Book Event

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'm Gonna Make You An Offer You Can't Refuse

Whoever thought that rock and roll could be so deadly? For Tommy James, it wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it was also about beatings, murders, and the mafia. In his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music, James recounts his dealings with Morris Levy, the mercurial owner of Roulette Records and associate of the Genovese crime family. Now how did a nice boy from the Midwest end up hobnobbing with the New York mob?

After his version of the song "Hanky Panky" became a surprise megahit in Pittsburgh, several major record companies were chomping at the bit to sign James to a recording contract. Mysteriously, all but one of the companies dropped out of the race to sign him. That one company was Roulette Records and James was basically offered a contract he couldn't refuse. It turned out that Morris Levy strong-armed the other record companies to back down from signing James. Levy was considered the "Godfather of the music industry" as his partners included members of the Genovese clan, and his way of doing business was through intimidation. As James didn't have much of a choice, he signed with Levy and "Hanky Panky" ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of 1966. After that, James had a string of top ten hits, including such classics as "I Think We're Alone Now," "Crimson and Clover," "Mony Mony," "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and "Draggin' the Line." So it looked liked signing with Roulette was a good thing after all, right? Wrong.

For Tommy James, being at Roulette Records was the best of times and the worst of times. He appears to have had a love hate relationship with Morris Levy. On the one hand, James felt like he was part of a family at Roulette, albeit a dysfunctional one. James also had a decent amount of creative control over his records which was fairly uncommon at that point in the music industry.

On the other hand, James never saw any of the money he was supposed to have gotten from the songs he had written as Levy had total control over the publishing rights and never dispensed his percentage of the earnings. In fact, it sounds like none of the songwriters for Roulette ever got the money that was due them. If anyone questioned Levy about royalties due them, they would get a vitriolic laced speech in return. Legal recourse was virtually impossible because of the threat of bodily harm from Levy's thugs. When James renewed his contract with Roulette (he admits that he should have known better), it included specific wording regarding songwriting royalties that would be owed to him. After a few months, Levy told him that he would not abide by the terms of the contract and dared James to do anything about it.

Eventually, the money battles and the climate of fear at Roulette (during the New York mafia wars in the early 1970s, Levy's associates were being murdered and even James feared for his own life) took its toll and James began to abuse drugs and alcohol for escape. Levy made millions of dollars but didn't like to share much of it. James eventually discovered that Levy owned him over 40 million dollars! James ended up leaving Roulette after a final showdown with Levy (he's fortunate that he wasn't harmed as Levy has been connected with the severe beating that singer Jimmie Rodgers received after leaving Roulette Records) but he never had the same kind of success that he had in those glory years.

This memoir will entertain Tommy James fans or anyone interested in that period of rock/popular music. There were some interesting stories I wasn't familiar with, like how involved James was with Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. At times, James glosses over certain matters such as his infidelities and broken marriages (his first wife and son just seem to disappear). The crux of the book is the relationship between James and Levy. Even with the problems James had with Levy, one gets the sense that he still cared very much for him.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

We Have All Been Here Before

Have you ever had the feeling that you knew someone you just met? Ann Brashares, author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, spins the story of Daniel, an old soul, who actually remembers every life he has ever lived. In My Name is Memory we learn that some version of Daniel has lived and died since 552 A.D. At that time he set fire to a hut occupied by a beautiful girl, who he knows will perish in the flames. Since then, he has interacted with her at different stages of their many lives, until, in a hospital in 1918 England , they are finally able to fall in love. Unfortunately, Daniel in his present life is a dying soldier who won't know when he will be able to find Sophia again, and also knows that she will not remember him or their relationship. But, for the first time, he tells her his story and she vows to remember their love.

In 1972, Lucy is attending high school in Virginia. There's a new guy named Daniel who just doesn't fit in with the rest of the school cliques, but she is wildly attracted to him. When they finally kiss, and he calls her Sophia, she is scared because it somehow makes sense to her.

In a novel of love, death, and deja vu, the story of Daniel and Sophia reverberates throughout the ages. You will find yourself hoping that this time their story will have a happy ending.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Julie Jacobs, orphaned as a child and raised by her Great-Aunt Rose, has just discovered that the story of Romeo and Juliet did not begin with Shakespeare, but was her own family's true tale of intrigue. When her Great-Aunt dies, Julie finds herself excluded from the will with her twin sister inheriting the house and all of her Great-Aunt's possessions. After the funeral, Rose's caretaker gives Julie a key to a safe deposit box, a letter from her Great-Aunt, a plane ticket to Siena, and her childhood Italian passport identifying her as Gulietta Tolemei. She travels to Siena and removes the safe deposit box from its place in the bank, which turns out to be the converted Palazzo Tolomei. In the box are several old typewritten papers that purport to tell the story of Romeo Marescotti and Gulietta Tolomei, two star-crossed lovers who lived and died in fourteenth century Siena. It is Julie's mission to find the truth of her parents marriage, her mother's death, and the age old curse "a plague on both your houses" that still seems to haunt her and her family.

