Review: Diary of a Beatlemaniac: A Fab Insider’s Look at the Beatles Era, by Patricia Gallo-Stenman

39336989[1]I was all of twelve when I discovered the Beatles, almost by accident. I knew the name, but hadn’t heard any of the music, and had been put off by my 7th grade teacher’s insistence that the music was silly and pointless. But the cover of Meet the Beatles grabbed hold of my imagination and wouldn’t let go, so I listened, and I fell.  I think a lot of us who grew up in that era have similar stories about discovering the band, and stories similar to Gallo’s about what the discovery meant to us, how it changed our lives.

Her diary entries took me back in time, reminding me of the events that surrounded my Beatlemania, the sounds, the sights, and mostly of how silly a teenage girl can be over stuff like this.  I did a lot of eye-rolling as I read, but it wasn’t a judgement. Rather it was me being amused and embarrassed by having done the exact same things. The obsession, the building of the shrines papered with photos of “the lads,” buying the albums and listening non-stop, picking up Brit slang, dressing like the girls they hung out with (Mod girls with long, straight hair.) the Beatles dreams, writing “Mrs George Harrison” in my notebook at school and mourning because I would never, ever be like Patti Boyd, and so could never win George’s heart.

As if.

But Gallo’s Beatlemania went above and beyond, and she parlayed it into a writing gig, churning out a column for a local newspaper entitled “Teen to Teen,” in which she gave a rundown of what was Happening.  Yeah, it was mainly Beatles, but she covered other British invasion groups, as well as home-grown ones.  She also managed to befriend Victor Spinetti, who appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night, and Help, and whose ego must’ve been really healthy to withstand constantly being approached to talk about the group instead of his own career. He comes across really well, a kind and thoughtful gentleman, who got a kick out of the kids who approached him.

Gallo interviewed Spinetti several times, once much later in life, as she did a local (Philadelphia) DJ known as Hyski who was instrumental to bringing the Beatles to Philly.  It’s in these interviews as well as in her epilogue that the book really comes together as she reflects on that era and what it was about for her and her friends. I think I might have enjoyed the book as a whole more than I did if she’d broken up the diary entries with more of the analysis and introspection she shows at the end.

Peppered with newspaper clippings, and photos (though not as many of the latter as I would have expected) it’s a light-hearted account of a young girl’s coming of age in the early 60s, with a soundtrack unlike anything any of us had heard before. It’s a fast read, but nothing particularly heavy, and probably fun more because I remember doing the things she did, thinking and obsessing about the same things she did. You’re not going to get any deep insights or musical theory here, just a woman’s memoir of an important time in her life, one which will  resonate for some more than others.



Review: The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election, by Malcolm Nance

32202585[1]I love it when Malcolm Nance is invited onto the news shows I watch to analyze and explain what’s going on with national security.  While what I hear isn’t comforting in the least, I can’t help but feel that with guys like Nance looking out for this country, we might just survive the next few years.

The book was written before the election happened, which means that our security agencies were aware of Russian intentions, and actions, well before Trump became POTUS.  Yes, that means there were missteps, it means we were woefully unprepared for what they ultimately did to us, and thanks to the outcome of the election, we remain unprepared.

Why Trump?  Nance explains it early on:

“The Russian spy agency had been ordered to make a bold move, hack the American elections, and engage in political warfare to elect Donald Trump President. Whether he knew it or not, Trump was the perfect candidate for a political asset. Former KGB officer Yuri Bezmenov said the KGB targeted “Ego-centric people who lack moral principles—who are either too greedy or who suffer from exaggerated self-importance. These are the people the KGB wants and finds easiest to recruit.”

Trump, and many of the people surrounding him, became useful idiots to the Russians, and remain so.  The endgame for them is to become the dominant power on the planet, and to do that, the U.S. needs to have its economy and standing in the world crippled.  They found all the right people to do that.

Some of this book is relatively technical.  The discussions of the cyber incursions tended to lose me in a flurry of acronyms and code names in spite of understanding the basics behind hacking and cyber espionage.  Even though I was listening to this as an audiobook, there were points where I found myself hopelessly muddled.  But those were the exceptions rather than the rule.  For the most part, the book is clear and concise, and it sounds a warning that something must be done or the Russians will steal more elections and help to elect more of Putin’s puppets.

