Posts Tagged ‘Erik S.’s Picks’

Greatest Hits: Exile on Main Street: a Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield

July 4, 2012

*Note: All Wake County Public Libraries are closed today for the Independence Day holiday. In the mean time, enjoy this book review:

This week we’re featuring some of our “greatest hits” – the most popular Book-a-Day blog posts since we started this almost three years ago. Today’s is Exile on Main Street: a Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield, reviewed by Erik S.

It was the summer of 1981. There was a little boy named Erik who played little league for a team called the “Green Yankees.” As an outfielder, Erik was more prone to birdwatching than catching pop-flies. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before both Erik, and his parents, decided it was time for him to end his baseball pursuits.

Fast forward 20 years. It is the summer of 2001, and Erik is visiting his parents and going through some of the old childhood artifacts they have saved. He comes across an old Green Yankees roster with little mini bios for each of the team’s young players.  Most of the kids’ bios had details about their playing positions and their power plays throughout the season.  For Erik, it simply said, “Erik likes rock and roll.  His favorite band is Kiss.”  Point of the story, this kid was not born to play sports.  He was born to rock, (and read ;) )  And with a book like Exile on Main Street : a Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones, you can certainly do both.  You will find yourselves intrigued and shocked with all of the carnal, cutthroat excess that occurs in this book; and more than likely, you’ll want to bust out of all of your Stones records and turn ‘em on up.

It was the summer of 1971 in the South of France; “a sunny place for shady people,” as described by the book’s author, Robert Greenfield.  The Rolling Stones had rented the lavish Villa Nellcote on the French Riviera to record their latest masterpiece, a double record called Exile on Main Street.  The Stones, surprisingly, were broke and had to leave England to avoid paying British income tax, (hence the “Exile” status for the record’s title).  What occurred during the time of this masterpiece’s making was a hodge-podge of sex, drugs, crime, and ultimately, untimely deaths for many of the party-goers during that very debauched summer.  Everyone wanted to party with the Rolling Stones.  They were kings; loved and worshiped by nearly everyone, impervious to the long arm of the law, and more or less untouchable.  If one could be remotely in the presence of these young British kings, it was truly a gift.  Therefore, the cast of characters at Nellcote that summer ranged from actors, rock stars, daughters and wives of royalty, and other grandiose hangers-on.  What this meant for the Rolling Stones was that they were granted the opportunity to live like emperors of ancient Rome.

The stories within this outstanding book range from orgiastic celebrating, to life-threatening drug habits, back-stabbing friends, affairs gone awry, close encounters with the law, and sadly, the inevitable deaths as a result of all the reckless abandon.  Some of the women, who at one time were high society debutantes who could simply snap their fingers and get anything they desired, ended up dead in back alley streets less than a year later; reduced to nothing more than anonymous, homeless junkies.  The book is a baffling one because it greatly romanticizes rock mythology, (which is hard not to do when discussing a group as decadent as the Rolling Stones), but as the title suggests, it does not shy away from the hell that surrounded this extravagant era.  Exile on Main Street is still considered one of the best rock and roll albums of all time.  Needless to say, you will never listen to it in the same manner ever again.  All of the love, death, and celebration that went into it’s creation are now a permanent testimony to one of the most mythical and dangerous times in the history of rock and roll.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.


Just Kids by Patti Smith

September 20, 2011

It is difficult for me to think of an artist who illuminates pure positive affect in the way that Patti Smith does. For someone who always had a special place in his heart for Patti’s “Horses” record, I can safely say there are moments where her music and her words have taken my mind and my heart to places I would have never imagined. For me, the record has a similar effect to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The passion, the energy, the blood-racing anticipation between her vocal crescendos… It is absolutely on fire. However, I have found that “Horses” is a rather polarizing record. People who are into rock and roll either like it or hate it. I love it. My brain chemistry gets perfectly locked into Patti’s grooves, and I’m happy to know that I can revisit this amazing album throughout my life anytime I feel the need.

When Just Kids came out, I realized that it had been quite some time since I had last thought of Patti Smith. My reading habits have changed a lot throughout the years, and I’m generally not a fan of biographies. However, I knew I would enjoy this one. I was simply waiting for the right time to read it. One of the many things that fascinate me about Patti Smith is that she was simply a naive and innocent child full of so much wonderful curiosity, a perpetual outsider who had no misgivings over the fact that life would be an uphill battle. Unlike many artists whose early lives were subject to torment and desperation, Patti came from a humble and loving home. Patti was not abused by her family, (she actually spoke very tenderly of her parents and siblings), nor did she express any excessive disdain towards those she encountered during her early struggles, (not even towards her factory coworkers who dehumanized her; thus providing the impetus for her song, “Piss Factory,” nor the prying and judgmental eyes during her teenage pregnancy.) And even though she arrived in New York homeless and hungry and would generally fare no better until the latter end of the ’70s, Patti’s enthusiasm and diligence completely outshined her hardships.

