About a book: Larceny In My Blood by Matthew Parker

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

I may have said this before, but I judge books by their covers. Literally. I walk through the library and just yank stuff off shelves if it looks interesting.

That's how I came by Larceny In My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education. I didn't even know until I got home it was a graphic memoir. [I've never read anything like this long-form before – infographics and my daily emailed Dilbert comic strip are about it.]

Author Matthew Parker is old for his age, but getting younger. He grew up with a mother who taught him how to sell drugs and didn't go straight until she made some counterfeit bills and discovered they were awful. His sister managed to build a good life, but one of his brothers was murdered and the other committed suicide.

Parker himself was in and out of prisons from 1987 until 2002, when he finally got clean. And then he got his MFA in creative writing from Columbia.

Larceny In My Blood follows Parker through life, through finding his way through the culture of prison, and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and finally succeeding in kicking drugs. Parker elucidates the problems felons have finding work, enrolling in schools and earning trust.

Parker has been off drugs and out of prison since 2002, and has had quite a journey, and is off to a flying start to his writing career. Larceny is a tough book – it's about prison and drugs and sex and real life (and Parker drew his penis a lot for the book) – and while the timeline bounces around a little bit, it was a great read. It's one of those pieces of art that will always stick with me, like Benjamin Bratt's portrayal of Miguel Piñero or the first time I really took the time to look at Picasso's Guernica.

Add it to your list.

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Books: “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” by Alan Light

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

How many times have you heard a song and said, "I wish I'd written that"? With me it doesn't happen very often; sure, the royalties on "Call Me Maybe" must be off the charts, but I rarely hear a song I think is clever and moving enough to wonder what was in the writer to create it.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of those beautiful songs I want no part of after reading Alan Light's book about it, The Holy or the Broken.

Cohen's been so tortured by the song throughout his career that he had his agent send the author an email giving his blessing to the project, but the artist himself wasn't going to be part of it.

It took Cohen years to write and finally record the song – he put 80 verses together before finally getting it together in the studio in 1984, and when he finally did, his record company said the album he put it on was awful and refused to release it.

So it languished, again.

Cohen is one of the tortured writer set. Every detail has to be perfect. He's spoken in interviews, Light writes, about being drunk in his underwear on a hotel room floor with papers scattered around him. This is not romance; these are demons.

The version many people are familiar with originates with Jeff Buckley, but the song's history takes a stop-off at John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, first.

Listen to Cohen's version (above, top). It's road-weary. It's weathered. It's sarcastic. On the whole, it's more pessimistic than optimistic.

Cale's version (above, lower left) has the same weathered, pessimistic feel. He is a few years younger than Cohen, but still someone who has been around and lived some life. He first did the song for a Cohen tribute record. When he asked Cohen to send over a lyric sheet, he came home to 15 faxed pages on the floor, with all 80 verses. He picked five for the tribute album, and it was that version that Jeff Buckley (above, lower right) first heard.

You can see how his simple accompaniment derives from Cale's, along with his selection of verses. But Buckley is young – eternally; he died while taking a swim on the way to a recording session – and his version is optimistic and romantic. And there's another thing: Buckley was a perfectionist. If you're familiar with the studio recording he did for "Grace," you know it starts with a breathy sigh. You could certainly interpret that as intimacy, given how sexy his version is. But, Light writes, it was a sigh of exhaustion. They'd done so many takes that night, he was beat.

The song, though, probably would have kept languishing if it weren't for two things that both happened in 2001: The September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the animated film 'Shrek.'

John Cale's version made it into 'Shrek' (Rufus Wainwright is on the soundtrack because Dreamworks had the film and Wainwright), and Jeff Buckley's started appearing over photo montages on the music networks.

And all of a sudden, it was everywhere. It became the default overlay for tragedy montages on TV dramas and sitcoms and in films. And everybody decided they had to cover it, and they had to do their best Jeff Buckley. Here are Wainwright, Allison Crowe and John Bon Jovi:

And somewhere along the line this happened, and Bono – who loved the sardonic humor in Cohen's version when he first heard it – nearly destroyed the song forever, on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.



Oh, my, Bono, what have you done?

