PositiveThe Atlantic... rather astonishing ... The Secret to Superhuman Strength is an account of Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of nondual bliss through vigorous-to-the-point-of-violent physical activity: the dharma of working out, you might call it ... Bechdel’s on a physical journey, and a mystical one, and a political one too ... The Secret to Superhuman Strength loses me in the final pages, because it ends in serenity and existential forgiveness. Bechdel and her partner make it through 2020—the virus, the Trumpgasm—by working hard on what she is still calling \'the fitness book,\' and at the top of the trail, guess what, there is hard-won wisdom ... Selfishly, I’d prefer this utterly absorbing book to end in a welter of confusion and failed chin-ups. No answers—or only those most fugitive ones, nontransferable, grasped or glimpsed for a second as you’re grimacing past your limit.
RaveThe AtlanticBlake Bailey’s Philip Roth comes flapping at us like a magnificent albatross through the mist, a heavy, feathery projectile from beyond the rim of time ... Bailey is a very good writer and a very good literary biographer ... I think it’s unlikely that Philip Roth gets Philip Roth wrong. Bailey certainly lets the repellent in, and along with it comes the man in his wholeness ... By the (very moving) end of Philip Roth, the sex drive and the writing drive both having finally ebbed, Roth is ready to go: \'Boy, am I getting tired of my resilience.\'
RaveThe AtlanticInside Story is the most confusing of the 14 novels, two short-story collections, one memoir, and seven works of journalism and history that Amis, 71, has written ... It comprises, briefly: magnificent and affecting accounts of the decline of Saul Bellow and the death of Christopher Hitchen ... a pointless subnovel featuring another (Jesus Christ) of Amis’s Eros-Thanatos women ... a slightly half-assed but nonetheless very interesting how-to-write manual; lashings of his bamboozlingly brilliant critical commentary; digressions and footnotes galore. Really it’s a 500-page miscellany of Amis-ness ... The great lines come flying at you ... And there are good jokes, too ... It’s full of ellipses: Dangling, tantalizing, confiding, pregnant beyond utterance … polyvalent .. .There are sweating pockets of male shame and grease spots on the conscience ... How do I measure up to all this? Not the writing, but the level of perception, the level of interrogation, the level of work, the level of living. And then the mood passed, and as a reader I felt—like an absolution—the gaze of the author, and his understanding. That’s greatness. That lasts.
PositiveThe AtlanticWild Thing is good on Hendrix’s meteoric impact on Swinging London (and then the world), the crater he left in consciousness. It’s not quite as good on the precise electric-acoustic dimensions of that crater. But that’s always the challenge with Hendrix: How to describe, how to even verbally gesture at, the extraordinary sounds he made? Or to reconcile this diffident, melancholy man with the Promethean audacity of his art? ... Racism is almost a fully formed character in Wild Thing, popping up all over with demonic buoyancy ... Norman is sensitive to the racial context, except when he isn’t ... Where Wild Thing succeeds, sometimes spectacularly, is in its retelling of the Hendrix fairy tale ... a sadness sets in as one reads the last two chapters of Wild Thing. It’s the sensation of Hendrix slipping out of the story, out of this world, out of the hands of another biographer.
PositiveThe AtlanticBooks by presidents ... it’s a vexed and miscellaneous genre ... So credit to Craig Fehrman for the compendiousness, readability, and general exuberance of his Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote ... as Author in Chief proceeds, covering the epochs at a comfortable chronological clip—Washington to Monroe ... Adams to Grant ... Hayes to Roosevelt—a strange Friday the 13th–style tension begins to build. Your scalp starts to itch. What’s going to happen, after all this thoughtful middle-to-highbrowism, when we arrive at the feast of illiteracy that is Trumptown 2020? ... the after-Trump republic—if there is one—will no doubt be looking, with some desperation, for a return to presidential dullness. To fat, pedantic memoirs by worried men. We’ll want it then, this healing, heavily paginated monotony.
RaveThe Atlantic... not an as-told-to, nor is it written \'with\' someone. These are Flea’s words—excitable, jazzy, regretful, disarming, popping and writhing away in his biological bass zone ... But he’s actually a lovely writer, with a particular gift for the free-floating and reverberant. He writes in Beat Generation bursts and epiphanies, lifting toward the kind of virtuosic vulnerability and self-exposure associated with the great jazz players ... You don’t get this kind of thing, needless to say, in your standard rock memoir ... Flea—elegant nutcase, funk-at-high-pressure bassist, wildly cultured and culturedly wild man—has written a fine memoir. You’ll put down Acid for the Children with your human sympathies expanded; you’ll feel less alone.
