Nonfiction Review: “Herbie Hancock: Possibilities” by Herbie Hancock (With Lisa Dickey)

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Herbie Hancock - PossibilitiesRECOMMENDED

Chicago-born piano wizard Herbie Hancock aptly opens his autobiography by recalling a Stockholm concert when he played the wrong chord with the Miles Davis Quartet: “Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.” That night, Davis (who famously said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”) ultimately offered the young Hancock a musical direction for life: integrating the “wrong” chord into the performance matters more than playing the “right” chord. Perhaps Davis reiterated the advice when he warned Hancock against playing “butter notes,” or to just “play nothin’” when not knowing what to play. Jazz isn’t unlike theater, or life itself: silence is powerful, and listening is everything. Jazz is no place for safety; copying anyone, or reproducing last night’s performance, is deadly. Read the rest of this entry »

The Oddest of Couples: Nancy Horan on Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson

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underthewidestarryskyBy June Sawyers

Gypsy, vagabond, nomad, bohemian dandy, consummate storyteller. Robert Louis Stevenson was all of these, and more. He is both familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar. We may recognize the name but who was the person behind the famous moniker? Even the most casual reader knows that he is the author of such literary classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and, most famously, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Unlike other iconic literary figures of the nineteenth century though—Poe, Dickens, Wilde, to name a few—Stevenson, for many, remains a cipher.

Before she started researching her new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Nancy Horan didn’t know much about him either. “I probably read ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ in high school, possibly ‘Kidnapped,’” she told me. “That was about it. I thought of him as a boy’s adventure writer.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “John Quincy Adams” by Harlow Giles Unger

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Perhaps no man was better prepared by upbringing and education to serve as President of the United States than John Quincy Adams. Yet, the Harvard-educated only son of Founding Father and second U.S. President John Adams came to lead one of the most undistinguished administrations in American history.

Grandiose perhaps in his desire to lead a presidency free from partisanship, his machinations gained election by the House of Representatives after a four-candidate race in 1824 failed to produce a majority in the Electoral College. His alliance with Henry Clay threw him into the rising tide supporting the “barbarian” (Adams’ word) Andrew Jackson, who had outpolled Adams and stormed over him into the White House in 1829.

Adams was quickly reduced to a ghost of a president, shambling through an irrelevant and undemanding routine at the White House. “Politically impotent,” writes biographer Harlow Giles Unger—also author of a raft of critically regarded and similarly accessible lives of Founding Fathers such as that of Patrick Henry, “Lion of Liberty”—“John Quincy recognized that he would be the first chief executive in the nation’s short history to contribute nothing to his country. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Marc Dolan

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For almost forty years now, Bruce Springsteen has been the voice of blue-collar America, the poet laureate of the working class. Starting in 1973 with his debut, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” Bruce Springsteen and his band have captured the sound and feel of Factory Town, USA.  The Pabst bars and cheap smokes. Blue jeans and leather jackets. Train tracks, highways and hometowns. Nostalgia. Hope. Glory. Grease and grit and fast cars. “Broken heroes” whose real glory is not in escaping the towns that “rip the bones from your back,” but in remaining, enduring, “[living] with the sadness.” Iconic American imagery that transcended the hardscrabble New Jersey Springsteen knew so well to speak to the work-worn citizens of Asbury Parks all over the country.

In subsequent albums, particularly “Born to Run” (1975) and “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), Springsteen’s lyrics have focused on the gap between that America and the one history has promised, the negative space between the American Dream and the American Reality. Those albums’ title tracks—one the basically official anthem of Jersey, the other a staple of Fourth of July firework shows everywhere—describe those left behind by a “runaway American dream” and a Vietnam vet abandoned by the very country he served, respectively. The records riff on disappearing jobs and unfulfilling jobs, domestic isolation and racism. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”

