"Riding freight,” Eddy Joe Cotton tells us in the introduction to his memoir, Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America, “is like riding in the back of a pickup truck down a washboard dirt road in Mexico while smoking two hundred Camel straights and eating fifty hard-boiled eggs like Cool Hand Luke.” Cotton never loses sight of the dust-rimed realities of his bumpy quest, which takes him through most of the western states; nonetheless, the song of the open road has always had sufficient romance to woo characters not only like Whitman, Kerouac and Cotton, but also those who call themselves Alabama, Stringbean, Bobby Blue and Levi, the last a symbolic and long-lost son of the Bible’s wandering Levites.
Those jolting, smudged, and clanking realities are what make Hobo’s moments of transcendence seem more than romantic blurriness. “I ran along [with] my hand frozen to the ladder,” Cotton says of his first ride, “until I got my other hand on it, and when I did the train lifted me off the groundlike an angel.” Once on the platform, Cotton finds himself at home with a strange salvation: “I’d never hopped a freight before, but goddamn if it wasn’t exactly what God had intended for me.”
God’s plan has its moments of loneliness, Cotton admits, and for these it’s best to hit the ground and head for the nearest diner. Drink enough coffee, he recommends, and you’ll “tear down the restaurant one waitress at a time. The prettiest one will love you, burn her apron, quit her job, and lie across a Sealy Posturepedic like a Mayan goddess.” And if things don’t work out, sooner or later another train’s whistle will blow invitingly in the night.
The next time someone cites lack of knowledge as an excuse for not going to an art gallery or museum, hand them a copy of Getting It: A Guide to Understanding and Appreciating Art by Becky Hendrick. It’s really the only worthwhile book I’ve ever read on the topic. Hendrick is an artist and university art teacher herself but she writes as if she’s just a friend who happens to know art and is excited to explain it to you in personal conversations rather than theoretical lectures. Amazingly, she does it allfrom the color wheel to post modernismin just 75 pages.
Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight includes the deaths of siblings, the neglect of sometimes drunken, aloof, and/or mentally ill parents and growing up in a war zone. But while there are moments of heartbreak in it, it’s not sad: Alexandra Fuller brings the eyes of a curious child to the full range of experiences in her African childhood. Fuller grew up under the open skies of southern Africa, and it’s clear that she’s African through and through. She was conceived in a motel at Victoria Falls with the roar of the Zambezi in her ears, and although she was born in England, her family moved back to Rhodesia in 1971 when she was 2 years old.
The family had cast their lot in Rhodesia about the time a guerrilla civil war was heating upthe war that would eventually lead to the establishment of the country of Zimbabwe. When her family went to town for shopping, they had to drive their land-mine-proofed Land Rover in convoys with other white settlers because of the danger from the people they called terrorists and others called freedom fighters.
As Fuller takes us through her girlhood, she moves from remembrances of morning horseback rides through the stunning countryside with her mother, to her experiences at boarding school, which went from all-white to almost all-black after independence. Fuller never sugarcoats the racism and the pain, but she doesn’t ignore the love and the beauty either.
In the spring of 1942, FDR, with the backing of Congress, issued Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the incarceration of ethnic Japanese peopleregardless of citizenship. For decades, this part of our country’s history wasn’t much talked about, not by the general public and not even within Japanese American circles. Following a redress movement in the ’70s and the success of works like the film Snow Falling on Cedars, the relocation camps are no longer a secret. Still, the silence that followed the wartime incarceration had lingering effects, as explored in Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. The essays, written by people who spent part of their childhood in the camps, are enlightening and entertaining, covering everything from patriotism vs. wartime hysteria to growing up a member of the camps’ white minorityas did Erica Harth, the book’s editorto modern day affirmative action.
I’m not much for self-help books but I couldn’t resist Monica Pierre’s Found My Soul in a Sweet Potato Patchif only for the title. Pierre is the daughter of a sharecropper who pulled herself up from a sweet potato patch in rural Louisiana to attend college and forge a career as an Emmy-winning journalist, author and motivational speaker. Her little self-published paperback, which I picked up at the Maple Street Bookstore in New Orleans, is basically the story of her life told in terms of the seasons of planting, tending and harvesting. Her story is interspersed with thoughts on life’s challenges and victories drawn from her daily radio program in New Orleans. Her observations may not be new but her sassy, upbeat style makes them seem so.
