Thursday, July 30, 2009

'The Show That Smells' by Derek McCormack

Reviewed By Jim Ruland
LA Times

Even by the standards of the paranormal romances that occupy the top slots of bestseller lists, Derek McCormack's new novel of cursed crooners, murderous fashion designers and homosexual vampires is an exercise in campy excess.

Taking its name from carny speak for a performance that features animal acts, "The Show That Smells" spins off the actual premise of country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers dying young as a result of tuberculosis. Jimmie's wife, Carrie, makes a deal with the devil to save her husband's life, only in McCormack's milieu the devil is the inimitable Parisian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli -- who happens to be a vampire who can be stopped only with liberal doses of Chanel No. 5. "The Show That Smells" is redolent with such high jinks.

The story is presented as a live-action film shot entirely in a mirror maze. The characters are both the actors and the roles they play. For instance, Schiaparelli's minion is simultaneously "Dracula's" Renfield and Lon Chaney in stage makeup. Because the action is located on a set that replicates everything ad infinitum, it's never clear what's "real" and what's simply in the script.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music'

Greg Kot, Tribune music critic, reports reasons behind industry's downfall

By David E. Thigpen
Chicago Tribune

In 2000, U.S. record sales peaked at 785 million albums. It was the beginning of the end for the record industry as the world knew it. During the next eight years, album sales fell 45 percent and the pain spread throughout the business. After decades of fat profits and limousine lifestyles, the Big Four record companies -- Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI -- and a tight coterie of radio conglomerates and promoters suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives. In response, they did what any industry in crisis does: laid off thousands of workers. But in this case traditional thinking was precisely the problem. According to Tribune music critic Greg Kot in his expertly reported "Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music," the economic apocalypse that fell upon the record establishment couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch.

The trigger for the industry's crisis was the rapid rise of digital copying and the sharing of music enabled by the Internet. But as Kot lets the story flow through interviews with musicians, executives and many earnest, well-informed fans, the digital revolution merely peeled back a curtain revealing the rot underlying the industry's traditional business structures. From the unhealthy consolidation of radio to absurdly high-priced CDs to usurious deals with artists to payola and the triumph of lowest-common denominator taste over quality, Kot recounts how the industry foolishly dug in and refused change even as the landscape of record-selling shifted out from beneath its feet.

Confronted with the fact that fans preferred digital music, a business model amply proven by the explosive growth of the pirate file-sharing service Napster, record bosses sued rather than join the future. "The industry responded not with vigorous new ideas, but with strong-arm tactics and threats," Kot writes. "It served fans not with digital innovation but with lawsuits. ..." Of course, digital was and is the future.

The slow reaction of the record companies to digital music left an opening that would bring billions to Steve Jobs through Apple's iTunes and iPods. But more important to Kot's story, a new "wired" generation of Internet-savvy and striving young artists, fanzine editors and scrappy start-up labels walked through the door too. Their work -- haphazard, halting, often unsuccessful but always inspired -- adds up to a movement that is rejuvenating pop and hip-hop -- including talents such as Wilco, Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back to Yasgur’s farm

40 years later, memories of the difficult birth and the iconic (if drug-addled) triumph of Woodstock

By Steve Morse
Boston Globe

Forty years later, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair seems like a faint, faraway dream. Tickets to the event were surely a dream by modern standards. A one-day pass cost $7 - less than the cost of a beer at the Comcast Center now. And all three days cost $18 - more than $300 less than a good seat to a single show by the Rolling Stones or Madonna.

Woodstock was an improvised hippie happening: “We made it up as we went along,’’ writes producer Michael Lang. But despite mud, overcrowding, a lack of food and sanitary facilities, it can still lay claim to being an unmatched cultural event. It was the first big outdoor rock concert on the East Coast, attended by an estimated 500,000 people, and it has come to symbolize an entire generation. (Crowd estimates vary because most people streamed in for free.) Woodstock paved the way for the green movement and blissfully lacked the corporate signage that typify today’s co-opted rock shows.

Two new books are out, looking to plug into Woodstock nostalgia, with the 40th anniversary coming next month. Both are to be recommended, but for different reasons. Lang’s “The Road to Woodstock’’ is an adrenaline-rush account of the weekend itself and the activity behind the scenes, from the struggle to coax bands into signing up (Lang stayed up all night with the Who’s Pete Townshend until Townshend finally agreed at 8 a.m. so he could get some sleep) to negotiations with skeptical town officials in upstate New York who feared an invasion of hippies. The town of Wallkill turned him down only a month before the festival, forcing Lang to hustle to find an alternative site: Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in Bethel. Carpenters were still finishing the stage on the first day.

