Recent Reads

Hey frends. Just wanted to drop by a few thoughts on some books I’ve read recently. Three nonfiction books, which is rare for me! I usually gravitate towards fiction. Anyways, enjoy these short reviews of Joni Mitchell: Reckless Daughter, Black Wall Street, Men Without Women, Wool, White Noise, Pnin, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, below:

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Tom Wolfe

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3zDcRQH

This book chronicles Ken Kesey and the “Merry Pranksters“, noted LSD enthusiasts and a large part of the American counter-culture movement during the 1960s. Tom Wolfe is a skilled author and these hippies are a key part of American history from this time period, but the book essentially boils down to four hundred pages of people taking drugs and tripping out in various settings across North America. It’s written in the frantic, stream-of-consciousness style which was cutting-edge and popular at the time, but has lost a bit of its novelty today. I read the whole thing, but I’m kind of surprised by that fact.

rating: 2/5

Joni Mitchell: Reckless Daughter
David Yaffe

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3PKlFd5

I’ve been on a huge Joni Mitchell kick lately. I saw this on display in the Boulder Bookstore, and picked it up on impulse, even though I’m not generally a huge reader of biographies. I’m about halfway through — it’s interesting, but not relevatory.

Joni Mitchell’s songs are so evocative and tell such detailed stories that a biographer must be faced with a hard challenge: to either dig deep into the real-life experiences that inspired the songs, putting names to characters ( in places where Joni had not already done that herself), or they could elide over those details, and risk being seen as incomplete.

Yaffe does a bit of both – some songs he identifies the lover and the relationship, while others he allows to linger in uncertainty or simply addresses some of these scenes and characters in Joni’s songs as composite creations. I think he does well enough with her oeuvre – but you can tell that she herself wasn’t willing to spill the juicy details on many of these songs. That said, I agree with her — her lyrics are evocative enough to be relatable to anyone. It’s better to let listeners apply their own context to these creations.

Yaffe focuses a bit much on the influence of men to Joni’s work. I get it, as she often wrote about romantic situations and the feelings involved with love — but in the modern age it feels a little condescending to define a storytelling supernova like Joni by the men who she slept with.

I’m about halfway through, and enjoying it. I’ll continue reading. I wouldn’t really recommend it to an audience outside of Joni Mitchell fans, however.

Rating: 3/5 (so far)

Black Wall Street
Hannibal B. Johnson

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3cNuEf9

This was a gift, and honestly I was a bit intimidated by the 316 page length. Luckily however, more than half of that is appendices and primary sources – this is serious, well-researched history.

This book tells the story of the 1921 Tulsa Riot / Tulsa Massacre, where white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, burnt the prosperous Greenwood District to the ground, killing, robbing and ruining one of the most prosperous Black American communities of the day. Although it received a bit more attention last year for the 100th anniversary of the event, and due to its inclusion in HBO’s new Watchmen series, this event has been minimized in American history books – I certainly didn’t learn about it in school.

It’s a tough read — this is an unflinching description of a modern pogrom. Still, as America faces a dark, divided future, it’s critically important that we understand what will happen to us if we allow ourselves to once again be consumed by division and hate.

Rating: 3/5

Wool
Hugh Howey

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3PDWvNi

This is a light read – a young adult(ish) post-apocalyptic sci-fi about a community of people living in an underground silo. It’s very well-paced and easy to read, feeding you twists and revelation at just the right clip to keep you turning the pages. This was initially self-published in 2011, and is now being made into an Apple TV streaming series, which I suspect will be a hit. Read it now and lord it over your friends later, when the series starts trending.

Rating: 4/5

White Noise
Don Delillo

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3oCTlxx

This one was also a gift (actually a loan, if I remember right…) It took me about seven years and untold miles to finish this one. It was such a struggle that my copy literally fell apart, after backpacking into the Wind River Range with me last summer. Sorry Jazzi.

Finally, this past week, I got over the hump and finished it. And honestly? I don’t get it.

This book won the National Book Award, a very prestigious prize. Many people describe it as riotously funny. I just… didn’t see it. It’s kind of funny, especially in the dialogue and some of the situations presented but — National book Award level funny? One of the best American novels of the past 50 years? I just don’t get it. Maybe this book’s time has passed. Or maybe you can enlighten me in the comments.

Rating: 2/5

Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3PMJiBR

Another gift, actually! This one from my grandfather, a professor of literature. I guess I am making the rounds. This book pairs well with White Noise, seeing as both of them feature academics as their main characters. In White Noise the protagonist Jack is a historian, renowned and respected in his field, while in Pnin the titular Timofey Pnin is a professor of Russian language and culture at an unremarkable, East-coast American college. Where the narrator of White Noise is successful and highly-regarded amongst his peers, Pnin lives a small, squeaked-out version of the American dream. He is not respected by his peers, and has trouble finding a place for himself — represented quite literally in the text by his search for agreeable lodging in the university town. There’s more nuanced comparison to be done on these characters, but because this is a blog entry, we’re moving on.

Pnin, a short and (on the surface) listless novel, was much funnier to me than White Noise. The character of Pnin is empathetic and warm, in his quiet, bumbling way. Despite Jack Gladney’s considerable stature in his novel, little Pnin is much more likeable. The book’s satire of academia and the intellectual circles of Cold War America also felt sharper, and more understandable than White Noise. Nabokov’s command of the English language is second-to-none — an amazing accomplishment for a Russian writing in his second language.

This novel is not as ambitious as Nabokov’s better-known works Lolita and Pale Fire, but I found it nonetheless a worthwhile entry in his catalog.

Rating: 4/5

Men Without Women
Haruki Murakami

Buy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3Q5UWaD

A book of short stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Murakami is best-known for his surrealist novels, in which quotidian characters are inevitably sucked into some kind of strange parallel netherworld, often without any clear explanation. This short story collection is much more grounded, with only minor surreal or supernatural flourishes. This can be a positive or a negative, depending on what you enjoy about Murakami. For me, I found it refreshing to enjoy the author’s spartan style without the supernatural happenings. As with most short story collections, some are better than others.

A reasonable read; but I’d recommend something like 19Q4, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to readers who are unfamiliar with Murakami’s work.

Rating: 3/5

Outro

That ended up being more books than I thought! I kept looking over to the bookcase next to my desk and seeing shelved books I had read recently. Guess that’s a good thing. Let me know if you have thoughts on any of the above or anything else you’d like to share in the comments.

The links are Amazon affiliate links — if you purchase the books, I get a small commission.

Cheers,
Daniel

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