Patti was in love with life. She was intoxicated with the freedom that came with being a young artist in a city of the world; finding inspiration and friendship during the unlikeliest moments, and holding onto these moments until they became the core of her being. One of the things I adore most about Patti Smith is her ability to live simultaneously inside her own head, completely losing herself within a sanctimonious inner world of books, dead poets, and philosophers, while also living very much in the moment. All of her encounters with ’60s rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick, along with her introductions to future celebrity artists, like Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, and Tom Verlaine among many others, excited her, energized her, and gave her a great sense of fortune. She never took any of these encounters for granted and she continues to keep these people close to her heart to this day. Patti also never denied nor shied away from the influence of those who came before her, (particularly Jim Morrison and Arthur Rimbaud). I particularly enjoyed the passage in the book where she visited both of these young men’s graves in Paris.

The only thing I haven’t mentioned yet is Patti’s friendship to Robert Mapplethorpe. What a sweet, sweet thing. Their bond was beyond friendship, beyond physical love. These two were soul mates in the classic sense. Robert and Patti completed one another, challenged one another, and guided one another throughout every course in their lives. Even her descriptions of their simplest outings and everyday musings came across as life-changing journeys. She pulls this off without being overly dramatic or grandiose because the love these two had for one another was complete, endless, and beautiful, and it was perfectly captured in this book.

I was a little surprised that Patti didn’t delve more into the lives of her bandmates, her children, or her husband, the late, great Fred “Sonic” Smith. But then again, as she firmly stated, this was she and Robert’s story, and she promised him that one day she would write it and share it with the world. That’s precisely what she has done, and I’m very thankful for her doing so. This book was a glorious experience for me.

Find and request this book in our catalog.

Last Rituals: an Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

January 21, 2011

It’s official. The Scandinavians are ruling the mystery-writing world right now. Last Rituals was yet another greatly layered crime story.  Yrsa Sigurdardottir is every bit on par with Menkell, Larrson, Indridason, and all of the others.  Her strong female protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdóttir, shines through all of her dismal Icelandic surroundings. She’s cool, funny, tough, and tender without displaying too many stereotypical leading lady archetypes.

Thora is a lawyer working from a struggling law office.  She’s also a single mom raising a sweet little girl and a moody teen aged boy.  Even though things are often trying, Thora keeps it together and does whatever it takes to provide for her children and to strengthen her law practice.  Opportunity comes knocking when she is contacted by a wealthy German family who specifically request Thora to handle the investigation of their son’s murder.  Thora is hired to work alongside an arrogant, slightly dandy-ish man named Matthew Reich, (the interplay between and Thora and Matthew is pretty funny; a bit of German/Icelandic culture clash along with the classic male vs. female stereotypes).

The murder victim is a student at a university in Reykjavík. When his body is found, it is gruesomely defiled.  His eyes have been cut out and there are strange symbols carved into his chest. The police arrested a suspect, but Thora and Matthew remain unconvinced.  As the two of them dig a little deeper, they discover that the young man was obsessed with Iceland’s dark history of witchcraft, execution and torture. He also belonged to a secret society of sorts, a small group of like-minded morbids.  Thora and Matthew travel all throughout Iceland, needing to find both tangible clues for their case as well as strange and mysterious artifacts from the past.  The darkness they discover in Icelandic history potentially rivals the darkness in the minds of the victim and his cohorts.

This book’s got lots of fun and creepy witchcraft, and lots of clever twists and turns. Check it out, particularly if you enjoy the dark mysteries of the icy north.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog!

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

January 19, 2011

I must say that I am sincerely enjoying the fact that there are at least some contemporary writers out there who truly know how to capture the voice of counterculture youth in American society, but without using the tired old hippy-types.  The whole ‘60s radical/idealist archetype has burnt itself out harder than David Crosby on a bender in Mexico.  Now is the time for the disaffected youth of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s to finally get their due.  All of those vastly ignored kids whom everyone used to go out of their way to avoid, the ones with the safety pinned clothes and dyed hair who hung out at punk clubs looking to bond with like-minded rejects and rock out to their favorite bands, are finally having their stories told.  These were the kids who were thought to have “no future,” as Johnny Rotten once screamed in his anti-anthem, “God Save the Queen.”  Even the classic Bay Area punk group, The Dead Kennedys, once wondered what would become of these kids by the time they reached 35, (that is if they reached 35).  Well, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book that not only provides that answer, it also gives an even deeper insight into the minds and hearts of these misfits.

