a cup of blues made of razor blades.”
A story rich in musical history and poignant with dramatic irony.
The story of the author’s year embedded in the New York Jets football team.
Before the 2011 NFL season, the “big, warm-blooded, exuberant” coach of the Jets, Rex Ryan, asked New Yorker and Rolling Stone contributor Dawidoff (The Fly Swatter: Portrait of an Exceptional Character, 2003, etc.) to spend a year with the team. That fact alone says a lot: not only that Ryan trusted the author to make a good job of it—which he absolutely does—but to be so open in what is mostly a closed, secretive society. Unlike most journalists, who are escorted around “like state visitors to Pyongyang,” Dawidoff received a locker and the freedom to roam and eavesdrop. In the past 20 years, writes the author, the game had become “the national passion…something graceful, thrilling, dangerous, and concealed in plain sight.” Though he touches on the bad press that has recently smeared the game—the concussion issue, the bounty hunting, the closed-mindedness about homosexuality—the author was soon in the game’s thrall, both intellectually and emotionally. Dawidoff is a crack writer, saturating the book with the best of a year’s worth of anecdotes and lacing it with the backgrounds of coaches and players with an intimacy that begs the question how he got all this sharp and often moving material. Typical is the lovely scene where the young Rex is with his twin brother, Rob (a defensive coordinator in the NFL), and his father, Buddy (a legendary former NFL head coach), as Buddy is explaining to the boys some piece of the game’s obscurity, and Rob suddenly realizes: “He’s teaching us the family secrets.” Dawidoff has a sure hand with the nature of passion, the rancor and weeping joy that characterizes every season in the most popular sport in the country.
Insightful, immediate sportswriting. Readers will feel every bit of the team’s frustration and elation.
A gracefully presented narrative of the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, which was based on a 1954 novel that was based on an actual Comanche kidnapping of a white girl in 1836.
Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post reporter Frankel (Journalism/Univ. of Texas; Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa, 1999, etc.) focuses on the American Southwest and the relationships between American Indians and whites. The author begins in 1954 with a shocking moment—director Ford, well into his cups, punching Henry Fonda in the nose. And away we go on a remarkable journey from Hollywood to Monument Valley and into the past as Frankel digs into American cultural history, unearthing some gold. He spends many pages telling the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the kidnapped girl. The Parkers searched hard for her afterward, but it was not until 1860 that she was re-captured in the bloody Battle of Pease River. By then, she was in every way but genetically a Comanche. Her transition back to white society was painful, and after some moments of celebrity, she fell into obscurity. One of her Comanche children, though, who came to call himself Quanah Parker, emerged as one of the principal spokesmen for American Indian causes. Frankel pursues Cynthia Ann’s and Quanah’s stories with gusto then, nearly 200 pages later, shifts his attention to Alan LeMay, author of The Searchers and nearly a score of other novels. Then it’s on to John Ford and the making of the film with John Wayne. An epilogue deals with the amicable reunions of the Parker descendants and relatives, white and Comanche.
A thoroughly researched, clearly written account of an obsessive search through the tangled borderland of fact and fiction, legend and myth.
Besides being a rock legend, Hell has long been a journalist and novelist (Godlike, 2005, etc.), and this memoir reveals a skilled writer. Born in Kentucky in 1949 as Richard Meyers, he became a fledgling poet who ditched home and high school for the New York art world, where he trawled through galleries and beds, winding up as the boy toy of the wife of sculptor Claes Oldenburg. He also co-founded the band Television with his contentious pal Tom Verlaine, although he left before the band’s first album, as would also be the case with his brief stint with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. He hit his peak instead with his own band, The Voidoids, creating both a classic album (“Blank Generation”) and a fashion style he wore on his torn and safety-pinned sleeve. The Brits noticed. Punk was born. In recalling these days when love came in spurts, Hell is precise, telling a lot without ever seeming to tell too much. He nails the essence of both scenes and people, from rock peers to exploitative record producers. Nodding on heroin “was like the dream of a dream, a dream you could manipulate—in other words, paradise on earth.” Sid Vicious “wasn’t really vicious,” just someone who “saw that there was a crazy opening into fame and money that required only that he relax into full loutish negativity.” He can also be bitter, as when he writes that Thunders’ lyrics “were half-assed in never having an original idea or turn of phrase.”
