You don’t have to delve particularly deeply into musician Franz Nicolay’s solo discography before you start to notice a couple of trends. First, Nicolay likes telling stories, and he’s good at telling them. Second, he has a deep and abiding passion for words. The lyrics of the eponymous track of 2012’s “Do the Struggle” (one of the songs that he references early in The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar) reads more like a Kerouacian beat poem than a folk-punk song. By the same token, the finished product of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar can hardly be described as predictable.
More of a travel memoir than anything else, Nicolay takes great pains to avoid talking about his own music in the book, even going so far as to proclaim early on: “I’ll describe [the shows] once, then you can mentally copy and paste this into the hole I gloss over toward the end of each day.” Instead, he delivers exactly what the title of the book promises, a tour of the punk underground. There’s so little narcissism in this book that it could have just as easily been written by one of the oft-referenced communist revolutionaries rather than a Brooklyn-based songwriter. Throughout the book, Nicolay’s focus is squarely on the countryside, the cities and the people of Eastern Europe. Just as often as he references himself, he also shares the spotlight with his travelling companions and famous authors — from his ethnomusicologist/wife Maria to Dostoyevsky to the Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century French aristocrat who seems particularly close to Nicolay’s heart.
But amidst the (surprising) conversations with young Russian and Ukrainian punks about underground American punk bands like RVIVR or Bridge and Tunnel, and the monotonous nightly shows in unfinished basements, Nicolay and his wife find themselves passing back through Ukraine only months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation. What follows are not only some of the most touching first-hand accounts of the effects the occupation had on the people of Ukraine, but also some incredibly moving moments of self-discovery for Nicolay himself. This book doesn’t so much progress slowly as it takes its time getting to its destination, and the reader is never left wishing Nicolay would pick up the pace; he’s too good of a storyteller for that. Like his music, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control ultimately draws its strength from Nicolay’s words and rhythm. Evenstanding on their own merits, the facts of his adventure are almost as epic and expansive as the appendices in the back of the book. As far as travelogues go, I’ve never read better. Nicolay’s music can be found here, RVIVR and Bridge and Tunnel here and here.
Let’s be honest, you don’t need to know anything other than the title to decide if you want to read The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party Crashing by Gavin Edwards.
Murray is, of course, the comedian who starred in such classics as Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, and later in critically acclaimed roles in Lost in Translation and Olive Kitteridge. If you’re even the most casual Bill Murray fan, you’ve probably heard a Bill Murray story. Someone sneaks up behind you on the street and covers your eyes…you turn around, and it’s Bill Murray. Or Bill Murray steals your sunglasses at a winery, or shows up at your party and washes the dishes before disappearing into the night. Basically, Bill Murray shows up randomly, does something random and often ends the encounter by whispering in your ear, “No one will ever believe you.”
This book collects these Bill Murray stories, from strangers, from acquaintances, from Bill Murray himself. The first section is a brief history of his upbringing, passions and start in the film business. Next, in “The Ten Principles of Bill,” amusing Bill Murray anecdotes are divided into sections according to which life principle they illustrate (“Invite yourself to the party.” “Surprise is golden. Randomness is lobster.”). Finally, the “Films of Bill Murray” is a chronological listing of his films and, of course, another opportunity to provide more fun stories.
Some of the anecdotes come with an implied “Don’t Try This at Home” warning. We can all strive to be more fun-loving like Bill Murray…but we can never BE Bill Murray. Sure, some of the antics would be amusing no matter who was behind them. Others — like hitting a stranger with a snowball, or walking into a stranger’s house and sitting down to breakfast — would be decidedly less charming if you are not an international film star.
Though this is a lighthearted read, Edwards also retells stories that paint Murray as impetuous, chronically late and difficult to work with. It’s a good reminder that even an epic folk hero like Bill Murray has his imperfections.
How did Meryl Streep become the only actor to receive a record-setting 17 Academy Award nominations? Michael Schulman’s latest biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, answers this question. Using interviews and diaries from those close to her, he deftly chronicles Streep’s ascension to stardom, from childhood to her breakout role in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
Told in chronological order, Schulman begins with her idyllic childhood in the New Jersey suburb of Bernardsville. She spent her time taking singing lessons in New York City, hanging out with friends and acting in school plays. Schulman’s tale of how she became Homecoming Queen in 1966 is eye opening. Discovering her love for drama as an undergrad at Vassar, she went on to attend the prestigious Yale School of Drama. How she made this decision will make you laugh out loud. While at Yale, she sharpened her talent but, more importantly, made the connections which landed her in the heart of New York’s theater scene. One such connection was with the late actor John Cazale, most notably known for his role as Fredo in the Godfather movies. Schulman not only tells of their devoted relationship but also provides background on Cazale and the making of the film The Deer Hunter. His description of her after Cazale’s untimely death is truly heartbreaking. And, you will be mesmerized by her difficult working relationship with Dustin Hoffman on the film Kramer vs. Kramer.
