The One: The Life and Music of James Brown
By RJ Smith
Gotham Books; 464 pp.; $27
James Brown is a hard person to write about, but RJ Smith's The One deftly handles the tensions contained by its incomparable subject.
Brown, a cultural touchstone for African-American identity during the civil rights era, lived a life of violence and deceit. He beat women, shot up bars, and abandoned his touring band in California. He also created Al Sharpton out of clay, broke down racial barriers in superlatively racist Augusta, Georgia, and was consulted by both the Johnson and Nixon administrations for his shamanistic ability to control crowds. His relation to the "movement" is nuanced and thoughtfully handled here.
Raised not so much in poverty as in cruel depravity, life forced Brown to take what he saw when he could; and he did. He took the "holiness thing" from the Pentecostal tradition and sold it on the street with unparalleled brazenness.
His mother walked away (listen to "Please Don't Go" again). His dad (who left him drunk and naked in a church's baptistery at age 7) only knew the knife-first ways of the street. And Brown went straight to juvenile prison, where he earned the nickname "Music Box" and picked up a discipline that he imposed on himself and, perhaps more so, on his band.
Brown was so hard on musicians it was like he was running a feedlot. The change in ethos between the disciplined Flames, who provided the swing-shuffle crooniness of his earlier work ("Try Me") and the uncontrollable power of the JBs (Bootsy Collins and "Sex Machine") is masterfully rendered here — as is so much else by RJ Smith in The One.
— Joe Boone
City of Bohane
By Kevin Barry
Graywolf Press; 288 pp.; $25
Kevin Barry's City of Bohane is an ultra-violent and genre-busting novel that has been cleverly disguised as a work of literary fiction. Barry's first full-length novel skillfully weaves together darkly comic tales of revenge, betrayal, and murder between rival gangs hell-bent on controlling the fictional Irish city of the book's title.
Bohane, loosely based on the author's hometown of Limerick, is a city where the blood of slaughtered hogs and hardened criminals flows freely in the streets, and Barry delivers his mob story in a frenzy that matches the city's stench. City of Bohane is also a love story, and quite an affecting one at that. At the novel's center is Logan Harnett, a man with a "mouth of teeth on him like a vandalized graveyard." Logan's long-term rule of the city is threatened from all sides in the novel's opening pages.
First, there is Gant Broderick, "a slugger of a young dude and as smart as a hatful of snakes," who is rumored to have returned to the city after years of exile to reclaim his power. There are also Logan's psychotic henchmen, Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners, who, along with the deadly 17-year-old Jenni Ching, all envision their own path to the top through Logan's eventual downfall. Even Logan's own mother, the "whiskey-gazed and pill-zapped" Girly, plots against him from her apartment balcony. But Logan's biggest threat comes from his young wife Macu, short for Immaculata. Childless and tired of being neglected, Macu wants out of the game. Barry's restrained portrait of the troubled marriage — Macu's quiet dissatisfaction and Logan's desperate pleas to win her over again — provide the novel with its much-needed heart.
While Barry sometimes verges too heavy on style (excessive detail is given to each character's dress), when all the pieces finally come together in an explosive and stunning set-piece of violence, it is the love story at the center of City of Bohane that packs the biggest wallop.
— Sean Kelly Robinson
By Marcus Samuelsson
Random House; 315 pp.; $27
Reading Marcus Samuelsson's memoir Yes, Chef, I was reminded of last year's hot chef memoir, Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. While the tone is different — Hamilton's is darkly funny and sometimes sharply mean and inscrutable, while Samuelsson's is overall upbeat and optimistic — the story is fundamentally the same: Chef overcomes personal odds and works incredibly hard to achieve success. Should I have expected anything more? Probably not, and that's okay.
Samuelsson's story is, by any measure, a fascinating one. He was orphaned in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden by white parents, and went on to become executive chef at Aquavit in New York at the age of 24. In 2010 alone, in a span of just a few months, he won Top Chef Masters, planned the menu for Barack Obama's first state dinner, and opened the upscale soul restaurant Red Rooster Harlem. (I can't even remember what I did in 2010.)
So even if Yes, Chef is often blandly told (with intermittent sprinkles of corniness), that's okay too. Not everyone can turn a phrase so crudely and spill the beans so naughtily as Anthony Bourdain. But there is some dish to be found here.
Samuelsson had a daughter from a one-night stand and did not have a relationship with her for 14 years. The reason that he got that gig at Aquavit at such a young age was because the chef he replaced up and died at age 32 (probably from drugs). Samuelsson more or less calls Gordon Ramsay a racist. And, in a eye-opening look at corporate restauranting, he recounts how, just as his star was rising on a national scale, he had to buy back his name from his boss at Aquavit, who felt he had financial claim to Samuelsson's celebrity.
