Like any hopeful reader, I have boxes of books just waiting to be read in my garage and even a fair number waiting in the digital realm. There’s not much rhyme or reason to which ones I choose or why they take me so long to read, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts down about these four books I’ve finished in the relatively recent past including books by Joe Hill, Erik Larson, Tina Fey and Roger Moore. Continue reading Four Books I Liked By Joe Hill, Erik Larson, Tina Fey & Roger Moore
The other day I was cleaning out the garage and came across a few boxes of unread books that I was able to combine, but only if I pulled a few out. I figured that was as good a reason as any to try my hand (and eyes) at another Ambitious Summer Reading list. There’s just something about the warm weather that makes me want to stay inside and read, I guess.
As usual, I’ve got a pretty eclectic selection here. From the top, Ghosts And Things is a spooky anthology from 1962 that includes stories by Henry James, Ambrose Bierce and others. I’m thinking about reading these stories in between other books, but the James story was SUPER boring, so I’m not sure if I’ll stick with that plan.
Below that is the 1979 Avengers novel The Man Who Stole Tomorrow by the awesome David Micheline. In the 90s I read a lot of superhero novels and am curious to see how this early example is. Then there’s Freddy Krueger’s Tales Of Terror #2: Fatal Games. My buddy Jesse sent me this and I’m pretty excited to read it because I love Freddy and this looks like the Christopher Pike novels I read in grade school.
You can also see Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger. I’ve heard a lot of different things about this series over the years and made sure to get the pre-revised version of this book, so we’ll see how this goes. Switching gears completely, I’ve also got Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City. I listened to the audiobook version of Klosterman’s IV a few years back and picked this up not long after. I’m a sucker for music related autobios, so I’m sure this will be awesome.
I know absolutely nothing about Twilight Of The Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg other than the fact that it was like a dollar at one of all time favorite discount stores that’s no longer around. But, hey, it’s about superheroes, so it should be in my wheelhouse (I hope). At the bottom of the pile you’ll see another comic-related book, this one Mark Evanier’s column collection Comic Books And Other Necessities Of Life. For some reason I thought this was a collection of interviews, but I must be thinking of ANOTHER book in one of my boxes. Evanier’s one of the best comic historians around, so I’m sure this will be an interesting read.
That brings us to the last three books. Trevanian’s The Loo Sanction is the sequel to The Eiger Sanction, a book I read last year and really enjoyed. There’s also my first Raymond Chandler book Farewell, My Lovely and The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I must have read about that last one ten years ago and always wanted to check it out, but haven’t gotten around to it until now!
As you can probably tell, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to these selections. I tried to balance out longer books with shorter ones just to take it a little easy on myself. I haven’t been taking much time to read actual books lately, but I’m hoping that this will push me in that direction. I’m kicking off with The Loo Sanction because I actually started it like six months ago and want to finish it. I’m about halfway through and trying to spend more time with good books, so I’ll hopefully be posting about that one soon!
I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. Part of the reason is that I’m a slow reader, part is that I love reading comics and part is that, thanks to having a pair of kiddos, I don’t have the time or attention span to devote to the hobby as I once did. However, I have discovered that my three-year-old daughter’s bedtime is a good time to get some reading done. After I read her books, I lay next to her bed in the dark until she doses off. So, as long as I have a solid book on my phone, I’m pretty good to go.
The first of the bunch in recent memory was Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen. I knew absolutely nothing about White going into this book, but it looked like a British version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, so I bit for a couple bucks (like most of my e-books, I got it on the cheap) and really enjoyed the experience.
White’s story begins as a child (as most do) and ventures on up through his development as a chef, to the leader of his own kitchen and ultimately a world-renowned figure in the world of food. He gave jobs to people like Gordon Ramsey and Curtis Stone while creating award-winning, lavish restaurants in the 80s and beyond. While their stories are different in many ways, if you like Bourdain’s books, you’ll like this one.
Red Rain by R.L. Stine is one of the few fiction novels I’ve read all the way through on my phone. This was another discounted book that I grabbed. From the title and the cover, I assumed this was a vampire story, but was way off base. This one follows a woman who goes to a small island for her travel blog but after a devastating hurricane, seems changed to the point where she adopts a pair of creepy twin boys and brings them to live with her husband, daughter and son in New York.