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A few weeks after I finished “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page novel, a friend asked me if it was really worth the time. It took some two months of reading and dictionary consulting, of heavy annotating, cross-referencing, and back-and-forth turning between the book’s body and all 388 of its endnotes, but at the time I told him that yes of course it was, that the book was as much a work of genius as all the back-cover blurbs had made it out to be, long and dense but powerfully written in a language that shifts between the lowbrow and the hyper-literate with intertwined plot lines and shifting points of view and all of it was simply gilded, yes gilded, with layers and layers of meaning and allusion that could only be created by, I told him, a Genius. I still stand by most of what I said. But reading “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, I realize that my reasons for recommending the book were all too naïve, and that I had, more or less, failed as a reader of Wallace’s works. The fact is that although David Foster Wallace is a great writer because of the way he assembles words on the page, he is something much greater and much more important—“artist” may be the appropriate word here, purple and sappy as it sounds—because of the moral heart of his fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction” by Michael Moorcock

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Michael Moorcock is a difficult fellow to pigeonhole. He’s won practically every award given to writers in the genres of fantasy and science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer), including the Nebula and Bram Stoker Award. As the editor of New Worlds, he helped shape the course of science fiction writing in the mid-twentieth century. Then there’s his career as a musician and as a historian of London. Recently, he wrote a “Doctor Who” novel. Who else could claim friendships with figures as divergent as Woody Guthrie, William S. Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke and Alan Moore? Who else would begin life in the East End of London during the Blitz, and end up spending his golden years in the hill country outside Austin, Texas? Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” by H.W. Brands

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Although Aaron Burr was not convicted in his supposed military conspiracy to acquire territory in the Southwest in the early nineteenth century, his reputation has passed down to us as tainted, almost on a par with that of Benedict Arnold.

His earlier killing of Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton in a duel further clouds his character. In truth, the political fortunes as well as economic prospects of the former vice president of the United States were already in steep decline, but the infamous affair at Weehawken, New Jersey, accelerated the process.

The brilliant, ambitious Burr was often an enigma even to his contemporary countrymen, but he was not a soulless man, as University of Texas historian H.W. Brands demonstrates by refracting the events of his life through the lens of Burr’s unusually close relationship with his daughter. In his brief but compelling “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr,” he absolutely delivers on the publisher’s promise of a series of “American Portraits:” that they are “tightly written, vividly rendered accounts of lost or forgotten lives and crucial historical moments.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Butterfly in the Typewriter” by Cory MacLauchlin

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It was the publishing event of 1980: the release of the only known novel by a brilliant but unknown, previously unpublished New Orleans writer, dead by his own hand more than a decade earlier.

John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” finally saw the light of day as the result of the indefatigable efforts of his devoted mother and her successful enlistment of the great Louisiana author Walker Percy as a critical ally.

Centered on one of the great eccentric characters of American literature, the geeky medievalist New Orleans hotdog vendor Ignatius Reilly, the novel was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a masterpiece of character comedy,” “almost stroboscopic: brilliant, relentless, delicious, perhaps even classic.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Chicago Portraits” by June Skinner Sawyers

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Chicago is a relative whippersnapper among the great cities of the world, but its persisting roll-up-the-sleeves attitude toward life and work may be why it has produced so many high achievers in all fields of human endeavor, including politics and crime (in which many have proved ambidextrous).

So it was no small mission June Skinner Sawyers set for herself in winnowing that list to about 300 and creating trenchant but sufficiently thorough biographies of each. The result has been spectacularly successful. In her “Chicago Portraits” she has crafted an indispensable resource for anyone who loves Chicago history. The grace of her writing also makes it a pure pleasure for browsing; her volume will make you smarter just by being in your home.

In his foreword, Rick Kogan—whose father, the late journalist, historian and author Herman is justifiably among those included here—is right on the money in applying to Chicago the Southerner William Faulkner’s observation, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Lincoln in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates” Edited by Harold K. Bush, Jr.

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Harold K. Bush, Jr.’s “Lincoln in His Own Time” is a graceful, worthy addition to the already-massive wealth of Lincolniana. It brings a valuable perspective and literary flavor to a table already yawning with historical fare. At a well-organized just-under-300-pages, it is an accessible ying to the yang of Michael Burlingame’s recent exhaustive, 2000-page “Abraham Lincoln: A Life.”

Bush is an English professor at Saint Louis University, and his particular strength is in identifying and reproducing selections that, in addition to humanizing Lincoln, have literary interest. The collection includes several pieces almost lost to modern readers that are enhanced by the editor’s extensive introduction and knowledgeable prefatory notes. Read the rest of this entry »