Book Reviews

Nails By MP Johnson, 77 pgs.

For the record, MP Johnson is a Razorcake contributor, although I’ve never met her. She normally writes in the world of bizarro fiction, a cult genre of the weird that made me wonder if I would like Nails. She assured her followers this short book was different from her normal writing—much more personal.

I’ve been interested in seeing Johnson change over the past year or two as she has more openly addressed her attempts to accept her gender. While I don’t have personal knowledge with it, my observation has been that transitioning can be an incredibly hard experience. Johnson opens a window to it with these seventy-seven pages.

The story takes place over the course of a few days in Los Angeles. By herself, away from friends and family, it’s a place she can feel safe (so to speak) to crossdress and explore who she is. Johnson goes to a Damned concert, gets her nails done, eventually meets a dominatrix, and has many a misadventure along the way. There were so many times I felt empathetic to everything which befell her. Johnson’s ability to draw the reader into her tale says a lot about her writing.

Speaking of that, for anyone who thinks authors in the world of bizarro fiction can’t write, I’d suggest they read Nails. Johnson’s prose sets the reader in the scene even with its edgier moments. I came across scenes where I cringed at the brutal description (if I ever have to shave my asshole I’m going to be sooo careful) but the fact that it did so is a sign of Johnson’s talent.

Nails is not an easy read. I felt sad through most of it—while I can’t relate to experiences with gender issues, I could understand the sentiment of loneliness and how crushing it is. Johnson has her experiences but they’re relatable and interesting (if sometimes embarrassing), which shows a great talent of a writer. The ability to pull at my heartstrings and make a unique tale universal is incredible. Despite its lack of happiness, the raw honesty makes Nails one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it highly enough. –Kurt Morris (Lazy Fascist Press, lazyfascistpress.com)

Nowhere to Go By S. Ludman, 244 pgs.

I can’t review this book without taking into account the skinhead stereotype: hyper-masculine, violent men beholden to leaders; vague ideology; a perverted sense of honor; and the ability to justify anything based on all of the former, but prone to beating your ass. That said, I’ve known skinheads, partied with skinheads, been best friends with skinheads, and damn well know the value of having them on your side. Still, I can’t think of one who didn’t have at least two of the above faults. Skinheads, though, don’t come out of a vacuum. There’s a reason why they chose their subculture, why they glorify violence, why they hang on to backward ideas of what it is to be a man and, like everyone else, are the clay that society molded them into. There’s room for nuance and complexity in telling their stories.

Unfortunately, you won’t get that in Nowhere to Go. It starts off decent enough. Matt lives with a foster mother who’s a coke dealer and addict. After being beaten to a pulp by her latest dirtbag boyfriend, Matt steals all her cash and coke and runs away to Los Angeles to be a punk. We get a good idea of why Matt’s angry, why he can kick ass and take a punch. We understand the chip on his shoulder. But that’s all we get.

As soon as he gets to L.A. he gets jumped by a skinhead gang. He beats their asses. They recruit him into their gang. He meets the hot punk girl with her dyed hair and ceaselessly referenced nipples and fights the rival skinhead gang for her honor. She breaks his heart. He fights anybody and everybody to forget the pain. And on. And on.

If that’s what you want, you’ll get it here along with countless plodding pages telling of Matt’s broken heart, but the author lacks the ability to show it. Immersive literature would show—through dialogue, symbolism, understated actions and body language—deep meaning, perhaps even allowing you to sympathize. Unfortunately, any potential for this is tossed away for cornball, Hollywood-style dialogue, countless brawls, hetero-rutting, and boob adjectives. If there’s something to be said for the work, the pleasure and drive in making it is palpable. The author seems excited to tell an action-filled story without the pretenses of literature, but it takes more than that to grab me. –Craven Rock (CCM Publishing Group, Crowd Control Media, 8504 Firestone Blvd. #391, Downey, CA 90241, crowdcontrolmedia.net)

Punk Women, Volume One By David Ensminger, 98 pgs.

Ensminger tells the reader right off the bat that this is a collection of profiles of women in punk written by a cis white male. He instantly outs himself as not unqualified, but as a champion of these overlooked stories who carries with him an awareness as to not come off as an expert on a life not lived by him. As soon as I finished reading the book, I went right back to that introduction to see if he accomplished what he set out to do.

Yes, this is a hodge-podge of genres (hardcore, punk, thrash, metal), as well as a varied group spanning many races, backgrounds, and LBGTQ women. There were a ton of bands I wasn’t familiar with, but I feel like all I got was a generalized review of their music. Sometimes (The Voids for example) Ensminger wouldn’t mention the woman whatsoever in his quick blurb about their music. It left me feeling like I’d read a few hundred words about the career of a band just because there’s a woman in it.

