S. by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

Remember how unique, intelligent and exciting Lost seemed to be the first few seasons? How we kept plodding through the weaker storylines, annoying characters and complicated plot twists, because the little cryptic details so strongly hinted at a greater mystery that we felt certain would ultimately lead to a mindblowing epiphany when the series finally reached its end? And how, after seven long years of fan devotion and theories, most of us were so disappointed and confused (and not in a good way) by the series finale that it made all those years feel like a total waste? That’s exactly how I feel about S., the new critically acclaimed novel by Lost producer J.J. Abrams and author Doug Dorst.

Once again J.J. Abrams came up with a very cool and clever concept, albeit blatantly derivative of both House of Leaves and Griffin & Sabine: the novel within a novel within a novel with postcards and other loose pieces inserted throughout the book. The main narrative is a controversial book by a notoriously mysterious author with coded footnotes by his equally mysterious translater, while the “handwritten” margin notes contain the philosophical debates and flirtatious correspondence between two strangers trading the book back and forth in a college library.

Unfortunately, the book is far more tedious than it is interesting and the ending was not worth the work it took to get through it. It’s an unquestionably beautiful book in appearance and I admire the high brow intentions of its authors, but it’s simply not an enjoyable or even functional read even for a die hard bookworm like myself. For one thing the book lacks the envelopes and folders of Griffin & Sabine, so it’s far too easy for the inserts to fall out with no way of knowing which pages they belong between. I found myself wrestling with the book and its paper guts every time I read it. That wouldn’t matter if I loved the novel, but the writing style of both plots is extremely dry and lifeless. Considering Abram’s awesome idea and his cinematic trailer for the book, it would seem the fault of the weak execution lies with the writer. But the same was true of Lost. An idea man is useless without someone to bring said idea to satisfactory fruition.

I hate to give the book a bad review simply because the authors at least tried to make a truly literary novel. But I feel like I’ve been suckered by the Lost people again – to paraphrase my favorite Bushism: fool me once shame on J.J. Abrams, fool me twice – won’t get fooled again! And I’ve long since lost my patience for books trying to copy the Houses of Leaves gimmick. Besides it was so much work and disappointment, I really wish someone had warned me not to fall for the critical hype.

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Support Independent Bookstores Saturday!

Saturday is apparently “Small Business Saturday” as well as “Indies First Day,” in which authors and book lovers are being encouraged to support their local independent bookshops. Therefore, I encourage all local bookworms to visit Charleston, WV’s only independent bookstore, Taylor Books, on that day or any day. You can also order books and ebooks/epubs from Taylors online, but it’s worth the trip for the bookshop’s atmosphere.

Now that Trans Allegheny closed, Taylor Books is my favorite bookstore on this side of the Atlantic and has thankfully survived the invasion and demise of chain bookstores in the area. Oh and if you don’t like books (how strange and sad), Taylors also has the best coffee in Charleston – I especially like the Nicaraguan Vienna dark roast blend. If you don’t like books or coffee, I really don’t know how you live.

If you do like books and are looking for recommendations for Indies First Day, my personal favorite books of all time are: Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (I recently bought this lovely edition from Taylor Books myself to add to my somewhat obsessive Return of the Native collection), The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and pretty much everything else written by Kurt Vonnegut or Edith Wharton. More modern favorites have been Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Book Thief and anything by Kate Morton, Maggie O’Farrell and Victoria Hislop.

I also highly recommend the more modern classic The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is now being adapted for a movie. You can read my rave review of it here. I first heard about the Guernsey book from a former manager of Taylors and it was a longtime staff pick on the shelves there. I’ve since given copies of the book to several friends, all of whom loved it as much as I did.

Other favorite bookstores of mine on both sides of the Atlantic: Empire Books in Huntington, WV; Two Sisters bookery, Old Books on Front Street and Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, NC; and The Winding Stair, Hodges Figgis and Chapters in Dublin, Ireland.