Schulman’s compelling, detailed bio of Streep's early years, filled with backstories and humorous anecdotes, will give you a glimpse into her formative years. Not only will you learn about her relationships and personality, but also about the 1970’s entertainment industry. Fans of Streep as well as Arts and Entertainment enthusiasts will enjoy this revealing bio. Find out for yourself how Her Again proves without a doubt why Streep is a respected, award-winning actress.
While author Neil Gaiman might be best known as a fantasy novelist, he’s better described as a kind of writer-of-all-trades. His acclaimed Sandman series was one of the first graphic novels to make the New York Times best-seller list and he has published numerous children’s works to critical accolades. He’s a master of the short story. But his latest published work, The View from the Cheap Seats, is a collection of the prolific, versatile writer’s nonfiction pieces.
Gaiman is an unabashedly public figure who remains accessible to his many fans through his online journal and presence on social media. And while his built-in audience will be clamoring for this volume, it has much to recommend for those who have never read his nonfiction. The View features five dozen articles, speeches, introductions and essays on topics that are interesting and in some way important to the author.
He admits on his online journal: “It's a relief that it's published: I don't think I've ever been as nervous about a book coming out as I have been about this one. You can hide behind fiction. You can't hide behind things that are about what you think and believe.”
These thoughtful, insightful pieces are gathered under 10 categorized chapters, including “Some People I Have Known,” “On Comics and the People Who Make Them,” and of course, “Some Things I Believe.” Included here is his acceptance speech from the 2009 Newbery Awards, where he won the highest prize in children’s literature for The Graveyard Book, his Sunday New York Times piece “On Stephen King,” his introduction to the reissue of the final book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and the in-memoriam essay he wrote describing Lou Reed’s songs as the soundtrack to his life.
The View would make an excellent gift book, as it’s the kind of collection you can pick up whether you have 10 minutes to devote to reading or a whole hour. You can always count on him to entertain, but here he manages to be thought provoking and incisive as well. Gaiman is the erudite friend you’d want at your dinner party, always ready to start the conversation.
As a librarian, I must admit that my favorite piece in the collection is a lecture entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better advocate for public libraries than Neil Gaiman. This essay alone will inspire you to visit the library to find out for yourself just what keeps us relevant.
With the reconstruction of the set for BBC One’s hit show Sherlock now underway, some fans may be fine living in anticipation until January 2017, when Season 4 is slated for release. But for those who are impatient for the detective’s next adventure, there’s Steve Tribe’s comprehensive Sherlock: Chronicles to ease the wait.
The book overflows with facts about the production process of Sherlock and includes interviews from cast and crew alike, giving a broader perspective into how the episodes were created from start to finish. Going in order from Season One’s A Study in Pink, each chapter focuses on one episode at a time, allowing for a depth of detail that would please even Sherlock Holmes himself. The chapters also include other fan treats, including deleted scenes, actor biographies and lots of production photographs. Notorious Holmes fanboys themselves, show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are known for including little references to various Holmes stories; Sherlock: Chronicles pairs some of these Easter eggs with the corresponding Conan Doyle story title and quote.
It’s not just the televised episodes that get scrutinized; there’s a recounting of Holmes’ appearances in print and on screen, a chapter on the televised teaser released before Season 3, references to the in-character blogs and references to the ever-expanding Sherlock fandom.
There’s enough information here to keep even the most casual Sherlockian fan happy, and it's a good refresher for the lead-up to Season 4. Fans looking for more Sherlock trivia should also check out The Sherlock Files by Guy Adams.
Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?
For writers, musicians or artists, Jessa Crispin (founder of bookslut.com) introduces a unique method of working through problems in your creative life: Consult the tarot. You will learn everything you need to know in her new book The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life.
Crispin begins by outlining the tarot’s murky origins as a card game and eventual transformation to a fortune-telling medium. She details her own experience with tarot readings and explains that, rather than predicting the future, the cards tell you a story about what is happening in your life. This story can differ from the story you’ve been telling yourself and help you gain a valuable perspective.
Essential for any book on the tarot is a detailed description of each of the modern deck’s 78 cards. An intimate understanding of each card is necessary to interpret your own tarot spreads. Many books merely explain how the card might be interpreted, but Crispin takes it a step further and includes a short section entitled “Recommended Materials” for each card. This short list of writings, music recordings, films, works of art (and more!) can be studied to better understand the particular nature of each card. She often compares the cards to various people or situations to make them less theoretical and more relatable — for example, The Star is “The Ziggy Stardust card,” in honor of David Bowie’s outrageous alter ego, while the Five of Coins is compared to painter Leonor Fini, who felt alienated from the Surrealists in 1930s Paris because she was a woman.
The Creative Tarot includes everything you need to get started, except the cards themselves. But Crispin talks you through choosing a deck, explain how to set up a reading and gives examples of how to interpret various spreads in reference to your own creative projects.
Film critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.
By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.
His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.
Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.
Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.
In the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.
Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.
But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.
For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
Video gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.
One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.
Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.
Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.