I suppose there is a tactic in simply normalizing the gender diversity, though his mission statement was to shine a light on these women and I think in some excerpts he fell just short. His voice and writing style is very cerebral and academic, which I much enjoyed. However, there were only a handful out of the many, many profiles that included an actual interview and it left me feeling like these women’s voices were still overlooked. What I really hoped for were personal stories from these musicians. I realize that’s quite the undertaking, but I think Ensminger has the drive to do so.

There was Mel Hell from Zipperneck who suffered from nerve damage inflicted from her dentist in 2011 and I learned so much about her life—coping with constant, debilitating pain yet still carrying on with life the best she could. Or the story of Osa Atoe coming up with the D.C. punk scene and assuming all punk was political at its core, leading to her being an activist today.

There were a few times where I didn’t know where or when bands were from, and others when I was completely immersed in the life of the woman profiled. I think this book is suffering a bit from being overzealous and not dedicating enough time to each subject. For volume two, maybe reach out for at least a comment or two when possible? Though I overall enjoyed this, I will knock the author one coveted punk point for getting a Blondie song wrong (“Rip Her to Shreds”—not “Tear”). Even if I’m being a little harsh, I am very happy a project like this exists and would recommend grabbing one of the four hundred copies out there. –Kayla Greet (Left Of The Dial Books)

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World By Billy Bragg, 431 pgs.

What’s your first thought when you hear the word “skiffle”? A word that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize? Before reading Billy Bragg’s history of the not firmly defined musical genre, my first thought was always Lonnie Donegan’s novelty song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight,” which I probably first heard on the Dr. Demento radio show. I knew the Beatles started as a skiffle band, but more or less thought skiffle was something young musicians did until they figured out how to make girls think of sex.

Roots, Radicals and Rockers directed my attention to Lonnie Donegan’s version of “Frankie & Johnny,” to which I direct your attention—it has to be the most sexual song of England’s 1950s, and accordingly, inspired hundreds of British teenagers to take up their first guitars. And now I get skiffle.

In Bragg’s history, skiffle is a long, cylindrical magnet that stretches from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, attracting moments in history from the dawn of the American railroad to the explosion of post-war British youth culture. It’s a feast of learning.

Bragg’s voice is conversational, but the conversation is business-casual, not as with, say, Sarah Vowell’s voice—her readers are friends, Bragg’s readers are co-workers.

And if you’ve never heard “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly—and apparently that’s the proper spelling of his name, not “Leadbelly” or “LeadBelly”—listen to that, too. Most of rock music, including your favorite punk song, comes from it. I would not have realized that without Bragg’s book. (I also didn’t know what the Midnight Special was, and now I do.) –Jim Woster (Faber & Faber, faber.co.uk)

Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride—A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls, and Punk Rock By Curt Weiss, 280 pgs.

My second punk rock obsession after Never Mind the Bollocks was the New York Dolls’ self-titled album. “Personality Crisis” is a near-perfect encapsulation of teenage hormones firing in ten different directions at once, in a way that was sloppy, aggressive, sexy, and a little dangerous. Fairly or not to the other band members though, my fandom never went much beyond an obsession with Johnny Thunders and a fascination with the fact that David Johansen was also “Hot Hot Hot” Buster Poindexter. Curt “Lewis King” Weiss definitely put his research work in, and the result is a comprehensive and enlightening read on Jerry Nolan, whose drumming with the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers put him actively in the eye of the New York punk storm since the very beginning.

True to the biography’s subtitle, Nolan was a consummate thrift shop fashion plate whose ear for stylish ‘50s rockers like early Elvis and Eddie Cochran in his youth informed his belief in the power of slick personal presentation on stage (or “profilin”). Perhaps the biggest musical influence in Nolan’s life, though, is jazz drummer and band leader Gene Krupa. Weiss brings just enough analysis of technique to the table to tease out subtleties and illuminate facets of Jerry’s craft behind the drums without slipping into pedantics. Nolan’s Pre-Dolls and Heartbreakers career is traced all the way from his early teenage garage bands in Lawton, Okla., to his first recorded bands in the late ’60s, Peepl and Maximillian, who attempted to ride the wave of psychedelia that emerged in the wake of Jimi Hendrix. Along the way, Jerry had a drive for true fame that was constantly just slightly out of his reach, but exacerbated by people he came across in his life, like his childhood best friend Peter Criss and a dalliance with young Bette Middler.

