Archive for the Reviews Category

Rediscovered: Theodora Keogh

Posted in E-books, Literature, Paperbacks, Rediscovered, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 3, 2012 by JE Cornett

The mid-century novelist Theodora Keogh’s disappearance  from the popular consciousness demonstrates the difference between books and literature, best-sellers and perennial favorites. Popular fiction – and nonfiction, for that matter – is rarely classic fiction. For every John Updike or Cormac McCarthy, there are dozens of Taylor Caldwells and Cynthia Freemans whose books, for better or for worse, sell well during their era, but are largely forgotten within just a few years. The fact that these books slowly fade from our literary memory is not necessarily an indictment of their quality (although in many cases, it is). Rather, it’s the confluence of several factors: a style that falls from popularity, an author whose momentum is lost, or a subject that seems dated within several years of publication.

Any combination of these factors have acted on Theodora Keogh’s books over the years. Her writing is elegant and modern, even if the pulpy subjects of her books — adolescent girl’s adventures on the mean streets of New York, bored housewife takes brutal lover…

Never mind — let’s read the publisher’s blurb on the back  of Keogh’s The Other Girl:

“She came to Hollywood looking for the answer to the strange hunger in her blood. But not until she met Betty, the tantalizing, voluptuous slut, could she put a name to the passion that was consuming her. The tragic drama of their encounter unwound against the sordid backdrop of Hollywood’s prostitutes and procurers, misfits and rejects–and then exploded in a shocking, and inevitable, climax. “

Contrast that breathless litany with an excerpt from the book:

Almost everyone wore pompadours that year, especially around Hollywood.  Even the men seemed to have a stiff upward swirl on their front locks in timid but stubborn imitation. It was 1946 and World War II was pronounced over.  The West Coast, the sprawl of suburbs around Los Angeles seemed especially suited to this uneasy peace. The crack of atomic doom was like a ringmaster’s whip, forcing to a prance both young and old alike. But Marge did not feel a part of these frantic posturings. No pompadour for her… looking down now on the scurrying women she felt a wave of contempt for those female bodies…

Ah, you know Marge’s contempt does not bode well. After all, you’ve read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, so you know that a hard nut like Marge is never going to coming to any good.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lurid nature of many of Keogh’s books, the author is going through a renaissance of sorts right now. For some inexplicable reason, all of her books are available on Amazon in ebook format for $1.00 each.

There’s a schizophrenic quality to Keogh’s printed output that makes it easy to see why her best fiction was neglected, while the freak-show pulp books fell by the wayside. Keogh writes with a strange, sometimes uncomfortable intensity; an everyday exchange between two young girls in Meg takes on huge proportions, while in the excerpt above from The Other Girl, Marge establishes herself as a less-than sympathetic narrator within the first chapter through her contempt and coldness toward other women. In the best of Keogh’s books, such as Meg and Street Music, this quality in her writing makes for indelible portraits of ordinary people in bizarre circumstances. But this quality lends itself all too well to the type of pulpy sensationalism that Keogh often wrote, like The Other Girl, The Mistress and The Double Door. Because Keogh was an artist of her type, the line is sometimes so blurred, the veering between ugliness that’s real and ugliness for ugliness’ sake so whiplash-inducing, that she produced a couple books that are either genius or pure trash — The Fascinator is one of these.

Ostensibly the story of a rich New York housewife who falls in love with the Fascinator of the title, a famous sculptor (named Zanic, no less), The Fascinator could almost be a companion piece to The Feminine Mystique, so striking is the similarity between Ellen, the protagonist, and Betty Friedan’s middle class housewives consumed by their ennui. Yet it wouldn’t be a Keogh book if there weren’t disturbing, predatory elements to Zanic that sometimes push the book into pulp territory. In this way, it’s almost an inspiration to The Feminine Mystique, predating that book by ten years (The Fascinator was published in 1954), and unwittingly giving Friedan a cautionary tale for all the bored women whose good educations and bright imaginations have led them into adultery and dissolution rather than careers or creativity.

Keogh authored only a handful of books between the publication of Meg in 1950 and her final book, The Other Girl in 1962. While it’s doubtful that her rediscovery and republication in e-book format will vaunt her books into the American literary canon, Keogh is nonetheless worth reading.

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Book Review: “Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins” by Diane Diekman

Posted in Biography, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews with tags , , , , on March 13, 2012 by JE Cornett

Cover Blurb:

Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is the first biography of this legendary country music artist and NASCAR driver who scored sixteen number-one hits and two Grammy awards. Yet even with fame and fortune, Marty Robbins always yearned for more.

Drawing from personal interviews and in-depth research, biographer Diane Diekman explains how Robbins saw himself as a drifter, a man always searching for self-fulfillment and inner peace. Born Martin David Robinson to a hardworking mother and abusive alcoholic father, he never fully escaped from the insecurities burned into him by a poverty-stricken nomadic childhood in the Arizona desert. In 1947 he got his first gig as a singer and guitar player. Too nervous to talk, the shy young man walked onstage singing. Soon he changed his name to Marty Robbins, cultivated his magnetic stage presence, and established himself as an entertainer, songwriter, and successful NASCAR driver.

