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REVIEW: Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul

Author: Susan Whitall

2011, Titan

Filed Under: Biography, Nonfiction.

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 6

Towards the end of Fever, author Susan Whitall describes a public feud in the late 60s between soul singer Joe Tex and James Brown regarding Brown’s sobriquet, “Soul Brother No. 1.” Tex argued that title really belonged to Little Willie John, who at the time was serving a sentence for second-degree murder, and openly campaigned against Brown’s using it. Obviously Tex lost, and Brown tossed the phrase atop a pile of bragadacio that also includes “Godfather of Soul,” “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” and “Mr. Dynamite.”

Fever is a more detailed and nuanced extension of that argument. Whitall, who evidently worked closely with the John family, especially Willie’s sons Kevin and Keith, mounts a campaign to install John in the soul music pantheon, alongside acknowledged greats Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown. He certainly deserves renewed attention—while the other three are staples of oldies radio formats, Willie John’s voice has long been relegated to a kind of cult status, the stuff of record collectors, critics, and nostalgics. The oversight is unaccountable, given how exciting and advanced John’s records are, and how many singers and musicians cite him as a formative influence.
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REVIEW: The Convert

Author: Deborah Baker

2011, Graywolf Press

Filed under: Biography, Nonfiction

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 8

Deborah Baker’s The Convert is billed as a biography of Margaret Marcus, an American Jewish woman who became an influential voice in the radicalization of Islam and fueled the modern understanding of Jihad. Baker builds Convert on extensive (but not quite exhaustive) research, primary source material, and interviews with living key players.

Even so, it’s a stretch to suggest that Convert reads like a typical biography. Excluding notes and acknowledgement, the book checks in at a relatively slim 223 pages. Those pages are packed tight with information about Marcus and her new Pakistani environment. But in the end, those pages don’t possess a firm sense of the truth. Nor does it feel like the truth is entirely unknowable. In many ways, the absence of such a conclusion could make a biography feel hasty, as if the writer had simply given up on knowing her subject. In this case, The Convert takes an interesting turn: it becomes a clever and well-written meditation on the relationship between a writer and her subject.
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REVIEW: See a Little Light

Author: Bob Mould

2011 Little, Brown

Filed under: Memoir

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

If you aren’t familiar with Bob Mould, listen to Hüsker Dü’s cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”—the breathtaking speed, anger, and emotional muscularity of that performance will give you a good idea of the cultural shorthand that’s been attached to Mould’s name since the mid 80s. Not that he didn’t earn his reputation for peevishness and volatility honestly—he admits as much in this autobiography (note the subtitle: The Trail of Rage and Melody).

Mould and co-writer Michael Azerrad clearly haven’t set out to dispel the image of Mould as a temperamental rocker, but they do argue that the black-and-white image—a 21-year-old wailing his anger and frustration, throttling his guitar as he fronts a legendary post-punk band—that’s just one slide in the carousel. The Bob Mould of See A Little Light is candid and self-effacing, and eager to come to terms with his every incarnation. In fact, Light has more in common with Mould’s songwriting, which is often aggressive but just as likely to be tender and vulnerable.
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REVIEW: 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente

Author: Wilfred Santiago

2011, Fantagraphics Books

Filed under: Graphic Novel, Nonfiction, Biography

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 6
Art Style... 9

My father loved baseball. When I was young, he told me stories of his favorite players as if they were superheroes. He held none in higher esteem than Roberto Clemente. As a result, I believed Roberto Clemente had superpowers. I believed he floated through the outfield and flew between the base paths. I believed the ball exploded off of his bat and that he had a cannon for an arm.

In the years since, I have read as much about Clemente as possible. And while each article or book reinforced my belief that Clemente was both an incredible ballplayer and incredible human being, none of them seemed to satisfy the childhood fascination I had for him. I should have known, given the superhero aspects of the image in my head, that I needed a comic book. With his graphic novel, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, Wilfred Santiago delivered exactly what I’ve been waiting for.

Take, for instance, one of the book’s first pages:
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Green Books Campaign: Jorgy, The Life of Native Alaskan Bush Pilot and Airline Captain Holger “Jorgy” Jorgensen

[This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.]