Unfortunately, like many of these early punk stories, heroin might as well get second billing. By the time of the New York Dolls, Jerry was a daily heroin and methadone user. Nolan’s and Thunders’ bromance, while producing some amazing music, was also quite likely a slow death sentence for both of them, as the rest of their lives became about copping above all else. The book doesn’t shy away from Jerry’s dark side. He was unquestionably an asshole on many levels. While he engaged in the standard rock star tropes like womanizing and becoming a controlling egoist, there were also some tendencies of his that really went beyond, such as his stubbornly ingrained racist attitudes (despite being friends with many people of color), and the eagerness with which he and Johnny Thunders took in introducing people to heroin. For many early punks though, sketchy behavior is often par for the course, so hopefully most people are smarter than to look towards them as role models. –Adrian Salas (Backbeat Books, 33 Plymouth St. Suite 302, Montclair, NJ 07042, backbeatbooks.com)

To Funk and Die in LA By Nelson George, 280 pgs.

Based on the title, I wasn’t sure I could take To Funk and Die in LA seriously. I’m glad I dug in and tried my best to approach it with an open mind, though, because it paid off. This mystery, part of the D Hunter series by Nelson George, finds the protagonist primarily in the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Koreatown, Crenshaw, and Pico-Union. D’s grandfather was, it seemed, a relatively innocuous grocery store owner. But after his grandfather’s murder, D comes to find out he was heavily enmeshed in illegal activities and had a connection with a reclusive R&B legend, Dr. Funk.

It may seem odd to have a murder mystery reviewed in a music zine, but George’s knowledge of the L.A. music scene—specifically that of the 1980s funk, hip hop, and R&B scenes—is massive. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since, as a music journalist, he’s been writing about R&B for over thirty-five years.) He seamlessly weaves fictional characters such as Dr. Funk in with Prince and A Tribe Called Quest. He also namedrops Black Flag and NWA along the way. In fact, this book is almost as much about music as it is about a murder. Even though I don’t know much about the black music scene of L.A., it didn’t matter. The characters talked about music not as encyclopedias but as true fans, a way in which they can elucidate their love without appearing annoying.

George writes short chapters, which urged me to not want to put the book down. His characters are realistic and relatable while also being unique. The protagonist, D Hunter, is a black man who is HIV positive. The book teems with blacks, Koreans, and Latinos, especially Salvadorans and Mexicans. There was nary a white person in To Funk and Die in LA, and, as a white person, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to experience a different culture with individuals unlike myself is what helps expand my mind.

In addition to being a mystery, these 280 pages are a look at the cultural landscape of Los Angeles and how it has changed over the years. Exposed are the relationships of blacks against Koreans and Latinos against blacks as demographics shifted over the decades. George writes about the changes in the city without being heavy-handed; it comes across in dialogue and realizations but still makes its point.

Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoy mysteries. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to check out the other books in this series from my library. I’d recommended To Funk and Die in LA for mystery fans, Los Angelenos, and connoisseurs of hip hop, R&B, rap, and the like—it’s an engaging, enlightening read. –Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St. Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

What Is Hip-Hop? By Eric Morse and Anny Yi, 32 pgs.

What Is Hip-Hop? is a children’s book that uses rhymes and 3D clay illustrations to trace hip-hop music and culture, artist by artist, from rap’s early days in New York City to its current world-conquering status. The art’s incredible. It looks like claymation stills, and the figurines of famous rappers appear in tableaus featuring iconic images from their eras and cities. Everything is recreated in clay—from the palm trees and old school convertible in the NWA spread, to the brick walls and boomboxes of 1980s NYC. It’s a fun tribute, but the lack of a narrative makes it drag toward the end. When I gave What Is Hip-Hop? the ultimate test and read it to my toddler, his attention started to flag about two-thirds through. “Too much of a good thing” aside, this follow-up to Eric Morse and Anny Yi’s What Is Punk? improves on the original’s formula with nicely lit photography and a thoughtful layout. Get this book for your friends who are new parents. They’ll be grateful when their kids pull it off the shelf. –Chris Terry (Akashic, akashicbooks.com)

Fear of a Nørb Planet: The Complete Maximum Rocknroll Columns 1994-1998 By Rev. Nørb, 288 pgs.

I subscribed to Maximum Rocknroll in December. Before that, my tenure as a reader of the venerated mag coincided roughly with Nørb’s term as columnist—I started reading faithfully around 1993 and dropped out in 1998 or 1999—when I became smitten with Louisville post-rock and Ebullition emo. It’s wild to read these columns again after more than twenty years. I have memories specific to loads of them: the exact chair in the Elvis Room where I sat after buying the new issue, diving directly into Nørb’s column to see what ridiculous tangent would be the through line around which he’d base that month’s particular rantings (still a habit with this mag—sorry, Dale).

