Archive for July, 2018

There There

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

By Tommy Orange

The Short Take:

This is possibly the most powerful debut novel I’ve ever read. It explores the interrelated lives of a dozen Urban Native Americans living in Oakland, California, the community where Orange himself grew up.

Why?

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland after she revisited her childhood home, “There is no there there.” This was not dismissive but a reference to the fact that everything had changed, becoming unrecognizable. Native Americans living in big cities often struggle to recognize themselves. Their traditions can seem anachronistic. Their lives are often filled with obstacles. Their history is written in blood.

Orange’s book gives a brief recounting of that tragic history, delivered in a wry voice yet devastating to read. The stories of his 12 protagonists are also devastating: alcoholism, violence, defeat. But there is also hope, love, and passion. You care about them all, want a better life for them, and pray they survive the upcoming powwow. Yeah, you know early on that something will happen there and it won’t be good.

It’s an incredible, exceptional, challenging book. Everyone should read it.

A Little Plot:

There are many plots and subplots in this dense novel. However, all paths seem to lead to the Big Oakland Powwow taking place at the coliseum.

The Killer Inside Me

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

By Jim Thompson

The Short Take:

This classic noir is brutal, complex, and eminently readable. Written in the 1950s, its psychopathic main character is just as chilling — and tragic — today.

Why?

Author Jim Thompson is ┬ámore acclaimed now than in his lifetime. His numerous paperback crime paperbacks were largely ignored — but not this one. And for good reason. The writing is taut and smart. It’s so smart you need to read between the lines to determine exactly what happened in the past that continues to fracture the life of the main character, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford.

On the surface Ford is the nicest guy in his small, 1952 town, though not the brightest. But he knows better, and you’ll know better from the very first pages. Written in first person (a noir trope), the revealed insights you gain are chilling. He is a true psychopath — a self-aware, highly intelligent psychopath with a terrible past and haunting secrets.

That all makes for a rather gruesome present, but his actions are presented in a style that is neither lurid nor nauseating — simply straightforward. So don’t be put off — this is too good to pass up. It’s a fascinating picture of the trap of living in a small town, with small people, and everyone it everyone else’s business. There’s a lot going on here.

A Little Plot:

Ford is deputy sheriff of the small town where he was born. He lives in the house he inherited from his doctor father. His brother, who went to prison for a crime he did not commit, died in an “accident” after he was released. Ford would like to see that death avenged.

But first there’s a prostitute that needs to be encouraged to move on. However, that’s not what Ford has in mind.

Memphis Rent Party

Friday, July 6th, 2018

By Robert Gordon

The Short Take:

Gordon draws from published and unpublished interviews and personal experience to create this multi-faceted look at the Memphis music scene in all its diversity and decades of creativity. If you care about American music, this is a must read.

Why?

Few people go beyond Elvis Presley and Beale Street when they think of music from Memphis. However, the vein of Memphis music is much deeper and richer, encompassing soul, blues, punk, rockabilly, and more. Gordon gives you a quick tour of some of the legends (and some on the lesser knowns) in that music tradition from Jerry Lee Lewis to Alex Chilton.

Each chapter portrays a different musical giant, often using interviews published in long-gone music magazines with additional, contemporary insights. Even if you are a music aficionado, names like James Carr and Tav Falco might not be familiar to you. However their stories and voices deserve to be recognized.

Some of the other artists feature include Sam Phillips, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Jeff Buckley, and Cat Powers — about 20 unique musical talents in all.

The writing is breezy and accessible throughout. However, for a life-long Memphis like me, Gordon’s last page was pure magic.

A Little Plot:

Plot doesn’t apply here. Gordon puts his interviews in an order where they tell a story, peeling back the many layers of Memphis music influences. But each chapter also stands on its own.

For more about Robert Gordon and his books, click here.

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