It would be very nice if independent bookstores get the kind of support from Indies First Saturday that Record Store Day brings to indie music shops.

John McMillian: Beatles vs. Stones

John McMillian’s new book, Beatles vs. Stones, examines the rivalry between the two titular bands and their fan bases. You know any book that begins with a “Recommended Soundtrack” is going to be good. Between that opening suggested playlist and the introduction’s juicy retelling of how Paul McCartney upstaged Mick Jagger at his own birthday party by passing the not yet released single of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” to the DJ, I was hooked.

As for which side of the debate I reside on…I love songs by both bands, but I’m definitely on The Beatles side. My ’80s childhood gave me a positive introduction to The Beatles’ music through the copy of The White Album in a friend’s father’s vinyl collection, the seeming omnipresence of “Yesterday” in the musical ether and love at first listen with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which remain my two favorite Beatles songs). Meanwhile, MTV’s heavy rotation of the videos for The Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Mick Jagger’s embarrassing duet of “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie (both of which featured a heavily made up and hideously dressed Jagger demonstrating some terrible dance moves) slanted my perspective of The Rolling Stones as a campy, pandering pop group on par with Human League and Adam Ant. It was only later that I learned The Stones were actually respected rock legends. I eventually grew to love The Stones’ pre-80s catalogue and the 1994 single “Out Of Tears” (my favorite Stones song after “Paint It, Black“), but by then The Beatles had staked their flag in my music enthusiast heart.

McMillian details the evolution of both band’s stage images. It was especially interesting to read about those contrasting personas – the good boys vs. the bad boys, the conformists vs. the rebels – each band played with at one time or the other. The Beatles began in rough and tumble leather before polishing up in their Sunday Best, while The Stones went from mimicking The Beatles’ matching suits to posturing themselves as the slovenly Anti-Beatles – for which both John Lennon and George Harrison accused The Stones of stealing The Beatles’s original style. It’s the quotes from Lennon in particular that show, despite more positive interactions in later years and recent statements to the contrary by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, there was certainly a heated competition and tension between the two iconic bands in their early years.

The book briefly brushes over how “the British class system” influenced the ambition of Liverpool’s underdog Beatles and the condescending attitude London’s elite Stones had toward their Northern counterparts, a topic I wish had been expounded on.

Discussing the various reasons for resentment and envy between the two bands, the author credits The Beatles for having paved the way and paying the pop dues which allowed, at least initially, The Stones greater artistic freedom. But as the years passed and The Beatles grew more experimental, there were more accusations that The Stones were riding their creative coattails.

Yet there were times when a more friendly, sportsmanlike vibe brought the two powerhouse groups together. The Stones were and continue to be openly admiring and appreciative of The Beatles, George Harrison’s recommendation is said to have been the catalyst to The Stones’ being signed by Decca, and it was Lennon and McCartney who (in addition to gifting The Stones with a song to record) first encouraged Jagger and Richards to try writing their own songs.

The middle of the book begins to lag beneath more typical biographical information, temporarily abandoning the tug of war between the two bands to merely follow already well worn views of their respective paths. I understand the need, or at least desire, to have a full picture of both bands’ careers, but it’s a dry read for those of us already familiar with those bullet points. I did appreciate that McMillian doesn’t place John Lennon’s experimental art (a.k.a. Yoko) phase on a pedestal as so many do, but instead paints it more as shock rock rather than art rock and realistically portrays the political (both intentional and accidental) association of both bands.

The main theme is brought back into focus as The Beatles break up and the three non-Lennon members briefly consider forming a record label with The Stones, ushering in a very entertainining period of snarky press quotes from John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about each other’s bands and their own futures.

That is really the book’s crowning glory. McMillian wisely takes a step back on narration and allows the 20/20 hindsight of history to shine a glaring light on the foolish declarative statements of those talented and sadly bitter young men. With the exception of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who wisely kept their mouths mostly shut, members of both bands seem to have been so wrapped up in tearing each other down they simply couldn’t imagine the legendary status and historic staying power that they and their rivals would achieve. May those quotes serve as a warning to young artists: be careful what you say to the press, you may be writing your own fool’s epitaph for the history books.