The other book, “Back to the Garden,’’ is by New York disc jockey Pete Fornatale, who collects dozens of first-person memories from bands, organizers, and fans. He is not a great writer and is prone to clich├ęs (“by Friday the route to the festival had more clogged arteries than Elvis Presley’’), but fresh insights from the artists make it an important read. And while most of the quotes he uses are positive (Woodstock “was wonderful and breathtakingly exhilarating,’’ says Arlo Guthrie.), some are much less so. Take this one from Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, talking about the stoned nature of the crowd: “It reminded me of the water buffaloes you see in India, submerged in the mud. Woodstock was like a big picnic party, and the music was incidental.’’

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inside the Meltdown: Financial Ruin and the Race to Contain It

NY Times

A year ago it would have been hard to imagine a book about the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department making it onto people’s must-read summer reading lists. But the financial calamities of last autumn put the global economy on the brink of disaster and led to continuing fiscal woes. Understanding what happened has become vitally important not just for bankers and economists, but for everyone affected by the fallout, which means ... well, just about everyone.

For all of us then, David Wessel’s new book “In Fed We Trust” is essential, lucid — and, it turns out, riveting — reading.

In these pages Mr. Wessel, the economics editor of The Wall Street Journal, chronicles how the Fed chairman Ben S. Bernanke, with Henry M. Paulson Jr., then the Treasury secretary, and a small group of associates, frantically worked to shore up the United States economy, capturing how this handful of people — “overwhelmed, exhausted, beseeched, besieged, constantly second-guessed” — tried to catch and stabilize one toppling fiscal domino after the next.

In this volume Mr. Wessel uses his narrative gifts and a plethora of sources to give readers a vivid, highly immediate sense of what transpired in last-minute, high-pressure, seat-of-their-pants meetings in Washington and New York while placing these events in a broader historical context. He examines the Fed’s increasingly important (and increasingly debated) role as an economic first responder, looks at how personality and personal philosophy can inform policy making and offers a concise explication of the causes of what he calls “The Great Panic.”

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Monday, July 20, 2009

'Censoring an Iranian Love Story' By Shahriar Mandanipour

Reviewed By Trenton Daniel
Miami Herald

In his first novel to be translated into English, Shahriar Mandanipour sets out to write the story of young lovers struggling to consummate their prenuptial passion under the eyes of the Iranian morals police. They hang out nervously in Internet cafes, dark movie houses and on the jammed and smoggy streets of modern-day Tehran.

The clandestine courtship comes at a time when university students protest, and vigilantes watch out for transgressing neighbors. A war with U.S. troops and suicide bombers rages in next-door Iraq.

Telling amorous tales in post-Islamic-revolution Iran is tricky, if not downright dangerous, but a fictional writer named Shahriar Mandanipour, is up to the task. ''I am an Iranian writer tired of writing dark and bitter stories, stories populated by ghosts and dead narrators with predictable endings of death and destruction,'' writes the alter ego of the real-life Mandanipour, a Harvard visiting scholar and former writing fellow at Brown.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

'How to Hold a Woman' by Billy Lombardo

Reviewed By Lynna Williams
Chicago Tribune

'How to Hold a Woman' by Billy Lombardo

Death of a daughter, sister ripples throughout her family for years to come.

Missing and then murdered children are so much a part of the American landscape that a novelist who deals with the subject must find new ways into the material. Chicago writer Billy Lombardo has done that in "How to Hold a Woman" by fragmenting the novel into stories, separate moments in the lives of the family a dead 12-year-old girl leaves behind.

The result is a moving kaleidoscope of sorrow, as the impact of the tragedy continues to wreak profound change on a middle-class family of six, bewilderingly changed to five on an August evening in Chicago that begins with a joyful homecoming. Dad Alan Taylor is coming home from two months on a research trip in Madagascar and his family -- wife Audrey, daughter Isabelle and son Sammy -- pick him up at the airport. Son Dex is spending the night at a friend's house, and the family decamps to a restaurant where Isabelle flirts with her father, acting out bits of Daisy Buchanan's dialogue from "The Great Gatsby." She has changed in those two months, Alan sees, become someone a little more grown up, less a little girl.

We see the family happy together for part of that night. Then, as quickly as the unthinkable becomes real, Isabelle drops out of the picture. When we come upon the family again, two years later, she's been sliced out of the family dialogue. No one refers to her by name or tells her story directly. We hear about no vigils, no years in therapy, no efforts to keep her memory alive. Alan and Audrey are a couple with an increasingly troubled marriage who, when asked, answer correctly that they have two children. We see the impact of the loss of Isabelle in everything they do, though, from Audrey's raging silences to the parents' separation to Alan's change of careers to Audrey's standing at a window at a dance studio, her nose pressed against the glass as young girls practice inside. The couple are loving parents to their sons, but the boys are left to think through Isabelle's disappearance and death themselves. Sammy is too young to really remember her last night, but Dex, who wasn't there, lives with regret that he wasn't present, sure that he would remember each moment with Isabelle in ways Sammy cannot.

