Bedtime stories to savor
“The greatest gift,” author Elizabeth Hardwick once said, “is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you the knowledge of the world and an experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.”
There are more books than ever, but fewer readers—sit in an airport or doctor’s office, and you will see many people bored but few reading—or perhaps literature just has competition from an endless sea of websites and blogs.
However, in a time when information has become a form of garbage—spam, junk mail and constant background noise—we need books more than ever. We need to step back from the computer screen, curl up under a tree and relearn how to actually read, as opposed to scanning data.
In that spirit, Pulse of the Twin Cities is offering a sampling of some of the
best books—politics, fiction, music and graphic novels—of the last
several months. Pick one and dig in.
“So You Wanna Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”
By Jacob Slichter
This often insightful and nearly always hysterical account of local pop trio
Semisonic’s commercial rise and fall during the late ’90s makes
for a lighting-quick and pleasurable read. Adapted from drummer Jacob Slichter’s
online journal and fleshed out into a full-fledged book after the band went
on a semi-hiatus following the disastrous commercial reception of their 2001
album All About Chemistry, the book retains the deeply personal and informal
feel of a devout internet blogger.
The Harvard-educated Slichter is nearly as good with a pen with a drum kit,
simultaneously poking fun at the ridiculous state of the major-label music game
and his own willingness to play it. Recalling the band’s first appearance
on network television (playing chart-topping 1998 alt. Rock hit “Closing
Time” on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”), Slichter
is vexed by his wardrobe choices:
“I remained wary of following [my fellow bandmates] Dan and John’s
forays into flamboyance but knew that my clothes should say, ‘rock star.’
If only they could say, ‘thoughtful rock star, skeptical of stardom and
fashion, who nevertheless manages to dress with an unassuming panache.’”
Slichter is equally self-deprecating and humorous as he lays out the unglamorous
truth of life on the road (endless free time and “Law and Order”
rerun-watching on the tour bus) and as a semi-celebrity (getting spotted on
the street in Europe, only to be asked, “Hey, aren’t you the drummer
Insights into the working dynamics of the band (front man Dan Wilson comes across
as a brainy and somewhat distant character) and Slichter’s lifelong obsession
with music stardom (he caught the bug when he became the only white guy in his
Illinois high school’s super-cool funk band) are vaguely interesting,
but the book really hits home in its dissection of the business end of the music
industry. Examining the seemingly mundane details of record contracts, radio
promotion visits, market research and public reactions with an inquisitive and
acerbic authorial eye, Slichter does a stellar job of elucidating what’s
wrong with the current state of operations in the major labels in the music
— Rob van Alstyne
“Chronicles: Volume One”
By Bob Dylan
Those fools expecting a revealing tell-all from Dylan’s “autobiography”
(I use the quotes here because “Chronicles” reads more like a novel
than a straightforward reflection on Dylan’s past) ought to know better.
After all, this is a man who has spent the last 40 years leading one of the
most guarded celebrity lives imaginable, an enigma who clearly enjoys fucking
with the press and manipulating people’s preconceived notions of his persona.
Is he going to suddenly turn around in his sixties and decide to reveal the
“real” Bob Dylan to his adoring legions? Give me a break.
That said, “Chronicles” is still an engaging and magical read, full
of the sly wordplay and eviscerating wit that populates his best songs. This
is true even when Dylan’s clearly messing with his fans, sliding in such
asides as the fact that his favorite politician was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater—a
founding member of the modern conservative movement in the United States.
One of the most captivating (and seemingly honest) moments comes when Dylan
recalls his first moments as a songwriter:
“Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself
what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching
and invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are
bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened
to you, strange things you have seen. You have to know and understand something
and then go past the vernacular.”
finds Dylan given to grandiose phrasing at the drop of a hat, prone to describing
acquaintances and various side characters with tag-on lines like, “He
wasn’t somebody who would leave any footprints on the sands of time, but
there was something special about him.” Rooms, people and events from
over 40 years ago are described with such exacting detail that Dylan is either
relying on a heretofore-unacknowledged photographic memory or getting more than
a bit creative with his storytelling.