A deft, lyrical chronicle by a punk with perspective.
Veteran music writer Hilburn (Cornflakes with John Lennon, 2009) masterfully separates fiction from fact in an exhaustive, but never exhausting, biography of the legendary musician.
Even as a child, Johnny Cash (1932–2003) knew he wanted to write songs and perform them in front of large audiences, but he had no realistic plan to accomplish those goals. After high school, he joined the Air Force, a choice that taught him a great deal about life outside Arkansas but did not seem to bring him closer to his musical goals. He met Vivian Liberto while still in the military. They eventually married and had four daughters amid numerous struggles with Cash's marital infidelities and amphetamine addiction. As for the professional dream, Cash reached fulfillment only due to his gutsy foray into Memphis, where record-company impresario Sam Phillips eventually succumbed to the novice's entreaties. Hilburn expertly navigates the ups and downs of Cash's music career before, during and after stardom; the divorce from Vivian and eventual marriage to June Carter; his debilitating addiction to pills; the TV and movie appearances that increased Cash's cultural presence; the slide into apparent professional has-been status; and the unlikely pairing with music producer Rick Rubin after the fall that not only revived Cash's fame, but took his singing in amazing new directions. Hilburn packs his mostly chronological narrative with cameos by famous artists who admired Cash, including Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and even some heavy-metal and rap musicians. As the longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn followed Cash's career vigorously and interviewed him multiple times before his death.
The personal knowledge aided by extensive archival research and always compelling, accessible writing make this an instant-classic music biography with something to offer all generations of listeners.
A thorough study of the gold standard in American literary publishing, complete with sex, sour editors and the occasional stumble into financial success.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has corralled some of the most prominent names in literature since it was founded in 1945, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Susan Sontag to Philip Roth to Jeffrey Eugenides. As New York contributing editor Kachka makes clear in this generally lively history, little of its success came easy: If weak-selling books weren’t the problem, personality clashes within the office were. The core of the story is Roger Straus, who championed some of the publisher’s biggest names throughout the years, including Tom Wolfe, whose fiction and nonfiction defined a generation of writing, though his delayed manuscripts put the company under financial strain. (His 1979 classic on the space program, The Right Stuff, appeared in FSG’s catalog for years.) Some intramural tussles among editors read like insider baseball, but Kachka’s recollections of FSG’s struggle with independence (it sold to the German firm Holtzbrinck in 1994) and the modern era of big-money agents give a smart and informative portrait of the mechanisms of modern publishing. Roger Straus (who died in 2004) was a complicated man fit for this tale: He bedded plenty of women, was notoriously stingy, and engaged in an extended push and pull with his son, Roger Straus III, who’d spend time in and out of the company. Kachka extends the story into the present day, where, under the leadership of Jonathan Galassi, novelists like Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen preserve the publisher’s high-art sensibility while struggling to make ends meet. But Kachka wants to remind us that it’s always been thus: FSG was forever saved from failure by the big hit that cannily merged literary and commercial.
A smart, savvy portrait of arguably the country’s most important publisher.
Legendary literary journalist Kidder (Strength in What Remains, 2009, etc.) and his longtime editor trade war stories and advice for the ambitious nonfiction writer.
“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write,” an Atlantic editor told Todd about Kidder, who had been constantly revising his first feature in 1973. The authors tell this story upfront as an inspirational anecdote for young writers: Great writing is less often the product of flashes of genius than it is dogged persistence as a researcher and rewriter. The book is largely an entertaining handbook on matters of reporting (do lots of it, much more than you think you need) and style (simpler is better), but Kidder and Todd are not prescriptive the way Strunk & White and its inheritors are, and they allow greater leeway for writers. Throughout, they implore writers to shrug off the shackles of “journalese” and blog-y posturing and strive for creative, essayistic approaches. They’re also forgiving, to a degree, of the imperfect memories that propel many memoirs. Outright fabrications (see James Frey) are out of line for them, but they appreciate that no memoirs “that strive to dramatize moments in the past can be wholly faithful to knowable fact.” After the practical matters are settled, the two indulge in “Being Edited and Editor,” a lengthy chapter in which they recall their contentious relationship tussling over paragraphs. Even here, though, the memories are studded with practical tips and memorable aphorisms—“Something is always wrong with a draft,” in particular, should hang over every writer’s desk. The authors also offer fine recommendations for further reading, from Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (1967) to Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012).
