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.
Getting by, getting over, getting laid: Drury’s characters keep busy in his fifth novel, another wild ride.
Some of them we’ve met before in Hunts in Dreams (2000) and The End of Vandalism (1994): Charles, Joan, Lyris and Micah. The action is split among small Midwest towns and Los Angeles. Charles, now known as Tiny, had a plumbing business which has since failed. His ex-wife, Joan, has moved to LA and has a juicy role in a TV show. Stepdaughter Lyris has moved into town to shack up with a young newspaper reporter. Joan re-appears to claim 14-year-old Micah and move him to the coast. She’s going to take another stab at this mothering business; or is she just playing a role? These departures leave Tiny in an empty nest. Out of loneliness, he starts stealing boxes from the loading docks of big-box stores. That’s kids’ stuff compared to Jack Snow’s criminal enterprise. Jack is an ex-con shipping fake Celtic artifacts from a warehouse. It’s his bad luck to be tracked down by Sandra Zulma, his old childhood playmate. Sandra is now cuckoo, lost in a Celtic fantasy world, but with the single-minded energy of the mad, she is looking for a rock that Jack may own. Also on Jack’s trail is Dan, once the sheriff but now working for a detective agency, though he hates the sleaze. He and his wife, Louise, are emblems of decency; their private sorrow is the loss of a daughter at birth. Meanwhile, in LA, Micah is experimenting with drugs and girls, while Joan is making the leap to the big screen and sleeping with the screenwriter. The second half includes a murder and a divorce; Micah, overwhelmed, calls his half sister Lyris, who flies out to help. There’s no plot or protagonist, but a fine percussive beat sweeps the reader along.
The always fresh perspective of this one-of-a-kind writer will have you responding like his character, who “laughed with surprise in her heart.”
Gossipy insider’s account of the presidential election of 2012, the sequel to Halperin and Heilemann’s best-selling Game Change (2009).
Time senior political analyst Halperin and New York national affairs editor Heilemann, who both serve as senior political analysts at MSNBC as well, are respected and connected in the media and political worlds and well-sourced at the upper reaches of the Democratic and Republican parties. Not surprisingly, their views are conventional and close to the center, their attention trained on politics as sport (or, as the title suggests, as a high-stakes poker game) and politicians as personalities. Their focus is always on the candidates with the most buzz among not just voters, but the Washington, D.C., cognoscenti. In the Republican primaries, then, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman—a relatively moderate former governor of Utah whom the Obama administration picked for his knowledge of Chinese, to earn points for bipartisanship and possibly to take out of the running for 2012—warrants an entire chapter, though he made almost no impression at all outside of the Beltway. On the other hand, Ron Paul, who lasted until the Republican National Convention and arguably altered the ideology of the grass-roots Republican party more than any other candidate, including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, is dismissed for his “kookiness,” which “made him more likely to end up on a park bench feeding stale bread to the squirrels than become the Republican nominee.” Still, Halperin and Heilemann offer a highly entertaining, dishy read, full of astonishing revelations about the strengths and, most intriguingly, the foibles of the nation’s political stars and egos, including unforgettable portraits of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in particular. “[W]e have tried,” write the authors, “to render the narrative with an unrelenting focus on the candidates and those closest to them—with an eye toward the high human drama behind the curtain."
Appropriately sprawling biography of the larger-than-life writer, brawler, provocateur and bon vivant.
Norman Mailer (1923–2007), writes archivist and authorized biographer Lennon, grew up in a reasonably happy family, with a strong mother and dapper father, who, as Mailer wrote, “had the gift of speaking to each woman as if she was the most important woman he’d ever spoken to.” Mailer himself was fairly obsessed with women, though his quest was often thwarted—as he recalled, particularly at Harvard, where he served something of an apprenticeship. Mailer came into adulthood with a noticeable chip on his shoulder and some well-aired grievances, and he kept the pattern up throughout a long and productive life. As Advertisements for Myself (1959) proclaimed, for instance, he maintained running feuds and rivalries with all manner of writers—and, as Lennon reveals, even took Ernest Hemingway by the horns, occasioning an apology from Papa some years later. He also battled editors and critics from the start, though Hemingway helpfully instructed on the matter of reviews, “Try for Christ sake not to worry about it so much. All that is poison.” Lennon ably reveals the always-contentious Mailer but also a man who could be generous and very smart. Lennon is also a shrewd literary critic, commenting on the origins and fortunes of Mailer’s works, notably his study of Marilyn Monroe, which laid bare “his narcissism, born of early spectacular success.” Mailer possessed an outsized ego well before then, of course, but the point remains: Though he seems to be little read now, Mailer was of central importance in postwar American writing, as he would have been glad to tell you.
