Time for our mid-month review of last month’s books.
Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me – Steven Hyden. I’ve been waiting for this one for quite awhile. Hyden has been my favorite music writer for some time now, going back to when he wrote for the AV Club and Pitchfork. His Grantland profile of The War on Drugs before the release of their masterpiece Lost In The Dream album is the modern standard for the epic band piece. He’s been teasing this book for well over a year, so it was great to finally read it.
And it’s just perfect. He hits on some of the biggest musical rivalries over the years not just to declare a winner and loser, but to examine the different ways we listen to, celebrate, and honor music and the people who make it. He weaves in personal stories, or broader narratives, in a way that would have been perfect on the old Grantland site. And, for the most part, I agree with how he shakes out the rivalries.
Oasis vs. Blur was ultimately dumb. Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana will never be settled, because it’s largely argued amongst people who secretly like the band they’re slagging. He loves the Stones, but can’t put the Beatles on any Best Of list because they are automatically #1. The Black Keys won the popularity war with Jack White, but White won the artistic war. You may side with the Dixie Chicks, but was their feud with Toby Keith worth it since in basically destroyed their career? What if America Clapton had died young and Jimi Hendrix lived to be an old, boring musician? And on and on.
This is the rare book that I’ll read again at some point.
A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise – Alex Sheshunoff. Sometimes I find books in weird ways. For this one, the exact location was odd but it was in a very old-school way. I saw this book displayed in the Harvard Coop Bookstore when we popped in so the girls could use the bathroom on our visit to Cambridge. I snapped a pic of the cover and looked it up at the library when we got home.
It is the true story of Sheshunoff, who in the early ’00s became dissatisfied with his tech industry job in New York and the rather empty life he was living. So he sold his interest in the company, sublet his apartment in Manhattan, and moved to the Pacific, hoping to find new meaning in paradise.
Like so many of the other books I’ve read about traveling in the Pacific, Sheshunoff struggled to connect with the locals. They seemed impenetrable. And the islands themselves never quite matched the screensaver ideal of paradise he had in his head.
But eventually he found a nice island, met a nice American girl who was nearly as nutty as he was, and they set to building their home in paradise. Not everything went smoothly, but in the end, he was successful. And he married the girl.
One Summer – Bill Bryson. I read a flurry of Bryson’s travel books a decade or so ago, but none since. Living through a summer that may be veering toward one of the most memorable in US history for terrible reasons, it seemed like a good time to look back on another momentous summer in our nation’s history.
The summer of 1927 saw Charles Lindbergh cross the Atlantic, Babe Ruth lead one of the most dominating baseball teams of all time and become our first massive sports icon, Prohibition start to crumble, “talking” pictures begin to muscle out silent films, one president show near disdain for the office while one of his cabinet members did everything he could to prove he was worthy of the office, Jack Dempsey and the rise of prize fighting, and a handful of finance ministers from the US, Britain, Germany, and France make secret decisions that would force an unsustainable economy over the edge.
Bryson spins away and back to these core stories. He examines in depth the race to be the first to fly across the Atlantic. He follows Lindbergh on his punishing victory tour after his flight, his extreme discomfort in the public eye, and tragic fall from grace that culminated with a controversial speech in Iowa in 1941. He goes back and explains how Prohibition came to be the law of the land, how the government willingly poisoned its own citizens to prevent people from drinking, and how many legal ways there were around the ban on liquor. Plus plenty of other snapshots of that time between the wars.
This isn’t deep history. It’s entertaining history, told in a humorous and engaging voice.
The Inn at Lake Devine – Elinor Lippman. So back in college my roommate and I were at the record store, picking through CDs. This was during a brief time when our local record shop had a machine where you could scan the barcode of a CD and it would play 30 second samples of all the songs for you. It was a crude, but useful, way to try before you buy. Or bought. Anyway, you had a limit of three CDs to try, and there was always a long line. I was debating whether to get the new Buffalo Tom album but the line was too long to take a sample listen. “You should get it,” he said. “I listened to it last week and it’s pretty good.” I bought the disk, got it home, and hated it. When I asked him about it sometime later, he laughed and said, “I never listened to it but wanted you to buy it because I was afraid it was terrible.”
What does that have to do with this book? Well, it’s not often I get suckered into reading a book I normally wouldn’t be interested in. I found this one on the AV Club’s summer reading guide last month. Based on the blurb there, it sounded like a funny, yet interesting, look a specific moment in American history. What that blurb didn’t mention was this is very much a romantic tale. And by an author whose main audience is probably women between 35–65.
But guess what? I liked it! Yes, there’s some romance stuff, but it’s not like some Harlequin Romance. It’s got good depth – focusing on the rather casual anti-Semitism that was too common in our country in the 1960s and 1970s – without being too heavy. It’s funny. The characters are fun and relatable. And, best of all, this is a really good summer read because it flies by. I read about 75% of it over two days at the girls’ swim practices. Books that entertain and keep me on book-a-week pace are the best.