Anne Fortier's Juliet combines fact, historical fiction, the Bard and the Mafia into an exciting treasure hunt for the truth behind the famous play. When the handsome and enigmatic Captain Allesandro Santini is thrown into the mix, the possibilites for a sweeping international romance become endless.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Can you ever go back?

The Saffron Kitchen
by Yasmin Crowther

We meet Maryam, a transplanted Iranian, as a middle-aged woman married to an Englishman and living in London. From the very beginning we know that Maryam has secrets and sadness in her past that permeate her life. When a crisis occurs involving her daughter, Sara, Maryam flees back to Iran to resolve what has haunted her all her life, leaving her family who need her and do not understand.

Yasmin Crowther is a wonderful writer who makes us feel Maryam’s predicament and pain. Both story lines, one in London involving her husband and daughter and the other in Iran, are equally interesting and involving. There has been criticism that the transition between the two locales is jarring, but I did not experience that. There is much to think about and this would make a good choice for a book discussion.

A voyage of self-discovery

The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens

After having read Lansens’ prior book The Girls, which I thought was wonderful, I greatly looked forward to her latest.
After having read The Wife’s Tale, I have mixed feelings. The writing is masterly, and the imagery Lansens creates does not disappoint. Mary Gooch, a 302 pound woman, has let her weight define her and her marriage. When her husband, Jimmy, does not return from work and goes missing, Mary goes on a quest from her home in Canada to Jimmy’s mother's house in Los Angeles to find him. There she meets many people who help her and she discovers herself in the process.
My problem with the book is the unbelievability of some of Mary’s experiences and the ending which left me hanging after I greatly anticipated the way Lansens would resolve her heroine's quest. Having said all that, Lansens is still a talented writer who maintains your interest thoughout the book. For readers who like their plots not tied up neatly, I would definitely recommend this book.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lost Art, Lost Lives

Well, I have to admit that the book I just finished reading, Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling, didn't go in the direction I thought it would. I assumed that it would be one of those "let's track down the stolen masterpiece" type of plot (which I love) but it didn't. It actually became something much more, instead of find lost artwork it was about someone finding his soul.

The novel takes place during the Second World War era and tells the story of Max Berenzon, a young man who is the son of a respected and successful art dealer. This tale is a sort of bildungsroman as Max starts off as an idealistic, impetuous and immature college student whose main concerns are to follow in the family business as an art dealer and to court his father's assistant, Rose Clement. It's pre-war Paris and though fear and uncertainty are in the air, Max has other things on his mind.

In the second half of the book, the war has ended and Max returns to Paris after having been in hiding in the French countryside and is again obsessed with art and women as he attempts to track down his family's missing artwork and to find out what happened with his beloved Rose. But as Max undertakes this journey, both his feelings regarding the stolen artwork and for Rose begin to change. Once he sees how many of his friends and associates haven't returned to Paris, he begins to understand the devastating toll on human lives that the war and the Holocaust have had, and the importance of finding the artwork fades. Max realizes there are more important things in life and his relationships with people become more meaningful as a result.

At the end of the book, the author informs us that several of the characters were historical figures, such as the character of Rose Clement and many of the art dealers. Rose was based on Rose Valland (former curator of Jeu de Paume) whose meticulous records of the looted artwork helped saved thousands of paintings for repatriation. Her communication with the Free French and the Allies also prevented railcars of artwork from getting bombed.

Along with the historical details and the development of Max's character, this novel has many other interesting aspects. In the beginning, the motives of some of the characters are inexplicable, such as the strong opposition Max's father has to Max becoming an art dealer, and also how Max seems more interested in finding the stolen artwork than finding out what happened to his missing friend, Bertrand. But as the story develops, their actions become more understandable. A very interesting and rewarding read.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

You and Your Perfect Life

When Duncan makes his American pilgrimage to visit sites important in Tucker Crowe's life, he brings his partner Annie with him. She is certainly no "Crowologist" like Duncan, who spends his spare time on the Internet parsing every phrase of his hero's lyrics. In fact it was the British Duncan who wrote Crowe's Wikipedia article. But she humors him to get the free trip to America, as she has given in to his whims for the fifteen long years that they've been together. She does, however, like Crowe's CD, Juliet, the best break-up album ever written, and his swan song, as he hasn't put out another piece of music for the last twenty years.

When they return to England, Annie opens the leftover "unimportant" mail, so it is she who discovers the review copy of Crowe's new CD, Juliet, Naked, the unplugged version of his famous album. She listens to it first, and when Duncan finds out, he is so angry that he writes an extravagantly glowing review that is so over the top that she has to write a rebuttal. Duncan publishes Annie's review on his fan website to teach her a lesson, but instead she gets a personal e-mail back from Crowe himself, who likes what she wrote. This begins Annie and Tucker's secret pen-friend relationship that will torpedo the quiet lives that they have carefully cultivated and force them to decide what is truly important.