Rick Koster’s previous work Texas Music took readers deep inside the myriad of genres and idioms associated with that vast state. He does the same thing with Louisiana Music, zipping from brass bands to Cajun and Zydeco, exploring R&B one minute, then covering country or rock or blues the next. He’s more a roving provocateur than dispassionate observer, a trait that makes the book highly enjoyable as well as musically enlightening. While he sometimes expends lots of ink on contemporary local bands no one outside of New Orleans or Baton Rouge has ever heard of, the book is a delightful excursion into the Crescent City’s mélange of cosmic sounds.
For Beatles fans with a desire to read beyond the music, there are a few indispensable books: The Beatles Anthology, largely a collection of quotes from the band members themselves; The Beatles, by Hunter Davies, the authorized biography; Shout! by Philip Norman, which, despite its bias against Paul McCartney, remains a valuable look at the development of the band and the cultural tidal wave it created.
Add to this esteemed list Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. This chronological, song-by-song examination of the entire “official” Beatles catalog begins with “My Bonnie,” in which the group backed singer Tony Sheridan in 1962, and ends with “Real Love,” the second song the (at that time) three surviving Beatles recorded over a crude John Lennon demo tape to make a “new” Beatles song in 1996. MacDonald skillfully weaves historical information about what was going on in the lives of the individual band members at the time of the writing and recording of the songs, along with musical and lyrical analysis to give a rounded picture of where each song came from and how it developed. MacDonald’s knowledge of the Beatles repertoire allows him to tell even longtime fans new things, such as when he notes that the closing song on the White Album, the Lennon-written lullaby “Good Night,” is “an inadvertent variation on Cole Porter’s 'True Love,’ one of the group’s Hamburg standards.” The book also has a complete discography of Beatles releases through the three anthologies released in the ’90s, and also has chronological sections showing in parallel columns what the Beatles were up to throughout the ’60s, along with what was going on in music and current events. Out of print in the U.S., its British version can be easily ordered through Amazon’s U.K. affiliate, at www.amazon.co.uk.
P. J. O’Rourke’s The CEO of the Sofa is perhaps his best since Parliament of Whores. The book is an homage to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. In it, O’Rourke casts his familiars in a semi-fictitious household. P. J. himself becomes the CEO or the “Political Nut” who says things to piss off the neighbors off like: “A couple of aging liberals like you, I said, are probably worried about how Social Security is becoming a political issue. The danger with political issues, for liberals, is you might try to understand them.” Each chapter marks a month in a year beginning in September 2000. O’Rourke takes us through the U.N., drugs, Social Security, the 2000 election, childbirth and a whole load of whatever else springs to mind. The best thing about P. J. is that, though he writes from a conservative perspective, he is never afraid to make himself the butt of the joke or to take Republicans to taskexposing politics and government as the hilarious farce they are.
While literary journals don’t usually make for scintillating reading in any season, recent issues of McSweeney’s, the elegant clothbound product of Dave Eggersauthor of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniusand friends, as well as Tin House, are some of the most talked-about offerings in bookstores across the country these days. The latter, which comes out of New York and boasts several longtime editors of the Paris Review on its masthead, reaches the top of the charts with Volume Three, Number Two: a/k/a Break Out the Bongos, Baby!It’s the Music Issue! An excerpt from Madison Smartt Bell’s latest novel, Anything Goes, ran here immediately before the novel’s release; the volume’s other big hits are Rick Moody’s essay on Meredith Monk; A. J. Albany’s alternately tender and horrifying account of childhood life with her father, the jazz great Joe Albany; and Bill Wadsworth’s insightful and appreciative look at the late Nashvillian Sandy Bull. Wadsworth, a well-respected and widely published poet, as well as the former director of the Academy of American Poets, brings a brilliant ear and a formidable knowledge of the Sixties jazz/folk scene to bear on his subject. If you can’t find Tin House: Break Out the Bongos! at Davis-Kidd or Bookstar or Barnes & Noble, you can find subscription and single-order information via email@example.com or (900) 786-3424. Back issues include more work by Moody, as well as fiction and poetry from Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace and Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky.
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