Author: Holger Jorgensen and Jean Lester

2008, Ester Republic Press

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Biography, Short-Run

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

Holger Jorgensen is apparently a known name in Alaska. He is half-white, half-Native (Eskimo), and over his career accumulated–by his own estimate–about 35,000 hours in a variety of planes. Which is a lot. Alaska as Jorgy describes it was a bit of a frontier, with long stretches of tundra and wilderness connecting villages and small mines. This book is full of anecdotes told by the venerable pilot, and they combine to create an interesting depiction of Alaska’s development during the 20th century.

Jorgy’s tales are interesting, especially if you’re into planes. I’m not really, but I found a lot to like, especially when he details the difference between different plane models, and how he handled them differently in the cockpit.  Some of the stories touch on historical and cultural relevance. I found the stories of his boyhood as a half-native living with a native mother to be some of the best parts in the book. Well, except for this story about a flight full of reindeer, which is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while (the quote’s a bit long, but trust me, it’s worth it):
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REVIEW: Before Night Falls

Author: Reinaldo Arenas; translation by Dolores M. Koch.

1993, Viking Penguin

Filed Under: Literary, Biography, Nonfiction

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 8
Readability... 9

When a friend of mine gave me an English translation of the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, Before Nights Falls, he insisted that the book was an effortless and riveting read–which was precisely the case. I finished reading the book as early as I could despite a couple of deadlines in my office and my one-year-old son going berserk.

The book is eminently readable and Arenas pins down the reader right from the word go. “The End.” This is how the book starts. He was sure in 1987 that he would die very soon but managed to survive although he had no medical insurance. He had to finish his Pentagonia and his memoirs before the night of death fell upon him.

Arenas’s father had abandoned his mother after only three months of marriage, something fairly common in Cuba in that era. He grew up in abject poverty, eating dirt and learning to hate his father. One day when he was six, he saw some boys of the neighborhood jumping in the river. The next day he masturbated for the first time. Life in the country was close to nature and therefore close to sexuality. Hens, goats, sows, mares, dogs, and even trees were used to satisfy his huge and eccentric sexual appetite during his boyhood. But the first time he went to a whore he was unable to have an erection. According to his own careful estimate, Arenas had fucked 5000 men by 1968.
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Read This Book Now, Part 1: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This is the first part of our new series, “Read This Book Now.” Each week, for the next few months, one of our contributors will recommend a single book. Put aside everything you’re doing and read it immediately.

I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sale table of an Orlando bookstore. Years earlier, a friend of mine had read it for class—he called it the greatest thing he ever read—and told me it should be at the top of my reading list. I took his reaction for hyperbole, and ignored his suggestion. But when I saw The Autobiography of Malcolm X on sale, I thought, “What the heck? For $4.99, why not?”

I like books, but I have never reacted to a book the way I did to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was all I could think about. For weeks, my conversations with co-workers all started with the phrase “When Malcolm X was….” I carried the book in my back pocket and read it whenever I had a free minute. It took over my life in a way that no book ever had, or has since.

I wasn’t sure why the book captivated me the way it did. There are very few similarities between Malcolm X and I, and he doesn’t seem like a person with whom I would immediately identify. Yet I did.

In retrospect, I believe that my love for this book came from my background in literature. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the closest thing to an epic we have in American literature, and Malcolm X is the closest we have to an epic hero. (I know, you’re going to make the case for Moby Dick or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and you may have a point. But this is my review, so I stand by my assertion.)


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REVIEW: Max Perkins, Editor of Genius

This book has been chosen as a Great Read.

Author: A. Scott Berg

Riverhead Books, 1978.

Best ebook deal: Currently Unavailable (disagree?)

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

Unless you’re a huge literature dork who regularly reads biographies about editors and newspapermen, you’ve likely never heard of Maxwell Perkins. However, if you close your eyes and imagine an editor (not the porcine, cigar chomping news editor of comics, but the prosaic, behind-the-scenes type–you know who I mean) the soft-spoken but fierce person you might imagine is probably a close estimation of Max Perkins. Perkins is legendary in certain circles for being the editor and buttress for legendary–in all circles–writers such as Papa Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. If one were to dust modern literature for fingerprints, traces of Perkins would be abundant.
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