Interesting, too, is just how rare Samuelsson is as a black chef of note. He says when he started out, he could count the number of well-known black chefs on one hand, and some 20 years later, that count remains unchanged (but he does include the Neelys of Memphis). It's also admirable how Samuelsson is using his success. He takes pains to help young blacks in the industry. He opened that upscale restaurant in Harlem with an eye toward improving the community. And he financially supports his family in Ethiopia after learning, when he was an adult, that he had several half-siblings.
Like most chef memoirs, Yes, Chef is at its most vivid when addressing the topic of food: There's the berbere spice mix of Samuelsson's homeland; the fish and pickles of Sweden; the breads of France; the fried chicken his Harlem neighbors insisted he include on the Red Rooster menu; and so on. Samuelsson's descriptions read like culinary hosannas.
So, yes, Yes, Chef is another chef memoir. But for foodies and Samuelsson fans and those seeking inspirational tales, that's more than okay.
— Susan Ellis
You & Me
By Padgett Powell
Ecco/HarperCollins; 208 pp.; $23.99
Padgett Powell writes without a net. Experimental and cerebral but also playful and often hilarious, his novels hinge on feats of literary derring-do. He wrote 2009's The Interrogative Mood entirely in questions, and the book's big subject seemed to be whether or not Powell could actually pull it off. He did primarily because he wrote that he did.
Powell's sixth novel, You & Me, is a similar bit of stuntwork. Much like Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint and Memphian Corey Mesler's Talk, it's written entirely in dialogue between "two weirdly agreeable dudes" on a porch somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida. Shooting the breeze full of holes, they toss around opinions and observations about figures real and invented (Jayne Mansfield, a dog named Final Alps of Heaven), as well as weirder subjects like haircuts on turtles.
The plot — such as it isn't — involves whether or not to leave the porch. Should they go down to the creek, peek into a neighbor's window, or just be something other than words on the page. One of these dudes is ostensibly "you" (the author perhaps?), the other "me" (the reader? the author's internal editor?), but it may be the "&" that matters most: Powell heads each chapter with a grayscale ampersand, suggesting an endless progression of short, spirited exchanges extending into eternity: an afterlife of chatter.
What exactly makes this a novel rather than a stage play, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot? Perhaps only Powell's insistence. He turns all that dialogue into something other than dialogue — something akin to philosophical inquiry or a kind of jocular spoken poetry. Despite its squirrelly self-awareness, however, this is fiction through and through. Powell gnaws at the edges of our expectations of a novel, which makes You & Me less a novelty and more a heady, even soulful meditation on the very nature of creativity.
— Stephen Deusner
The Book of Obama
By Ted Rall
Seven Stories Press; 234 pp.; $14.95 (paper)
It is a toss-up as to who is the more fun to encounter in a periodical — Ted Rall or Matt Taibbi. Neither of these literary men of the left are inclined to give an inch, a quarter, or a damn about the accepted niceties of political or social discourse. Both are first-class wags, both are willing to put themselves physically at risk, and both have talents that cross the usual dividing lines. Taibbi probably has the more varied résumé, which includes a stint as manager of a professional basketball team in Russia, but cartoonist/essayist Rall, who spent a year as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, maintains a steadier kind of cred in more distinct genres. He is right up there with R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman as a graphic stylist, his prose offerings, like Taibbi's, straddle the line between underground press and respectable mainline journals, he is the author of several prize-winning graphic novels, and he has done time as a broadcaster, from such nitty-gritty places as Afghanistan and Havana.The Book of Obama, Rall's latest offering, is summed up in a cover cartoon showing a vintage poster, "From Hope and Change," juxtaposed to (and succeeded by) a fresh-looking picket sign saying, "To the Age of Revolt."
The book is a testament to the spirit of the ongoing occupy movements and to the author's disillusionment with the promise of President Obama, whose resignation Rall has called for. One cartoon satirizes the president's complaisance toward the excesses of his predecessor by depicting Obama as a traffic cop telling a dazed motorist in a demolished vehicle, "Writing tickets doesn't change the past. Gotta move on! You're free to go, Mr. Bush."
All the cartoons hit a nerve (and most of them the funny bone, dead on), while the text is a fairly serious critique, point by point, policy by policy, of the corporate welfare state in feckless kamikaze decline.