It's also now appeared on many seasons of "American Idol" and "X Factor," because, well, it takes some concentration and some range to do the Jeff Buckley version, which is really what's done these days.

My take on the song: I love Buckley's guitar intro; it has such an incredible resolve after a minor buildup. But Cohen's closing verse isn't done nearly enough. It goes like this:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I learned to touch
I've told the truth; I didn't come to fool ya
But even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

My take on the book: This is great if you're a real music nerd. Really, it's not for the weak, the casual fan or the "Pop-Up Video" crowd.

One more version – one of my favorite covers, even if it's not iconic, to go out with.

Book Review: The Secret History of the World; also: The world will not end 12/21/12

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Let's start with this: The world will not end on Friday.

The Mayan calendar ends then. Or maybe it's an Aztec calendar someone found in Mayan territory (because they were kind of in the same area anyway).

But you know what could happen? The sun could come under the influence of Aquarius.

Yep, I can hear you. "Josh, you've gone over the edge, man."

Nope.

I don't know what role the stars and the moon and the planets play in life. Maybe they don't actually play a role – maybe it's more of a reflective or predictive thing, if you know where to look.

But I'm certain, after reading Mark Booth's The Secret History of the World, that there's something there.

I was a fan of the Hardy Boys mysteries growing up. This evolved into a love for "Unsolved Mysteries" and later "The X-Files." It makes sense, then, that secret societies and their beliefs would appeal to me.

Booth's history stems from hobbyism. He's interested in esoteric thought, and he's sought it throughout his adult life, and he's declined initiation into secret societies because he wanted to write about what he's found. He didn't want to take an oath that disallowed that.

Say what you want about conspiracies, some of the great minds in history – Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, and many more – were parts of groups like the Freemasons, Knights Templar and Rosicrucians, among others.

Roughly every 2150 years, the sun moves into a new zodiacal constellation, and Aquarius is next. I think it's easy to understand this as true. The only real premise you have to accept is that based on Earth's orbital path and rotation, we get different views of the sky. If you need observational proof of that, go to a location with a view of identifiable buildings or landscape (trees, etc.). Take a photo of the sunset, just as the bottom of the sun hits the horizon (or disappears behind the buildings or landscape). Go back in three months and duplicate the photo, then in six months and then in nine months. You'll see the sun is in a different spot in relation to the markings. [Or you had to take the photo from a different point to get the sun in the same relation.]

Some scholars have narrowed the time frame of this astrological transition to sometime between 1980 and 2016. So why not the upcoming solstice? It's as good a date as any.

What does that mean for us and the next few generations? Who the heck knows? Life may not feel any different. But if it does, don't be awfully surprised.

Anyway, that's not the crux of this nearly 600-page book. It's really a look into spirituality (including a large section on Christian spirituality), Sun God myths (Jesus was only the latest in a long line of figures who was born of a virgin Dec. 25, visited by magicians upon birth, called things like "lamb," had 12 disciples, was sold into slavery or imprisonment by one of those disciples, and resurrected after three days), prophets, art, magic and influence.

Booth writes of the beginning of thought, the beginning of language, the beginning of love, and the beginning of romance, as understood in secret histories.

It's not light reading. It took me about four months to absorb it, and I certainly read other books and essays, sometimes putting Booth's tome away for four or five days at a time to let the information sink in.

The book is a wonderful look at a perspective that, in all likelihood, is different from the one of you've been wandering around with, and it's written by a man with a genuine curiosity for both the subject matter and for writing. While the subject matter isn't easily absorbed, the writing style is; you won't need a translator for it.

Highly recommended reading.

Book review: The Protest Singer

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Too many books have been written about me, at too great length. What's needed is a book that can be read in one sitting.

Alec Wilkinson writes that he was worried Pete Seeger would not agree to another biography, so when the folk icon told him to write something brief and readable, Wilkinson must have been thrilled. He succeeds in the task with The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Seeger turned 90 this year, and while longevity runs in his family, his voice is starting to falter and, well, he's 90. He's active, but by necessity less so than in his younger years. He's still an active voice for workers' rights and for the First Amendment, and if you don't know much about him or of his music, you really should catch up.