The contentious stuff first: Part of Nørb’s thing has always been pushing boundaries. Anyone familiar with his deeply parenthetical style already knows this. In the height of the mid-‘90s furor regarding Tim Yohannon’s strict guidelines on what was/wasn’t punk (and the subsequent aftershocks, which yielded the formation of Punk Planet, HeartattaCk and Hit List zines to cover music falling outside of Tim’s umbrella), Nørb was the hyper-caffeinated burr under the punk establishment saddle, throwing around references that are by no stretch of the imagination politically correct. Prior to this tome’s arrival, I wondered how Nørb would deal with these topics. Go figure—he apologizes in the intro, saying he took things too far. Rather than expurgating his un-P.C. passages, he leaves them in here for better or worse.

With that said, “LOL” is so overused it doesn’t mean anything any more. But as I reread these columns, I found myself laughing out loud. A lot. So much so, in fact, that beginning on page fourteen, I made a mark above each column that had me genuinely laughing (no chuckles, no snorts—this is the laugh tally, you understand). Between pages fourteen and 288, I laughed out loud thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine times! (Page 250 got me three times and page thirty twice, for the record.) I can’t remember a record or comedy special that’s made me laugh as much. I mention this to emphasize the fact that the good Reverend doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Dude’s a comedian, mining the dissonance between the freedom and rules of the punk scene for all their absurdity.

Nørb’s previous book The Annotated Boris alleges to be a book of gags about Boris the Sprinkler’s lyrics, but is actually one of the funniest and saddest books about being in a band I’ve ever read. Similarly, Fear of a Nørb Planet alleges to be a collection of columns, but is in fact a time capsule to heady scene years (I’d forgotten all about Nick Fitt and his MRR column). It’s one of the greatest comedy works of our time—and everyone knows the best comedy is based in the humdrum, the mundane. Nørb spins the everyday into gold. A triumph. –Michael T. Fournier ($14.98 to Bulge, bulge.biz)

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home By Nicole J. Georges, 314 pgs.

To be honest, I’ve never had a dog. People are often shocked when I say that, as if dog ownership is a universal experience. Now, I’ve had several cats. (This is when dog owners typically roll their eyes.) But I can still relate to Nicole J. Georges’ hair-pulling experiences with Beija, a troubled shar-pei/corgi mix she rescued when she was sixteen years old. She struggles to integrate the fearful dog into her life while she grapples with the trials and tribulations of growing up. Although Georges’ illustrations are effervescent and her words are scalpel sharp, the narrative feels overly familiar.

Many comics readers grumble about the glut of superhero stories published every year; however, the same can now be said about graphic memoirs. On my shelf, I spot Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Marzena Sowa, Adrian Tomine, David B., Marjane Satrapi, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, to name a few. This isn’t to devalue the work or the experiences of these talented writers and artists, but to acknowledge why Fetch did not resonate with me. I’m honestly burned out on the banal nature of the genre and the tropes of human-animal relationship stories: person attempts to change animal; animal changes person instead.

Ultimately, with Georges’ Fetch, the narrative moves at a sluggish pace, for she quickly sidesteps more gripping topics (her relationship with her parents, for example), and instead focuses on the minutiae (and clichés) of dog ownership. Fetch, however, does offer a gateway for readers unfamiliar with the medium: the dog lover looking for a new read, the parent who naively believes comics are all spandex and uppercuts, the jaded punk searching for fair representation. In that sense, Fetch serves to bridge the divide between mainstream literature and comics. But for those of us who frequently traverse said bridge, Georges’ graphic memoir is uninspired. –Sean Arenas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Henry & Glenn Adult Activity & Coloring Book By Tom Neely & Others, 112 pgs.

Here we have the newest continuation of the ongoing Henry and Glenn saga, which speculates on a universe where Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are mature enough in their masculinity to realize their feelings for one another and enter a homosexual relationship. The joke has been taken to some extremes before, and now you can take it home as a series of oversized, uncolored gag panels that you can color in yourself. The art is split between the original author and guest artists providing a page or three. I guess I’m not surprised that a joke like Henry & Glenn has sustained. If you were a fan of the joke the first time, the gags in this book are pretty good, but nothing you haven’t seen already. It’s more Henry & Glenn, you know? I can’t imagine anyone would be convinced on the “franchise” if this was their first purchase, though. –Bryan Static (Microcosm, 2752 N Williams Ave, Portland, OR 97227, microcosmpublishing.com)