Book Reviews

131 Different Things By Nick Zinner, Zachary Lipz, & Stacy Wakefield, 248 pgs.

I’m a sucker for books about New York City. Especially books that explore the life and times of punks or beatniks, either in the present or the past. Thus, 131 Different Things was right up my alley. Author Zachary Lipz writes about Sam, a bartender at a dive on the Lower East Side, who discovers his former love, Vicki, is back in the city. He looks for a possibility to connect with her, but first he has to find her.

Throughout one long night, Sam and his friend Francis seek out Vicki at gay bars, nightclubs, and dominatrix joints throughout Manhattan, but keep coming up short. Along the way they’re fueled by alcohol and drugs, pizza, and brawling. There are lots of music (and punk) references, whether it’s to Black Flag or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The reason I’m a sucker for books about NYC is because I believe in it as a city of possibilities. You can watch your favorite musician play at a dive bar, get hit on by a bartender, see someone step in vomit on the subway, and fall in love. And 131 Different Things definitely displays the sentiment that anything is possible. With every bar that Sam and Francis go to, something unexpected occurs.

Interspersed throughout the book are color photos taken by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They accent the action to some degree, but don’t directly relate to it. They primarily show people in party situations or just being weird. Some pictures are of dogs, others of musicians. While I didn’t think them to be necessary to the story, I did like how they broke things up. Yet, they would’ve been better if interspersed more through the story instead of in blocks at the end of each chapter.

The book is also designed by Stacy Wakefield. These three—Wakefield, Zinner, and Lipz—are frequent collaborators. Their experience with one another shows, as they make the complete package tie together well.

On the whole, I very much enjoyed 131 Different Things, primarily because I like books about NYC and punk and people trying to find someone or something and seeing the adventure that happens along the way. This book provided all of that. Still, I can’t help but think it could’ve sufficed just as well if it had been tucked together as a small paperback novella. As it stands, thirty dollars seems a lot for a book that is good, but not great. –Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St., Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

Beauty Found in Darkness By Kent Grosswiler, 128 pgs.

An experimental juxtaposition of haiku and illustrations. I struggle to fully grasp the presentation. You can start from either end of the book and then must flip it over in the middle. One half just seems to use the haikus once on the left page and then repeat the same one on the right page with an illustration. The other half uses a different haiku for the prose and illustrations. It’s a little confused. There’s also one repeat illustration, but I’ll chalk that up to an error. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to review what is ultimately poetry, but there are a few zingers in there. The illustrations really steal the show, to the point where I question if including the original prose haikus really adds anything at all. I can’t doubt the books sense of graphic design, because generally speaking it’s a very cohesive vision. –Gwen Static (Nix Comics, nixcomics.com)

Black Swan Rising By Lisa Brackmann, 421 pgs.

Think about the next big mass shooting. Think about the next time someone brings an AR-15 into a place where we could imagine ourselves—or our children—and opens fire, killing dozens of people who shouldn’t die that day. We all know it’s going to happen in the next year. Think about what you’re going to say when it happens. Because this is important: you already know. You have already reacted to this event. Your opinion is already formed. All of our opinions are. We have our tweets ready. The NRA has drafted their next speech. Political teams on both sides of the aisle have their press releases ready. Bumper stickers have been printed. But let’s say, hypothetically, that we want to live in a world where men don’t mow down dozens of strangers with assault rifles. How do we have a real conversation about change?

This is the challenge that Lisa Brackmann embraces in her latest thriller, Black Swan Rising. The novel begins with a woman being harassed before she’s even named. Sarah Price works social media for a congressional campaign. She also has a secret past. They, whoever they are, have found her. The harassment has restarted. She wonders if her past could derail her boss’s reelection campaign. Meanwhile, across town, local TV reporter Casey Cheng is covering a mass shooting when she gets shot. As part of her recovery, she sets out to investigate the aftermath of mass shootings. Her investigation reveals that her shooter aligned himself with a misogynist, neo-Nazi movement. There’s every reason to believe that more shootings are on the way, and both Sarah and Casey are targets.

All of this is established in the opening pages of the novel. Brackmann sets up a difficult tightrope. Sarah and Casey could easily become mouthpieces for the author; the book could easily become preachy and dull. It could feel like one more voice shouting at us from an entrenched position. Brackmann is too skilled for that. First, she makes Sarah and Casey feel real. They’re both flawed, confused, and trying to move through incredibly difficult circumstances. Sarah is not sure she has the courage to do what she needs to do. Casey may have too much courage. They both may end up dead. More to the point, you care about them staying alive. Second, even though the novel is built around a political campaign, the presumable Democrat (parties are never mentioned) is sweet and caring, but has violence issues and carries a gun. The Republican banks on racism but has a big heart. Both are at times likeable and despicable. The campaign takes a backseat to Sarah and Casey’s intersecting stories. Complicated issues are raised and moral decision must be made. And there are so many guns. And always too many shootings. Through it all, the plot moves like a roller coaster. You get pinned to your seat and flung at increasing speed down a track that feels like it could throw you at any second. It’s exciting. You find yourself at the end way too quickly.

