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Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Remember me? Yes, it’s been quite a while since I last opined on a rock star memoir. Believe me when I say I hadn’t intended to let Chez BTRU go stale, and though people who advise on the proper way to live as a blogger tell you not to explain long absences, I feel I owe one.

Since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews every other month – sometimes the gap is wider, but I deliver something. After posting my last review in June I had another book in my TBR and plans for a summer vacation of reading. Then in July, on the day we woke to leave for our trip, we were told my mother-in-law died. Helping to settle her affairs took the rest of the summer.

Fall brought school, more estate stuff, and the day job. During Christmas vacation I felt enough time had passed that I could resume reading and blogging…then I got laid off. The day after Christmas, no less. I lost January looking for work, and February and March dealing with two separate health crises in the immediate family.

So 2016 took some family, a job I loved, and all the cool celebrities, and the gloom left me sliding into 2017 with little desire to do anything. We’re almost into April and I’m once again working to resume a productive life – productive in the things I enjoy. This past week I went book shopping and found a few gems to share.

Book Riot clued me in to California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu, a graphic novel covering the first two-thirds of the life of Cass Elliot. As one fourth of the harmonious 60s group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass offered an amazing voice to the music scene. I’m not a die-hard fan, but I could probably name about a dozen hits off the top of my head as they were one of the more important bands of the era, bridging folk to pop and offering serious competition to the British invasion. Had Cass lived, I don’t doubt she’d have continued a successful post-Mama career, if not in music then some hybrid of stage, cabaret and TV – hell, maybe a cartoon spinoff from that Scooby Doo special she did. She’d have been a riot on Twitter, too.

Bagieu’s illustrative biography is more of a serial in that Cass’s story (from early to age to the cusp of TM&TP’s breakthrough) is told from the perspectives of the important supporting players in her life. Her sister gets a chapter, then her school BFF, collaborators, would-be lovers and rivals chime in to reveal the evolution of Ellen Cohen to Cass Elliot. Bagieu’s artwork is loose and lush, not completely detailed scene for scene, but she gives enough distinction for each person portrayed – Cass’s wide-eyed awe, John Phillips’ austerity, Michelle’s pixie beauty, and Denny Doherty’s shaggy hippie charm. It’s like Bagieu sketched out Cass’s story as gently as possible, as though to provide some comfort to the young woman who put up with so much BS throughout her short life. I enjoyed reading Dreamin’, but I would advise if you want to read this spend the money and buy it in print. Reading graphic novels via Kindle, even through the web reader, is a pill.

Rating: A

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I picked up Matt Birkbeck’s Deconstructing Sammy after seeing it marked down through an eBook deal newsletter. It’s not so much a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. as it is a cautionary tale. I’ve read similar stories about entertainers, how one can generate millions of dollars over a storied career yet have nothing to show for it by the end. You can have an amazing voice, dance on ceilings without wires, and recite Shakespeare to make people cry, but if you don’t have any money sense you’re toast. TL;DR – If you want to major in drama, minor in business and read everything you sign.

Deconstructing is the more the story of Albert “Sonny” Murray, a former federal prosecutor whose involvement in settling Davis’ IRS entanglements came at the behest of family and friends on behalf of Davis’ widow, Altovise. Similar to the aftermath of James Brown’s death, as told in James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave (reviewed here), Davis died with his estate in dire straits, and survivors fighting over rights to exploit. Altovise wanted her Hollywood lifestyle back, Sammy’s daughter wanted a musical made, but until the IRS got theirs nobody got anything.

Fixing the seemingly impossible fell to Murray, and as you read you may want to root for him the most, considering how the deeper he gets into Davis’ “afterlife” the more unpleasant surprises await him. Davis proves as interesting in death as he did alive, in every sense surrounded by people stuffing their pockets. Birkbeck balances the timelines of Davis’ life of extravagance and strife with Murray’s determination to finish a job and frustrations in bringing his parents to financial solvency by helping to save their inn – the first in the Poconos to cater to black tourists. It’s fascinating to read.

As I write this I’m not yet finished with the book. I wanted to contribute to the blog, and these titles seem to go together in that each tells a bittersweet story, in that you wonder what could have been with a longer life for Cass and a broader legacy for Sammy, a huge star in his time who hasn’t enjoyed the exposure of a Sinatra or Elvis after his passing, but certainly warrants it. For now I’m giving the book a B but that rating might change when I finish.

Kathryn Lively is back…for now.

Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching For James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching For James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

First things first: James McBride wrote an excellent, excellent memoir called The Color of Water. Go read it.

Second, don’t expect a traditional biography when you open Kill ‘Em and Leave (AMZ). Authors of biographies concern themselves with facts, typically in chronological order. That’s not to say McBride isn’t interested in the truth about James Brown; this book features input from many people involved in Brown’s inner circle and some on the fringes: musicians, money men, friends and family. How McBride presents what truth he finds happens in a narrative that’s personal and evokes an almost spiritual journey.

