Category Archives: book reviews

“Great, Kid! Don’t Get Cocky!”

GeoScreen Shot 2016-12-04 at 3.13.06 PM.pngrge Lucas: A Life finally comes out this Tuesday — and I can’t wait for this one to get into your hands and hear what you think. So far, those who’ve had an early look at it seem to like it.  Kirkus Reviews — as reported back here — gave it one of their coveted starred reviews, as did Booklist.  I was also thrilled to learn that Kirkus named it one of their Best Books of 2016 — you can see Lucas and Threepio anchoring the front cover of Kirkus‘s December issue over there at right. All in all, pretty nice.

Oh, and it’s also been nicely reviewed in The Washington Post and BookPage, selected as a Book of the Month by Amazon, spotlighted in USA Today, Parade, the San Francisco Chronicle, the London Daily Mail, and featured on websites like Bustle and Cultured Vultures. Thanks for the kind words, folks.

Lots more to follow in the coming days — I’ll be at the Louisville Free Library on December 13, and having fun on podcasts like Channel Star Wars, Star Wars 7×7, and Coffee With Kenobi, for instance — and I’ll do my best to keep you posted.  Thanks for your enthusiasm so far. I appreciate it.

A Sixteenth Century Sid Vicious…

My review of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new biography Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane is the lead review over at the Washington Independent Review of Books, at least for today.  Go have a look, if you want. Better yet, read Graham-Dixon’s book.

You Better, You Bet

My pal Scott S. Phillips has just released his new novel Squirrel Eyes, and it’s ready for you to download right now in either ePub or Kindle format over on Amazon. Scott is one of the funniest and most talented writers I know — he can turn a phrase like no one’s business, and make even a mundane activity like eating Froot Loops sound funny or exciting — so I can guarantee you’ll have fun.

In fact, if you agree to write a review of Squirrel Eyes for Goodreads, you can download the thing for free between now and March 1, 2011.  Go on; shoot him an e-mail at edpscott (AT) gmail (DOT) com, and tell him I sent ya.  (Or leave a comment, and I’ll put you in touch.) I’ve known Scott for more  than 25 years, so believe me — I know what I’m talking about when I tell you he’s great.

If you don’t wanna write a review, but want to read Scott anyway, you can still get Squirrel Eyes right here.

Speaking of book reviews, there’s a new player in town, courtesy of my colleague David O. Stewart.  It’s the Washington Independent Review of Books, “a labor of love,” as David put it, “produced by dozens of writers and editors, mostly in the Washington area, who are dismayed by the disappearance of book reviews and book review sections in the mainstream media.”  It’s only been live about a week, but it’s already crammed with lots of good stuff, including interviews and an up-to-the-minute news feed on all things publishing.  Bookmark it now.

Finally, Kurt Vonnegut biographer Charles J. Shields has a new blog, Writing Kurt Vonnegut, where he’ll write about . .  . well, writing Kurt Vonnegut, but also pretty much anything else that crosses his mind.  Light fuse, then stand back — Charles, like Vonnegut, is always a helluva lotta fun to read.

Reviews in Brief: The Beatles Off The Record (Keith Badman)

beatlesotrKeith Badman’s book is a terrific primary source — but it’s definitely not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles and their story. This isn’t a biography per se; it’s transcriptions of interviews with the boys and those around them, snippets of news releases and news stories, and transcribed appearances on television or radio shows, all presented in roughly chronological order. Badman provides (rightly) only a minimal guiding track, stepping in only to gloss a name or straighten out a disparity in dates. What he won’t do is try to straighten out or explain events or stories, because — with the advantage of hindsight — watching the key players try to explain everything themselves is part of what makes this so fascinating.

Even if you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, you’ll probably still find something in Badman’s book that’s new to you. For one thing, you’ll get a better feel for the kind of mind-numbing, eye-glazing interviews the Boys had to sit through, especially early in their career. We’ve all seen the interviews compressed to their soundbites for documentaries, but Badham lets us see what gets edited out in the interest of time — mainly one stupid question after another (“Do you get dandruff with all that hair?”) which the Beatles, for the most part, answer gamely until around 1966, when John Lennon finally unloads on a reporter for asking “What do you want to do when you grow up?” (“Why are you being so horrid?” one reporter sulkily asks Lennon afterwards.)

But it’s not just the media that bumbles through interviews; sometimes the Beatles do, too. I was surprised by how non-responsive or rambling their answers could sometimes be — particularly from Paul McCartney, who could obviously make his charm go a long way, but when you read his remarks on the page without the corresponding images, they don’t always make a lot of sense. You can also see the Boys reverting to “talking points” for many questions, answering questions the same way, even when cornered individually.

Badman also reproduces several documents I’d never seen before: the original lyrics for “Yesterday” (as “Scrambled Eggs”), filed when Paul was simply trying to get the song down on paper with placeholder words; the various press releases from Apple as the wheels were coming off (and when is someone going to write a history of Apple?); a snippet from a 1969 newspaper floating John Lennon as the lead role in the upcoming Jesus Christ, Superstar.

Finally, reading interviews and press releases from That Moment In Time — when they had no way of knowing what was coming — the end of the Beatles really isn’t all that obvious. All four of them continue to speak relatively well of each other in interviews (except for George when speaking of Paul) and indicate that they are still interested in working together if the right project comes along. It’s no wonder fans were so shocked when McCartney finally announced he was leaving the group (months after Lennon had already privately left) — there was little indication of disarray or disagreement in the press, not even from the Beatles themselves.