The ending itself is a surprise and a risk, but, for me, totally satisfying. It leaves me realizing that I lost myself in the book, but once I was done, I couldn’t help meditating on this culture of toxic masculinity we’re living in. I feel like I learned something about what a woman has to navigate, about where she finds support and where there is none, and about the institutions that protect and nurture bad behavior by men. I feel a little more ready to have a conversation that’s deeper than two sides shouting at each other across a battlefield. –Sean Carswell (Midnight Ink)

Fade into You By Nikki Darling, 186 pgs

Fade into You is a novel about an L.A. girl attending an arts high school in the ’90s, but it’s not set in L.A’s fabled Westside, it’s set in the San Gabriel Valley. In American literature, the SGV is most prominent for being the place where James Ellroy’s mother was murdered in 1958—from Ellroy’s My Dark Places: “The region defined the crime. The region was the crime….”

In Nikki Darling’s slice of life, however, the SGV is a pleasant place for kids to ramble around and be nervous and petulant and not be notably adventurous. Had I not been reading it to meet a deadline, I would have placed it on the (figurative) nightstand and dipped in and out of it, as though it were the narrator’s diary. (The narrator’s name is Nikki Darling, but Darling the writer says in the acknowledgments that it’s a novel.)

When an everyday tragedy, surprising and inevitable, falls on the narrator just before the end of the novel, it hurt this reader to read about it; a power that I wouldn’t have felt without the novel’s drifter’s pace. As an adult, I know this kind of tragedy won’t go onto define the narrator, but the narrator can’t know that. The everyday-ness of the event is also why we rarely read about it in fiction. This rarity makes it all the more striking.

However, as with other first-novelists writing ground-level novels, Darling seems to have concluded that she’d better go big with the ending. It’s not bad—just out of place—but that’s okay: Fade into You is, like life, about the journey. –Jim Woster (Feminist Press, feministpress.org)

Quit Your Band: Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground By Ian F. Martin, 242 pgs.

I’m not sure a book like this would have existed before the internet. The idea of an expansive yet personal overview of new-to-the-reader scenes allegedly forms the basis for much of today’s expository scene writing—I use the word “allegedly” here because the imagined audience of such books often has at least a toe in whatever musical pool the writer discusses. In the case of the sprawling Japanese music ecosystem that Ian F. Martin discusses in Quit Your Band, though, the author knows that readers are unlikely to have much acquaintance with the groups and scenes he mentions, to say nothing of the intricacies of booking shows in Japan. This lack of acquaintance is one of the points he makes: the best way to immerse oneself in any new ’scape is to find a band and start chasing down tendrils: ex-members, aligned groups.

If this method sounds familiar, it might be a product of your age, dear reader: we used to do it like this (excuse me for a second while I yell at a cloud. Okay, I’m back now). I think a lot of aging punks who are detached from active music hives feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options that are out there, and as such resort to the hackneyed assertion that there’s no good music being made— even though the number of options and avenues that have yielded the exact opposite of that assertion. Because the history of recorded music is available to everyone, it’s now easier than ever for microscenes to spring up. It takes a little more work to find them, but it’s work that’s fun. Or should be, anyway.

Ian F. Martin’s book is more than a book in this age of the internet: it’s easy to forget that all books are now hypertexts. Reading about the bands he discusses in a vacuum is one way to approach this book. It’s much more gratifying, though, to use it as a springboard for discovery. Martin carefully and lovingly details specific, sometimes tiny epochs of Japanese underground music, which are accessible with a little digging. And if you’re a “Back in the Day” kind of person, you’ll remember how immensely gratifying such archeological discoveries could be. If not, now’s a great time to start. –Michael T. Fournier (Awai Books, 1133 Broadway Suite 708, New York NY 10010)

Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera By Brian Jabbas Smith, 332 pgs.

Brian Jabas Smith is a recovering meth addict who played in a bunch of bands. He’s also a reporter for the Tucson Weekly. Tucson Salvage is a collection of his columns from that free weekly, focusing on residents of that city who don’t often get much time or coverage: a legless dialysis patient, the operator of a late night hot dog stand, a young woman paralyzed in an auto accident who then put herself through law school, dozens of others.

Smith’s writing in Tucson Salvage is a delicate balance of reporting and pathos, never going too far in either direction. He’s interested in his subjects, spends time with them, becomes involved in their lives—sometimes uncomfortably as his addiction threatens to rear up. He feels kinship with the underrepresented because of his own subterranean travels. As such, he never casts judgment, despite his affection for the subjects of these many standalone essays being at the fore. A few steps in a different direction and he might have been in the same spot.