The entire book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that makes the
reading experience feel markedly novelistic, and “Chronicles” is
arguably the least traditional autobiography I’ve read (and certainly
of a different breed than, say, Motley Crue tell-all “The Dirt”).
The lengthy chapters jump between different eras of Dylan’s life (his
early days in Dinkytown and subsequently New York City, the recording of his
first “comeback” album, 1970’s New Morning and a later one,
1989’s Oh Mercy), but the style remains the same.
Just to keep things from getting too familiar, these sequences run out of order,
so right after we finish hearing Bob’s thoughts on recording in New Orleans
with Daniel Lanois in 1988, he’s moving into his cousin Chucky’s
fraternity house on University Avenue in Dinkytown in 1959. This ambitious stylistic
gambit largely works, because the specifics of what did (or didn’t) happen
during Dylan’s early days and recent past hardly matter. What the public
knows of Dylan from his songs and their subsequent impact upon nearly all persons
of a certain age who heard them tells more than a large enough story on its
own. However, it’s a rare treat to have Dylan’s own impressionistic
and artful take on the times as well.
— Rob van Alstyne
By Naomi Kritzer
In an age when futuristic fantasies like the “Left Behind” series
gain fame by counting down to the Rapture, it is rare and refreshing to find
fantasy with a politically radical bent. Thankfully, local writer Naomi Kritzer
is helping to fill the void with her newest book, “Freedom’s Gate,”
which is the first in the “Dead Rivers” trilogy.
books are striking for their strong, free-thinking female protagonists, who
dress androgynously, are sexually queer and take no guff from anyone. The books
deal with politically and socially radical ideas like slavery, work, rape, communal
living, class politics and queer issues; “Freedom’s Gate,”
for example, examines what it means to be bound to someone, both by ownership
and work. By taking her story far away from the present-day United States, Kritzer
is able to examine and provoke discussion about how people live in capitalist,
as opposed to communal, societies. Lauria differentiates herself from slaves
because she works freely, but the reader also sees how Lauria functions as a
freed person. Kritzer forces the reader to question the difference between slavery
and wage slavery in a society that makes wage slavery necessary.
One of the strengths of “Freedom’s Gate,” and Kritzer’s
work in general, is that she immediately thrusts the reader into the world she
creates. There is no long explanation of the culture or what the words—in
this case drawn from the Greek language—mean. The reader is left to simply
pick it up and figure it out, flowing with the somewhat-first-person narrative.
The narrative becomes an effective literary device, as the reader—at least,
the reader with a chunk of time to sit quietly and read—can allow the
new world to overflow around him or her. As the reader figures out what a djinn
is or the significance of a spider, he or she has the sense of earning acceptance
in another world.
The second book in the trilogy, “Freedom’s Apprentice,” was
released April 26.
— Michelle Lee
“Persepolis I” & “Persepolis II”
by Marjane Satrapi
successful in France, these two books provide a fascinating, radical take on
Iranian history, and embody the universal storytelling potential of the graphic
Satrapi’s main character is herself as a young woman, and the book is
the story of a long goodbye to her homeland. She grows up in the shadow of the
Iranian revolution, spends an unhappy adolescence alone in Europe, and returns
to Iran, only to leave as the regime’s oppression of women becomes clearer
and clearer. The plot offers a simple, cogent primer in Iranian history, from
the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah, through the increasing power of the fundamentalist
Iranian government, to the war with Iraq and its aftermath.
Her family is a cultured, wealthy one, and Satrapi grows up a truculent, intelligent
and much-loved child. She is so much loved, in fact, that when her resistance
to the religious police threatens her safety her parents unhappily decide to
send her away to Austria. Her time in Europe is unhappy but fascinating—she
makes friends with punks and anarchists, becomes homeless and deals marijuana,
while making her way with startling success through an extremely demanding academic
Homesick, she returns to Iran to study art. The religious authorities will not
allow art students to draw female models unless they are veiled from head to
toe, and when she tries to draw a male model, she is told that she should never
stare at men. The second volume ends with her final departure for France.