— Jackson Baker
The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker
By Janet Groth
Algonquin Books; 229 pp.; $21.95
Dry wit and highbrow commentary are what you might expect from someone who worked at The New Yorker for 21 years. In The Receptionist by Janet Groth, you get that and more. A memoir about her time as a receptionist at the storied magazine, this quick-moving book is part autobiography and part dish about the many figures who wove in and out of her life from 1957 onward. Drunks, neurotics, crazy geniuses, closet philosophers, and the occasional philanderer (all of whom she fondly refers to in the book as the "congenitally unemployable") crossed her path while she clung to the dream of becoming a writer herself.
After graduated from the University of Minnesota, Groth's chief aim was to be an author of some sort. So she managed to land a slot at The New Yorker, only it wasn't the kind she expected. And she certainly didn't expect to be mired in the administrative pool for more than two decades. But, hey, life happens.
"Certainly in the beginning I fit the normal profile, being one of the thousands who come to the city from the provinces and, according to E.B. White, give New York its dynamism and buzz," she writes, and continues: "What happened after I got there is a more complicated story."
It's a story of lunch dates and happenings from the perspective of one who lived in the shadows — and sometimes under the wings of — the great literary minds of her time. If you want the skinny on Joseph Miller or Lillian Ross, you'll find it in these pages. If you want to read of print galleys and the sounds of mid-20th-century New York, you'll find them here too. But if you prefer the escapism of fiction to the rigors of real life, you might want to bypass The Receptionist.
— Lindsay Jones
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed
Knopf; 336 pp.; $25.95
Hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — up from the Mexican border to the Canadian border — is not your typical summer of fun. For Cheryl Strayed, as a recently divorced, recently orphaned 26-year-old, it was a necessity.
In Wild, her memoir about the summer of 1994, when she finally took to the Pacific Crest Trail after years of fits and starts, Strayed straddles the line between emotional and physical journeying. The hybrid is so engrossing that even without bear attacks or Deliverance-style run-ins, she has crafted a page-turner about her road to recovery and redemption. And Strayed makes no bones about her need for redemption. The book begins with the heart-wrenching story of her mother's quick death from lung cancer and follows Strayed through the dissolution of her family and eventually her marriage. She sleeps around and dabbles with heroin, until she finds herself at her lowest point and reciting the classic mantra of hitting rock bottom: "This is not me. This is not the way I am."
So she hits the trail to find her way back to who she is. For such an emotionally dense story, her memoir moves along smoothly, with equal parts laughter and tears, flashbacks and present-day quandaries. The image of her body flung across her dead mother's empty hospital bed elides into the image of her on the trail, "hunched in a remotely upright position," under the weight of her backpack.
There is plenty of physical struggle to match Strayed's emotional turmoil: Her shoes don't fit; she loses almost all of her toenails. But it is the emotional journey that pushes her on. And the ease with which Strayed's prose navigates the pockets of grief and absurdity makes what could have been a plodding epic an eminently readable story of the human spirit, broken and working its way toward mending. No wonder Wild's been a national best-seller and the opening selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0.
— Hannah Sayle
People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up
By Richard Lloyd Parry
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 464 pp.; $16 (paper)
In July 2001, Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old blonde from Great Britain, was reported missing from her Tokyo apartment. Lucie, who had moved to Japan months earlier in hopes of quickly paying off her debts, told a friend on the morning of her disappearance that she was meeting a Japanese businessman she had recently met at her job as a hostess in Tokyo's notorious Roppongi district for an early-afternoon date. Lucie later phoned a friend, saying the date was going well, and made plans to meet up that evening. Lucie was not seen again for six months, when her mutilated body was found buried in a bathtub inside a cave 30 miles south of Tokyo. The confounding details of Lucie's murder and the search for her killer are recounted in Richard Lloyd Parry's chilling true-crime thriller People Who Eat Darkness.
Parry, an investigative journalist, covered the case for more than 10 years for London's Independent and The Times, where the disappearance of the young woman was a media sensation, even attracting the attention of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Parry skillfully navigates the cultural differences that erupted between the Japanese police, who investigated the disappearance in secret, and Lucie's family, who were very public in their pleas for justice. These differences both hindered the case and kept it in the public eye.
Parry interviewed most of the key players in the case for the book, including the Blackman family and Lucie's accused murderer, Joji Obara, who even sued Parry for libel while Obara awaited trial. Parry's portrait of Obara is indeed bone-chilling in its detail and a terrifying reminder that true evil doesn't always come with a clear explanation.