This was an interesting story that never quite grabbed me. For some reason I was never able to zero in on what these kids look like which was a major barrier given plot points I don’t want to spoil. I also had a really hard time sympathizing with the mother character. The father becomes the punching bag, but while he’s getting dumped on, it felt like I was supposed to wonder more about the wife, but instead, I found her far too easy to write off and ignore. Because of that, I also found her to be a wildly annoying character to the point where I almost stopped reading.
But, I did wind up enjoying the end of the book which finally revealed what the kids were up to. I liked how all that played out, so while I didn’t necessarily enjoy all of this book, it ended in a way that I appreciated which is nice because I used to read Fear Street and Goosebumps books constantly as a kid. I don’t say this often, but after I was done, I felt like Red Rain would have made a better movie than a book.
Off My Rocker: One Man’s Tasty, Twisted, Star-Studded Quest for Everlasting Music by Kenny Weissberg was another random purchase for a few bucks (the equivalent of the going through the Barnes & Noble discount table). I knew nothing about Weissberg or his deal, but when I read that he was a DJ, music writer and concert promoter, I was easily sold.
Right off the bat, this book reminded me of three others I’ve read since starting this blog. It’s got a little of The Real Animal House mixed with Sonic Boom and some of George Hamilton’s autobiography Don’t Mind If I Do in that it’s one man’s (mostly) fond remembrance of an important time in music, told from the inside. Like Hamilton, he used his confidence and skills to move from one part of life to another, often taking chances and risks that paid off.
To get into a bit more detail, Weissberg grew up a huge music fan on the East Coast and eventually wound up becoming one of the biggest freeform DJs in Colorado. Talking about music lead to interviewing musicians on the air and a career in concert and record reviews in print. When that work dried up, he fronted a band before moving to California to promote concerts, a gig that lasted him 20-something years. Along the way he met a variety of music professionals who he doesn’t mind writing about. Weissberg tells his stories with a good nature that brings you into the tales instead of feeling like you’re on the outside and also lets you in on previously unknown details without ever getting mean.
In addition to enjoying stories about people who make their own way in life, no matter how improbably, I also appreciated how Weissberg took this thing he loved and turned it into a series of careers that lasted several decades. That’s something I hope I can say down the line, though I just realized I’ve been doing what I do for about 10, so I guess I’m doing alright.
I should probably stop accepting books from PR folks. The people over at Bloomsbury were nice enough to offer me a copy of Al Capp: A Life To The Contrary by Michael Shumacher and Denis Kitchen way back in January and promptly sent me the book when it was available. Here I am writing about it three months after the biography came out in late February, so I feel bad about that.
I was initially interested in this book because it covers an almost total dark spot in my historical knowledge of sequential storytelling. As a kid I loved the funnies and would gladly leaf through them in the morning and on weekends while eating breakfast, but aside from buying or borrowing a few collections here and there, my knowledge of comic strip history doesn’t go very deep. In the past 6 or so years I’ve tried to remedy that by snatching up classic collections, but my slow, sporadic reading habits have left most of them half-read. However, I felt the need to finally finish A Life To The Contrary so I made a big push recently and cleared the last 100 pages or so over the holiday weekend.
Of course, the big question then comes, what took me so long to read the book, right? I knew absolutely nothing about Capp or his most famous strip Lil’ Abner going in, but the more I read the more interested I became in this man who was not only the most successful cartoonists of his day, but also one of the first to really capitalize on his popularity in the way that someone like Walt Disney was able to (both men inspired theme parks after all). And yet, I would put this book down for long segments of time. Part of that was my own desire to not read anything without pictures, but I think there’s also something about the book I can’t quite put my finger on that doesn’t fully draw you into the character of Capp.