Due to the confines of newspaper column work, economy is necessary, as is innovation: readers won’t return to repetition. His prose throughout is crisp, occasionally dazzling, and never self-congratulatory. Smith’s eye for defining details translates easily into description which catches personality and setting with a few deft words. Subjects as disparate as custom bike frame designers, long distance couples trucking, and rug weavers are instantly familiar once described.

One of the joys of being a book critic is the arrival of a completely unheralded release which delights. I have no idea how Tucson Salvage found its way to my door, but I’m glad it did. –Michael T. Fournier (Eyewear Publishing, eyewearpublishing.com)

Why the Ramones Matter By Donna Gaines, 138 pgs.

I’m not a Ramones scholar (looking at you, Dale) but I’ve read a fair number of books on the band, have watched documentaries, and, of course, have listened to all the records. Despite my admiration for the band and their work, I know there’s a saturation point with the Ramones—like the Sex Pistols and The Clash and so many of punk’s progenitors—buckets of ink have been spilled in critical appraisal of the quartet and their work. Coming in to this one, I wondered what might be left to say.

Author Donna Gaines addresses this, saying “(a)nyone reading a book on why the Ramones’ music matters already knows the answer and would probably rather spit up than discuss it.” From there, this head-spinning volume doesn’t discuss so much as it considers. After a chapter placing the band in the context of the ’70s, diametrically opposed to the prevalent FM radio dinosaurs, Gaines uses a number of broad topics/chapters to riff on the band. She understands that in discussing the Ramones, form must follow function: can you imagine the betrayal of a long-winded Ramones book? Neither can she. Salient points whiz by, buttressed by heady theoretical touchstones like Adorno and Sartre.

Take the chapter titled PAF, which initially appears to be a discussion about how the band are Punk As Fuck. In this segment, she jumps from anomie (“the condition of normlessness”) to punk as a response to post-World War II norm culture to the identities inherent in Judiasm to trauma to individualism to DIY culture. Phew! It sounds like a lot—it sounds laborious—but Gaines has the uncanny ability to weave these disparate short threads together into a greater piece of work. The buzzsaw pace of her ideas, like songs on Ramones albums, demand that you dive back in and check again.

This is the second entry in University of Texas Press’s “Music Matters” series, a collection of small-ish books devoted to single bands. If this one is any indication, I’m sure the rest of the series are bangers (yes, even the Karen Carpenter volume). Here, Donna Gaines has taken the lightning-fast songs of the Ramones’ oeuvre and welded her own brainy spin on their songs, their personalities, their impact, resulting in something unequivocally fresh and engrossing. Even the biggest fans will find something new to enjoy here. –Michael T. Fournier (University of Texas Press, utpress.utexas.edu)

xXx Fanzine: Hardcore & Punk in the Eighties By Mike Gitter, 288 pgs

Until now, I knew Mike Gitter only by reputation—during the punk rock feeding frenzy of the mid-nineties his name was frequently dropped in discussions of indie bands jumping ship to majors. In particular, I remember his name being connected to Jawbox’s defection from Dischord to Atlantic. Gitter’s xXx fanzine was always mentioned as a credential, but I was too little to have read it when it came out. So, when Bridge Nine released this compendium of the zine’s five year run, I was curious to dive in.

Well, holy shit. This one is right up there with the reissues of Touch and Go, Sub Pop, and We Got Power zines. xXx is absolutely essential, and should be in every fledgling punk historian’s library. The oversized format of the book—each page is roughly a foot square—allows for clean reprints of all the original zine pages, with room for commentary from Gitter and his interviewees on the side, providing a nice then-and-now contrast. It’s cool to see the original ads reproduced, too.

Gitter’s hometown of Boston is certainly represented here. Scene gossip is a staple of each of the zine’s twenty issues, and interviews with the likes of SSD, DYS, Slapshot, and Gang Green, among others, are prominent. And I get that people outside of New England (hell, even people in it) might have Boston fatigue. With that said, Gitter’s coverage of bands extends beyond Beantown: his writing focuses on a diverse, awesome group of bands including the Misfits and Necros, Black Flag, Ignition and Dag Nasty, Swans, even early Metallica and Voivod. Gitter interviews bands that he likes, and his taste is spot-on. There are no clunkers here.

I try not to gush in reviews. It’s hard not to gush about the ridiculous wealth of knowledge and history in xXx. And absolute joy, start to finish, and essential. (Hey publishers: how about a similar treatment for Suburban Voice and/or Forced Exposure? Ah jeez, I think my Boston is showing. Sorry.) –Michael T. Fournier (Bridge Nine, bridge9.com)

Beautiful Music By Michael Zadoorian, 335 pgs.