While the disappearance of yet another blond woman can seem like lurid sensationalism to anyone who has turned off Nancy Grace in disgust, the details of Lucie's death in People Who Eat Darkness prove more shocking, and horrific, than any headline.
— Sean Kelly Robinson
Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness
By Scott Jurek
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 241 pp.; $26 (paper)
Drivers who proudly display "13.1" or "26.2" stickers on their car bumpers, meaning they've successfully run that number of miles in a half-marathon or marathon, might be considered running badasses. And by most accounts, they are. But ultramarathoner Scott Jurek has them beat by a long shot. This guy has completed (and often won) races of 100, 135, and 153 miles, sometimes in 100-plus-degree desert heat.
Jurek's new memoir, Eat & Run, chronicles how he went from a nerdy boy with blood pressure problems to the winner of some of the world's longest and most challenging foot races. And he does so on a totally vegan diet, much to the astonishment of his fellow omnivorous competitors.
With the help of writer Steve Friedman, Jurek shares his life story from his rural Minnesota childhood to his torn ankle ligaments (with 58 miles to go) in the prestigious Western States 100 race.
Jurek's book also offers a unique look into the underground culture of ultramarathoners. They're the kind of people whose determination trumps any physical pain or mental roadblocks. They bring along crews with ice "coffins" to lie in at rest stations. They eat (and vomit) on the move since races can last anywhere from 16 to 48 hours. But while other runners are cramming down cookies and potato chips, Jurek is fueling himself on bean burritos and falafel wraps. He does an excellent job chronicling what he eats off the trail too. At the end of each chapter, he provides a recipe for one of his favorite vegan dishes, such as tamari lime tempeh with brown rice or eight-grain strawberry pancakes.
Whether a newbie runner, a marathon champ, or a couch potato, Jurek's inspiring Eat & Run teaches us to believe in the old adage: You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything.
— Bianca Phillips
This is good summer for reading new graphic novels and other sequential art. Joe Sacco offers up
Journalism (Metropolitan Books), a collection of war reporting in cartoon form. Sacco is known for his coverage of Middle Eastern affairs in the book Palestine, the Bosnian war in Safe Area Goražde, and the Suez war in Footnotes in Gaza. Journalism sees the previous winner of the American Book Award and Eisner Award relating stories from North Africa, Chechnya, Abu Ghraib, The Hague, and Iraq.
Nonfiction comics may have reached their peak with the work of the late documentary/memoirist Harvey Pekar. What's being called his last release, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me (Hill and Wang; illustrated by JT Waldman), finds Pekar writing about Israeli history through the lens of his personal legacy.
Another writer/illustrator with parents on her mind is Alison Bechdel. Her 2006 memoir Fun Home was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine and appeared on many lists as one of the best graphic novels of the decade. Whereas Fun Home focused on the paterfamilias, Bechdel's new work, Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), hones in on the other half of the parental equation.
History told through comics is the intent of Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations, Part One (Self Made Hero). By Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Filiu (an Arabic studies scholar) and David B. (author of the brilliant memoir Epileptic), Best of Enemies says it recounts events from 1783 to 1953, but actually it starts back with Gilgamesh. The cover features Saudi king Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud and his World War II contemporary FDR sitting on a network of oil pipes. You get the picture.
Finally, a writer well known for her work in the comics medium makes her first transition to prose. G. Willow Wilson, an American, got her start as a journalist in Egypt before writing the graphic novel Cairo and an ongoing series, Air, both for the major comics imprint Vertigo. The Muslim convert now releases her novel, Alif the Unseen (Grove Press), which ties together political intrigue and literary and religious mythology, and it's received considerable buzz. — Greg Akers
George Grant, Publisher: A Humble Success
After working as a librarian for 48 years, Memphis native George Grant is still in business: He runs his own publishing service, Grant Publishing. He created the company in 1989 and operates out of his home in Jonesboro, where he served at Arkansas State University until his retirement in 2009. Grant Publishing may be categorized as a "vanity" press, but, as illustrated by a recent title,
Black Memphis Landmarks by Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Grant's business is more than a matter of vanity.
"My books aren't famous," Grant admits. "But they're books that needed to be published."
While many Americans know the story of Thurgood Marshall's life, how many of us know the name Donald Hollowell, who assisted Marshall? The story is told in The Big Bang, from Grant Publishing.
Also from Grant: a book by Major Owens, who represented Brooklyn in Congress, called The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has something to say about both Fords — Harold Sr. and Jr.
Grant, however, tries to stay away from controversy. "I stick to positive stories, poetry, and religious and self-help books," he says. "My job is only to see that the book is presented professionally. The content is up to the authors. They own the copyright."