Neil Young and Phil Baker
MixedThe AtlanticNeil Young is a musical colossus ... But he writes weird books, and this is another one. Deliriously boring in parts ... To Feel the Music is quite devoid of revelations and rockin’ anecdotes ... It’s sort of a business book, or a tech book. And yet it doesn’t really fit into those sections either—too woolly, too gonzo. An entirely new genre perhaps: the rock-star business-tech memoir by two authors ... But there’s a heart in there somewhere—a big, shaggy, contrarian Neil Young heart, thumping away. We should pay attention. At his website, neilyoungarchives.com, he’s streaming high-res audio right now. Check it out. Compare and contrast. Don’t leave him to bang his head on his own gravestone.
PositiveThe AtlanticReading the fragmentary testimonies in This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division, I was put in mind of \'Cold Dark Matter,\' the 1991 installation by the British artist Cornelia Parker ... Savage’s book is excellent. With Joy Division, eventually, words peter out or fritter away into uselessness. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying ... everything partial, broken, everything occluded in some respect, the oral-history method makes more and more sense.
RaveThe Atlantic\"Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry is a glowingly—one might almost say throbbingly—detailed account ... Nicolson goes at it in sensorially saturated, theta-wave prose, sinking the reader into the aliveness of his descriptions ... By befriending both of these poets, by living and being with them in a remarkably sustained act of imaginative immersion, by allowing their ideas and their environment to mingle in him so profoundly...Nicolson...has opened the door.
PositiveThe Atlantic... if there’s a slightly tense, withholding feel to Robert Wilson’s Barnum: An American Life—if it reads, in a word, rather un-Barnumesquely—it’s not really the author’s fault. A Barnum biographer in 2019 is heavy with consciousness. He feels concern for the people off whom Barnum made his fortune. He is stylistically constrained ... Wilson is not being mealymouthed. He just can’t go full Barnum. The evolution of human relations and the temper of the hour will not allow it.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewSo there’s a brilliant idea behind Casey Rae’s William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll, which is that if you simply follow Burroughs through the rock ’n’ roll years you’ll see him achieve a flickering ubiquity — lurking here, eavesdropping there, photobombing the whole parade. It becomes a kind of alternative history.
PositiveThe AtlanticA grand claim, Geoff Edgers. A mighty pitch. And the question with a book like this—a book that zeroes in on a particular happening or art moment and then extrapolates boomingly outward—is always: Is there enough there? Enough action at the core, that is, and enough concentrically moving energy to prevent the narrative from collapsing in on itself as it stretches to book length? The answer in this case, I am happy to report, is yes ... As Edgers traces the arcs of Run-DMC and Aerosmith toward their wacky intersection in Manhattan’s Magic Ventures studio, he is basically writing a book in two genres: a conventional rock biography...and a cultural history of early hip-hop. That he keeps the tone more or less even as he toggles back and forth is to his considerable credit.
Ian S Port
RaveThe Atlantic\"... rich in description ... full of imagist sound-summonings ... spot-on human characterizations ... Port can write lovingly... And he can write with technical lyricism ... [Port] even made me like Eric Clapton for a minute. And from the fumbled genesis of the electric guitar to its expressive climax, he draws us a beautiful, educational arc ... Port gives [Jimi Hendrix\'s Woodstock performance] a whole chapter, his prose rising to the occasion.\
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewSo this is the hero’s journey of Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite: the long arc of life-learning whereby a working-class brawler, a delinquent tea boy in a sheet metal factory, discovers within himself the psychic-emotional circuitry to conduct some of the rarest electricity in rock ’n’ roll. It’s like a Who song ... [Keith] Moon dies; [John] Entwistle dies. Daltrey and [Peter] Townshend endure. \'Years passed.\' It takes a robust lack of vanity to include that sentence in your own autobiography. But Daltrey’s peculiar swaggering selflessness is the key to this book, and a key (one of four) to the Who.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson
MixedThe AtlanticIt is bracing to be reminded by Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Robert Graves that the rugged poet/all-rounder wrote Good-bye to All That, his lucid and mordantly sane autobiographical account of soldiering in the First World War, while recovering from a double suicide attempt ... Moorcroft Wilson’s absorption in detail makes her a slightly rhythmless storyteller, but by the end of her long and very thorough book we feel satisfyingly well acquainted with its courageous, obtuse, devoted, fragile, durable, and maddening subject.