Explaining James Brown equates, one could argue, to trying to explain what Jesus actually looked like. Different versions of the Brown story/legend exist because, as we see in McBride’s book, it’s how Brown wanted it. For a man who enjoyed the spotlight, he craved the mystery and privacy just as much. The title of this book comes from advice Brown was fond of giving and sticking to: knock their socks off, and go. Kill ’em and leave. As McBride writes, “James Brown’s status was there wasn’t no A-list. He was the list.” Watch any clip of him on YouTube and try to argue.

McBride’s narrative reminded me in part of Citizen Kane and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in the respect that you have a person searching for a story, looking for an answer (What was Rosebud? Who was the real James Brown?) and in the process you come across a variety of people whose interpretations not only magnify the legacy of the subject, but make them people you want to know better. McBride talks to the last surviving member of The Flames, Brown’s early group; his first wife Velma; the man who helped save Brown from the IRS; surrogate son Al Sharpton; and Miss Emma, a devoted friend for decades. Their stories are raw and engaging and bring pieces of Brown’s life together like a puzzle we’re amazed to see at the end. It’s more than a story about one of the great soul singers, it’s a history of black music and a social commentary about how we treat people, and how we revere some after death…and how greed makes us blind to the need of others. The story of James Brown after his death – the multiple funerals, the fight over his estate, the midnight visit from Michael Jackson – would make one hell of a movie on it own.

This is a book that will stay with you. It’s awesome. Just read it.

Rating: A

ARC received from NetGalley.

Kathryn Lively feels good, like she knew that she should.

2113: Stories Inspired By the Music of Rush by Kevin J. Anderson and Josh McFetridge, eds.

2113: Stories Inspired By the Music of Rush by Kevin J. Anderson and Josh McFetridge, eds.

Buy 2113 on Amazon.

Andy Rooney said, “Writers never retire.” Drummers…well, it happens and it’s not always voluntary. We know Neil Peart can’t rock the solos forever, short of having bionic arms installed (don’t think somebody hasn’t suggested it), and if you’ve read recent interviews you know what’s on his mind. Family. Writing. Somewhere he’s said he hoped to adapt Clockwork Angels the novel to film. So yeah, he’s not going anywhere in a sense.

While I didn’t love the Clockwork Angels novel, I think there’s strong potential in a film. Tighten the story and give it to right director, and I’ll go see it. I haven’t yet read the followup, because to be honest 2113 intrigued me more. Multi-author anthologies, for me, are a mixed bag in terms of quality, but this being a collection of stories – 16 of which are inspired by Rush songs – proved too tempting to resist.

Of the 18 authors included in the book, I’ve read three prior, including Kevin J. Anderson and Mercedes Lackey (I’d read somewhere she based the character Dirk from the Valdemar novels on Geddy Lee). Most die-hard fans have searched the Internet to read “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard S. Foster, which inspired Neil to write “Dead Barchetta.” It is part of this collection, and Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones” is the other reprint.

So we have 18 stories, each connected to a specific Rush song. The cover and roster suggest all science fiction, and you’ll find everything from hard SF to futuristic drama here, but 2113 also showcases some paranormal mystery and noir. For the most part, Easter eggs of Rush lyrics are scarce – which suits me fine. The stories flow nicely, much like in Rush albums where the individual songs connect to form an all-encompassing concept.

Highlights for me in 2113 include:

“On the Fringes of the Fractal” by Greg Van Eekhout – Futuristic YA about loyalty and friendship, a willingness to sacrifice social standing for a friend.

“A Patch of Blue” by Ron Collins – Another theme of “deviating from the norm,” as one Rush song goes, where creators in two different realms take similar paths for what they believe is right.

“The Burning Times, V2.0” by Brian Hodge – Like Fahrenheit 451 crossed with Harry Potter; a young person fights censorship and as a result has to save himself.

“The Digital Kid” by Michael Z. Williamson – A dreamer’s journey to overcome disability.

“Some Are Born to Save the World” by Mark Leslie – The story of a superhero’s mortality.

I won’t reveal which songs inspired which stories. As noted in the book’s introduction, one doesn’t need to be familiar with Rush’s music to enjoy the book. That the majority of the contributing authors have backgrounds in SFF keep the stories cohesive. A fair number of Rush fans I know enjoyed Clockwork Angels, but I think they will appreciate this book as much, if not more.

My only nitpick with this collection: only one female author in the bunch. If the boys sanction this as a franchise, perhaps 2114 could feature a few more women writers. Lady Rush fans do exist.

Rating: A-

Kathryn Lively is a lady Rush fan.