Beginning at his alma mater, Owen College (Class of '59 and later to become LeMoyne-Owen), Grant has worked as a librarian at several schools, including historically black colleges and Yale. He earned his Ph.D. from Pittsburgh University.
Grant was led into the publishing business while working at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
"In 1989, a high school principal, Frank Otey, came into the library one day looking for information about Eatonville, Florida, which is the hometown of writer Zora Neale Hurston," Grant recalls. "I helped him do some research on Eatonville, one of the oldest black settlements in the U.S., and assisted him in finding out about publishers. He couldn't find one interested in the book's subject matter, so finally he said, 'You know everything about publishing. Why don't you publish it for me?' I laid out the manuscript, found a printer, and that became my first book."
The finished product was Otey's Eatonville, Florida, USA: A Brief History of One of America's First Freedmen's Town, and during the book's promotion, Otey spread the word about Grant's skills. Before he knew it, Grant was up to his elbows in manuscripts.
With 152 titles so far, Grant vows he is retiring from publishing and says with a laugh, "I took down the website last year, because I really want to totally relax and not become overwhelmed." But he always seems to find another title that's "necessary."
Memphians have been a great source for Grant. He's published an autobiography of the widow of Tri-State Bank president and NAACP activist Jesse Turner Sr. and eight books from respected local pastor Fred Lofton, whom Grant describes as a lifelong mentor, beginning at Owen College.
While many vanity presses now offer marketing platforms, Grant Publishing remains focused on clean writing and good packaging, and, once a book is delivered, marketing is up to the author.
One of Grant's titles comes with a marketable tie to Gone With the Wind. How interesting would it be for students of film, Southern culture, and African-American history to learn that Margaret Mitchell became a major benefactor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and funded the education of more than two dozen black doctors?
The story is told in Benjamin E. Mays and Margaret Mitchell: A Unique Legacy in Medicine by Ira Joe Johnson and William G. Pickens. Grant recalls how the book came to him:
"Ira Johnson was a protégé of Dr. Mays, who was president of Morehouse from 1964 to 1967. Dr. Mays gave him permission to publish letters that document his approaching Mitchell to seek financial assistance for the college. The school was losing money, because so many students were going off to World War II. He contacted me with the letters, and I was excited to do the book. I'd worked as a houseboy for Dr. Mays when I was at Morehouse. Dr. Lofton had served as one before me. We cleaned house, drove, ran errands. They call it work/study now."
Last year, Grant completed his own book on a subject dear to him: In Honor of Libraries Named for African Americans.
"I never dreamed there were so many, and I thought it was necessary that the story be told," Grant says. "For example, Cornelia Crenshaw, for whom the Vance Avenue library in Memphis was named. These people's contributions deserve to be recorded." — Tony Jones
The Graphic Canon, Volume 1
Edited by Russ Kick
Seven Stories Press, 512 pp., $34.95 (paper)
Repeated advice from a bookstore employee regarding The Graphic Canon, Volume 1: "It certainly isn't for children."
By now most people who don't thrive on sustained moral outrage probably understand that illustrated books aren't always for kids. But Puritanism's always popular, and some folks may be shocked to see Gilgamesh's furry schlong scribbled on page three of the world's literary consciousness. They'll be shocked by comic boobs and funny erections in a gorgeous retelling of Lysistrata. R. Crumb's take on James Boswell isn't for the faint of heart. And concerned mothers may fret over a lesbian sexual fantasy drawn to the tune of John Donne's poem "The Flea."
But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that parents still might want to sample this epic collision of words and pictures and decide if they're mature enough to talk to their kids about classic literature before the kids become teenagers and start playing war games with their libidos anyway.
Editor Russ Kick says his big book of excerpts and abridgements is a tool to encourage deeper dives into the classics. It's also a "self-contained literary/artistic work" and an "end in itself." And both it is. The first 500-page volume begins with Babylonian myth and ends in 1782 with Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons. It includes excerpts from The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and the Tao Te Ching. It collects Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, and dozens of other literary A-listers, each piece a visual revelation by artists new and known.
Kick doesn't just sample the usual European suspects. He includes a Native American folktale, Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, and an Incan play about star-crossed love. And on and on.
So maybe The Graphic Canon isn't for kids. And maybe it's a home improvement in the books-by-the-yard tradition of Harvard Classics or the World Book Encyclopedia, which, even in my family's sturdy pre-moonwalk edition, was full of violence and breasts.
The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 is due out in October. Volume 3 concludes with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and is promised in time for the holidays.
— Chris Davis