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Books Read (And Not Read)

June 2024

Only one book below comes from the New York Times’s “100 Most Notable Books List”, which means that as we reach the year’s halfway mark, I should have knocked more titles off than I have thus far, but what are rules you set for yourself if not to break? The first book discussed below was recommended to me by a fellow Shakespeare nut, the second is an item so targeted toward my demographic I had it on hold at the library weeks before it had been received and processed by their staff, and my girlfriend, who knows of my affection for the Japanese television program Midnight Diner, chanced upon the quirky third. Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water wound up on the 2023 NYT list, but I thought I’d start with the second of his two ’90s memoirs. The fifth is the only item from the NYT list and was so good it sent me back to Air Lore, Henry Threadgill’s 1979 album with celebrated free jazz trio Air. I’d say start with that one first, but who am I kidding — you’ll probably proceed directly to Tricia Romano’s delightful Village Voice oral history and scarf it up as greedily as I did.

book cover, The Shakespeare Wars, by Ron Rosenbaum

The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

Ron Rosenbaum (Random House, 2006, 624 pages)

Given that as a fifth grader, as my classmates dutifully followed the teacher’s instructions and assembled caroling Santas, I instead fashioned my very own Shakespeare from a pencil, pipe cleaners, construction paper, and a red, spray−painted TV Guide (this was long before I read an actual play, but I was an insufferable Bardolator even then), I’m the ideal audience for a five−hundred−page volume detailing the catty debates between academics, theatre directors, and passionate autodidacts on the finer points of the Stratford Kid’s canon. And indeed, the first half of this book is dynamite, rollicking and action−packed although the only looming suspense springs from the possibility of someone throwing the contents of a glass of sherry into a rival’s face.
A New York–based journalist who studied the Old Globe’s favorite son at Yale, Rosenbaum chronicles snotty if erudite squabbles over such esoterica as discerning the extent of Shakespeare’s hand in the three transcriptions of Hamlet (didn't know there were three, did you?), whether or not those versions should be conflated or left to be studied individually, and who had the bad taste to amend campy “O−groans” to the Downcast Dane’s final line of dialogue in the First Folio (as in: “The rest is silence, O, O, O, O”).
Certainly, if you've been champing at the bit for a thirty−two−page smackdown of pompous twit Harold Bloom (from the index: “Bloom, Harold, overblown rhetoric of, 399−400, 403−4, 461, 489”), Rosenbaum not only provides it, but boasts that not even the legendarily porcine professor begging him not to refer to his “Falstaffian proportions” as he had recently undergone bypass surgery stops his former student from gleefully attacking his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (and, more than occasionally, Bloom's character).
For spite and malice, hilarious and highbrow. But as you might have guessed from that Bloom anecdote, Rosenbaum inserts himself far too much into the discourse — a chapter fixated on how he “humiliated” himself in front of director Peter Brook during a discussion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is unbearable, and whenever he quotes a highfalutin egghead complimenting him on his literary acuity despite his not being an academic authority, it is to duck.
And though he celebrates the “bottomlessness” of Shakespeare’s language, persuasively arguing there’s more “both/and” than “either/or” in his themes, Rosenbaum also mistakenly approaches the anti−Semitism of The Merchant of Venice as others do the sexism of The Taming of the Shrew: as if it is two−dimensional, without entertaining the notion that the playwright could simultaneously be of his time yet see beyond it, strategically using that foresight to upset audience expectations (as he does in, gee, I don't know, every other play).
Ultimately however, I celebrate Rosenbaum’s true mission: championing the thrill of close−reading over the self−indulgence of vacuous theory that has supplanted it in modern academia. I just wish I didn't get the distinct impression Rosenbaum craves that world’s validation oh−so badly. B+
Grade: B+
book cover, The Freaks Came Out to Write, by Tricia Romano

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture

Tricia Romano (Public Affairs, 2024, 608 pages)