We don’t have to be leader of the free world.  I could happily leave that honor to Germany, where it currently resides.  But we need a viable economy in order to survive, and I, for one, resent that one man and his endless tweets can make the rest of us look like complete idiots, or that the bigots, increasingly emboldened by his own bigotry, can make us all look like ignorant, intolerant yahoos by association. This country is better than that. We can’t allow the Russians to define us.

Nance’s information is not guesswork, it is fact. If you want a clear idea of how long this has been in the works, and how it took place, read this book.

Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson

12868761[1]I should have read Lawson’s books in order.  Or maybe not because then I might never have made it to Furiously Happy.  Lawson is a funny lady, but I feel that her humor hasn’t yet hit its stride in this memoir, so it’s uneven. And while the funny stuff is way funny, the stuff that should be and isn’t just drags.

It’s possible that Furiously Happy gave me unrealistic expectations.  I spent most of that book laughing until tears ran down my face, and my stomach ached. I finished the ebook, and went out and bought the hardcover because I knew I wanted to keep it forever as a hedge against despair, depression, and plain old crappy days.

So I expected Let’s Pretend This Never Happened to do the same, but it didn’t, and I’m not sure why.  There are crazy funny bits, to be sure, but nothing of the scope of FH.  A lot more of it made me feel vaguely sad, as if I was reading about a friend, who just couldn’t get a grip on her life.

So okay nobody is On 24/7, nobody is funny all the time, and maybe it took a while for Lawson to find the sweet spot where her problems were more hilarious than worrying, and the solutions even funnier.  Or maybe I just saw more of myself in the later book, and less in this one.  I don’t know if that says more about me or about Lawson, but in the end, I consider myself in good company, so yes, I recommend this book, but with a caveat: I think she becomes stranger and funnier as she goes along. If this book doesn’t catch hold of you, try Furiously Happy, okay?

Review: The Graveyard Book: Full-Cast Production, by Neil Gaiman

24068185[1]This is my reread for April, and a darn good choice it was too.  It’s been a rough month (year, really, but who’s counting?) and Neil’s prose is always a comfort to me, giving me the sense that the world is a far more magical place than I can imagine.  It’s not always happy magic, but there’s a sense of connection to the universe about it that is reassuring even when the story goes places that make me anxious or unhappy.

This is the story of Nobody Owens, Bod for short.  As a toddler he escaped the man who murdered his entire family by wandering into the local graveyard and being adopted by the inhabitants. The Owenses, a lovely 18th century ghost couple, become his new parents, and Silas, who is not a ghost, and yet not human either (we know what he is without being told explicitly) becomes his guardian.  But in this case it takes a graveyard to raise a child, and many of the ghosts have a hand in Bod’s upbringing.

As he grows, he’s taught ghostly skills such as fading, and haunting, and with Silas’ help he learns to read and write. But eventually exploring the graveyard isn’t enough for him, and he wants to go out into the larger world and learn about life. It’s not an easy thing for Bod, Silas, and the ghosts to negotiate, particularly because Silas knows more about Bod’s life, and the murders of his family members than anyone imagines.  He knows Bod is still in danger, and is inclined to be over-protective. When he and smart, headstrong Bod clash, there’s trouble.

Full cast recordings are not always a good thing, but in this case the  cast is excellent, with Derek Jacobi as narrator,  Julian Rhind-Tutt as a wonderful Silas, and a funny cameo by Gaiman as a forgotten poet with an over-blown sense of importance.

If you know and love Gaiman’s work, I think you’ll enjoy this audiobook.  If you don’t, this is not a bad way to enter his world.

Review: Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806[1]What a strange book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I requested it from Net Galley, though the premise sounded intriguing; a retelling of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (the original source for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera) with some gender-swapping?  Okay I’m game.

