Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Why The Beach Boys Matter, by Tom Smucker (2018)

Why The Beach Boys Matter, by Tom Smucker, 2018. (Pictured on the cover: Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Mike Love. Not pictured on the cover: Brian Wilson.)

The Beach Boys have been one of my favorite groups since I was a little kid. Even before I got into the Beatles, I was a Beach Boys fan. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Beach Boys lately, so I was pretty excited to pick up a copy of Tom Smucker’s 2018 book Why The Beach Boys Matter. 

Smucker is a long-time fan of the Beach Boys, and his passionate defense of their importance is carefully thought out. Smucker also doesn’t overstate his case. He’s never arguing that the Beach Boys are better than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and he’s never arguing that Pet Sounds is the greatest album of all time. Smucker writes of Pet Sounds: “I never believed it should be everybody’s favorite album. Or everybody’s second-favorite album. Or that there was something insensitive about not responding to it at all.” (p.84) I strongly agree with this style of criticism. I try not to write in hyperbole about music, movies, or literature and I appreciate other critics who follow the same principle. 

Why The Beach Boys Matter is divided into short chapters that cover various aspects of the Beach Boys’ musical career, such as “Cars and Guitars,” “Suburbs and Surf,” and “Fathers, Shrinks, and Gurus.” At just 176 pages, Why The Beach Boys Matter packs a lot of content into a short volume. Smucker does an excellent job summarizing the Beach Boys’ long career, examining their influences and their place in American pop culture.

A lot of writing about the Beach Boys tends to lionize Brian Wilson and vilify Mike Love. Smucker doesn’t fall into this trap, and does an admirable job of being fair to both Brian and Mike. Smucker writes of Love: “Mike’s the Beach Boy who’s worked the hardest to puzzle out how and where they can position themselves in the current moment, and where they fit into the past.” (p.121) 

Smucker takes us through the up and down of the Beach Boys, from their staggering early success13 Top Ten singles in the U.S. from 1963 to 1966to Brian Wilson’s retreat from the group in the late 1960’s, as their commercial fortunes waned and the other Beach Boys stepped up and tried to fill the void. The band continued to make strong music during this era, but they didn’t produce any huge hit singles or albums. Then in 1974, the Beach Boys’ old label, Capitol Records, put out a greatest hits compilation covering their 1962-65 years. It was called Endless Summer, and it spent three years on the Billboard album charts, hitting number one four months after it was released. Suddenly the Beach Boys were hot again, but it was for their old songs. Rolling Stone magazine named the Beach Boys the “Band of the Year” for 1974. The Boys were back, but the success of Endless Summer meant that their old material would overshadow whatever new songs they came out with. Smucker points out that during the early 1970’s the Beach Boys turned into a great live band. They were a group so confident in their abilities that they would actually open concerts with “Good Vibrations,” a song considered by many to be the group’s masterpiece. 

The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson, have continued to thrive well into the 21st century. It’s now almost sixty years since the first Beach Boys record was made, and their music still sounds as vibrant as ever.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Book Review: Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin (2019)

Author Melanie Benjamin, and the cover of Mistress of the Ritz, to be published in May, 2019.

Melanie Benjamin’s previous historical novels have examined the lives of Truman Capote, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Hollywood star Mary Pickford. Her new novel, Mistress of the Ritz, will be issued in May, and focuses on Claude Auzello, the long-time director of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and his wife Blanche. The novel skips around in time, but the main focus is the German occupation of France during World War II. 

After the French government surrendered to the Germans in June of 1940, the Nazis took over the Ritz and used it as a command post. Claude must decide how he will deal with the Germans. This was a question that millions of people throughout Europe had to deal with as the Germans invaded and conquered most of the continent. How will you handle the Germans? Will you collaborate with them or resist them? It’s a difficult question, made trickier by the moral obligation Claude feels towards the many people who work at the Ritz. 

Blanche must decide what course of action she will take as well. An American, Blanche met Claude in 1923, when he was working at Hotel Claridge, just before he got his job at the Ritz. Blanche and Claude have a fairly tempestuous marriage, as he clings to some of his French customs, like taking a mistress, and they argue frequently. 

Mistress of the Ritz paints a vivid picture of the luxurious life at the Ritz. As far as the plot of the novel goes, I found it quite engaging. However, I correctly guessed the two big plot reveals long before they occurred in the narrative. 

As an F. Scott Fitzgerald buff, I do have to point out one historical error. When Blanche comes back to the Ritz after a fight with Claude in 1937, she asks “Where’s Scott?” Ernest Hemingway then tells Blanche that Scott and Zelda have gone back to America. Which they did, back in September of 1931. Scott and Zelda never returned to Europe after that, which means that Blanche hasn’t seen Scott for six years. So she really shouldn’t be surprised that he isn’t drinking in the bar at the Ritz. Anyway, that’s a small historical quibble. 

If you’re interested in historical fiction, you should pick up Mistress of the Ritz when it comes out in May.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama at the Xcel Energy Center


On Wednesday evening I saw Michelle Obama at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul. She was appearing as part of her book tour to promote her excellent book Becoming, which I reviewed here. Obama appeared with Michele Norris, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered. It was a memorable evening, and it was a lot of fun to see Michelle Obama in person. It’s hard to really call it “an intimate conversation” when you’re speaking to about 15,000 people, but Michelle Obama did a good job of making it feel as though we were just listening to her chat with Michele Norris. 