“What’s the greatest era of the Village Voice?” Tricia Romano asks former Voice assistant art director and contributing arts writer James Hannaham. “Whichever one you were there for,” he replies, which is amusing — according to everyone interviewed in Romano’s ambitious oral history of the pioneering New York City alt−weekly, by the time Hannaham arrived in 1992, its glory days were long gone.
Could have fooled me. Around the same time and on the other side of the country, that didn't stop me, not exactly the hippest person in Los Angeles, from devotedly Xeroxing Robert Christgau’s long−running Consumer Guide record review column in the UCLA library when I should have been ardently throwing myself into The Canterbury Tales. Months later, I began a ritual of showing up every Friday around lunchtime at the newsstand on the corner of Kinross and Broxton, waiting for the owner to snip the string binding together a stack of the issue that had dropped in Manhattan two days previous.
From there, I would take my treasure to Headlines, the greasy spoon on Gayley, where I ordered the Southwest Turkey Sandwich served atop a mound of french fries (still the greatest noontime repast created by mortal man), and at my usual barstool wolfed down not only Christgau's latest, but came to know and love other mid−’90s music scribes: Rob Sheffield, Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, Greg Tate, Gary Giddins, and others.
Romano herself is best known for writing about Manhattan nightlife, which in many ways makes her the perfect host for a five hundred–page soiree in which some two hundred plus former staffers recall a workplace that was on one hand a human resource manager’s nightmare, and on the other the finest newspaper in America.
My sole reservation stems from the oral history format itself — I adore hearing these raconteurs, troublemakers, big−brain smarties, and, er, former owner (!!) Rupert Murdoch (who gets a hilariously curt one–word bio in the dizzying “Cast of Characters”) speak in their own words, but I’d be even more interested in hearing Romano editorialize and elaborate longer than the occasional footnote she allows herself.
Yet because the history of the Voice mirrors the history of New York from the last seventy or so years — Stonewall, AIDS, 9/11, a buffoonish real estate developer who shall remain nameless — a more in-depth examination would have necessitated a multi-volume set requiring Romano to sequester herself in a studio apartment and live to the age of 177.
So here’s hoping she devotes her next projects to two obscure figures I would like to know better: Mary Perot Nichols, the admitted non–journalist who brought down racist urban planner Robert Moses like she told Leticia James to hold her beer, and lesbian mischief−maker Jill Johnston, whose brief excerpts convince me she was some kind of wild, off−kilter genius. Funnier than uxoricidal Voice co−founder Norman Mailer, that’s for sure. A–
Grade: A–
book cover, The Kamogawa Food Detectives, by Hisashi Kashiwai

The Kamogawa Food Detectives

Hisashi Kashiwai (Shogakukan, 2013, translated by Jesse Kirkwood into English for G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2024, 208 pages)

It’s impossible to discuss this offbeat series, a small sensation in Japan, without mentioning Yarō Abe’s long-running manga Shin’ya Shokodō, the basis of the show stateside Netflix subscribers might know as Midnight Diner. In that understated gem, frequenters of a late night Shinjuku eatery interact with each other and the nameless proprietor known only as “The Master,” who will sometimes accommodate requests beyond his limited five−item menu, provided he has the necessary ingredients on hand. The resulting dishes, many basic Japanese comfort staples, are often symbolic for the customer of a time, place, lost memory, or personal conflict. It’s not for everyone, but for lovers of low–key whimsy and gentle philosophizing, quite the delicacy.
This attempts to recreate that show’s tone, albeit not quite successfully — like Abe, Hisashi Kashiwai understands the powerful connection many of us have with food and irretrievable moments in our past, but where Midnight Diner aims for a winningly subdued magic realism even when no supernatural element is involved, the setup here is much more straightforward: a father−daughter team recreate, through research and old−fashioned legwork, significant meals from the lives of their clients, no matter how incomplete the recollection.
As is to be expected, the prose is quaint and undemanding in the manner of Mitch Albom or so−called “food mysteries” (“recipes included in the back!”), but the book is conservative in other ways as well. The daughter, who conducts client interviews a la Della Street, is a homebound thirty−something who still lives at home and is cheerfully unmotivated to strike out on her own. A persnickety, kimono−clad patron of the duo’s restaurant observes, in an oddly revealing passage, “If you mess around with language…it’s culture that suffers. Traditional Japanese sweet dishes [mizugashi] are in decline precisely because people insist on calling them English words like ‘dessert!’” Not exactly the Uyoku Dantai, who during my six weeks in Japan woke me up every morning blaring right wing screeds from loudspeakers attached to black propaganda vans, but nevertheless beholden to the same island nation xenophobia fixated on keeping its precious heritage pristine.
Perhaps it’s captious to raise objections with such light entertainment, but much like the original edition of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, it sticks out more discordantly here than it might in a more “serious” novel. Still, I suppose there are more insidious ways to satiate a sweet tooth, and otherwise, this goes down easy. Nosh away. B
Grade: B
book cover, The Tennis Partner, by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner

Abraham Verghese (Harper, 1997, 352 pages)

