The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Imaginary People and Black People
The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan & Jeremy Salter - This book looks at the power of fictional characters in society and culture. The authors draw from 17 categories ranging from mythology to literature to television to propaganda. Unfortunately, I think the concept is better than the execution. For starters, I would prefer a list based on something more than the opinions of three American guys and their friends, especially when it comes to ranking the characters from 1 to 101-- it's just too arbitrary. Worse, it is painfully clear that the essays were written by three authors because the tone from essay to essay is jarringly inconsistent (a better editor might have smoothed over those differences in writing style). Their attempts at humor often fall flat or just feel out of place. Plus, most of the essays spend more time telling who the characters are rather than what their influence is, even though most readers should already know most of them. Bottom line: it's an intriguing idea but a disappointing book.

Making Friends With Black People by Nick Adams - Black comedian Adams starts with advice for whites interacting with blacks, but eventually this book develops into a platform for his opinions about race relations, pop culture, and politics. He maintains a humorous and sarcastic tone throughout. I particularly enjoy his lists such as ethnic food "delicacies" and Tom Cruise's variations on Top Gun (e.g., Cocktail is Top Gun in a bar, Days of Thunder is Top Gun on a racetrack). I still don't have any black friends, but this book is pretty funny and often thought-provoking.

Current tally: 92 books finished, 83 books acquired

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk
First, I must apologize to author Steven Lee Beeber: When I saw that you were signing in August at The Book Cellar (the first time I'd heard of the book), I knew I'd want a copy. As an author myself, I know successful signing events are critical to a writer's mental health. I was free that night, and the bookstore is only a 10-minute walk from home. And yet, I did not drag my lazy butt out of the house that evening (I purchased a signed copy there a few days later). So I'm sorry, and I hope all went well (it probably did -- Suzy T. hosts great signings). If I had attended, I probably would have pestered you with stupid questions about the Dictators like, "What is a two tub man?"

Now that I got that out of the way... I love this book! I've been a fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground for 25 years (my first live concert was Reed at the UIC Pavilion in 1986), and the Dictators are one of my favorite recent discoveries, so I was excited to read about them. Plus Beeber tells much more about Blue Oyster Cult (another longtime favorite) in this book about punk than David Konow does in his book about heavy metal. I've never considered myself much of a punk rock fan, but maybe I've been in denial (probably because by the time I came of age in the 1980s, "punk" meant hardcore like Black Flag, early Husker Du, and the Dead Kennedys).

Beeber essentially credits New York Jews with creating and defining the punk movement. Reed is sometimes known as the godfather of punk (an ironically Christian label considering how many Jews it's been assigned to), and the Ramones (at least half Jewish) are arguably the best known American punk band. Beeber also profiles other Jewish New York punkers like the Dictators (5/6 Jewish), Richard Hell, Chris Stein of Blondie, Helen Wheels, et al. Hilly Kristal (owner of the legendary club CBGB's) and most of the first wave of rock critics (including Lenny Kaye and Richard Meltzer) were Jews, too. This book is about more than artists and their music, though. The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's also describes post-World War II New York Jewishness -- a real education for me, having been raised as a Chicago (area) Catholic.

Anyone interested in punk, particularly the New York scene, must read The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's. I think Beeber makes a convincing argument for Jews being critical to the rise of punk, but even readers who disagree with that premise will learn a lot about many influential performers and the background that informed their work. In Chapter 1, Beeber notes that another book could be written about Jewish influence in heavy metal (heeby metal?) including KISS, Twisted Sister, Geddy Lee of Rush, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and, of course, the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult. Mr. Beeber, I would love for you to write that book. If you do, I promise I'll attend your book signing!

Current tally: 82 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Friday, September 25, 2009
A Tale of Two Critics
Two of my favorite pop culture critics are Chuck Klosterman and Joe Queenan. I read books from both this month.

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman - This is a collection of essays divided into three categories: Things That Are True, Things That Might Be True, and Something That Isn't True At All. The first section consists of previously published articles covering music, movies, and sports. The middle section contains opinion pieces that appeared mostly in Spin and Esquire. The last part is a short story, perhaps a "feeler" to see how the public would receive Klosterman's then-forthcoming debut novel (the paperback edition includes an excerpt from Downtown Owl). I don't always share Klosterman's opinions and taste -- heck, the guy's favorite band is KISS -- but I enjoy his writing immensely. He even makes basketball sound interesting, and I hate basketball. My only complaint about IV is the publisher's decision to include extra material in the paperback edition. This is a big f-you to everyone who paid more for the hardcover edition. Out of spite, I sat in a Borders this week and read all the new essays, which are mostly in the Things That Might Be True section. As much as I like Klosterman, I'm not going to buy the same book twice. Note: I wouldn't expect anyone to actually buy the now-obsolete hardcover edition, but I included it below anyway.

Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America by Joe Queenan - As a longtime cultural snob, Queenan decides to immerse himself in the worst our country has to offer for an entire year. He goes to Broadway shows like Cats. He listens to Michael Bolton and Kenny G. He reads books by Joan Collins and V.C. Andrews. He watches movies starring Adam Sandler and Demi Moore. He dines at Sizzler and the Olive Garden. He visits Las Vegas and Branson. And of course, he skewers them all with the mischievous, sarcastic wit I've come to expect from Queenan. But suddenly, he starts to like all this crap. Instead of recoiling, he begins seeking out and reveling in the pop cultural junk of the masses. Although these are easy targets, Queenan's wicked critiques are hilarious. As a book, however, Red Lobster isn't great. The plot is weak and predictable. The copyright page reveals that several chapters were originally magazine articles, which explains the book's patched-together construction. And in the end, it's a lot of snark without much insight about what makes something bad or good.

This month I've been trying to clean up DJWriter World Headquarters. About 90% of the books I've read and reviewed this year are still in my office, as well as stacks from the past several years (books that I reviewed as well as books that I meant to review). It has reached the point where I can barely fit between the piles, and one of the cats is always knocking them down. Perhaps the best way to sum up these two books is to say that I enjoyed reading both, but Chuck Klosterman IV is going on a bookshelf while Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon is going in a box for my next visit to an used book store.

Current tally: 73 books finished, 65 books acquired

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