His stepmother told him once that he had "a talent for song leading," and that he should develop it, and develop it he did. Watch that video above. He sings one line, waves his hand, and if he didn't do anything the rest of the song, no one would have noticed. That was recorded in 1993; compare it to a video taken 30 years earlier. One line, and everybody's singing.

Seeger's life story is a great narrative. He used to hop boxcars with his banjo and ride with Woody Guthrie. He was drafted during the second World War, and later wound up blacklisted by HUAC. He took a "world tour" with his family as a cover while the last of the blacklisting faded out. He built the first home he and his wife Toshi lived in, a log cabin in Beacon, N.Y. (they still live on the property, though in a house that was built later).

He has stood up for workers' rights, civil rights and all sorts of other things. Even into his 80s, he'd stand outside in the rain on the side of a highway with a sign that said, "Peace."

To me, his legacy is song and song leading. There's nothing better you can do with a guitar than get everyone around you singing, in key or out, the right words or not. Seeger truly is an American treasure, and Wilkinson's book will take you little enough time to read that you'll have plenty of energy to do more research, listen to some music, and maybe pick up your guitar and play some songs.

Chasing your passion

Friday, November 27th, 2009

I'd say I'm not a big fan of motivational, go chase your dream, up and at 'em, how to win at business and life books, but really I don't read them, so I don't know for sure that I'm not a fan.

And then I found Gary Vaynerchuk on Twitter.

The dude has passion, and he has a dream. The passion: Wine. The dream: Buy the Jets.

He has personality, he has energy, he has a foul mouth, he has hustle, and he's all about getting himself out there. He's got a site about himself, a wine shop and wine review site, a discount wine reseller and a gourmet food shop.

He's fun to watch, and, even if it is the freaking Jets on his spit bucket, what's not to like about a guy who knows which wine to pair with Lucky Charms.

I won't say his book Crush It changed my life or is going to change my life. But it certainly is an invigorating read (and a quick one – one person I passed it along to read it over two lunch breaks), and you definitely hear his voice come through (which makes sense, as he dictated the book – he readily admits that the written word is not his strongest medium).

But if you have passions and goals, Crush It will cue you in to some social media platforms you might not be using, and you'll learn how he built a veritable empire from a small liquor store.

And because I wouldn't be following his advice if I didn't do this, here goes:

Follow me on Twitter
Join me on LinkedIn
Become a fan of my amazing cancer-fighting beard

Now, have a great Friday, read the book this weekend, and get moving.

Thought Review: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

Friday, May 15th, 2009

This isn't really a book review. It's more a look at thought and inspiration.

First off, read up on Bucky Fuller. He's best known for the geodesic dome, the architectural style that uses the least amount of material to maximize space.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), Fuller launches some great ideas as instructions for maximizing human survival. Some of his predictions have not come true, and there's no way he could have predicted the rise of the Internet at that point, but two really inspirational ideas are what brought me back for a second read.

Great Pirates. In the old days, there were kings. They ruled over small kingdoms thanks to their wealth and their guards. But how did they come by this wealth and power?

Pirates. The guys who figured out how to sail around in big boats, bring money, and put these people in power, on promises that if the guys in the boats needed warriors, slaves or whatever else, the kings would cough up some people.

Awesome.

Synergy. This is the big thing I needed to read again. We have become increasingly specialized as we've "progressed" in industrialization. You need your pipes fixed? Call a plumber. You need your wires fixed? Call an electrician. You need a tooth fixed? Don't call an orthopedist.

We have so many people with narrow focuses, we aren't achieving much in the way of innovation because no one is looking at the big picture. To illustrate this, Fuller cites a conference that took place in the 1960s. A biologist and a physicist were among the presenters, and each had written essentially the same paper, tackling the same problem and reaching the same conclusion from entirely different angles.

It was purely by accident they wound up at the same conference – the physicist was accepted by physics reviewers, the biologist by experts in his field. If anybody was studying overlapping disciplines, the problem solved would have been evident a lot earlier.

Fuller's idea is that while it's nice to have people around who know their fields really well, we need more people who can dabble in a variety of industries, and who can bring together specialists if and when needed.