I was contemplating this idea while reading through those last 100 or so pages recently as things were getting pretty exciting. Capp was hugely successful and had been for a long time. He even seemed to be doing pretty well with his friends, family and colleagues and then the 60s hit and I found myself liking him less and less (as did many people of the day). He’s one of those guys who claims to have been a liberal in the 50s, but switched to conservatism in the 60s (he and Nixon became acquaintances and often wrote letters to one another). Capp took it so many steps further by going on college speaking tours where he would spend his time haranguing the peace-nicks and protestors in the audience. He did the same on television, radio and in magazine pieces to the point where his meanness was making people not want to bother talking to the once witty personality. Heck, he even traveled to John and Yoko Ono’s bed-in for peace just to give them shit. It basically sounded like he — a kid who connived his way through art schools thanks to his silver tongue — liked expressing his opinions, but wasn’t such a big fan of a younger generation coming along with their own.
And then it got so, so much worse when Schumacher and Kitchen drop the biggest bombshell in the whole book: Al Capp lured college women into his hotel room and tried to force them to perform sexual acts on or with him. He did this while on his college tours and it was apparently a pretty common occurrence with a half dozen cases mentioned in this book alone, plus instances of similar behavior with young starlets of the day like Goldie Hawn and Grace Kelly. He even wound up getting punched out by Harlan Ellison after Capp tried the same thing on a photographer friend of Ellison’s. Capp wound up getting outed by a scandal columnist and eventually going to trial, but it sounded like everything pretty much got swept under the rug because this was a time where that kind of thing was apparently tolerated.
Of course, I found this behavior repugnant and was instantly disgusted by the man to the point where I almost stopped reading. The news came as a shock to me because I knew absolutely nothing about Capp going in, so this was a whammy indeed. His story doesn’t end there, though. The man suffered personal tragedies in the form of family deaths as well as the decline of his creative work and the success of his strip until he wound up retiring. Two years later he died. As much as I was turned off by him as a person at that point, I did find it interesting that by the end he had basically turned into Ham Fisher the man who gave him his break in comics, at least partially inspired Lil’ Abner and eventually became his mortal enemy (these guys pulled some serious shady business on one another). At one point, before Fisher’s suicide, Capp said something along the lines of his nemesis being an example of evil old men just getting more evil and more old without justice ever being served. Some might say that’s the same road Capp set himself down.
I realized while gathering my thoughts to write this post that Schumacher and Kitchen might have purposefully kept the reader at arm’s length from Capp. I was pretty thrown when the full extent of his sex crimes was explained, yet I would have been thrown for a total loop had this been a person I really found myself invested in. I wonder if they chose language, situations and turns of phrases that didn’t overly ingratiate the reader to the subject for fear that either, 1) the reader might not be able to take the news or 2) they wouldn’t believe the news like many of the people of the day when it broke by way of scandal column. Either way, it was a difficult road creating a book about a man who clearly thought he was owed something by the younger generation.
I think I can recommend this book, though even though I have immense reservations about Capp. It’s impeccably researched with 16 pages of notes citing everything from articles in Time and Life to correspondences written by Capp to the people in his life. It also does a great job of painting a picture for the modern reader about how large of a figure Capp was both because of his personality and his fame, the former of which clearly lead to the latter. And even though I’m disgusted by Capp’s action and how they were handled by the colleges and local governments of the time, I do think Schumacher and Kitchen present all sides of the man, from the fast talking kid who hustled his way into cartooning to the dirty old man who used cartooning to hustle women. I might be disgusted by his choices, but the book paints a round, full portrait of a man who had hutzpah, artistic talent, jealousy, greed, a keen sense of humor, rage and a need to overpower those around him in all ways. For that, Al Capp: A Life To The Contrary gets a thumbs up.
I have very mixed, split-down-the-middle feelings about Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Without going through and counting the pages, I think I liked exactly half of this book. It’s kind of a mixed bag of autobiography, faux greeting card explanations, epic poetry and comic stories all written by actor, comedian and long time book fan Oswalt. I’m a big fan of his stand-up, his ultra geeky character on King of Queens and the movie roles I’ve seen him in like the lead voice in Ratatouille and Young Adult.
When it came to this under-200-page book I got from the library for work purposes (I might be working on a list of Oswalt’s geekier non-stand up moments in the future), it didn’t take a long time to read and I’m not perturbed by the parts that I didn’t like, I just skipped or skimmed them. The parts I was drawn to were the autobiographical sections. Oswalt talks about the movie theater he worked at as a kid, how books and music influenced him, how his opinions on his crazy uncle changed over time, how different comedians dealt with their crafts and one terrible week he spent in Canada. My favorite part of the book was the title section in which Oswalt labels many of his fellow geeks, artists and angry young men as either a Zombie, a Spaceship or a Wasteland and how that relates to music, sci-fi and other artistic endeavors. It’s honestly brilliant, solid, well thought out and the kind of thing that everyone who considers themselves a geek should check out.