This is a powerful book about life and choices, and time and memory. It was written in a post modern/jagged-time-lapse manner, which deconstructed all of the characters’ stories and allowed the reader to fill in all of the gaps in their histories, including all of their pain, loss, and redemption. The characters range from former punk rockers, all of whom have moved on to varying degrees of despair and success, kleptomaniacs, disgraced journalists, PR representatives for third world dictators, and innocent children who are forced into situations well beyond what is meant for their age.

There are genuine moments of heartache and joy, and even some “cute” experimental passages, like the 50-page PowerPoint presentation courtesy of one of the teenage characters, which she created to provide the history of she and her parents’ lives, (this also gives the reader some concrete details on the fates of many of the other characters). Overall, I commend Jennifer Egan for such a unique and beautifully written book, and I recommend it for anyone who’s looking for a new literary read. Easily one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

In a Strange City by Laura Lippman

January 18, 2011

Laura Lippman was once introduced to me as “Pelecanos light.”  That’s a very general, if not unfair, description for a writer who chooses the same Baltimore backstreets as the aforementioned street crime laureate.  However, Lippman’s character, Tess Monaghan, a fun and sexy, slightly tom-boyish private investigator, is a rather welcome change from all of the usual grumbling, alcoholic cops you tend to encounter in D.C./Baltimore crime stories.

In a Strange City” is a fun, no-frills murder mystery based on a unique Baltimore tradition.  Every year in Baltimore on the night of January 19th, (Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday), many curious Poe-loving residents brave the cold night in order to witness a dark, caped visitor who leaves roses and brandy at the gravesite of the macabre poet.  Tess, under highly unusual circumstances, has been hired by a shady character to discover the identity of the infamous “Poe Toaster,” (although it’s generally believed that the Poe Toaster is never the same person twice).  Tess and her boyfriend arrive at Poe’s grave to witness the visitor and his annual toast to Poe, but they end up witnessing a murder instead.  Much to the surprise of all the spectators, two caped visitors appear on the scene, one of whom guns the other down then makes a run for it.  Things heat up for Tess.  Her case leads her down dangerous roads laced with eerie Baltimore history.

This book is a recommended read for anyone looking to wrap up with a good mystery on a cold night, one that’s not too graphic in violence or sexuality and also places a strong emphasis on time and place.  It’s equal parts thriller and history lesson, and I mean that in a good way.  Lippman gives props to Poe and adds just the right amounts of pop culture references, giving her characters a youthful and believable edge.  One of them is a pizza-scarfing, beer-guzzling, male librarian.  Something I could relate to all too easily 😉

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

January 17, 2011

Sunset Park may be the best book I read in 2010.  It is sweet, sublime, poetic, and has just the right touch of sadness and redemption.  All of Auster’s literary devices are woven together in such a subtle manner that you are hardly aware of any overt transitions between the characters and their interwoven stories.  Just about every character in this book broke my heart in some kind of way. There are many broken pieces in all of their lives.  All of the characters are centered on a young man named Miles.  Miles is a sure-shot protagonist, a silent soul searcher who’s experienced a lot of spiritual pain, some of which is self-inflicted, but still you can’t help pulling for Miles.  He’s humble, simple, and shows a lot of heart.  At the onset of the novel, Miles is an over educated trash-out worker in Southern Florida.  He has the dirty task of having to clear foreclosed homes of all their leftover material possessions from the previous owners, (one of the story’s many references to the current state of the U.S. economy).  Miles feels like he is stripping the homes of their memories and their former happiness.

It doesn’t take long to discover that Miles comes from a privileged background and is living in a sort of self-imposed exile due to a tragic event in his past.  He has severed all ties with his parents and friends, and has forced himself to live with the barest essentials imaginable.  No technology, no television, no excess meals or drinking, nothing remotely frivolous.  This all changes when he meets a lovely teenager named Pilar.  Although Pilar is young in years, she is an old soul and intelligent well beyond her years.  She and Miles fall head over heels, but soon encounter their own set of difficulties as Pilar’s older sister blackmails them and attempts to destroy their relationship.  Miles decides to head back to his native New York City to wait until Pilar is old enough to declare independence from her sisters.