The Oprah and Obama book club sets adore this Indian−American by way of Addis Ababa and the Iowa Writers Workshop, which cynically made me peg him (correctly) as a middlebrow type — not that I would stick my nose up at that necessarily, but I’m reticent about digging into either of his beloved seven−hundred−page epics before the shorter, earlier memoirs he penned as an internal medicine specialist. 1995’s My Own Country: A Doctor’s Own Story (which I haven't yet read) chronicles his time tending to AIDS patients in rural Tennessee during a period when his peers would not, while this sequel concerns his close friendship with David Smith, an intern working under him at a hospital in El Paso, Texas.
Verghese bonds with Smith, a charming Australian, once he learns the latter briefly played professional tennis before his life changed gears, but what doesn't Verghese know — and the reader does, via a harrowing flash−forward prologue at the Talbott−Marsh Clinic, a rehab facility designed especially for doctors — is that Smith is also a serious cocaine addict (as the tough but superhumanly patient associate dean of his school notes, “Perhaps the worst of all the people I’ve dealt with”).
Although adept at seeing through the feints and dodges of the users in his ICU, what’s perplexing about Verghese — a classic enabler personality — is that everyone around Smith can see what’s coming even when Verghese cannot, which makes the predictably shocking last thirty pages more jarring, but also suggests the book’s shortcomings. When Verghese waxes rhapsodically about the Connors/Lendl rivalry or delivers a lesson on obscure respiratory illnesses to his young charges, his attention to detail is meticulous and occasionally poetic, but by comparison, the failure of his marriage, which occurs early in the narrative, seems like an afterthought.
More problematic, Verghese skirts around the obvious: that while he and Smith may have shared a passion for the same sport, the latter was also, in the manner of many addicts, highly manipulative, desperate to gain the approval of others, even if that means lying to your face to maintain a façade. Yes, you can have a relationship with such a person, but inevitably, that relationship, until that person changes, will be…limited. I say this not merely as someone who has loved that person, but who, albeit without drugs or alcohol, has been that person. And only once does Verghese entertain the notion that he might be sexually attracted to David, and even then, it doesn't dawn on him that’s why David hoodwinks him so easily, even after repeatedly betraying Verghese’s trust.
Their relationship must have undoubtedly been a signal one in Verghese’s life (judging from the scanty screen time he allows her, certainly more important than the one he had with his wife), and I can empathize as to why he would have wanted to set his reflections down as soon as possible. But I suspect had he waited a few more years to meditate more deeply on their complicated association, this memoir would have read quite differently. “He knows too much about the world,” David’s landlady and fellow traveler in recovery notes. “Yet he knows nothing about himself.” She might as well be talking about Verghese. B+
Grade: B+
book cover, Easily Slip Into Another World, by Henry Threadgill

Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music

Henry Threadgill, with Brent Hayes Edward (Knopf, 2023, 416 pages)

If this were merely four hundred pages of the celebrated composer and multi−instrumentalist riffing on theory, philosophy, recording, and touring travails, I would still be all−in — his hilariously brief assessment of the compositional merits of Beatles/Stones/Motown (“Harmonically most of [those songs] were pretty straightforward”) would alone make this a must−read.
What elevates this book from your standard musician’s memoir however is Threadgill’s account of his time in the army, beginning with young Henry volunteering for the draft as a professional musician, meaning it would be unlikely he would see combat, let alone be sent to Vietnam. That ends when he makes the “mistake” of arranging “sacrosanct” patriotic songs in a modern style inspired by Monk and Stravinsky that offends a visiting Catholic archbishop, which Threadgill pinpoints as the impetus for his surprise deployment. (Henry: “I play clarinet. This is a high−priority instrument.” His band director, icily: “We know what you play.”)
By turns both funny and harrowing, Threadgill’s subsequent tour of duty leaves such a mark on him that when he returns home as a traumatized veteran, he finds himself inexplicably giving into needless rage, as when he escalates a confrontation with a group of street kids harassing him and his pregnant wife.
In fact, the tension is so high in the first hundred and fifty or so pages that it creates two insoluble problems. First, all of the book’s intensity is front−loaded, so much so that helpmate Hayes Edwards reserves a few bombshells from Threadgill’s Chicago childhood for the last fifty pages, which make sense in terms of shifting the ballast, but I ask you — isn’t a pivotal life event resulting in mysophobia the kind of biographical detail you would address early in the game rather than as an afterthought?
Second, Threadgill never satisfactorily resolves how (or even if) he eventually healed from his wartime experiences. Was immersing himself in the details of his music enough? Did it take a peaceful existence in India with his third wife to come to terms with his demons? Was there a helpful therapist or support group? It’s a melodic motif that begs resolution.
Nevertheless, this is far more absorbing — and revealing — than your average musician’s memoir, even ones whose lives have been far more outrageous. And Threadgill’s stories about the jukebox in his father’s so−called “gambling house” do provide insight into his masterpiece: Air Lore, the acclaimed 1979 record with his sax−bass−drums trio Air, which celebrates Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin with equal parts veneration and irreverence. A–
Grade: A–

...and not read:

I didn’t put any books down this month, which in itself is news. I must be getting to be more of a softie in my middle age.