Friday, September 18, 2015


Greetings! I’m the Books Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. As part of my job, I get to unpack and stack hundreds of books a week on shelves. Not only does this invest enormous, foolishly placed power in me, but also it gives me an advance look at what’s coming up. After each session of ripping and sorting and stacking, I always have a lot of things I want to tell somebody – and nobody to tell. So this humble blog is a way to tell people. If you like to read, and if you’re always wondering what’s good, and what’s coming up, maybe you’ll find some good recommendations here. And, of course, I would love to hear your recommendations for books, new or old.

Pop music memoirs. What a flood of them suddenly! And they are overwhelmingly by the women of rock, disco, punk, and folk. As Caitlin Moran (and you should read How to Build a Girl!) said to me recently, “All the innovation in music right now is coming from women.” And whether you buy that notion or not, women have stepped up big-time in popular song. Now, were you an arch and creepy person, you might say a memoir by a rocker is somewhat of an acknowledgment that one's career is, what shall I say?, complete.

But several of these musicians are, on the contrary, in the midst. So we have memoirs by Chrissie Hynde (Reckless: My Life as a Pretender; Doubleday; 366 pp., $26.95), who has always enjoyed saying stuff you shouldn’t say, including that, while she’s a feminist, she also thinks women get themselves into their own sexual messes quite a lot. (I wouldn’t dare say that; I wouldn't even try to think it, in case somebody hears ... )

Also fascinating is the new title by Ronnie Gilbert (Ronnie Gilbert: A Radical Life in Song, with preface by Holly Near; University of California Press, 312 pp., $26.95), in which she reminisces about her years with Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and her own growing political awareness. P.J. Harvey’s The Hollow of the Hand (Bloomsbury Circus, 232 pp., $27) combines her lyrics and poetry with the photography of Seamus Murphy. Patti Smith’s M Train (Knopf, 273 pp., $25) is a look at the creative life lived and exemplified by this local hero. Grace Jones brings us I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (Gallery, 400 pp., $26.99), and she’s had quite a life, as various as her hairdos. I love Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney, and I expect Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead, 256 pp., $27.95) to be great. Also out are memoirs by Sarah Bareilles (Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song; Simon & Schuster, 208 pp.; $28), Jewel (Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story; Blue Rider, 384 pp., $27.50), and Carly Simon (Boys in the Trees; Flatiron, 384, $28.99), all fascinating and diverse artists and people.

Most readable and enjoyable of all, perhaps inevitably, is Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink(Blue Rider, 688 pp., $30), an epic tome. You’d expect him to be a true wordsmith, which he is, a true poet, and he gives us a detailed, funny, and meditative look at how he became a musician. For a man who has mustered up some of the bitterest, most ironic, most self-aware songwriting of the past 50 years, he speaks tenderly, humorously (plenty of funny stories), and humanely of his past and present. I especially like how he intersperses his lyrics with his narration … some of his best stuff, as for example from Imperial Bedroom, verges on real poetry.

Late to the Party. In this feature, those of you who have already read the books I will list get to feel superior to me, who only just now discovered them. Three books I am late to, but am reading with pleasure right this moment simultaneously, and recommend to you, are:

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, a deserved Pulitzer Prize-winner, beautifully written and even more beautifully conceived. This book has become a reading-circle favorite in a very short time.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker. A beautifully turned evocation of the World War One era in England. I knew of the chance meeting of two great war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, in a rest home in northern England, when both were convalescing. Yet I wasn’t ready for the way Barker makes their meeting resonate, for the staff, the physicians, the poets, and all those fighting the war across the Channel.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. The fourth and final book of the mysterious Ferrante’s “Naples tetralogy,” about the lifetime friendship between two women, is The Story of the Lost Child, and it’s just come out and may be the sleeper hit of the year. I thought I’d better go back and begin the four-book set, and, only 50 pages into My Brilliant Friend, I am utterly taken. If all four books are to this standard, we have a contemporary classic, and a very great author, whoever she is, among us.

Poetry. Lovely friend and poet Linda Gregerson was just the subject (along with Allen Tate!) of a Don Chiasson review in the New Yorker, much recommended. Also, everyone should pick up Erratic Facts (Grove, 128 pp., $24), by Kay Ryan, such a wonderful, quirky poet.

Classics. Dennis Washburn has brought out a new translation of Shikibu Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. It’s a very good translation, and you owe it to yourself to read this marvel of delicacy, eroticism, and storytelling. The author, if she was the author, was said to be a member of a royal court, and we don’t know that much more. But she was wonderful. In this, often called “the first novel” (ignoring Apuleius and the Golden Ass and a whole bunch of other first novels), the original Japanese can’t really be translated, and that’s the reason that, as well as Washburn does (and he does very well), I remain partial to the monumental, and very whimsical (as in not-too-exact-at-all) translation by Arthur Waley in 1921-33. Everyone says, “Someday I’m going to read Proust,” but everyone should say, “Someday I’m going to read The Tale of Genji.” OK … enough for now.

More next week, when we get in the next shipments. Thanks, always, to Frank Wilson for his tireless efforts, especially when I’m tired. Johnny