Other writing guides have more nuts-and-bolts advice, but few combine the verve and plainspokenness of this book, which exemplifies its title.
Delving deep into the culinary (and social) history of one of America’s oldest cuisines: soul food.
During the 1960s and ’70s, soul food came out of the kitchen and into the spotlight, brought to the fore by African-Americans’ burgeoning racial pride. Today, however, it comes not only with a side of cultural baggage, but also an unhealthy dietary image—a plate of fried meat or fish with vegetables boiled nearly to death, followed by sweet desserts and even sweeter drinks. Although many other aspects of African-American culture have become globally accepted, “soul food has become a toxic cultural asset inside the black community and a cuisine stigmatized from the outside.” In his debut, Miller offers “a very public makeover” for soul food. Rather than take a broad overview of soul food as a cuisine, each chapter dives deep into the background of one specific dish, covering both the oldest food traditions (e.g., fried chicken, greens and corn bread) and some more recent additions (red Kool-Aid and macaroni and cheese). Miller’s historical trails are occasionally a bit speculative, such as his efforts to put Kool-Aid in a line of red beverages stretching back to drinks made with kola nuts in western parts of Africa. Overall, though, the author’s pages are lively, with few lapses into overly dry detail. Nearly every chapter concludes with two recipes for the food being discussed, usually a traditional recipe and a newer, healthier version. For instance, the chapter on desserts ends with the banana pudding made by Miller’s own mother, rich with egg yolks and whole milk, followed by a peach crisp made with little sugar and whole wheat flour. Offering both recipes is just part of soul food’s “heritage of experimentation,” and Miller encourages professional chefs and home cooks alike to “name and embrace the new culinary form without jettisoning the old.”
An engaging, tradition-rich look at an often overlooked American cuisine—certainly to be of interest to foodies from all walks of life.
With this exhaustive, engaging study of the greatest jazz composer of his era, Wall Street Journal drama critic Teachout solidifies his place as one of America's great music biographers.
Many have cited jazz as America's only true indigenous art form, so it is at once surprising and disheartening that major publishers are seemingly hesitant to champion books that tackle the subject—especially considering that when an author is allowed the freedom to dive into the life and music of a jazz titan, the results are often brilliant, something that Teachout demonstrated with his justifiably revered Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2010). After Armstrong, chronologically speaking, bandleader/composer/arranger/pianist Duke Ellington was jazz's next game changer. Aside from his undeniably astounding ear, Ellington, like Armstrong, was a personality, one of the rare jazzmen who was able to combine heady music with showbiz panache without diminishing his art. With his vibrant prose and ability to get into his protagonist's head and heart, Teachout captures this essence and charisma in a manner worthy of Ellington's complex yet listenable classic “The Queen's Suite.” One of Ellington's most notable nonmusical qualities was his loyalty, and the author gives some of his longtime sidemen and compatriots—e.g., composer Billy Strayhorn and saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves—their due. Finally, as was the case in Pops, Teachout's musical analysis is spot-on, at once complex and accessible. It will be appreciated equally by those who have 100 Ellington albums and those whose awareness of the Duke is limited to his best-known tunes like "Take The 'A' Train" and "Satin Doll." Hopefully, the brilliance of Teachout’s treatment will compel the industry to let authors take a crack at the lives of, say, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie and Charles Mingus.
Like most Ellington albums, Teachout's in-depth, well-researched, loving study of this American treasure is an instant classic.
A thoughtful, incisive analysis of hip-hop—and pop music in general—from one of its foremost contemporary architects.
