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A review of The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain.

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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In the City

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)

Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home.   The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.

There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode.   She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home.   Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us.   This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.

Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits.   The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place.   Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants.   Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice?   Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.

The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her.   The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling.   Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.

Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago.   Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure.   Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development.   No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.

The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense.   The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Ring of Fire

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books; $25.99; 368 pages)

It may be a shame that Marcia Clark spent so many years as a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles.   I say this because she’s such a talented writer, as is made clear by this fun romp of a criminal justice novel.   Because the book’s protagonist, Rachel Knight, just happens to be a Deputy District Attorney who works in the L.A. County Criminal Courts Building (the beloved CCB) one would think that there’s a bit of Ms. Clark in the character.   Maybe, maybe not…  Rachel Knight may be a bit more daring than Clark was in real life.

One surprise is to be noted up front.   This is not a courtroom novel.   No scenes take place inside of a courtroom, so this is not a Scott Turow-style read.   Basically, this is the story of a prosecutor who decides to become a criminal investigator, off of the time sheets and without the approval of her supervisors.   As Guilt by Association begins, Knight is celebrating a victory with fellow DDA Jake Pahlmeyer and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller.   It’s not long before Pahlmeyer is found dead downtown, in a seedy hotel room with a 17-year-old boy; and there’s a nude photo of the boy in his suit jacket pocket.   Knight’s supervisors quickly tell her to keep her “hands off” of the murder investigation involving her best friend in the criminal justice system.

Being a bit of a rogue, Knight involves Bailey in her effort to clear the late Pahlmeyer’s name in a city where scandals are less than a dime a dozen.   And as she does so, she also has to take over one of Jake’s cases – one that involves the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a very prominent physician.   Are the two cases somehow related?   Maybe, maybe not…  You’ll have to read this criminal justice system mystery to find out, and to learn the meaning of the rather intriguing title.

You never know what’s coming around the curve…  Reading Guilt by Association is like taking a ride down the virtually mythical Mulholland Drive in a new Tesla roadster.

This reviewer does offer a prediction for the future of this protagonist.   My money is on Rachel Knight’s getting fired by the D.A.’s office, and working as an embittered newly licensed private investigator who uses every contact in her address book to solve some of the county’s toughest and meanest crimes.   Not only will it make a series of great reads, but quite possibly a new hit TV show.   Rachel Knight, PI – it somehow sounds just right!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Guilt by Association will be released on April 20, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Stormchasers: A Novel by Jenna Blum.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Night Road, the new novel from Kristin Hannah (Winter Garden).

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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