Detailed and anecdotal without being gossipy (a yarn concerning a nicotine-addicted cat notwithstanding) and a must-read for students and admirers of Mailer’s work.
A young reporter goes in search of his long-lost, deceased father.
“There’s lots of stories you haven’t heard," said the narrator's mother when he asked about an unfamiliar family anecdote. But GQ deputy editor Hainey wanted to hear them all. When his father died suddenly one spring day in 1970, he left behind two boys, a wife and a trail of questions that no one wanted to answer for Hainey. For years, the family danced silently around the subject of his father, until the author decided to track down whatever true story was left of him. It was the obituary that set him off: His father allegedly died "after visiting friends," but who were they? Who was with him in his final hours? With medical records and a few shaky, secondhand accounts from his father's former co-workers, a tight-lipped crew of old-time Chicago newspapermen, Hainey hoped to fill the gaps between what he had always been told and what it seemed might actually be true. His personal investigation took him across the country and into strangers' lives, but the most difficult and hard-won part of the journey was his gradual, intimate understanding of his mother and brother. Hainey's writing is balletic, nimbly avoiding both sentimentality and sensationalism, making grief and absence into powerful and fully felt forces. His short scenes appear like flashes of memory, prose poems of what once was, and he skillfully weaves a narrative that transcends his own and spans generations. From family history to Chicago lore, Hainey searches the deepest fissures of memory and finds a hidden and entire "world of men, of stories, of knowledge" that wasn't there before.
Part elegy, part mystery and wholly unforgettable.
Deep Thoughts creator Handey (What I’d Say to the Martians, 2008, etc.) pens his first novel, an absurd adventure set in Hawaii.
The unreliable narrator is Slurps (he picked the nickname). He’s clueless, inappropriate, delusional, dim: an all-around misguided, comedic nightmare. Among his life goals: to someday throw a hand grenade. “Maybe I’ll get to do that in Heaven,” he muses. As the book opens, Slurps and his friend Don book a vacation to Hawaii (a “mysterious place” Slurps has never heard of) to get away from it all—in Don’s case, from an ex-wife; in Slurps’ case, from violent men to whom he owes money. After receiving a Hawaiian “treasure map” from their travel agent showing the way to a valuable relic called the Golden Monkey, the two decide to steal the object. Before they depart for the islands, Slurps visits Uncle Lou, an ailing treasure hunter who, upon learning of Slurps’ plan to steal the Golden Monkey, drugs Slurps and then implants a tracking device in his tooth. “The trouble with going to Uncle Lou’s was he was always drugging you,” Slurps notes. Indeed. The Hawaii of the book is not a place any tourist would recognize. Honolulu is a “dirty, coastal backwater” stinking of fish heads and featuring in its town square “a bronze statue of the discoverer of Hawaii, Sir Edmund Honolulu III,” not to mention lots of bums and prostitutes. This Hawaii has its own currency, the paleeka, and the bars serve bowls of dried geckos in lieu of beer nuts. The beaches showcase rusty cars that have washed ashore. Slurps' observations are epic throughout: "A scary-looking transvestite put flower necklaces around our necks and said, 'Aloha.' Someone told me later that aloha is a curse word." Things take a turn for the much worse when Slurps acquires a hula-girl souvenir that in fact turns out to be cursed. (See Bobby Brady in the 1972 Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes.) Disasters ensue. The journey into the jungle in search of the Golden Monkey finds Slurps and Don battling pirates, getting hit with blow darts and meeting a native woman that Slurps hits on using his favorite pickup line, "what's your religion?" The doomed expedition culminates in a riot, complete with a pitchfork-wielding mob, inside a national park. It's Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness meets the 2008 film Tropic Thunder. Ridiculous fun through and through. You have to love a guy who goes out looking for hiking supplies and comes back with bottles of scotch and packs of cigarettes. A true outdoorsman, he.
The best comedic novel in years. Handey is a master. Fans will be quoting lines from this book for a long time. If you like the work of George Saunders, this one's for you.