The book recounts the short, intense life of one Jack Sheppard, a notorious 18th century footpad, and his love, Edgeworth Bess.  But in this version, Jack is a young woman who has always identified as male, Bess is an Anglo-Indian sex worker, and they exist in a community of marginalized people who are given so few options in society that their only recourse is sex work or theft.  There are subcultures within subcultures, queer and otherwise.

The story is told in the Found Manuscript format with footnotes from the professor who is annotating it, first for himself, and later for a company that’s essentially coercing him into using it to sell their product.  Dr. Voth is himself a transgender man, so the project is close to his heart, and he resents them wanting to use it commercially when he believes it should belong to the queer community.  Throughout the course of the book, his annotations become more and more personal, and less about the manuscript itself, and it’s within these increasingly impassioned annotations that the real theme of the story presents itself.

In the end the book is a heady mix of Hogarthian grotesqueness and Brechtian political satire, an often difficult book to like, and even to assimilate.  It is sometimes pedantic, often heavy-handed, and the message sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.  It can be amusing, it can be off-putting, but it does contain some important truths about what it is to be different in a society that values sameness.

Bottom line: Not for everyone, and not for people who don’t care to think about the deeper questions of what they’re reading.

Review: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

34445377[1].jpgI am so deeply conflicted by this book that I barely know what I want to write about it.  I found it awkward, often embarrassingly clunky and florid, but at the same time I enjoyed it.  I thought the plot was ridiculous, and yet I devoured it in big chunks.  The characters so often seemed flat, but I felt for them.  I suppose it’s the mark of a great writer that they can write a book with so many flaws and still make it compelling.

The first thing that irritated me was that the narrator, Bronson Pinchot, chose to render the dialog with a thick French accent.  It was well done, but I felt it was unnecessary, and made it rough going until I got used to the rhythms.

And the main character, Jules?  Both saintly and silly, given to long — very long — philosophical ramblings about life, old age, music, death, and love.  Oh lord, he goes on and on about love, falling in love with one woman after the next, usually within the space of a few minutes.  But then, the novel is crammed full of philosophers, all engaging in long monologues, or sometimes dialogues about The Big Issues.  I can’t count the number of times I rolled my eyes.

And yet, much of what they say is true, and touched chords in me.  So that, while I could have been happier with the way the truths were delivered, the awkwardness didn’t alter their value to me.

I understood Jules from the start, understood who he was and why he felt the way he did, but I spent a lot of time muttering “Oh Jules, for heaven’s sake!” There was something terribly familiar about him even while I often found him silly and even unbelievable.  I found his situation both increasingly tense and increasingly silly, and cannot tell you why I cared that things would work out. But I did, I cared deeply.

I don’t hate myself for enjoying the book, but I’m not particularly proud to admit it either.  I don’t think it’s all that good, but it kept me reading, and that’s worth a lot.

Review: Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

38918834[1].jpgWhen I was younger I never imagined I’d be devouring books about politics.  And it’s not just being “woke” that makes me feel that I need to keep up on what’s going on in the world.  Rather, it’s a desire to understand all those goings-on, and how they affect my world and me.  The more I know the more interesting it all becomes.  Perhaps the political milieu seems boring to many Americans because we know so very little about how it works.  That’s a shame, really, and if I wanted to I could devote a whole post (or many) about why that is, and what can be done about it.

But this is intended to be a review of the Isikoff and Corn history of the run-up to the 2016 election with an eye to Republican collusion with Russia, so let me just say that they do a damn fine job of it.  The book reads like a political thriller — without the car chases, shoot-outs and fistfights, though there is a good bit of poison, courtesy of the Russians — a chronological account of the events that informed the presidential election, and a look at the players involved.

The Trump camp does not come off well, but then did you expect they would?  If there was no collusion between them and Russia, the coincidences are so unbelievable that I’d guess the odds are up in the killed-by-a-meteor-while-collecting-a-billion-dollar-Powerball-check area.  Is Trump culpable here?  That’s hard to say because he comes off as one of the most oblivious humans on the planet, never entirely knowing what’s happening, or really caring about any of it unless it earns him money.

