Tag Archives: Henry Holt

Fakin’ It

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Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt, $32.00, 415 pages)

An ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s. EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s.
EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.

One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)

Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.

Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.

This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music:

Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.

As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.

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There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds and arguments between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.

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A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:

The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.

Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Homeward Bound was released on October 11, 2016.

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Santa’s Book List

We recently met with Santa Claus at the North Pole to work on a list of possible presents for book lovers.   Here’s what we came up with.Santa Claus

For the Fiction Reader

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing), and Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria).

Two of the best novels of the year, both dealing with loss.   A man’s life is irrevocably changed when his young son dies, and a wife and mother is lost when her husband drives the babysitter home and never returns.

Sacrifice Fly: A Mystery by Tim O’Mara (Minotaur Books)

This may be the best debut crime novel by anyone since Think of a Number by John Verdon.   A disabled NYPD cop turned public school teacher decides to solve a crime that involves one of his former students.

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A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks (Henry Holt)

A story is told through the lives of five different human beings who live in different times, including the past and the future (2029).   Those who loved the innovative novel American Music by Jane Mendelsohn may be drawn to this one.

Blackberry Winter: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume)

A perfect cold case story for cold weather reading.   As a late-Spring snowstorm hits Seattle, a reporter tries to get to the bottom of an 80 year-old kidnapping.

Forgotten: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow)

A young female Canadian lawyer, presumed to have died while visiting a village in Africa destroyed by an earthquake, returns home to find that everyone’s moved on without her.   From the author of Spin and Arranged.

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell)

Four women with legal and personal issues are required to attend weekly group counseling sessions with a rather unconventional counselor.   Serious issues covered with a “wry sense of humor” (The Sacramento Bee).

For the Music Lover

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman (Thomas Dunne Books)

The story of the musicians who anonymously played on most of the biggest-selling rock songs recorded between 1962 and 1975.   This book provides “Good Vibrations” for the music fanatic.

Bruce by Peter James Carlin (Touchstone)

The author of Paul McCartney: A Life shows us the very human side of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo)

Fans of the late singer-songwriter will be enthralled by this overview of his all-too-short life.

Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury & Queen by Mark Blake (Da Capo), and Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones (Touchstone)

These well-written biographies of the late Queen front man will make readers revisit their Queen music collections, or purchase new ones.Mercury 2

For Those with Special Diets

You Won’t Believe It’s Salt-Free!: 125 Healthy, Low-Sodium and No-Sodium Recipes Using Flavorful Spice Blends by Robyn Webb (Da Capo Lifelong Books), and Gluten-Free On a Shoestring Quick & Easy by Nicole Hunn (Da Capo Lifelong Books)

It’s not easy to cut down on either sodium or gluten in our diets, but these two authors illustrate how you can do so and still enjoy eating.

For the Sports Fan

Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy by Adam Lazarus (Da Capo)

If you think the San Francisco 49ers have a quarterback controversy now, Lazarus reminds us of what happened on the team between 1987 and 1994.

The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open by Neil Sagebiel (Thomas Dunne Books)

The amazing story of when an unknown golfer by the name of Jack Fleck beat his idol, the great Ben Hogan, at the U.S. Open major tournament.   Truth is stranger than fiction, and in ’55 the Open was played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (just like this year’s U.S. Open).

For the Animal Lover

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan (William Morrow)

An overweight man’s health is saved, and his life is rescued by a small mountain-climbing miniature schnauzer named Atticus M. Finch.   A fine, touching memoir.

Following Atticus (audio)

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Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers and/or publicists.   A Possible Life will be released on Tuesday, December 11, 2012.

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White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Win a Second Chance!

“The Season of Second Chances was a wonderful novel that I enjoyed reading.   I enjoyed it so much that I ripped through the book reading it late into the night…”   Laura Gerold, Laura’s Reviews

“As in an old house, you will encounter all manner of surprises on Joy’s journey and, I promise, they will keep you reading far too late in the evening to be sensible…”   Katherine Lanpher, author of Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move

Just yesterday, we posted a review of The Season of Second Chances: A Novel by Diane Meier.   Now, thanks to Interpersonal Frequency LLC, we have a copy of Second Chances to give away!   In case you haven’t yet read the review we posted, here is the official synopsis of this novel:

Joy Harkness had built a career and a safe life in New York City.   When offered a position at Amherst College, she impulsively leaves the city.   A tumbledown Victorian house proves an unlikely choice; nevertheless, it becomes the home that changes Joy forever.   As the restoration begins to take shape, so does her outlook on life.   Amid the half-wanted attention of the campus’ single, middle-aged men and the legitimate dramas of her community, Joy learns that second chances are waiting to be discovered within us all.

This book has a retail value of $25.00.   In order to enter this giveaway, all you need to do is post a comment here – with your name and an e-mail address – or send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, and speaking of second chances, tell us where you live now and where you would live if money was no object.  

Munchy the cat will serve as the contest administrator and will pick a winner.   You must live in the continental United States to enter this contest, and if your name is selected by Munchy, you must supply a residential mailing address.   The winner’s book will not be mailed to a P.O. box or to a business-related address.

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 3, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   This is it for the contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!   

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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Happy Jack: A Review of Our Boys

It may just be me…   Sometimes with non-fiction sports stories – especially ones that are intended to be inspirational – I feel like I can’t get any traction as a reader.   They start off slowly and I tend to wait and wait and wait and wait, thinking they’ll speed up and the excitement will hit me.   I had this problem with the book version of Friday Night Lights.   I bought the trade paperback while on vacation thinking the read would fly by.   Instead, I plodded and crawled my way through the story and somehow never located the part where it sped up.

Sadly, The Boys… is a very Friday Night… like tale.   It’s a non-fiction account chronicled by an on-leave newspaper reporter of his year spent with a high school’s football team on the plains of Kansas.   OK, if this makes your heart beat faster it may be a book for your vacation.   (Beware that the words wheat and wheat fields are used a lot.)Our Boys (large)

Perhaps part of the problem for me is that I was reading a galley/advanced reading copy of Our Boys.   There were no teaser quotes on the front or back cover – or even inside – stating things like, “The most inspirational youth sports story of the decade!” or “This is Drape’s youth sports masterpiece!”   Galleys can be a bit dull.

Then there’s Drape’s factual reporting style.   Here’s a sample:  “The coaches’ office…  was not much to look at – blue lockers on one wall and across from them a long desk fashioned from plywood and file cabinets.   Its top was buried under papers…   Beneath it were boxes full of jerseys and T-shirts and rolls of tape.   Scouting reports dating back five years were in red binders and lined the sleeves.”   Does this make you want to know what happened next?

To be fair, the author himself notes that the Smith Center football coach was hard for reporters to cover as his proclamations “rarely veered from too familiar themes.”   Oh, the coach would say that his team respected every opponent while fearing none; he’d also praise the opponents for playing hard.

In summary, I had hopes that this true life story would offer some fun like a ride in a Volkswagen GTI.   Instead it was a ride in a John Deere Harvester as it plowed through Kansas wheat fields, never quite managing to speed up.

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