The terrifying, true tale of nurse Charles Cullen, a man who worked with the most vulnerable of patients for 16 years, delivering life or death on a whim.
A whodunit where the culprit is identified on page one is as strange as a thriller with no surprise ending, but journalist Graeber presents these facts right from the beginning, never doubting the strength of the story. It works. Even without an uncertain finale, this true-crime tale delivers mystery and intrigue. The author begins with the satisfaction Cullen felt in his work, the good money he made and the doors open to him despite the litany of problems littering his professional and personal record. The author describes how Cullen came to nursing, how he felt a sense of belonging and distinction in his role, and the dysfunction of his personal life. Soon, Cullen was exerting control over his world by taking the lives of patients. Graeber does a particularly good job of showing the mounting evidence against Cullen as his misdeeds were originally discovered, following the nurse from accusation to accusation. The author imbues the story with an intense level of anticipation, with one question constantly in the background: Who will stop this man and when? Graeber describes the administrators who refused to report Cullen in the same way as the whistle-blowers who insisted on involving the police. The author’s cut-and-dried delivery serves to make the many paradoxes more poignant and lend some humor to a dark subject.
A thrilling and suspenseful page-turner that is sure to be loved by the majority of readers, who will be both horrified and fascinated.
Sharply honed life of the only American Indian leader to definitively beat the United States in war, short-lived though the defeat might have been.
Popular military historians Drury and Clavin (Last Men Out: The True Story of America's Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam, 2011, etc.) offer a battle-and-skirmish account of Sioux leader Red Cloud’s war on the whites who invaded the Great Plains, though their narrative is strong on ethnohistorical matters as well. When a white officer sputtered “Horseshit” against Red Cloud’s claim that the Sioux had an ancestral claim to the Black Hills, for instance, the authors are able to explain that, be that as it may, the Sioux had developed an emergence story to back up their case—one that, as it happened, had its first mention on the Sioux calendar “the summer before America’s Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.” Drury and Clavin frame their story with what has been called the Fetterman Massacre (here, better put, the Fetterman Fight), in 1866, when an unfortunate Army officer led his command into a trap that led to their deaths, but they pack it with details taken from many episodes in the early history of Sioux relations with the whites, as well as with other tribes. They credit Red Cloud with forming a powerful alliance of peoples, among them the Cheyenne and Shoshone, the only way the Indians could resist white encroachment into their homeland. Even so, as the authors note, when Red Cloud was invited to Washington to sign a peace treaty and was taken to a federal arsenal to see the assembled weaponry available to his enemy, he recognized that the days of his people’s suzerainty were numbered, even as he continued to mount “the most impressive campaign in the annals of Indian warfare,” which lasted from 1866 to 1868.
A well-researched and -written account of an often overlooked figure in the history of the Indian Wars.
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.
Remember Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim musical out of Kaufman and Hart that began with its climactic scene and worked backward to the beginning? Deaver’s borrowed the same concept and juiced it with assorted felonies, nonstop suspense and his trademark braininess.
The opening scene seems both to begin and to end in media res. Gabriela McKenzie, whose 6-year-old daughter Sarah has been kidnapped by Joseph Astor, waits with insurance executive Sam Easton for the return of his boss, Andrew Faraday, and venture capitalist Daniel Reardon. The two men have gone to deliver the item Joseph demanded: the October List, a document containing contact information for the secret clients of Gabriela’s boss, wealthy investment counselor Charles Prescott. But the scene ends with the threatening entrance of Joseph, not Andrew and Daniel. From that moment on, Deaver (The Kill Room, 2013, etc.) sucks you into a whirlwind reverse-chronology tour of Gabriela’s nightmare weekend: her tense interviews with a pair of New York cops, her ransacking of Prescott’s office to find the October List, the encounter in which Joseph tells her that he’s got Sarah, the news that Prescott has vanished with his firm’s money, her meet-cute with Daniel, all punctuated by the sudden, shocking crimes Gabriela and others commit in the pursuit of the elusive list. The conceit of a tale unrolling backward in time initially seems daunting, but it’s not so different from the way lots of detective stories—or for that matter lots of Ibsen plays—unfold, and Deaver dispenses expository bits and cliffhangers with a mastery that’ll make you smile even more broadly after you realize how thoroughly you’ve been hoodwinked.
Perhaps the cleverest of all Deaver’s exceptionally clever thrillers. If you’ve ever wished you could take the film Memento to the beach, here’s your chance.