Once Miles returns to New York all of the wheels are set into motion for the other characters as well.  He moves into an abandoned house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with four other squatters, all of whom are overeducated misfits just like him.  There’s his old friend, Bing, an overweight, sexually confused anarchist; Ellen, a talented, but emotionally crippled artist; and Alice, a film student in a tempestuous relationship.  The group lives rent free, albeit illegally, in their historic Sunset Park neighborhood.  They enjoy a minimalist, communal lifestyle in the midst of a tailspin economy.  Slowly but surely, each of them begins to piece together their lives, and move beyond the darkness that consumes them all on an individual level.  However, it is Miles who ultimately won my sympathy.  His love for Pilar and his estrangement from his family were powerful elements that really hit home with me.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

August 13, 2010

“Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?”  That was all it took.  It got me hook, line, and sinker.  The mystery behind that simple, suggestive sentence let me know instantly that I was in for a great ride.  It’s a provocative opening line to a journey I’ll surely never forget.  David Mitchell’s fantastic debut is a transcontinental odyssey of the mind, body, and soul.  That may seem like a hyperbolic statement, but it is one I feel I can stand behind.  The spiritual and mental depths to which these characters travel had me wishing for a longer book, (and seriously, who ever wishes for that?!)

Ghostwritten takes us throughout Okinawa, Japan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Russia, London, New York, and back again.  These physical locales do indeed contribute to the richness of the story, but it is the characters’ thoughts and desires that truly take us to destinations unknown.  The chapters within the book are stand-alone short stories dedicated to each of the above countries, and each chapter has its own unique characters.  Without placing too much dramatic spill-over into effect, Mitchell cleverly connects the lives of these unusual characters in a subtle, but tasteful manner.

The protagonists range from “Quasar,” the brainwashed member of a doomsday cult responsible for a subway gas attack, to two music-obsessed young lovers who leave Japan for Hong Kong.  In Hong Kong, a haunted, drunken Brit catches a glimpse of tenderness between the couple and compares their happiness and to his own self-inflicted misery.  An old woman who runs a tea-shack on a holy mountainside in China reveals a lifetime history of pain and suffering throughout the years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  One of her latter-day tea customers in China resurfaces in the Mongolia segment, where we learn he is one of many individuals who plays a part in a surreal transmigration of bodies and souls.  The transmigrating host moves from body to body until he arrives at the Russian border of Mongolia, thus bringing the story into Petersburg.  In Petersburg, a small outfit of art thieves meet an untimely demise, but a piece of their “product” ends up hanging on the walls of a London flat, (coincidentally belonging to the former wife of the aforementioned drunken Brit).  See how it works?

If you’re bored with the standard fiction format and want to step into something completely contemporary and intrinsically challenging, then Ghostwritten is definitely the one for you.  David Mitchell is a writer from whom we can expect many great things for years to come.  Be sure to also check out Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green.

Jar City: a Reykjavik Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason

August 12, 2010

For those of you who are currently swept away with the recent Scando Fiction Crime Wave but are looking for something a little icier than Sweden, how’s about a nice Icelandic freeze to shiver your bones?  Award winning author, Arnaldur Indridason,  has absolutely nailed the crime/mystery formula in his Reykjavik thrillers.  He has done wonders in putting his native Iceland on the literary map and captivating readers from all over the globe.  Simply said, Indridason does it right.

Erlendur Sveinsson is the moody, recurring detective in all of Indridason’s books.  Erlendur is a brusque, brooding loner with an ex-wife he hasn’t seen in 20 years, two children he did not raise, (one of whom has become a junkie and suddenly reappears in his life), and practically no personal relations to anyone other than his partners, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg.  In short, he is the perfect detective.

Jar City, the first of the Erlendur books, begins with the death of an old man named Holberg, who lived a seemingly silent life just simply riding out his pension.  Erlendur and his colleagues wonder why someone would want bludgeon a  simple, quiet old fellow in the comforts of his own flat.  Well, as the detectives uncover the sordid details of Holberg’s past, they discover he was far from the sweet and peaceful old man he appeared to be.  Come to find out, Holberg has an incredibly shady and violent history.  The discovery begins with a cryptic note, saying nothing more than, “I am HIM.”

Erlendur disgustedly pieces things together while discovering that Holberg was a serial rapist 30 years earlier.  He tracks down the former rape victims, the corrupt, sexist cops who swept the crimes under the rug, as well as Holberg’s former criminal associates, one of whom has ties to Erlendur’s strung-out daughter, Eva Lind.  The layers get even thicker as Erlender uncovers strange genetic ties between Holberg’s rape victims, thus leading him to an immobilized forensics lab called “Jar City,” a place where organs are stored in jars for academic study.  The brain of a disceased child is missing from Jar City, which ends up being a vital piece to the complex puzzle surrounding the death of the wretched Holberg.  Damaged innocents, pain and loss, inevitable justice and self-discovery…  All of these things are the recurring elements in Erlendur’s work and Indridason’s world.

Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

August 11, 2010

Nick Hornby has received no shortage of attention from all of us here in Book-a-Day blog-land.  Two of his books have already been featured as staff picks in the past year; Juliet Naked and High Fidelity.  I’m sure most fans would agree that both of these novels provide those classic Hornby trademarks that keep us all coming back for more.  Both stories are humor-laden tales of sorrow and loneliness where each of the music obsessed protagonists is looking for redemption in the form of love.  Well, Long Way Down takes a slightly different approach.  All of the dark humor is still there, but this time there is a slightly stronger emphasis on the “dark.”

It’s the witching hour on New Year’s Eve at the tip top of the Topper’s House in London.   Four individuals, all of whom come from completely different walks of life, inadvertently join together.  Each of them plans on ending their miserable lives in solitude at the stroke of midnight by jumping from the building.  It’s at this very moment where Nick works his magic.  He immediately introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters, loosely referred to as the “Topper’s House Four.”

Martin is a middle aged television personality who has lost his career and his family due to a very indecent and very public affair with an under aged girl.  Maureen is a quiet and submissive church-going woman whose entire life revolves around caring for her extremely disabled son.  Jess is a high-energy, foul-mouthed 18 yr. old with endless contempt for her family and her ex-boyfriend.   J.J. completes the group.  He’s a young American rocker turned pizza man  whose “on the verge of making it”-band, Big Yellow, comes crashing down in flames.  J.J.’s reeling is sent even farther over the fact that his girlfriend has left him for his best friend and former band mate.  As a musician myself, (also a former pizza man), I especially identified with the passion and the loss  that J.J. felt for his band…

We had something that one else ever had.  Maybe people used to have it before my time—the Stones, the Clash, the Who.  But no one I’ve ever seen had it.  When Big Yellow played live, it was like some kind of Pentecostal service; instead of applause and whistles and hoots, there’d be tears and teeth-grinding and speaking in tongues.  We saved souls…  Those shows were my reason for living, and I now know that this is not a figure of speech.

These four misfits, who ordinarily would never have so much as batted an eye towards one another, now form a sort of comical lifeline with each other.  At the mercy of the British tabloids, the Topper’s House Four are trudged through a media frenzy of opportunistic half-truths, (and blatant lies), and then ultimately come to help one another mend the broken pieces in their lives.  Long Way Down may not be chockfull of the bad relationship humor of Hornby’s other novels, but his prevalent themes on the strength of the human spirit shines through like a diamond in the darkness.  I found this book uniquely, and nontraditionally, uplifting.

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

August 10, 2010

Several entries down from the more popularly utilized definitions for the word, “pulp,” you will find a passage that defines it as “a magazine or book printed on rough, low-quality paper made of wood pulp or rags, and usually containing sensational and lurid stories, articles, etc.”  These “lurid stories” were cheap entertainment during the 1930s and ’40s.  The general flavor was anything from science fiction to westerns, and detective stories to erotica, (also an occasional octopus story).  The pulps sold for about ten cents apiece and the writers were paid by the word.  The classic pulp era is long gone, but is still romanticized and highly celebrated to this day.

Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril came highly recommended, based solely on my penchant for H.P. Lovecraft as well as my fondness for the pulp era.  Malmont’s debut is a comical tribute to Lovecraft and all of his pulp writer cronies, (men like Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, L. Ron Hubbard, and  Robert Heinlein).  These nerdy writers are the all-star cast in this fictional pulp-romp throughout 1930’s New York, (Lovecraft himself is a small, but important presence in the book).  All of these men, though egomaniacally proud of their character creations like “The Shadow” and “Doc Savage,” generally feel overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated, and for the most part cannot stand one another, (Dent and Gibson in particular).  This all changes though when they find themselves in the throes of a real life pulp scenario that culminates soon after the death of their colleague, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  One by one, they discover that Lovecraft had knowledge of a ghastly, pre-World War II, government-issue nerve gas.  They are soon faced with American military rogues and power-thirsty Chinese warlords, one of whom in particular has brought his undertakings to NYC’s Chinatown, thus taking things into “Big Trouble in Little China”-territory.  The geeky writers then find themselves in a fight for their lives against Chinese thugs, opium dens, zombified humanoids, and all kinds of pulp coolness.

I’m very thankful for this recommendation and recommend it to anyone with a shameless predilection towards pulp or pulp history.  All of the classic trademarks are there and are exaggerated to a ridiculous level; a ridiculously enjoyable level that is 😉

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