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Baby Driver

the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 321 pages)

There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, "That was some story!" This is one of those books. It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death. As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it because he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary, that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being. Enzo's lifelong study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he'll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life… Which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery. Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you'll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion to this dog-gone tale. But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a certain special quality. Let's call it the ability to fashion a sparkling magical mystery trip.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you. And as with Everything…, there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together. Maybe. Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be. This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the story’s narrator. Now, let’s see, who would be the ideal voice of Enzo? Me, I hear Nicolas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me. As Enzo would say (or bark out), “I know a lot about a lot of things, but I don’t know everything about everything.”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

If you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will likely also enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe. It’s another fine feast for dog lovers, available as a trade paperback book (Villard, $13.95, 288 pages).

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

We recently posted a review (“My Little Red Book”) of Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud.   In this review we noted that the writer had not contacted Michael Genelin, the man who prosecuted Mineo’s killer.   So we did contact Mr. Genelin in order to get his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is what he told us:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor, some major; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

Thank you to Michael Genelin, author of the novel The Magician’s Accomplice (Soho Crime), for correcting the record.   This follow-up note was written by Joseph Arellano.

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Baby Driver: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Art of racing 6There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, “That was some story!”   This is one of those books.   It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death.   As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it as he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary – that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being.   Enzo’s  life-long study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he’ll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life…  which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery.   Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you’ll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion.   But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a magical mystery.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you.   And as with Everything… there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together.   Maybe…   Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be.   This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I just hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a single thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the narrator.   Now, let’s see, who would be the voice of Enzo?   Me, I hear Nicholas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me.   As Enzo would say (or bark out), I know a lot about a lot of things, but not everything about everything.

Joseph Arellano

Notes: This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Also, if you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will also likely enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe.   It’s another fine feast for dog-lovers, now available as a trade paperback (Villard, $13.95).

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