In outline, Satrapi’s story is sad. But the energy and force of Satrapi’s
character – when religious police yell at her through a loudspeaker to
stop running for the bus because it “makes her behind move in an obscene
way,” she yells back, “STOP LOOKING AT MY ASS!”) — coupled
with the simple, exuberant drawing give the book a feeling of emotional warmth.
book’s radicalism lies in how Satrapi tells her story. Unlike many comics
artists — Art Spiegelman, creator of “Maus,” springs to mind
— Satrapi does not restrict the action of the story to a tight-knit, patriarchal
family and its psychology. Her story encompasses friendships, political activism,
a very extended family and immigrants across the globe. It is a pleasure to
see the author put social and familial relationships among women into the foreground,
rather than locating the emotional center of the book in heterosexual romance.
There is also radicalism in the books’ return to the experience of being
Iranian. American discourse tends to be about the Middle East only in relation
to the United States, as if all Middle Eastern history were simply a reaction
to events in the West. Middle Eastern countries are flattened, seen without
the complexity that we bring to bear when thinking about American or European
history. In Satrapi’s dense, multi-class, multi-generational story an
Iran appears that becomes as real as the United States.
“Perseopolis I” and “Persepolis II” belong on the shelf
with such dense and emotional graphic novels as Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar
stories, Jason Lutes’s “Berlin,” “City of Stones,”
and Joe Sacco’s several explorations of war zones.
— Jane Franklin
“Voices of a People’s History of the United States”
By Howard Zinn
For all our rhetorical invocations of the Founding Fathers, we are a nation
profoundly divorced from our past. Most Americans show a staggering ignorance
of our own history — two-thirds of 17-year-olds polled recently could
not place the Civil War within the right half-century – and our history
classes bleed our past of any personality or drama.
Howard Zinn has made a career of putting the drama back. A WWII bomber pilot
who marched with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights movement and against
the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Zinn has witnessed plenty of history firsthand,
and shows no signs of slowing down at 85.
magnum opus, “A People’s History of the United States,” introduced
a generation to the history below the surface. While most history books canonize
leaders who bestowed rights to Americans, Zinn described the Americans who protested
and fought in the streets for decades until the leaders gave in. And while most
textbooks are written in the stentorian tone of authority, Zinn’s work
sang with the voices of farmers and rebels and dangerous saints.
Those long-suppressed characters now have their own book, “Voices of a
People’s History of the United States,” which Zinn wrote with colleague
Anthony Arnove. This companion volume follows the structure of its predecessor,
but is devoted entirely to the “source material” — diary entries,
letters, poems, articles, speeches and songs of witnesses to history, from the
1400s to the invasion of Iraq.
Many sections retain an astonishing eloquence even today. We hear the remorse
of Bartolomeo Las Casas, describing Christopher Columbus’ holocaust. We
are privy to the secret writings of slaves plotting armed revolt, in a letter
found blowing down a South Carolina street in 1728. We hear the words of Orlando
and Phyllis Rodriguez, whose son died on September 11, speaking out against
the invasion of Iraq. The book also includes obscure writings of familiar names
– Mark Twain’s denunciation of the U.S. massacre of Filipino Muslims,
Helen Keller’s praise of the Wobblies or Martin Luther King’s opposition
to the Vietnam invasion.
This is the heritage you never knew you had, what your teacher never taught.
But while the voices captured here often cry out against atrocities and injustice,
many were successful in making a better world, making this one of the few histories
filled with hope.
— Brian Kaller
“The Blast: Complete Collection of the Incendiary San
Francisco Bi-Monthly Anarchist Newspaper From 1916-1917 that Gave Voice to the
Worldwide Anarchist Movement”
by various authors
Immigration. War. Draft. Activism. Censorship. Arrest. Deportation. It could
be a telegram version of Guantamano Bay or the latest uber-FBI crackdown—but
this particular incident happened nearly a century ago. It’s the tale
of a World War I anti-conscription activist and his newspaper the Blast.