To write about music is not necessarily a brave choice. You tend to love music so much you can’t help it. Hopefully, you’re not an insincere writer, picking subject matter with a guaranteed audience. I devoured Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity—its non-stop musical referencing made for an easy, fun novel, but in the end it left me with a weird sense of shame at being so easily manipulated by pop culture references I related to. I feared the same would happen when I picked up Beautiful Music. I felt compelled to read it, but my dignity couldn’t bear another pandering rock novel catering to my rock obsessions.

Beautiful Music was far from such trivialities, transcending all that trendy mixtape-in-the-title horseshit. Michael Zadoorian is able to do this, partly, because of his deft characterization of Danny, an awkward, chubby teenager. He’s bullied in high school and has few friends. What he does have is rock’n’roll, but not right away; his voice is one of naivety and he’s able to tell you what he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know much about music, but he knows when his dad listens to the “Beautiful Music” station that plays elevator music versions of pop songs, he’d rather hear the original. When the bad boy at school fools the teacher into playing MC5’s “Kick out the Jams,” he’s drawn to it, but he’s not sure why. Something about it haunts him.

Danny is a late bloomer. He’d rather build model cars than learn to drive one. His father understands this and makes Danny take driving lessons. Danny enjoys them. His relationship with his father is warm. However, with his death, Danny’s forced to face what his father had largely taken the brunt of in his mother’s mental illness and alcoholism. Danny deals with these hardships by losing himself in rock riffs of The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper. You’re right there with him when he learns the power of rock. Zadoorian is able use this to expertly set Danny in his time and place—Detroit in the early seventies—in a believable way. It was a time when Detroit had moved through a rich musical era of Motown, rock, and funk, but it was far from over and just beginning for Danny. It was also a tumultuous time in Michigan. The book, set not long after the Detroit Rebellion—the riot of ’67 when black people fought police oppression in the streets—is simmering and tense.

I read Beautiful Music compulsively until its end, captivated by the sympathetic character of Danny. I was left with the satisfying, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t really about music at all” feeling that I demand of music writing. But then I had to admit that it really was about rock, its power to heal and transcend. Zadoorian had an easy book to write. His refusal to write it the easy way makes all the difference. –Craven Rock (Soft Skull Press, softskull.com)

Constitution Demands It, The: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump By Ron Fein, John Bonifaz, Ben Clements, 224 pgs.

It is a testament to Donald Trump’s shittiness that this very thorough book, which was printed in August 2018, is already dated and in need of an expanded edition as of the beginning of October 2018. This book is informative because it is not written in a polemical style trying to convince people Trump is a bigoted, corrupt, ignorant, distempered, reckless, thin-skinned, narcissistic demagogue with anti-democratic tendencies. Rather, starting with the premise that the aforementioned characteristics of Trump’s presidency are already readily apparent with even minimal research, the strength of this book is that it is instead written in the style of an extended, rather dry legal argument which enumerates what exactly the potential legal groundwork would be were Trump to actually be held to account by Congress and impeached.

While the book is dry, it is not boring. Rather, the three attorneys who penned this book do an excellent job of articulating the many ways Trump and his administration’s flagrant disregard for the constitutional duties and standards of his office evince more than sufficient cause, according to precedent and the Constitution, to set in motion impeachment proceedings were there is the political will to do so. Eight areas are considered and fleshed out in briefings, which lay out the facts and legal reasoning for each’s potential as an article of impeachment. The book is written in a very accessible layperson’s legalese which does a great job of being eminently readable while avoiding condescension. The book reads like a depressing greatest hits of why Trump’s administration is one of the United States’ low points, but the clarity with which the authors explore each of these areas (including such things as Trump’s refusal to sever his compromising business interests, his constant attacks on the press, and his malicious abuse of presidential pardons) helps focus the sense of anger that arises when one thinks of the presidency in its current state.

The attorneys who wrote this book work for an organization called Free Speech for People, and have impressive backgrounds including law school at Stanford, Cornell, and Harvard. With the current Republican control of both chambers of Congress, and now cementing their dominance over the Supreme Court by fecklessly pushing through walking shit-stain Brett Kavanaugh to the bench, even a book this well formulated and researched is essentially just wishful thinking unless major changes happen come November. Just in the last week the New York Times published a gigantic investigative report on how Donald Trump and his family have potentially committed hundreds of millions of dollars of fraud in cementing their fortune, and already it’s being forgotten due to how much figurative garbage Trump and his right wing enablers in the White House and Congress keep shoveling onto the country. Here’s hoping against hope that change happens this November. –Adrian Salas (Melville House Publishing, mhpbooks.com)