PositiveThe Atlantic\"Gorey comes sliding down the banister of Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, not in a tutu but bejeweled, multi-ringed, otter-fur-coated, Lear-ishly bearded, crazy for the New York City Ballet and definitely wanting to live his life this way ... Dery does some excellent work comparing the [Gorey\'s work with Dr. Seuss\'s], the two chaos-bringers ... Dery efficiently lays out the debt owed [Gorey] by the graphic-novel author Neil Gaiman, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the filmmaker Tim Burton, and any other fantasist who loiters in the dark gardens of childhood ... Edward Gorey is the doubtful guest in this fine biography.\
MixedThe AtlanticAs usual, the plot includes stretches of psychedelic dullness, in which Reacher’s egoless absorption in a process or data set—his strange, beetling focus on something (the local census, in this case)—makes the page blossom with boredom. But we go along with it; we assent, dazedly, to this level of teeming specificity. Every Reacher book I’ve read is about 100 pages too long. Somehow, I don’t care ... [Reacher] has a novelist’s eye for character ... His sharpest sense is his hearing. Reacher’s ear is bestially acute ... Reacher has an ear because Child has an ear ... the e-sounds are flat, and the a-sounds lengthen out, giving off a dim glow, a grassy phosphorescence, as the eye-beam diffuses in the darkness. That’s assonance, dude, like Wordsworth did it.
PositiveThe Atlantic\"... let’s salute the muscular act of scholarship, the marathon of archivism, that has produced this book... the editors, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, have collected it all: 575 letters, to 108 recipients. Nearly 1,000 pages... This will not have to be done again ... As a reading experience, Volume 2 provides, in the way of these things, an overload of material and a lack of transmutation. It’s not art, in other words, and why would it be? These are first takes, recorded at different pressures; some of them are more worked-upon than others. Plath is of course the structural center, but as she spins through her voices—gushing, intimate, secretarial-professional, rapturous, vicious, recriminatory, coldly lyrical—the text decenters and decenters again. What carries us through, inevitably, is the narrative pull, the death-drag, of the end point.\
RaveThe AtlanticCraig Brown captures Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister perfectly ... [a] brilliant meta-biography ... part of the pleasure of 99 Glimpses is the fun he has with his ghastly/hilarious source material. The most egregious stuff—the lyrical bitchiness, the truly subterranean tattle—he will quote without comment, but with a kind of deadpan relish humming in the background. It is precisely his satirist’s sensibility, his overdeveloped ear for stylistic grotesquerie, that qualifies Brown to write about Princess Margaret ... in Brown, most enjoyably for the reader, she has met her pasticheur.
PositiveThe AtlanticAlbertine already wrote a book, a very good book, about her time as a punk rocker ... To Throw Away Unopened is closer, in this sense, to actual punk-rock Viv; it feels hastier, less processed, more urgent, as if she was hurt or stung into writing it. (There are still some lovely lines, though.) ... a stomped-from-history guitarist becomes an author who has clawed her way into your memory, not to be dislodged.
RaveSalonHow many distinct personalities are contained, floatingly, within the authorial nimbus that we currently know as 'Stephen King'? A deeper Kingologist than I might be able to put a number on it, but I can tell you that four of them, at least, are on display in the story collection Full Dark, No Stars ... 'Fair Extension,' the shortest and, in some ways, the nastiest of the stories, is a showcase for King the jester, the gargoyle, the upside-down moralist... This being a book by Stephen King, it goes without saying that the stories –– with the possible exception of '1922,' which suffers from a distracting instability in the language –– more or less drag you along by your hair: Like them or not, you're going to finish them. Are they horrible? They are quite horrible.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe diaries in A Life Discarded are spiritual English trash — they live in an English landscape of dreaming woods and quelled hopes; they use an English vocabulary. Outsider art for sure, but also insider art, inside-her art. And as Masters — probably the only writer in the world who could have or would have done it this way — approaches their author, he simultaneously approaches something ineffable and thronelike: the span of a soul across an arc of time; the radiant, baffling grandeur of other people.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt irks me to have to wag a finger, but I’m going to do it, because there’s a lurking strain of reactionary crudeness in this otherwise deeply enjoyable little book against which it should have been inoculated at the editing stage ... Similarly, James’s armchair assessments of the relative desirability of various female actors should have been nixed, excised, prevented ... But don’t let these minor encrustations put you off. Play All is a small book but by no means a slight one. Large-brained and largehearted, and written with astonishing energy, it carries its study of the box-set dramas — these vast and spiraling narratives to which we have delivered ourselves en masse — into revelatory depths while reserving the right to be, wherever possible, superficial, waggish, ludicrous, Clive James-ian.
PanThe Barnes & Noble ReviewIt’s daringly imagined, expressed in wavering colors, not quite fully rendered, such that when we get to the end of it we think: Um . . . Would one more draft have done the trick? We’ll never know.