Obama’s humor really struck methere were several times during the evening when I laughed pretty hard. Michelle Obama seems like a really cool person, and if you have the opportunity to see her in person, you should do it. Obama also does a great job of connecting with young people in whatever community she’s in, and the evening began with several Twin Cities women talking about who they are in the process of becoming. I like the title of Obama’s book, and I really like the idea that we are all “becoming” something. As Obama says in the book, it isn’t like you just become something and then never change or grow after that. We’re always continuing to change and do different things in our lives. It will be interesting to see how involved Michelle Obama stays with public policy and what she does in her post-First Lady career. I know she’s ruled out running for President in 2020, but I think she’d be a darn good President.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Book Review: To-morrow, by Joseph Conrad (1902)

The Penguin Little Black Classics edition of To-morrow, by Joseph Conrad. (Originally published in 1902, this edition published in 2015.)


Author Joseph Conrad, pictured in 1904.
Joseph Conrad’s short story “To-morrow,” was first published in the pages of The Pall Mall Magazine in 1902. The following year it appeared in book form in the collection Typhoon and Other Stories. In 2015, Penguin Classics issued “To-morrow” as a stand-alone book in their “Little Black Classics” series. It seems somewhat silly to issue just one story on its own, especially as “To-morrow” is only 50 pages long, but I happened upon “To-morrow” at Half Price Books for 99 cents, and since I don’t have the story in any of my other Conrad books, I decided to buy it. 

“To-morrow” tells the story of Captain Hagberd, who moves to the seaport of Colebrook in the hope of being reunited with his son, whom the Captain has not seen in many years. The Captain is a widower, and his one friend is his next-door neighbor, Bessie Carvil, who takes care of her father, a boat-builder who has gone blind. 

The story is full of Conrad’s beautiful prose. He describes Bessie looking at Captain Hagberd: “She would look at her father’s landlord in silencein an informed silence which had an air of knowledge, expectation, and desire.” (p.2)

After Captain Hagberd has been in Colebrook for a while, he stops speaking to the townspeople about when he thinks his son will be back. Conrad writes: “For all one could tell, he had recovered already from the disease of hope; and only Miss Bessie Carvil knew that he said nothing about his son’s return because with him it was no longer ‘next week,’ ‘next month,’ or even ‘next year.’ It was ‘to-morrow.’” (p.8-9) 

Captain Hagberd is convinced that his son will return tomorrow. He is continually optimistic, as he is always looking forward to the next day. “To-morrow” reminded me a bit of a Samuel Beckett play, with a character living in constant anticipation of the future, rather than living in the present. 

“To-morrow” is a superb story, and it highlights Conrad’s ability to craft an engaging tale.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book Review: Burn Baby Burn, by Meg Medina (2016)

The banner for Saint Paul's Read Brave program, author Meg Medina, and the cover of the Read Brave paperback edition of Burn Baby Burn (2016).

Meg Medina’s 2016 young adult novel Burn Baby Burn focuses on Nora Lopez. Nora is seventeen years old as the novel opens, and she’s ready to leave high school behind. Nora isn’t quite sure what she wants to do with her life, but she knows one thing: she wants to move out of the small apartment she shares with her mother, Mima, and her younger brother Hector. 

Burn Baby Burn is set in Queens in 1977, one of the worst years in New York City’s history. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy, a 25-hour blackout on one of the hottest days of the year sparked rampant looting and arson, residents were terrorized by the serial killer eventually known as Son of Sam, and the Mets traded their ace pitcher Tom Seaver to the Reds. All of these events form the backdrop for Nora Lopez’s story, and they all play a role in the novel. (Yes, even Tom Seaver’s trade is mentioned.) 

Author Meg Medina does a superb job of bringing Nora’s voice to life, and Nora is an engaging and witty guide to the trials and tribulations that she faces as the narrative unfolds. Medina grew up in New York City, and she grounds the novel in a sense of place that paints a vivid picture of a big city in crisis.

I read Burn Baby Burn as part of the city of Saint Paul’s Read Brave program, a citywide reading effort that in 2019 focused on the issue of housing. Nora’s family is living paycheck to paycheck, and to pay the rent they are dependent on the monthly child support checks that come from Nora’s father, who has remarried and lives in Manhattan. When those checks don’t come on time, it’s Nora’s job to call her father and be the go-between, since her parents aren’t on speaking terms. 

There’s a lot of rich texture in Burn Baby BurnNora’s job at Sal’s Deli, her flirtation with Pablo, her handsome new co-worker at the Deli, Nora’s relationship with her best friend Kathleen, and Nora’s deteriorating relationship with her brother Hector, who has started using drugs. Burn Baby Burn is an excellent novel that deals with substantive issues. I liked hearing Nora’s voice as she detailed her complicated life, and I’d be eagerly on board if Medina ever wants to write a sequel and continue Nora’s tale.