Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.

Fiction

History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…

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Dylan’s 7 Mirrors

Bob DylanI  love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ‘fore I finally disappear?

–Abandoned Love


The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected,
The endless road and the wailing of chimes,
The empty rooms where her memory is protected,
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times.

— Changing of the Guards


Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

— Dignity


Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity.
You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear
At the back of your head as you drink
And there’s no time to think.

— No Time To Think


We live in a political world
Where mercy walks the plank,
Life is in mirrors, death disappears
Up the steps into the nearest bank.

— Political World


Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here

— Visions of Johanna


“Go on back to see the gypsy.
He can move you from the rear,
Drive you from your fear,
Bring you through the mirror.
He did it in Las Vegas,
And he can do it here.”

— Went to See the Gypsy

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Gotta get my Fred and Wilma.

Fred and Wilma FlintstoneI wrote about Woodstock briefly earlier this month, and since then some more Woodstock news has crossed my desk. First is The Road to Woodstock, a memoir cowritten by Michael Lang, one of the festival’s creators. (Interesting fact: Bob Dylan, who lived nearby, was not invited to perform.)

Second item: A re-release of the Woodstock movie. It includes extra footage of performers shown in the original cut, plus performances of CCR and the Dead, who were not included in the 1970 film.

Now to Fred and Wilma.

I remember first seeing Joe Cocker perform around 1970 on the old Tom Jones variety show. It aired on Sundays around dinner time, and I remember Cocker’s spastic performance gave our digestive systems quite a jolt.

Cocker’s been easy to parody. John Belushi’s imitation of the bluesy singer was brilliant in its boorish eccentricity. But I’m also wondering if it was so effective because Cocker, especially in his immediate post heyday, was such an easy target — in the way that anyone visibly different makes an inviting target. (You’ve never seen a kid in a supermarket pointing and saying too loudly, “Mommy, why is that man standing so upright, and why are his features so average, and why is his face so symmetrical and pleasing?” — have you?)

Anyway, I came across this video again of Cocker’s Woodstock performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” It’s the video that hilariously tries to make sense of Cocker’s famously muddy phrasing. That’s where Fred and Wilma come in. Take a look.

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