This is how innovation grows. Who wants to talk synergy this summer? Find me on Twitter, and let's kick around some ideas.

Dispatches from the other side(s) of misogyny: Two book reviews

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

"What are you doing, studying chauvinism?" my brother asked.

We were visiting our parents for Thanksgiving and he saw the two paperbacks I had been reading simultaneously sitting by the bed. The were Women by Charles Bukowski and He's a stud, she's a slut, and 49 other double standards every woman should know by Jessica Valenti.

My love of Valenti's (bio) work is well-documented. I do, however, approach her material with the knowledge in mind that I am not her target audience.

One thing I really liked about her first full-length offering, Full Frontal Feminism, is that she was reaching for young women, and I think she found them with her voice. She writes personally and informally, and with an educational but not preachy tone.

Like many people, I first came across Valenti's writing through the group blog Feministing, which she founded, edits and co-authors (also, I love when people take nouns and turn them into gerunds, but that's probably just me). Between her and my friend Catherine, I've probably learned more than I learned through most of the first 18 years I was in school – and what I've learned from them is stuff that every guy (especially every white guy) should learn.

I didn't enjoy Double Standards as much as FFF, and some of that had to do with the format: essentially, each chapter is three pages of setting up a problem with examples, and then a one-to-two-paragraph solution on a facing page (the title double standard begins on page 14, and the final one ends on page 213, so the book is faithful to this format throughout).

Some of it is the fact that I'm predisposed to disliking books of lists.

That's not to say I didn't get anything out of it – I definitely did. Valenti points out the discrepancies in health care costs and availability, wage inequality, and double standards in everything from rape culture to the daily makeup-or-no-makeup decision.

I'm very much looking forward to her next offering.

But me being me, I had to be contrarian. Or maybe I just couldn't handle one viewpoint at a time.

So I grabbed a copy of Women.

My enjoyment of Bukowski's work has come much slower, much harder. He has proven through his writing – and his alter-ego recurring main character Henry (Hank) Chinaski – to be an unapologetic, well, pig.

Women chronicles his drunken sexual exploits as a 50-something-year-old writer who drinks heavily at his readings and corresponds with female fans. He is constantly getting laid by women less than half his age, and even wins them over when his drinking leaves him impotent for the night.

His occasional recognition that he is a disgusting human being and his even less frequent moment of remorse do not redeem him, although his closing to this novel makes it clear he disagrees.

So, umm, Josh, you liked this book?

Well, yes, I did, thanks for asking. Bukowski writes plainly, if brutally (if you can't stand to read the words "fuck" and "cunt" repeatedly, skip this one). He hates fame, he hates other writers, he prefers boxing and horse racing, he despises other people (but still admits to loneliness once in a while).

If you're looking to ease into Bukowski, start with Post Office (OK, no one eases in, but still), and be sure to skip his poetry – it's godawful.

Book review: The Seventh Well by Fred Wander

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

My sister is the history freak in the family. Specifically, she reads a lot about the Holocaust, and for whatever reason, I've been doing some of the same. I spent the winter with The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn's journey to discover what happened to the one part of his family no one knew much about because they had disappeared during the Holocaust.

The Seventh Well is Michael Hofmann's 2008 translation of Fred Wander's Das gute Leben, a (probably not very) fictionalized account of Wander's own survival of the Holocaust.

Wander's title translates to "The good life;" but good as in rich, full, what (beer commercials aside) we might call "the high life."

Wander brings to life characters he met on his journey through 20 camps and several escapes: A studied and confident 16-year-old; a great storyteller; partisans; and last, a 10-year-old child who has taken on the role of father to his younger brothers.

The book ends in the delirious happiness of near-liberation and typhoid fever dreams.

Wander doesn't leave out the horrors, but he does bring out one thing we haven't seen in a lot of books and films about the Holocaust: life. In much the way that the film Life is Beautiful focuses on a man who, despite all that's happening in the camps, keeps his child alive with games and fun, Wander shows the individuality and the humanity of victims, not just in fleeting moments of despair, but in, as his own title suggests, the rich fullness of their lives.