There are places in the book where some interviews or television appearances have obviously been misheard or transcribed incorrectly (at one point, someone describes a crowd of people at an airport as looking like “a sea of hands” from above, when it was probably “sea of ants”) but such errors are easy to overlook in this goldmine of a Beatles book. Highly recommended — but, again, not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles story going into it.

Reviews in Brief: John Lennon: The Life (Philip Norman)

“In September 2003, I suggested to John’s widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer,” writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, “Yoko Ono was upset by the book,” Norman tells us, “and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been ‘mean to John.'”

I actually don’t think Yoko’s got anything to worry about; Norman’s book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon’s all-too-brief life and career. While there’s much in here that’s familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories — most of which are familiar to Beatle fans — and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn’t they? question that has surrounded Lennon’s vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn’t), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John’s darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.

There’s also quite a bit that’s new in here, too — or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what “business” Yoko was doing during Lennon’s househusband years — she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John’s profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon’s writings in the 1960s — a hidden gem in the literate Beatle’s career — exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.

For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon’s story finally come into their own. John’s Aunt Mimi — who can often come off as a bit of a shrew — gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You’ll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John’s seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons — excuses — for his actions, but for the first time, you’ll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.

If there’s a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman’s narrative voice. Norman’s prose isn’t ever stilted — he’s too good a journalist for that — but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to “Twist and Shout,” for example, “dippy”). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon’s fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.

For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can’t help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. “Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony,” he writes. “Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building” where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, “John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota — an omen if ever there was one . . . ” It took me a moment to figure out why this was “an omen” — until I realized it was the use of the word “Dakota” in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.

Perhaps even more annoying — especially to the biographer in me — there’s no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman’s book when I found myself saying “Where’d you get that?” and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn’t enough room left. But I’m sure I’m not the only one missing it.

Jolly Old St. Nicholas

I got a typically pleasant note from my editor the other day informing me that Washington Irving got a nice mention in The Weathercock, the newsletter from the 175-year-old St. Nicholas Society of New York.

The piece is more of a summary of Irving’s life than an actual review, though the reviewer notes warmly that in Irving, “one sees distinctly the lineaments of the quintessential and archetypal Saint Nicholas Society member.” Given that the Society wanted to burn me in effigy for neglecting to give them a specific shout out in WI,* it’s a nice little piece. I’ll take it.

The St. Nicholas Society of New York’s home page is right here. And my thanks to them for the very kind mention.

* I’m kidding. But only a little.

The Trophy Room

Does anyone here really follow the sage advice “Never read your reviews?” It’s advice nearly as old as the printed word itself (“Gutenberg! Put down that copy of Ye Kirkus Reviews, and don’t believe a word they say about ‘making religion too common…’!”) and while many writers over the centuries have both dispensed the advice and claimed to follow it, the truth is, most of them read their reviews with a devoted fervor. Just like we do.

Do you keep them, though? I’ll be the first to admit to being a packrat and collector — while I finally threw out copies of articles I’d written for my college newspaper, I still have copies of an old Batman fanzine I wrote for back in the late 1980s — but when it came to reviews of my own work, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about them. At the very least, I was going to clip them out and save hard copies in a file some place — unless, of course, they were all bad reviews, in which case I would claim I never read them, throw out my laptop, curl up in the fetal position, and suck my thumb.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But apart from filing it away, what do you do with a good review? Within weeks of its release, Washington Irving was featured in the “Required Reading” section of the New York Post, and I was so thrilled, I printed it out and framed it. Then came a positive review from the Associated Press. Great, that goes on the wall, too. The New York Times? You bet. The Washington Post Book World? And it was on the cover? Absolutely.

I’m torn about it, though. Because while I’m a packrat, I’m not, for example, one of those people who ever hung up my college diploma. The Big Official Certificate I received when I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship sits in a manila folder in a box in the basement. Even letters I received from several Senators thanking me for help on one piece of legislation or another are languishing in a cardboard box. I treasure them all, certainly, and they’re all saved and valued as important mile markers on the road of my life. While I never put them out on display, neither could I bring myself to throw them out.

I hope, and think, my approach to reviews — both good and bad — will be similar to that of our next door neighbor, a feisty New Zealander, who is not only one of my favorite people in the world, but also happens to be a first class rock and roll drummer. Since the early 1970s, he’s recorded and toured with the best, and he was the drummer of preference for Eva Cassidy, a dynamite, up-and-coming jazz singer who died too young in 1996.

One evening, while Barb and I were enjoying a terrific dinner at his home with him and his wife, I excused myself to use their downstairs restroom, a small half-bath only slightly larger than a closet. And there on the wall of this little bathroom was a gold record he had been awarded for playing drums on Eva’s Songbird album.

A gold record.

In the bathroom.

That, more than anything, should help us all keep things in perspective. That gold record was a beautiful reminder of something he had accomplished — but, as our friend always points out, that was all part of his past. He was proud of it, but was still moving forward.

Reviews and awards are nice — and, I would argue, important. But they’re also a tribute to your past. I’ve looked at mine on the walls for the last half year. But when I move to my new office space, I’ll likely put most of them (most of them) in a drawer, close it with a satisfied bang!, and start typing away on the next project.

How about you? What do you do with reviews and clippings?