I was less interested in the epic poem he wrote about his Dungeons & Dragons character, the multiple pages of notes written regarding the punching up of a comedy screenplay or the explanations of fake greeting card artwork. There were definitely funny moments to these portions, but I didn’t want to read that when I wanted to find out more about Oswalt as a person. It wasn’t really fair of me because I was comparing my expectations to the actual product and down that path leads ruin. Oswalt even points out in the intro that the book is a hodgepodge and it really is.
At the end of the day, it only took me a few days to read this book, so my complaints are miniscule in comparison to the enjoyment I did get out of the book in a fairly short amount of time. If nothing else, it makes me like Oswalt all the more and hope that he takes the time to sit down and write more whether that’s a fictional story or an autobiographical one, I’ll be there to check it out. Essentially, ZSW is like a Patton Oswalt writing appetizer. You get an idea of what he can do in various styles and formats and probably have a good idea of what else you’d like to read of him in those styles and formats.
Long before I finished Please Kill Me, I was working on creating my next Ambitious Reading List. As I said at the end of that review, I’m a big fan of this much-smaller version of my larger to-read pile. Helps me stay focused while also keeping my interest not only in reading, but in crossing one book off the list and moving on to the next. Most of the books in this pile are newer to that pile, but there are a few that have been sitting around for a while too.
From the top, I picked up Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity at a flea market out of sheer interest based on the Matt Damon movies. I can’t keep the straight, but I’m curious to see how this book compares to the movies as well as an audiobook version of The Bourne Legacy that we finished recently and will review soon. I’ve also got an Elmore Leonard book called Riding The Rap in there. I bought this for $2 at a used book store based solely on Leonard’s name. Love that dude’s books. After that is Hunger Games, which my wife read and liked. My last ARL got in the way of me reading this over the summer, so I included it this time. I hope to compare it to the movie somewhere down the line too.
I actually started reading Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs around the time our daughter was born, or maybe just before. It’s a great book of essays I’m looking forward to finishing. I’ve been living a lie with Wizard of Oz, keeping it on my shelf since high school without every reading the whole thing. I plan on remedying that and also telling a pretty great story about the signature I have in that book. After that it’s Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland which I got from the library for a list I was working on before my pal Rob Bricken moved from Topless Robot to io9. I have no idea where that list will lie, but that’s the first book on the pile I’m reading because I’m lousy at getting books back on time.
From there I’ve got the illustrated version of the unfilmed Harlan Ellison script based on Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot,Marc Eliot’s book about Cary Grant which I got because George Hamilton made him sound really interesting in his book and Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Geoffry Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I read parts of the original in college, but could barely get through it, man.
I got Raiders! thanks to a PR email letting me know about this book about the guys that made the 80s Raiders of the Lost Ark fan film. Then I’ve got It Happened In Manhattan, an oral history about the Big Apple by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer and finally Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel adaptation of Studs Terkel’s classic look at careers, jobs and Americans Working. As you can see, it’s another eclectic mix. I’m pretty jazzed to be adding a few different formats (screenplays, essays, graphic novels) and also think that this one might go a little bit quicker than the previous one, assuming I still have time to read. The next few months are going to be pretty busy/crazy.
A while back I asked some of my pals what books I should check out to learn more about New York’s punk scene in the 70s. I don’t remember what nudged me to ask the question, but the resounding response was, “Read Please Kill Me!” I think I had a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, so I picked it up. That was quite a while ago now that I think about it. Anyway, it was sitting in my to-read pile for however long and then I set up this current Ambitious Reading List and decided that it would make a great caboose to this reading experience.