Though I mostly enjoyed Beatles vs. Stones, the meat of the book fizzles out with no definitive conclusion and the epilogue is a bit bizarre and unsettling — ending abruptly with a grisly description of the bullets which killed Lennon. A more satisfying finale would have been a deeper discussion of modern Beatles and Stones fans and the influence the two bands continue to exert on new artists and pop culture. As it is, the book is certainly interesting, but ultimately feels unfinished given its title.

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Scott Alarick: Revival

Scott Alarick’s Revival is a beautifully crafted, eloquent, heartfelt novel about folk music, the enduring bonds of love and friendship, and the equally heavy burdens of doubtful youth and regret-filled age.

There are undeniable elements of Crazy Heart in the romance between the novel’s washed up, alcoholic, folk curmudgeon and his feisty, young, female protégé. There are also parallels to the tv show Nashville in its juxtaposition of the country music industry’s dark, greedy, business side with the ragtag group of struggling unknowns at a local open mic night. Though the publication date indicates the book predates the tv show.

Beyond those plot threads lies a rich tapestry of folk music history, a sincere and delightfully gushing love for the art and struggle of making music, and a championing of folk artists both classic and current. Alarik delves back into the origins and traditions of folk music, its evolutions and international travels and transformations, and philosophizes on the pros and cons of songwriting techniques and credits.

There’s also a very passionate, somewhat crusty folk critic character I found myself relating to a bit. Considering Alarik’s past as a folk critic for The Boston Globe, I wonder how much of the character is autobiographical. Alarik was the first Boston critic to write about Ani DiFranco, Alison Krauss, Dar Williams, Kate Rusby, Shemekia Copeland,and Crooked Still. He’s also a coffeehouse-frequenting folk musician, so I’m also curious about what else in the novel may have been taken from his own life.

The novel references several well known names in the folk community – everyone from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Emmylou Harris and Dar Williams to Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco. Alarik even incorporated Dar Williams’ song, “February,” into the story by changing the title and making it a song written by one of the protagonists.

Yet all the folk music namedropping, like everything else about this exquisite novel, is completely organic in placement and pace. The characters are at times overly starry eyed and sentimental, but it fits with the novel’s overall hopeful, jubilant mood. It’s very much a love story, but it’s also very much a story about loving music.

It’s also a lovely book in the literal, physical sense. The paperback is as large as a hardback, but not heavy. The gorgeous cover art shows the intertwined bodies of a fiddle and guitar.

Revival is a beautiful book inside and out.

I actually hugged the book when I finished it, happily sighed “Now that’s a book!” and handed it to Brendan, who is reading it as I type this review. He just said: “This book is awesome! How does someone create such lovable characters within a few pages?”

So there you go, two very enthusiastic endorsements from the Muruch household. Oh, and we did not get a free review copy if that matters. It was worth every penny we paid. Revival is now one of my new favorite books of all time, and possibly my favorite book about music.

You can sample the first pages of the novel at Amazon and if you like them, you’ll probably love the book as much as we do. You can also hear free audio readings from the book by the author himself here.

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Scott Alarik Official Site

Hallie Ephron: There Was An Old Woman

A daughter discovers her aging alcoholic mother has become a hoarder. Next door, a nephew tries to convince his elderly aunt to move into an assisted living facility.

These are the seemingly innocuous elements which begin Hallie Ephron’s novel, There Was An Old Woman, but there’s many a twist and turn before the true mystery is revealed.

Who’s losing their mind? Who’s hiding ulterior motives? And where are all the little old ladies (and their houses) in the neighborhood going?

I can’t say more without spoiling the ending. I was pleasantly surprised by this slow building but satisfying suspense novel. Author Hallie Ephron is the sister of late writer/director Nora Ephron and There Was an Old Woman was inspired by several real events, which you can read about on her official site.

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