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'In the Graveyard of Empires' By Seth G. Jones

NY Times

The Choices That Closed a Window Into Afghanistan

Among the many lasting consequences of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the collateral damage it inflicted on Afghanistan and the war there against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Money, troops and expertise were diverted to Iraq, and as the RAND Corporation political scientist Seth G. Jones observes in his useful new book, the initial success of the military operation in Afghanistan was squandered.

The slender window for securing a stable democracy in Afghanistan began to close, and by 2006, Mr. Jones writes, a “perfect storm of political upheaval” had gathered, with several crises ominously converging: “Pakistan emerged as a sanctuary for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, allowing them to conduct a greater number of operations from bases across the border; Afghan governance became unhinged as corruption worked its way through the government like a cancer, leaving massive discontent throughout the country; and the international presence, hamstrung by the U.S. focus on Iraq, was too small to deal with the escalating violence.”

The first major operation using additional troops sent to Afghanistan by President Obama recently began in the southern part of that country, even as Taliban advances in border regions have aided Al Qaeda’s efforts to destabilize neighboring Pakistan.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Will electronic devices make books obsolete?

The Denver Post (via the Miami Herald)

Like a lot of readers, Kimberly Field likes and laments her new Kindle.

On one hand, the in-demand electronic device solves a problem common to fans of novels and nonfiction: too many books, not enough bookshelves.

''I was about to resort to the Fahrenheit 451 method of book management'' joked the Denver author, referring to Ray Bradbury's cautionary tale about book-burning.

On the other hand, its convenience has removed the tactile sensation from a treasured hobby.

``I prefer turning the pages of a book because I like touching it and flipping back to reread passages. You don't get that with Kindle.''

While readers are torn over the merits of literary toys like Amazon's Kindle, the iPhone and Sony Reader, there's no doubt they have overwhelmingly embraced them.

This year, electronic books sales are up 150 percent and analysts predict the number could triple by December. That comes in a year when sales of traditional books are down four percent.

The publishing industry is scrambling to keep up with -- or take advantage of -- the interest in electronic reading. Ailing magazines and newspapers, hungry for a delivery system the public will like, are hopeful. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are hoping they don't become obsolete.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

'This Wicked World' by Richard Lange

Reviewed By Antoine Wilson
LA Times

In the hard-boiled universe of Richard Lange's debut novel, "This Wicked World," trying to do the right thing can lead only to trouble. Ex-Marine and former bodyguard Jimmy Boone knows this all too well. Fresh out of Corcoran and on parole, he's biding his time, tending bar for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard and managing a group of rental bungalows.

Yet when Robo, the bar's bouncer, asks for help on a "hero for hire" gig, Boone hears him out. The job sounds simple enough: Robo needs Boone to accompany him to a meet at a Denny's restaurant. All Boone has to do is wear a sports jacket and look like a cop. As Robo puts it, "my regular white boy is fishing in Cabo."

At Denny's, an elderly Guatemalan man enlists Robo to investigate the death of his grandson, Oscar Rosales, a young migrant worker found dead on an MTA bus and covered with infected dog bites. This puts Boone and Robo on a trail that leads eventually to a sketchy apartment near MacArthur Park, where Oscar had been living. There they find a group of Oscar's friends, a toothless pit bull and a story. Oscar was mauled by dogs while working for someone out in the desert. He made his way back to L.A. but didn't see a doctor because he was afraid the people from the desert were coming after him. Beyond that, the friends don't know anything.

As far as Robo is concerned, it's enough. He's done. Boone, on the other hand, can't let it go. He buys the toothless pit bull from the roommates, and something clicks in him: "It's time to stop kidding himself. The mystery of Oscar's death has been haunting him for days, and the only way he's going to get any peace is by looking into it further. . . . This is what he's been waiting for when he wakes in the night, his body tense, his mind racing: a mission. A rocky path to some untamed form of redemption." Thus begins his descent into a brutal world of dog fighting, drugs and counterfeit money.

The stories in Lange's first book, the critically acclaimed "Dead Boys," gripped the reader from the first lines: a dozen first-person narrators, utterly convincing in detail and voice. These stories of down-on-their-luck men trying to rise above the past flirted with genre but were first published in literary magazines. "This Wicked World," however, is more straightforwardly genre-oriented, as if Lange has made the conscious choice to structure his long-form narrative around established conventions of mystery and neo-noir. Written in third person, moving in and out of various characters' points of view, the novel reveals more of its artifice than the stories did, and as such it feels more like a well-assembled work of entertainment than a gritty dispatch from the front lines.

Parallel chapters follow the machinations of two thugs, their crime boss and the boss' girlfriend as they enforce the repayment of debts, dispose of a body and set up a dog-fighting event. Lange's villains are a rogues' gallery of greed, aspiration, gluttony and stupidity, drawn with a keen eye for their small-time aspirations. One thug needs money for tattoo removal, to look respectable for an upcoming custody battle. Another dreams of producing a line of martial-arts-cum-exercise videos called "Killer Instincts: Way of the Ghetto Warrior."

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