The Clinton camp seems more feckless than anything else, forced to play defense at every turn. The Sanders camp barely registers, except to come across badly when they do.  Surprisingly, James Comey seems more sympathetic than I’d expected.  Isikoff and Corn paint a picture of a man who kept finding himself between a rock and a hard place, and who made some bad decisions because it it. It made me want to read his new book, so that should tell you something.

What did I take away from all this?  There is no doubt in my mind that Russia intended to influence the election in favor of Trump.  There is no doubt in my mind that America was played for a collective chump by Putin and his allies. There is no doubt that there were Putin allies in the Trump camp, and they may have included The Donald.  As of the writing of this book, the jury was still out on the proof of culpability and the level of damage that was done to our democracy, though the news brings us closer to answers every day, and I suspect that had this book been published next year it would have been far more damning.

Nevertheless it’s food for thought, and it is, in one important sense, one of the best accounts of what happened that I’ve run across.  Isikoff and Corn are brilliant at contextualizing these events so that it’s simple to understand what happened and why it was important and, not incidentally, who was involved.  For a clear, concise timeline of these events, I don’t think you could do better.

Review: Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain, Grover Gardner (Narrator)

34614308[1]At one point in the narrative, Shlain describes some of what he is about to write as possibly in the “woo-woo” category.  In other words, weird as all get out.  And as interesting as his ruminations on the subject of da Vinci and remote viewing are, I’m not sure he does his book any favors by veering into the realm of psychic phenomena.

It’s not the first time he goes there either.  This book, which attempts to explain the genius of a rare human being who excelled both in the arts and the sciences, keeps veering off into pseudo-science territory, to its detriment.  And for the rest?  It’s generally rambling, needlessly complicated in some areas, and not awfully interesting overall.  In fact it was something of a disappointment to me.  Leonardo is one of my heroes, and I don’t really feel I got any sort of insight from this book.

I’m glad I read it, I suppose, but I doubt I’ll ever bother with it again, and I’m not sure I felt that I got too much from it.

Review: The Concerto by Professor Robert Greenberg

419fa4PWSnL._SL500_[1]Anyone who follows my reviews knows I’m a big fan of Robert Greenberg.  I love his take on music and musical history, and while I don’t always agree with him, I always find that he gives me something to think about.  He’s persuaded me to give a number of composers a second or third chance, and for that alone I’d love his lectures.

I always learn a great deal from his courses, and find that when I’m fatigued by virtually every other audiobook I have available, I can turn to Professor Greenberg and be refreshed.

Aaaaannnndddd… I wasn’t as crazy about The Concerto as I hoped I’d be.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an excellent course, but for some reason I found my mind wandering a lot during the later lectures in particular.  I gritted my teeth and listened to as much of Eliot Carter as I could and then hit Fast Forward.  Even the good professor couldn’t convince me on that one.

So do I recommend it?  You bet I do, but not as completely as some of the other courses, certainly it’s not even close to Music as a Mirror of History or Bach and the High Baroque.  But if you’re interested in this particular musical form, it’s an excellent overview.

Review: Babylon Berlin: Book 1 of the Gereon Rath Mystery Series by Volker Kutscher

36311133[1].jpgI tried.  I swear I did.  And this should have been a no-brainer for me because I’m fascinated with Weimar Berlin, and have done a whole lot of reading on the subject.  But for some reason this book just defeated me and I really don’t know why.  Maybe I just never warmed to the characters, or thought of them as more than cardboard figures.  I found the plot a little confusing, but I suspect that was because I would read for a while and put the book down, then come back a week later and read a little more.  I managed to get about two-thirds of it read before I was willing to admit that I didn’t like the book and didn’t want to finish.

And honestly I really would love to start over again one day and see if I can’t push on through and get a real feel for the world Kutscher created, and the people who inhabit it.  I keep thinking that I’m missing something important, but damned if I know what it is.

So here’s the bottom line: It’s well written from a technical standpoint, but it never held my interest for very long, so I’d say that both the plot and the characters were uninvolving.  The latter more so, which is always a problem for me.  I’m of the opinion that character has to drive plot to make it worth reading.  Overall, I’d rate it: Meh.