“The Blast” anthology, recently published by AK Press, reprints
all 29 issues of the seminal anarchist newspaper, published by Alexander Berkman
from 1916 to 1917, before he was deported to the Soviet Union. While the Blast
itself was a great newspaper, with information about WWI-era figures like Tom
Mooney, birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Pancho Villa and Emma Goldman,
Berkman’s own story is the most interesting.
Best known as Emma Goldman’s lover, Berkman immigrated from Russia in
1870 and, like many Jewish immigrants, settled in New York and became involved
in the social justice movement. A failed assassination attempt on Henry Clay
Frick (the man responsible for the Homestead disaster) landed him in prison
for 14 years, where he penned his work “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.”
After his release in 1894, Berkman edited Goldman’s newspaper Mother Earth
and continued his political activism. In fact, he had been threatened with arrest
for the crime that Mooney and others were charged with (bombing a Preparedness
Day parade). Berkman wanted to support Mooney, which is how he ended up publishing
a paper in San Francisco.
Which brings us to the deportation. The Blast began in 1916, a heated time for
anarchists in the U.S. World War I had begun overseas, and while anarchists
and labor organizers had always been targets for government oppression, repression
worsened as the U.S. began to prepare for war (sound familiar?). J. Edger Hoover
cut his FBI teeth trailing Berkman, Goldman, and their comrades. Shortly after
the U.S. entered WWI, and the draft was instituted, Wilson signed first the
Alien Immigration Act (allowed deportation of legal immigrants) and then the
Espionage Act (forbade interfering with the draft), and the government began
to crack down on anarchist publications.
Around the same time, Berkman, Goldman, and other anarchists founded the No
Conscription league, and despite arrests began to organize against the draft.
The offices of the League were in the same offices as the Blast, staffed by
Goldman and Berkman, and the newspaper ran articles about this topic. Thus,
on June 15, Berkman and Goldman were both arrested and charged with conspiracy
to violate the Draft Act. The Blast ceased publication then, as the two were
found guilty, spent two years in jail and, because they were “undesirable
immigrants,” were deported to Russia with 247 other radical immigrants
in December 1919.
Berkman’s mark on the movement was indelible, and hopefully, with the
publication of the Blast anthology, he can be better known for his writing skills
and political activism than his relationship with Goldman.
— Michelle Lee
“Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values
and Frame the Debate”
by George Lakoff
Dead-on in its core idea and misguided in its details, linguist George Lakoff’s
latest foray into politics, “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your
Values and Frame the Debate” is intended as a handbook for progressives
to win back the hearts and minds of George W. Bush’s America.
signature idea is that we make decisions in life not by rational calculation,
but based on models of the world – “frames” — that we
rarely examine. We unconsciously compare writing to cooking, or example, so
we overflow with ideas, let them simmer, put them on the back burner and so
on. We unconsciously think of the nation as a family, so we have Founding Fathers,
Daughters of the Revolution and brothers in arms.
By using the right words and phrases, one can coax others from one frame into
another – say, from a conservative view to a progressive one. But frames
cannot simply be denied: try not to think of an elephant and you think of an
elephant, and Richard Nixon’s declaration that “I am not a crook”
stuck him with the label crook ever after.
The book’s most useful sections explain how the GOP skillfully uses language
to frame national debates — “the death tax,” “tax relief,”
“partial-birth abortion,” “family values” — while
Democrats simply accept the frame, adjusting their positions in pursuit of a
center but never expressing an alternate set of values.
So far, so good – Lakoff’s research is valuable for any activist
who wants to promote their views effectively. But he overreaches by putting
Republicans and Democrats on the psychiatrist’s couch and examining their
alleged competing views of the world – Republicans’ “strict
parent” and the Democrats’ “nurturing parent” mentalities.
