Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

First, I must apologize to author Steven Lee Beeber: When I saw that you were signing in August at The Book Cellar (the first time I'd heard of the book), I knew I'd want a copy. As an author myself, I know successful signing events are critical to a writer's mental health. I was free that night, and the bookstore is only a 10-minute walk from home. And yet, I did not drag my lazy butt out of the house that evening (I purchased a signed copy there a few days later). So I'm sorry, and I hope all went well (it probably did -- Suzy T. hosts great signings). If I had attended, I probably would have pestered you with stupid questions about the Dictators like, "What is a two tub man?"

Now that I got that out of the way... I love this book! I've been a fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground for 25 years (my first live concert was Reed at the UIC Pavilion in 1986), and the Dictators are one of my favorite recent discoveries, so I was excited to read about them. Plus Beeber tells much more about Blue Oyster Cult (another longtime favorite) in this book about punk than David Konow does in his book about heavy metal. I've never considered myself much of a punk rock fan, but maybe I've been in denial (probably because by the time I came of age in the 1980s, "punk" meant hardcore like Black Flag, early Husker Du, and the Dead Kennedys).

Beeber essentially credits New York Jews with creating and defining the punk movement. Reed is sometimes known as the godfather of punk (an ironically Christian label considering how many Jews it's been assigned to), and the Ramones (at least half Jewish) are arguably the best known American punk band. Beeber also profiles other Jewish New York punkers like the Dictators (5/6 Jewish), Richard Hell, Chris Stein of Blondie, Helen Wheels, et al. Hilly Kristal (owner of the legendary club CBGB's) and most of the first wave of rock critics (including Lenny Kaye and Richard Meltzer) were Jews, too. This book is about more than artists and their music, though. The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's also describes post-World War II New York Jewishness -- a real education for me, having been raised as a Chicago (area) Catholic.

Anyone interested in punk, particularly the New York scene, must read The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's. I think Beeber makes a convincing argument for Jews being critical to the rise of punk, but even readers who disagree with that premise will learn a lot about many influential performers and the background that informed their work. In Chapter 1, Beeber notes that another book could be written about Jewish influence in heavy metal (heeby metal?) including KISS, Twisted Sister, Geddy Lee of Rush, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and, of course, the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult. Mr. Beeber, I would love for you to write that book. If you do, I promise I'll attend your book signing!

Current tally: 82 books finished, 69 books acquired

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Answers & Advertising

Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (& Not-So-Everyday) Questions by Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D. - The Sones brothers write a syndicated column called "Strange But True" which is similar to Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope". I read a lot of books like this because the format is ideal for reading aloud to my wife as she gets ready for work (a few questions/pages per day). Having sampled this very uneven category, I can say that Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is far better than most. Instead of providing trite responses or mealy-mouthed ramblings, the Sones brothers consult and quote experts to get their answers. The only weak portion of the book is the section about love. Those questions just aren't as scientifically explainable as those about the body, death, and animals. Regardless, if you like this sort of book, Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is one of the best (don't confuse it with Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which is more popular but inferior).

Selling It: The Incredible Shrinking Package and Other Marvels of Modern Marketing by Leslie Ware - The inside back cover of Consumer Reports is my favorite part of the magazine. Each month, the editors put together a page of perplexing advertising and packaging. Examples include garbled English, misleading promises, and oddities like a photograph of a rose bush that appears in several catalogs, each time illustrating a different variety of rose. I was quite excited to buy a compilation of such items, yet this book took seven years to finish. The entries are like bacon -- it tastes great as a garnish, but one can't eat it all the time (and I've tried; eventually the salt and grease overwhelm). Each time I picked up Selling It, I read 5-10 pages, got tired of it, and moved on to something else. Ware's chapter introductions provide some basic consumer education in bullshit detection, but the examples are the best part... even if they don't read well in one sitting.

Current tally: 81 books finished, 69 books acquired

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Waiter, The Bard, And Lots Of Cops

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica - Dublanica (whose blog I haven't read) humorously describes the challenges and frustrations of waiting tables. Waiter Rant isn't exactly the book I wanted it to be -- I'd rather have less of the author's life story -- but I enjoyed it much more than Debra Ginsberg's Waiting. If you're browsing at the bookstore, at least take the time to read "Appendix A: 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer." Not only is this useful advice, but if you like the way it's written, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the book.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson - To be honest, I've never had much interest in Shakespeare. I endured Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in high school freshman English class, and I haven't given him much thought since. But when I saw this book by Bryson, an author I enjoy very much, and found that it was about Shakespeare the person rather than his works, I figured it was worth a shot (its brevity also attracted me). My gamble paid off, as Shakespeare is a fascinating book that examines the playwright's life in the context of late 1500s-early 1600s England. This is not a groundbreaking work (nor does it pretend to be), but Bryson succeeds in making the biography of someone I wouldn't ordinarily care about into something entertaining and worth reading. Note: an updated and illustrated edition is coming out next month.

On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department by Daniel P. Smith - Despite my negative predisposition toward any book that I could've/should've written myself (my wife is a Chicago police officer), I found On the Job to be pretty insightful. Smith combines a history of the department with plentiful mini-bios of current and former officers. He interviews a broad range of men and women from various units, collecting humorous and heartbreaking stories from throughout the city. On the Job is undoubtedly favorable toward the department, which probably explains why it didn't get much attention from the local media where cop-bashing has been in fashion lately. Although the frustrations of police work are not ignored, the book avoids the jaded cynicism of bloggers like Second City Cop. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Chicago history or policing, especially anyone considering a career in the field.

Current tally: 79 books finished, 69 books acquired

Saturday, October 03, 2009

My Favorite Talk Show Host

My wife and I are big fans of Craig Ferguson. We've seen his stand-up show live, we've seen his stand-up DVD, we've seen most of his movies, and I've read his novel, Between the Bridge and the River. During his first year as host of The Late Late Show, I actually missed him on weekends. I've been waiting anxiously for several months since I heard he was putting out a memoir/autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

Any fan of Ferguson will no doubt enjoy this book. It nicely fills in the gaps in his background that he only alludes to on television. If you want to know more about his ex-wives or his years as a punk rock drummer, American on Purpose has the details. And unlike many comedians, he doesn't recycle material in his book. In fact, I was surprised that many of the amusing anecdotes he has told on his show were left out (for example, on TV he tells how he was bored in Winnipeg and shaved his entire body; in the book, he describes shooting a movie in Winnipeg without mentioning the shaving incident).

I read this book aloud to my wife, and (predictably) we both loved it. I wish it was 50-100 pages longer -- his recent years in Hollywood are practically a blur (surprisingly little about The Drew Carey Show considering how long he was on it), and I'd like to know more about The Late Late Show and his citizenship process. I also wish there was an index. One of the things I love about Ferguson is his ability to be simultaneously hilarious and human; that emotional element makes American on Purpose a great book. I laughed plenty, but I couldn't read it aloud without an occasional lump in my throat. The photos are a hoot, too.

Current tally: 76 books finished, 69 books acquired