Please Kill Me was written by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in 1996, but the version of the book I has is from 2006 and includes a few extra odds and ends. The book is an oral history much like Live from New York and Whores where large blocks of quotes from the interviewees propel the story along. The beauty of PKM is the width and depth of that McNeil and McCain were able to go to get these quotes. This book starts off back with Andy Warhol and his factory as kind of the primordial soup that punk rock grew out of (once scene spawned another in a sense) through the Doors and the Stooges into the classic bands like the Ramones, New York Dolls and even a little, tiny bit into the British scene. The authors interviewed everyone from scenesters and photographers to surviving members from all the most important bands and many who are no longer with us at this point.
To paraphrase an MTV show’s intro, I thought I knew about punk, but I had no idea. I’ve said before that I wasn’t a rage-filled kid. I think I had a very practical viewpoint on the world which helped me avoid a lot of the disillusionment in the real world that fueled a lot of punk rock kids. I was into then-modern punk/pop punk but when I started getting into original punk it was after reading articles in Guitar World and watching Syd and Nancy in high school. It was almost more academic than anything. I think I started off with that Ramones anthology from Rhino that covers most of their history. I also picked up the Sex Pistols’ Nevermind the Bollocks (I liked that they only had one real record but had no idea how common that was for these legendary punk bands). My buddy Jimmy also hipped me to the MC5 as this protopunk band that was from not too far from where we lived in Toledo, so I got Kick Out The Jams and loved it.
So, I knew some stuff. I knew some of the bands, but my knowledge wasn’t deep. I heard about the Dolls, the Dictators, the Dead Boys and lots of others, but just never got around to checking them out. I also knew the scene was pretty messy, but you really don’t get the feel for how messy until you read these peoples’ experiences. Man, it was nuts. Everyone was drinking, doing drugs, whoring themselves out, having sex with anything that moves, stealing, using, abusing, the whole lot.
The interesting thing about delving into any scene like this is discovering the small ins and outs of it. I was surprised to discover that there were only about 100 people in total living this life. It was quiet for a long time and then when it started getting popular, that was kind of the end of it, which stands to reason. Reading survivors recount some of the amazing and terrible things they’ve done to one another is a pretty singular experience.
I will say that reading this book changed how I listen to the Ramones a bit. I mean, I knew they came from the same scene as everyone else, but I think the somewhat gimmicky nature of the band and the decades between their debut and when I actually listened to them made them almost cartoonish. An amazing band with crazy-catchy songs, but still one that practically wore a uniform, changed their last names to Ramones and appeared in Rock and Roll High School. Finding out that they were drug fueled hopheads and prostitutes who actually went through shock therapy changes how you listen to songs like “53rd and Third” (which I clearly never paid too much attention to lyrics-wise), “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” I’m not saying I’m disgusted or will never listen to the Ramones the same way again, it just changes how I listen to them…for the time being until my crappy memory glosses over those details with something from a movie or comic.
My one complaint about Please Kill Me comes from a lack of context and full storytelling that happens throughout the book. In Live From New York, there are these short paragraphs in the beginning of a chapter that explain some details not covered in the interviews. In this book, you’re just kind of thrown in and have to figure out what’s going on. Since I was fairly uneducated on this section of rock and roll history, that got kind of confusing. There’s also some bands that get kind of glossed over or mentioned, but never much detail is given. Like, I know Debbie Harry and Blondie was part of that scene even if they were dubbed New Wave, but the band is only mentioned circuitously. Maybe that’s because they’re not the focus or maybe it’s because certain members wouldn’t allow themselves to be interviewed, but I thought it was a little strange how one of the biggest acts to come out of that area was more or less a foot note. There is a handy section in the back that explains who people are, but a few who were interviewed were omitted back there and that can be frustrating when you’re trying to remember so many names and add some context where there might not be some.
But aside from that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I’m guessing if you’re already into punk rock, the tales you’ll read about in this book won’t be too surprising. Actually, if you’re not surprised by at least something in here, well, you’re a different person than I and that’s cool.
And with that, this Ambitious Reading List comes to an end many months after the summer. I really like this format because it takes a very large pile of books I have in my to-read pile (now a purple bin in our storage unit, actually), condences them down to a varied dozen and makes me focus on them. Overall, I’d say this group was greatly eclectic and very interesting. I might have quit on one book and replaced one with The Strain, but overall, I had a great time and have not only arranged my next ARL, but even finished the first book already!