It’s no surprise that this isn’t your standard musical memoir. As drummer and aural conceptualist for the Roots, producer for other artists, Jimmy Fallon bandleader and provocative cultural critic, Thompson, aka Questlove, has pushed the boundaries of convention wherever his creative energies have taken him. Here, he enlists New Yorker editor and novelist Greenman (The Slippage, 2013, etc.), not as a ghostwriter but as a collaborator and occasional interrogator, interweaving the subject/author’s voice with that of Rich Nichols, the Roots’ career strategist and co-manager from the start, in a book that mixes chronological memoir with critical issues not easily resolved—e.g., “What’s black culture? What’s hip-hop? What are the responsibilities of a society and the people in it?” It conjures the life of Questlove from boyhood prodigy to die-hard fan to seminal creative force, through midlife crisis and subsequent renewal, and it captures the revolutionary boyhood excitement of hearing “Rapper’s Delight” shift the axis of the musical world and the giddy weirdness of being invited by Prince to a private, after-hours roller-skating party. The author also discusses being a huge KISS fan, a worshipper of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, “a serious music-press nerd, the kind of kid who collected back issues of Rolling Stone and memorized all the record ratings” and how he and the Roots have faced the charges of being “not black enough.” The result is a book with as much warmth, heart and humor as introspective intelligence.
Fanatics and newcomers to the music will both find plenty of revelation here.
The lushly researched life of celebrated dancer, choreographer and director (stage, films, TV) Bob Fosse (1927–1987).
Film critic and biographer Wasson (Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, 2010, etc.) has amassed a mountain of data about Fosse but has sculpted it into something moving and memorable. With chapters whose titles remind us of his approaching death (“Fifteen Years,” “Five Years,” “One Hour and Fifty-Three Minutes”), the author both increases the dramatic irony of the dancer’s days and reminds us continually of life’s evanescence. After a swift chapter about Fosse’s boyhood—for a long time, he concealed his dancing passion and skills)—Wasson guides us through his incredibly productive career (in a single year, 1973, he won a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy), providing engaging detail about his major productions—Sweet Charity, Pippin, Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz and others. Wasson shows us Fosse’s enormous empathy for his dancers, his ferocious work ethic, his reliance on uppers and cigarettes, and his constitutional inability to remain faithful to a single woman. His hotel room during productions was, well, a chorus line. A few resisted him (he never seemed to bear a grudge), and former wife, fellow choreographer and gifted dancer Gwen Verdon remained in his orbit to the absolute end—she was with him when he collapsed on the street. We see, too, his close friendships (Paddy Chayefsky, E.L. Doctorow), his rivalries (Michael Bennett) and his friendly rivals (Jerome Robbins). The author also reveals a deeply insecure artist who wanted to be a writer and was always certain his productions would fail—and, in the late cases of Big Deal and Star 80, he was certainly correct.
Graceful prose creates a richly detailed and poignant portrait, simultaneously inspiring and depressing.
An indispensable oral history of an often misunderstood musical genre.
The most important lesson this mammoth tome teaches us is that metal means far more than one might believe. It isn’t just Black Sabbath, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses and teased hair, write Revolver senior writer Wiederhorn and Nights with Alice Cooper producer Turman. Rather, it’s an umbrella under which falls numerous subgenres, including thrash, death and black, oftentimes incorporating and/or encompassing punk, rap, and good, old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll. This is why a style of music that hasn’t completely crossed over to the mainstream more than merits this lengthy, in-depth study. The success of an oral history is primarily dependent on the quality and quantity of interview subjects, and here, the authors lined up a veritable murderer’s row of talking heads: Jimmy Page, Henry Rollins, Gene Simmons, Slash, Courtney Love, Kurt Loder, Sharon Osbourne and Dee Snider are among the dozens of high-profile musicians and industry insiders who offer up commentary. The authors also spoke with members of well-known cult bands like Slipknot, Minor Threat and Bad Brains, as well as Type O Negative, Disturbed, W.A.S.P. and Cannibal Corpse. The majority of the interviewees are forthcoming and compelling, which makes for great reading for both hard-core headbangers and general music fans. The anecdotes run the gamut from debaucherous (lots of sex, drugs and violence) to heartbreaking, but there’s plenty of factual meat to satisfy readers in search of the history behind the music and the facts behind the myths. The subtitle doesn’t lie: This hugely impressive achievement is, without question, definitive.
Even if your metal collection consists of a couple of Kiss cassettes and an AC/DC CD, you’ll find this a killer read.