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, is that "what if" book that all fans think about. If you could meet your favorite artist what would you say? What questions would get answered? Would you be able to deal with their humanity after you've put them up on your pedestal? You might be surprised at some of the answers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Lies of Ron Wood

What’s this, Christina is reviewing Ronnie by Ron Wood, a music biography and not something that is art related? Well surprise, besides being a musician, Ron Wood has also had some success as an artist, so I have remained true to my art theme. The next question you may have is what is my tagline all about and what are these lies? Well, just to keep this blog from becoming War and Peace, I’ll only discuss two lies. Let me give you a little background first regarding this lively, light autobiography from a member of one of the greatest rock and roll groups of all time, the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones have always fascinated me so I try to read as many books as I can on them. Ron Wood has never been one of my favorites but when I heard that he was a talented artist with his work having been exhibited in several galleries, I decided to give his autobiography a try. If you are interested in the later period of the Rolling Stones, the mid 1970s to the present, this book is great fun as Wood recounts the shenanigans and antics of the group as they struggle to find themselves after reaching the zenith of their success in the early seventies with such albums as Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, only to crash and burn due to substance abuse issues and subpar records. After their blues virtuoso guitarist, Mick Taylor, left the band in 1974, Ron Wood was hired in 1975 as a replacement. Wood seemed perfect and the group reinvented themselves with some fresh sounds and made a comeback in 1978 with the album Some Girls, which contained several songs that topped the charts.

I found the best part of this book to be about Ron Wood's childhood and how he developed his love for music and art. It turns out that his ancestors were water gypsies who had lived and worked on barges in the rivers and canals in England. The arts were highly valued by the Wood family, his parents were artistically talented and both of his brothers were also artists and musicians. I also enjoyed reading about Wood's experiences with his early rock groups, The Birds (The British band, not the American group, The Byrds), the Jeff Beck Group, and the Faces because not much has been written about those bands.

The book bogs down a bit as Wood recounts episode after episode of his excesses involving drugs and alcohol. It is truly amazing that this man is still alive, he and Keith Richards are like the Frankenstein monster. At least Keith Richards appears to have cleaned up his act. The latest news (December 2009) regarding Ron Wood is that he left his wife of 23 years for a woman who is only 20 years old. There were also reports of his returning to rehab after more bouts with substance abuse. This news is a real shame as by the time you get to the end of the autobiography, it seems that Wood had finally gotten it together.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I now present the lies of Ron Wood:

Lie #1 - Mr. Wood states that he was asked by the manager of the Yardbirds, Peter Grant, to form a new group that would be known as Led Zeppelin. Wood says that he turned down the offer which led to Grant hiring Jimmy Page. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is that Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page's idea from day one. He was the guitarist for the Yardbirds and when that group disbanded, Page decided to form the New Yardbirds which became Led Zeppelin. This is an accepted fact, so Wood's story is simply perplexing.

Lie #2 - Mr. Wood states that he was the Rolling Stones' first choice to replace Brian Jones (a founding member with multi-instrumentalist capabilities, he could play the guitar, harmonica, piano, sitar, dulcimer, marimbas, recorder, mellotron, and more, it actually would have taken 10 people to have replaced him!) in 1969. He says that Mick Jagger called to ask him to join the Stones but Ronnie Lane, his bandmate in The Faces, had answered the phone and not wanting to lose a vital member of his band, told Jagger that Wood wouldn't be interested. I have read several books about the Rolling Stones and none of them say anything about this story. All of them are in consensus that Mick Taylor was the one and only choice to replace Jones.

In conclusion, if you're interested in the rock and roll world, this book is a breezy romp, an enjoyable light read as long as you take Wood's stories with a grain of salt. If you are interested in some better books about the Rolling Stones and their world, I highly recommend Stone Alone by Bill Wyman, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth, Altamont: Death of Innocence in the Woodstock Nation by Jonathan Eisen, S.T.P: A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield, and Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Okay, what’d I do? Did I Kill Someone?

Blame by Michelle Huneven

Waking from an alcoholic blackout in jail (not for the first time), college professor Patsy MacLamoore jokingly utters these questions and is shocked when the police say yes. Apparently Patsy has run over and killed two Jehovah's Witnesses -a mother and child-in her driveway. Patsy has no memory of the event, but given her history of drinking, DWI and wild behavior, she comes to accept her role in the tragedy. Now she must answer the question how do you go on with your life knowing you have taken the lives of others. Throughout her journey - going to prison, coming to terms with her alcoholism, her attempts to make amends for her actions and to rebuild her life - she is haunted by this question. Then decades later, Patsy gets some news that again forces her to re-evaluate her life. Well written with believable characters, this novel is an interesting psychological study of guilt, blame, finding redemption and forgiveness.