Here's some stuff I've checked out and liked lately:
It's annoying that Keith Richards is more widely known today for his long-past hard-partying rock star excesses than for being (still) a world-class musician and songwriter. I almost didn't want to read his extensive, acclaimed new autobiography Life because I'm not interested in hearing "the stories", and I certainly don't care about the legend. But I do care about the great music and career of the Rolling Stones, so I dove into the book, and was immediately captured by the author's warm, thoughtful voice.
Life is at its best when Keith Richards talks about the music, about rhythm guitar, about the wisdom of Chicago blues (as he understood it growing up in Dartford, a suburb of London). There are brilliant passages about the lazy guitar tricks used by Jimmy Reed, about the difference between six-string standard tuning and five-string open tuning, about what it's like to collaborate with the talented but egotistical Mick Jagger. Richards is laying down an ethical point of view in this memoir: he values friends (male and female) and close family (his parents and his children) above all else, he laughs at the trappings of fame (his disgusted reaction to Mick Jagger's recent knighthood is fun to read), he reads avidly and keeps a vast library in his own house, he works hard as hell to make every Stones record and concert as good as it can be. He also gave up heroin thirty years ago, and I hope this book will help people realize that junkie-hood was never the most interesting thing about Keith Richards.
NOTE: trying something new, I listened to this book on audio CDs in my car instead of reading it. I don't always enjoy the audio format, but Johnny Depp's well-considered impersonation of Keith Richards's distinctive slow drawl and chuckle makes this one work. Well done.
In Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, Roger Kamenetz (author of The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India) explores an earlier, lesser-known Eastern European writer, Rabbi Nachman, within the context of the later and possibly related work of Franz Kafka. Very rewarding, especially if (like me) you weren't familiar with the work of Rabbi Nachman before.
The Oxford Book of Parodies, compiled and edited by John Gross, appears almost forbidding at first, a solid brick of compressed satire with a not particularly appealing cover. The best way to read this book is to dip in and check out your own favorite writers among the targets. For me, that means T. S. Eliot, in the hands of Henry Reed:
As we get older we do not get any younger
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five
And this time last year I was fifty-four
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two
And I cannot say I should care (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again -- if you can call it time
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube
Or J. M. Coetzee, expertly handled by John Crace:
He is turned down for a flatshare. He is too boring. His misery is almost complete. His mother writes to him every week, but he replies only rarely. To do otherwise would smack of reciprocation. He meets a Swedish girl named Astrid. They go to bed but he feels discomforted by her proximity. He pretends to sleep when she lets herself out.
The Book of Parodies is better than it looks; I think there's something here for everyone.
Cartoonist Ted Rall has an odd (and very commendable) habit of running off to foreign war-torn places like Afghanistan so he can find out what's really going on there, instead of getting his material second-hand. To Afghanistan and Back is an updated version of Rall's stark, revealing report on the latest happenings from Central Asia's Great Game, in mixed text/comic format.
The Petting Zoo is a posthumous publication by Jim Carroll. who died last year. I heard various stories about Carroll's state of mind in his final years; this obviously self-referential roman a clef suggests that towards the end of his life he was thinking hard and fast about art (a Valezquez painting plays a central role), sanity, visionary experience, the difficulties of the literary life.
The Brothers Ashkenazi is a classic text by I. J. Singer, older brother to Isaac Bashevis Singer, a welcome re-introduction with a new foreword by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
Bill Peschel has written a book called Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes. In other words, the kind of stuff we cover here on Litkicks on a regular basis.
Begat by linguist David Crystal lists the many phrases we use in our everyday lives that originated with the King James Bible. I wish for a wider focus -- the slim book tells us little of the history behind the creation of the King James Bible -- but I suppose that would be a different book.
I read Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. Sometimes I want the Bob Dylan books to stop. There are so many of them, so very very many. Does Sean Wilentz's new one add anything new? Well, yes (but they all do, and that's why I keep reading the damn things). Wilentz, a "cultural historian" rather than the usual gossip-writer or rock-critic Dylanologist, is particularly strong on Blonde on Blonde and the Good As I Been To You/World Gone Wrong era, though he goes on a bit too long about "Blind Willie McTell", which is really not the greatest song Bob Dylan ever wrote (though it is a fine tune).
Finally, I talked a little about William S. Burroughs in my last post, but forget to mention the new Penguin paperback edition of his classic Queer, including an introduction by Oliver Harris.