Lakoff never questions the most basic frame, that there are only two possible
sides, Democratic and Republican, with Stalin and Earth First at one extreme
and Hitler and the Amish on the other. He never asks why “conservative”
Republicans in the “conservative” 1950s had economic views welcome
only in the Green Party today. He never considers that corporate owners have
any motivation for their pro-corporate policies other than that they really,
really care, like he does, but with a “strict father” view.
There is enough gold here to recommend Lakoff’s book, and to see why Lakoff
has garnered the adoration of power players like Howard Dean and Moveon.org.
Once the professor strays from his own field, however, the book becomes a therapeutic
salve for Democrats searching for reasons why they lost.
— Brian Kaller
“What’s the Matter with Kansas”
by Thomas Frank
The best political book of the last decade, Thomas Frank’s What’s
the Matter With Kansas? captures, with dry wit and crystalline prose, the transformation
of American politics of the last 30 years. The title is taken from a then-famous
1896 article by newspaperman William White, complaining about the small-town
radicalism of the Midwest. White, a solid supporter of corporations, sneered
at the anti-corporate hicks and their candidate, evangelical William Jennings
Frank points out, few Americans are aware that there ever were such things as
rural or blue-collar radicals. White’s stereotypes have been perfectly
reversed – now Democrats are the ones portrayed in the media as campus
elitists and small towns are assumed to be Bush country. Election 2000’s
famous “red” and “blue” state map is a photographic
negative of 1896 – all the blue states have gone red and vice versa.
Conditions in the Midwest and South are regressing to those of a century ago,
Frank argues, as corporations again run rampant and the standard of living plummets.
The time is ripe for another populist movement, he says, and one has arisen
– but one whose political orientation is the opposite of the original,
a “backlash” against the gains won by Americans in the last century.
Instead of reflexively mocking rural “wingnuts” or treating “the
Right” as a single organism, as most writers do, Frank digs deeper, touring
the small towns of his home state and describing the crushing poverty, social
breakdown and seething resentment that finds its outlet in Operation Rescue
and the Religious Right. He reviews the modus operandi of talk radio and FOX
News that generates a constant simmer of rage in the heartland. Most importantly,
he sympathizes with the backlashers, seeing that their goals, however misguided,
are not miles away from Adbusters magazine’s culture jammers: they are
trying to break the grip of Hollywood values and return to a simpler life.
Frank skillfully captures the ironies of the backlash – Wall Street players
who promote their corporations with pseudo-Marxist language; all-powerful Republicans
who see themselves as victims of Nazi-style liberal oppression; evangelical
alpha females who describe themselves as “happy captives” of their
husbands; and millionaire superstars who claim to be dissidents against the
Perceptive, terrifying and wickedly funny, this is a book every American absolutely
must read, and then read again.
— Brian Kaller
You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record
Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life
By Jacob Slichter
Published by Broadway on June 29, 2004. 304 pages. ISBN: 0767914708
Chronicles, Vol. 1
By Bob Dylan
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 5, 2004. 304 pages. ISBN: 0743228154
By Naomi Kritzer
Published by Spectra on June 29, 2004. 384 pages. ISBN: 0553586734
“Persepolis : The Story of a Childhood”
By Marjane Satrapi
Published by Pantheon in April 2003. 160 pages. ISBN: 0375422307
“Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return”
Published by Pantheon in August 2004. 192 pages. ISBN: 0375422889
“Voices of a People’s History of the United States,”
By Howard Zinn
Published by Seven Stories Press on October 15, 2004. 736 pages. ISBN: 1583226281
The Blast: Complete Collection of the Incendiary San Francisco Bi-Monthly Anarchist
Newspaper From 1916-1917 that Gave Voice to the Worldwide Anarchist Movement
By Alexander Berkman
Published by AK Press March 1, 2005.
ISBN: 1 904859 08 9
“Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and
Frame the Debate—The Essential Guide for Progressives”
By George Lakoff
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company in September 2004. 144 pages.
“What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives
Won the Heart of America”
By Thomas Frank
Published by Metropolitan Books on June 1, 2004. 320 pages. ISBN: 0805073396