For fans of Robbins, NASCAR, and classic country music, Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is a revealing portrait of this well-loved, restless entertainer, a private man who kept those who loved him at a distance.

Marty Robbins’ career and personal life seem rather tame, compared to peers like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. No drug or alcohol addiction continually threaten to ruin Robbins’ career or end his life.  No love-life pathos — Robbins remained married to his wife, Marizona, until his untimely death in 1982. Robbins never fell from grace with music fans, so a triumphant rediscovery is not part of his legend.

But don’t make the mistake of letting a lack of high drama turn you off from Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins. Robbins was a fascinating artist in his own right, and Diane Diekman’s book does him justice.

Many music biographies fall into two categories: those that read more like recording session notes, focusing almost entirely on the artist’s recorded output, and those that instead focus too tightly on the artist’s personal life. Twentieth Century Drifter strikes the perfect balance. While Diekman includes many details about the intensely private Robbins’ personal life, she also spends a lot of time on Robbins’ songwriting routines, stories behind some of his most beloved songs and his recording habits. Diekman’s attention to these details is valuable; despite being one of the most popular artists of his day, Marty Robbins is remembered today mostly for one song, his iconic “El Paso.” It’s a disservice that Diekman’s book does much to rectify, revealing Robbins as the bridge over the gap between country music’s first iconic singer-songwriter, Hank Williams, and those who came after Robbins in the late 1960s-early 1970s.

The scope of Robbins’ career more than makes up for the lack of tabloid-worthy drama. In between writing and recording hundreds of songs in several genres over four decades, Robbins acted in several movies, starred in two television shows, was a regular performer on The Grand Ole Opry, and operated his own publishing companies and record label.

His most famous second career, however, was that of a NASCAR racing driver. Although Robbins was never a champion driver, he logged respectable finishes on several of the circuit’s biggest tracks. Not surprisingly, the 1970s section of Diekman’s book is dominated by Robbins’ NASCAR career, something Robbins would have appreciated.

Hopefully, Twentieth Century Drifter will introduce Marty Robbins to a new generation of fans while satisfying existing fans’ need to explore Robbins’ life and career.

And here’s a bit of useless trivia — Marty Robbins’ most famous song, “El Paso” was frequently covered by the Grateful Dead in their live shows. In total, the band performed the song almost 400 times, which probably rivals the number of times Robbins himself played the song.

And here’s a bit of useful media:

And some more:

Book Review: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley

Posted in History, Literature, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by JE Cornett

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is the kind of book that’s perfect for reading during your lunch break or while waiting at the doctor’s office — light, engaging non-fiction full of obscure facts and entertaining history that’s great for passing the time without wasting it.

The author, Lucy Worsley, is a chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity organization responsible for such British treasures as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.  In If Walls Could Talk, Worsley employs the trivia gleaned from her work to a history of each room of the home and the way these rooms have evolved in use and appearance throughout history.

An excellent example that encapsulates the scope of If Walls Could Talk is Worsley’s description of the humble bedroom closet over the course of several centuries. Since the bedroom was, for centuries, a combination office, library, sitting room and sleeping area, closets often served as a private area where one could pray, read or study, and store art, valuables, or other items not intended for public viewing. Only as the bedroom evolved to a more private space did the closet evolve into mere storage space, or, as Worsley points out, disappear altogether, as the closet did in many British homes from the 17th century to the late 20th century.

Worsley covers each room in the home in such a manner, exploding square footage into the larger historical and social context. A discussion of the bathroom includes the history of indoor plumbing in Britain, while the history of the bedroom includes everything that went on in the bedroom, from sex to childbirth to medical treatments.

If Walls Could Talk is the best example of non-fiction-as-entertainment. Trust me when I tell you that it will be ages before you look at your closet or flush your toilet without thinking of this book. Which is a good thing.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

By: Lucy Worsley

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Walker & Company

U.S. Release Date: February 28, 2012

Book Review: Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll by Rich Poldosky

Posted in History, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by JE Cornett

This semi-biography of Don Kirshner by Rich Poldosky led me to identify a whole new genre of non-fiction: when mediocre books happen to stellar stories.

The story Poldosky tells in Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear – How He Changed the Face of Rock and Roll should, by all rights, be riveting. Don Kirshner’s role in the development of rock and roll has long been neglected; for almost thirty years, Kirshner was at the helm of some of the most interesting ventures in rock music. From his pivotal role in the Brill Building pop songwriting scene, to his early melding of music and videos with the creation of the Monkees and his long-running TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. 

Unfortunately, Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear only tells part of that story. As such, it’s erroneously named; a book about “how (Kirshner) changed the face of rock and roll” would spend more time with the Monkees and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.  Instead, Poldosky focuses on Aldon Music, the publishing company Kirshner formed with Al Nevins in the late 1950s, and therefore is more about how Kirshner changed the sound of rock and roll.

