Featured Book Reviews from Issue #89: David Ensminger, Ian Svenonius, Mario T. Garcia

Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with Artists Who Shaped Indie and RootsMusic
By David Ensminger, 231 pgs.

Up front: Ensminger is a great interviewer. He’s interested in his subject(s), he knows how to ask questions that will disarm and pique the interest of his interviewees to elicit more than a simple answer, and clearly does his homework. What that means to the reader of the assorted interviews collected here is that instead of page after page of rote answers to rote questions, one gets a deeper understanding of what makes a given artist tick: the things that shape them as artists, insight into their processes, whom they look to for inspiration. The interviews are inclusive and engaging in such a way that one can pick a random page and be immersed in a really good conversation where the identity of whomever is doing the talking almost becomes secondary.

No small feat, when you’re talking about folks like Ralph Stanley, Dave Alvin, David Thomas, Merle Haggard, Michael Gira, Jarboe, Alejandro Escovedo, Wayne Kramer, John Doe, Eugene Robinson, Deke Dickerson, and many, many others. Like its predecessor Left of the Dial, Mavericks of Sound slyly breaks down the arbitrary genre divisions put up between artists to get at a common core set of motivations and gives heft to the idea that the “legends”—those who have a lasting and profound impact on art—are those more interested in connecting with and reflecting on their world than pushing their brand and obsessing on the banal superficialities of being a “star.” –Jimmy Alvarado (Rowman & Littlefield, rowman.com)

Censorship Now!!
By Ian F. Svenonius, 209 pgs.

What the hell are you talking about, Ian Svenonius? That was my reaction to a good amount of Censorship Now!! This is Svenonius’s third book, and is comprised of essays, many of which were previously printed in various publications. The writings cover a wide range of topics, including the film Heathers,indie rock, gentrification, sugar, and documentaries. Svenonius, the singer for numerous groups including Chain & The Gang, Weird War, Scene Creamers, The Make-Up, and Nation Of Ulysses, writes in a style of telling, not showing. He wants to let the reader know how things are, and that’s that. Rarely does he make an argument or cite any sources, he just offers his take on various events and why things are the way they are.

Svenonius often makes good points—or at least espouses views that make me think. Yet some of it is written in a manner that made me also wonder, “Wait… is Svenonius being serious here?” He writes in a manner that can be tongue-in-cheek and I couldn’t decide if it was intentional or not, which left me frustrated. The debut essay “Censorship Now” is, I assume, a joke, as I find it hard to believe that an artist like Svenonius believes in censorship. I can see the point he’s making in poking fun at censorship. But is he really against Ikea and Apple? Does he dislike the idea of a hook in a song? I don’t know and, frankly, Svenonius doesn’t give me much of a reason to care. Being a fairly well-known person in the DIY scene over the decades, I’d be much more interested in knowing what he legitimately thinks of certain issues. I’d love to read Svenonius make a serious, sincere case for his beliefs.

As I mentioned when I reviewed Svenonius’s last book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group for Razorcake, his writing can often border on the academic, which—as someone with a couple masters degrees—I find interesting. I’d love to see Svenonius write in an academic style. He certainly has the chops for it and his writing shows him to be intelligent. I’m sure he could make persuasive arguments, but his writing often seems silly as he spouts off random ideas. In the end, I can understand someone espousing their views but when it’s hard to decipher whether they’re being truthful, what’s the point? The essays in Censorship Now!! just aren’t honest enough to take seriously or funny enough to laugh at. Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St., Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

Chicano Generation, The: Testimonios of the Movement
By Mario T. García, 335 pgs.

Mario T. García, a Professor of Chicano Studies and History at University of California, Santa Barbara, tells us in the introduction to The Chicano Generation that there is a “Latin American tradition of producing oral histories, or oral memoirs, through the collaboration of political activists or revolutionaries with progressive scholars or journalists.”

For this book, García collaborated with three people who were active in the Chicano movement from the late 1960s to the early 1970s: Raul Ruiz, Gloria Arellanes, and Rosalio Muñoz. García writes that the book took twenty years to complete, from interviews to publication—I’m curious as to why.

Between the three activists’ testimonies, we get a fairly full picture of the Chicano movement, including the high-school walkouts and the anti-war moratorium. Ruiz had a close view of the Los Angeles Police Department’s assault on the 1970 anti-war march that resulted in the death of Latino journalist/activist Ruben Salazar, a death that many people claim was an assassination.

Arellanes was a member of the Brown Berets, a particularly militant group that modeled itself after the Black Panthers, and her testimony about the group is probably the book’s most compelling story—she worked hard and put up with a lot of shit, from outside and inside the group. All three of the book’s activists worked pause-givingly hard—when we celebrate activists, that is really what we’re celebrating: that they chose to take on so much drudgery.

From Muñoz’s testimony, I learned of La Marcha de la Reconquista, a 1971 march that began in Calexico, near the Mexican border, and ended in Sacramento, the state’s capital, a roughly three-month, one-thousand-mile journey (with some breaks, of course). The march was to address essentially all Chicano-political issues. Physical demands aside, that they made it to Sacramento despite all the factional conflicts was miraculous.

Each testimony features welcome glimpses of Los Angeles life in the mid-twentieth century (L.A. residents will be amused to learn that there was a time when white teens mocked Mexican teens for eating burritos). Fans of Alice Bag’s and Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoirs will enjoy The Chicano Generation.

The book costs $29.95 in paperback and $20.99 as an e-book—I don’t know what to tell you about that. I’m told that you can ask a public library to order a book and they’ll do it, but I’ve never tried it. –Jim Woster (University of California Press, 155 Grand Ave., Suite 400, Oakland, CA 94612-3758, ucpress.edu)