Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru’s newest novel White Tears follows a couple privileged hipster college-educated white boys as they try to chase down, record and sell authentic black music from the dawn of the blues era. But what starts out as a snarky take on cultural appropriation and the current music scene in the U.S., ends up taking a dark turn down into the pits of American segregationist history.

For all of the beauty and fresh authentic sounds the American blues brings us, we forget why it’s called the “blues”. The stories, horrors and ghosts that gave birth to all the haunting words and rhythms were real. And it was bad.

Kunzru’s story zips back and forth through time, pulling on threads and connecting dots between the pain that birthed the blues, music laws, the 1960’s music industry and the “only vinyl will do” trends of the current decade.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book and the writing is solid. I wasn’t expecting the honest-to-goodness ghost story that crept up to help drive home the point of cultural appropriation and entitlement, but I have an appreciation for why and how Kunzru did this. Sometimes we just don’t know what we’re messing with and should just leave it alone.

It’s good to stop while reading this book and think about how the ideas are playing out “for real” in the story. It’s easy to forget the sting of all those ideas and themes, once the story starts chugging along and characters start dying and disappearing mysteriously.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for a well done all-type book cover and White Tears does look good (it’s another great one by the modern dust jacket master Peter Mendelsund) face out. Overall, I give White Tears a 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Want Not

Jonathan Miles’ novel Want Not came out 4 years ago, and it seems  even more relevant in 2017. It is my book club’s pick this November and I’m anxiously waiting our next meeting. If everyone read it, I expect there to be no lull in the conversation. It’s really good. And it’s good in that non-thriller sort of way. Which makes it really, really good.

It’s a patient book, drawing out three story lines that all circle this notion of over consumption and waste in America. Watching how the waste and excess of things our culture creates affects families, lovers, businesses, and society as whole, is truly thought provoking.

The story bounces back and forth between homeless folks intentionally “living off the land” of New York City, picking through the trash bins, a professor of linguistics having to get rid of all the things left behind from his divorce while dealing with his ailing father and the owner of a credit card debt collection agency, living in a McMansion neighborhood of a few houses, because the rest haven’t been developed.

One of the more interesting parts linguistic professor’s story is his project of having to write the warning signs for a nuclear dump. It’s to be an underground dump full of excess and spent nuclear materials that remain lethal for 10,000 years. So it’s trash that can kill.

But what language do you write the warning in? Very few languages last more than a few thousand years, what will they be speaking in 10,000 years? He and his cohorts debate symbols, colors, art, language and hieroglyphics. With that comes the realization that most of what archeologists dig up is just trash from thousands of years ago.

Jonathon Miles is probably best known for Dear American Airlines. That book was good and made me chuckle. But Want Not was better in a couple of ways. Want Not made me laugh out loud as well as really think about what society is doing to this planet and each other as we over produce a bunch of junk. It’s rare to find a book that makes you laugh while thinking big thoughts.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to folks who want to meet some really quirky characters dealing with some thought provoking issues. I’m betting it’s going to be a great book club pick for us.

Have you read Want Not?

Book Review: A Great Bookstore in Action

A Great Bookstore in Action is a slim 32-page volume printed in 1939. It’s a record of a speech given by Adolph Kroch (here is a detail rich obituary), who was a very successful Chicago-based bookseller, active in the 20’s and 30’s.

In just these few pages, Kroch comes across as a like minded soul that I’d love to have had coffee with. The book starts up with his recounting how he got started in book selling and ends with his sharing ideas of how to fix all that was broken with the bookselling industry.

I have to admit that it was fun to read his thoughts, from my 2017 armchair, and have the luxury of looking back to see what all has changed and, sadly, what things have not.

Appreciating the value of a good book while realizing the amazing event that takes place when a thoughtful bookseller connects the right book with the right reader, informs every page. Even today, this idea of a local community bookstore being able to guide its surrounding neighbors to worthwhile books is a lofty service.

He was an advocate for professionally training booksellers and publishers in some way. Thankfully we have much of that covered these days between what’s offered at the Denver Institute and all the classes the ABA have.

Kroch rightly saw the implications of good books over the cheap fluff that some publishers and sellers were pushing. He was very concerned about successful authors that were able to write a book a year. He was not happy about the growing number of books publishers were cranking out each year either. But even that what not a new concern in 1939. Here’s a poem he shared from the 1600’s:

Can you imagine what he’d think of the industry today?

He also offered up a few sentences about the trend in the reading public to pull away from books and look to the growing movie scene and music for entertainment. Imagine how flustered he’d be today with every prospective reader having the entire internet in their pocket.

This book certainly isn’t a “must read” for folks, but it’s a wonderful peek at what the book industry was like in the 1930’s in the United States.

I’m giving the book 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone interested in the history of bookstores.

The Almost Sisters – Book Review

No one does Southern family dysfunction quite like Joshilyn Jackson. Her newest book The Almost Sisters is no exception. She has introduced us to a new family of Southerners with layers of good intentions, questionable judgement, and conflicting emotions. Graphic novelist, Leia Birch Briggs finds herself pregnant as a result of a one-night stand (with a masked man, at that!) Before she can even get a handle on how her life is about to change, she must rush to Alabama, with her precocious tween niece in tow (due to her stepsister’s impending marriage explosion) to care for her grandmother, who, by all local accounts, is out of her ever-loving mind.)

The characters are interesting and believable and the plot is compelling and if that was all there was to this book, I’d still recommend it to all my friends. But what still has me chewing on this novel is the theme of “Two Souths,” an idea that due to our races, experiences, ages, and/or geographical locations, we don’t really live in or experience the same South. That’s a clunky way of wording it, but you get the gist. Maybe the current climate of the country is peppering my view, but I don’t think she’s ever taken racism on as directly as she has in The Almost Sisters. It was an uncomfortable read, at times, for this white Southerner. I came out on the other end of the story, though, with a new understanding of how little I understand of modern-day racial injustices.

This is a book review, not a social or political commentary and I don’t want to tell anyone what to learn from a story, so, I’ll leave it at this: come for the intriguing, flawed, characters (that will probably remind you of someone you know or are kin to), and a “oh no, she did not!” story, but be prepared to leave with a little extra empathy and social awareness.

Don’t be scared. It’s a good thing.

Jackson’s The Almost Sisters is available today!

(This book review is a guest post by B and it’s really appreciated as she did a great job with a book that I just would not have done justice with. Please note we receive an advanced reader’s copy, from the publisher, for review.)