Since Poldosky’s work is actually about Aldon Music rather than Don Kirshner, per se, what we get is a vivid picture of the Brill Building songwriting scene of the early 1960s, where pop songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weill, Neil Sedaka and Carole Bayer Sager created some of the most memorable songs in pop music history, standards such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “On Broadway” and “Up On the Roof.”  What’s more, the book reads like a who’s who of big names in early 1960s pop —  Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Tony Orlando, Bobby Vee, Gene Pitney and the Shirelles all make cameo appearances,

For anyone who enjoys rock music, the pages Poldosky devotes to the halcyon days at Aldon’s Brill Building offices are the highlight of the book, offering  great insight into the way that pop music was written and marketed in the early 1960s. While Kirshner and Nevins’ song factory set-up was hardly unique, originating in Tin Pan Alley a generation before, it’s still fascinating. Poldosky describes some of the era’s most celebrated songwriters hammering away at their craft in cubicles separated with paper thin walls, writing songs on pianos. This close proximity bred fierce if friendly competition between songwriters, especially the husband/wife duos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann.

This section, however, is the high point of a book that is frustratingly uneven. While Poldosky’s interviews with Gerry Goffin, Jack Keller, Kirshner and others involved with Aldon Music paint a fascinating picture of how the songwriters worked, and provide creditable veracity to the narrative, Poldosky shortchanges his own accomplishment by offering distracting — and frankly unflattering — information about all the interviews he could not get. Instead of adding a few lines at the outset of the book explaining that Carole King, Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (among others) declined to be interviewed, Poldosky inserts long, wandering asides throughout the book explaining the circumstances of each interview he did not get, and, in many cases, those he did. It’s distracting, to say the least, and interrupts the flow of the book.

Add to this numerous spelling mistakes, a final third of the book that feels rushed and incomplete, and Don Kirshner: The Man With the Golden Ear becomes a flawed, but nevertheless interesting account of one of rock music’s most influential characters.

Hardcover: 304 pages, including many photographs

Publisher: Hal Leonard (March 1, 2012)

Book Review: California Gothic by Kristin Herrington

Posted in Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , on January 28, 2012 by JE Cornett

Kristin Herrington’s California Gothic is a classic case of the  “when bad books happen to good stories” phenomenon.  You know the type — all the ingredients of a great story are there, but somehow, it never gels. Despite occasionally inspired writing and a fascinating premise, something went horribly wrong with California Gothic. Sad to say, it’s nothing that a halfway-decent editor couldn’t have derailed.

First, a plot summary: before Aurora’s mother Jane passes away, she arranges for Aurora to receive a series of letters, explaining away some of the mysteries of Jane’s family. These mysteries encompass almost thirty years, beginning in the mid-1960s, when Jane, a singer in a girl group, meets J.C., a record producer, and Charlie, a member of a surf-rock band. The letters relate to Aurora Jane’s history with both J.C., who becomes Jane’s husband and father to her children, and Charlie, who becomes her lover. As Aurora learns more about her family, her life begins to unravel.

Now for the disclaimer: the plot summary makes California Gothic seem much more linear and interesting than it actually is. Which is a shame, because the premise would have made an excellent novel.

By Herrington’s own admission, Charlie is a fictional version of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who drowned in the early 1980s. As such, the story touches on some of the aspects of Wilson’s life that are ripe for fictional interpretation: the music scene of the 1960s, Wilson and his famous brothers Brian and Carl’s abuse at the hands of their father, Brian’s struggle with mental illness, and even Wilson’s acquaintance with Charles Manson and the Manson Family.

However, instead of delving into these themes, Herrington abandons them. Aside from Jane’s truncated letters, these themes are never explored at all. The good version of California Gothic would have focused on Jane, J.C. and Charlie, but the version we get instead focuses on Aurora, who is quite possibly the least interesting — nay, the least interested — protagonist in print. The reader waits for Aurora to go in search of people who knew her mother, J.C. and Charlie, in order to find out more about Jane’s glamorous, if wrenching, past. Instead, we get to read about Aurora’s mind-numbing interactions with her co-workers and her indulgences in casual sex and cigarettes — and yes, that’s just as boring as it sounds. 

This is as good a time as any to point out that California Gothic appears to be a self-published work. This is likely the reason that an excellent story is buried underneath sleepwalker-as-protagonist Aurora’s story; any sort-of engaged editor would have led Herrington away from Aurora’s story (or lack thereof) and toward Jane’s.

Any merely sentient editor would have done away completely with one aspect of California Gothic in particular: the book occasionally employs a bizarre omniscient dead narrator whose identity or purpose is never fully explained.  While the writing in the dead omniscient narrator sections is good, the whole construct was so nonsensical that I literally can’t say anything else about it, because I have no idea what to say about it.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only reader who has been or will be intrigued by California Gothic‘s premise, only to be disappointed by the book itself. I just hope that someone is inspired enough by Herrington’s book to write a novel that takes advantage of what I would have thought to be a fail-safe setting and characters.