I was pleased to see “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Rick Bragg on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. Bragg cut his writing teeth on stories of the American South. His memoir “All Over But the Shoutin” was chosen for the 1998 Notable Books list.
Once we get past the irony of Jerry Lee’s “own story” being told by someone else, the choice of author makes perfect sense. Bragg clearly knows how to portray the South, in this case, Ferriday, Louisiana, where Lewis grew up during the Great Depression. That time and that place propelled Lewis to rock and roll superstardom in the 1950’s. Nearly everything that happened to Lewis, or that he set in motion, connects back to Ferriday. His bigamous marriage to his young cousin, his reliance on drugs and alcohol, and his attraction to risky behavior of all sorts, they all began in Ferriday. And central to it all is the image of a performer with boundless energy, a man who whipped crowds into a frenzy with a piano playing style entirely his own.
Bragg interviewed Lewis extensively for this book, using many of Lewis’s own words to craft the story. Bragg succeeds in creating a compelling sense of Jerry Lee Lewis in his seventies, looking back on his life as a younger man. He almost never admits regret, and often notes where he deserves more credit. From time to time I became completely impatient with Bragg because he diverted attention away from Lewis’s story in order to wax poetic about the South.
Last year’s Notables list included “Johnny Cash: The Life” by Robert Hilburn, another story of a boy growing up in the Depression-era South, destined to be a star. The two stories combine well, with both men getting their start at Sun Studios in Memphis, both leading complicated personal and professional lives. Both Bragg and Hilburn respect the depth of Lewis and Cash, going to great lengths to do justice to their complex lives.
I found “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” immensely readable, potentially an excellent nonfiction choice for books groups who usually read fiction. While it’s an easy recommendation to rock and foll fans, I’ll also suggest it to people who enjoy social history, especially if they’re interested in the American South.
I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash’s upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, Hilburn keeps the story’s thread strong.
Hilburn’s reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash’s performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.
I grew up in a home where we seldom missed “The Johnny Cash Show.” This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.
My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People–all kinds of people–loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.
I’ve recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.
I came across “Pearl Buck in China” by Hilary Spurling listed in the New York Times “100 Notable” of the year for 2010. I confess–I haven’t read “The Good Earth.” Yet. After reading this biography, I intend to.
Spurling describes the evolution of Buck as a writer, spending ample time during Buck’s childhood as the daughter of missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century, detailing the development of her thinking through her time in college and early return to China, describing the impact of Buck’s remarkable success with “The Good Earth” and landing at her final home just before she died in 1973. She tells the story in a readable way, keeping it moving, weaving in important information.
A theme that Spurlling develops here is that because Buck grew up in China, speaking the Chinese of common people and being surrounded by Chinese people, she was able (almost) to think like a Chinese person. That is, even though she was clearly an outsider, she had a sense for how Chinese people thought and reacted. Where other American writers couldn’t quite get past their shock over certain behaviors, Buck wasn’t shocked herself, and could portray the behaviors in ways that made sense to her audience. She fundamentally respected the people about whom she wrote.
Buck came to disagree vehemently with the approach of the missionary community in China.
Spurling addresses some issues that were very similar to some that arose in the library’s recent One Book One Lincoln panel discussion of medical missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. How DO outsiders learn to help? How do they learn to listen? How do they learn to respond in ways that make sense for the culture and situation?
When I reflect on what I will remember about this book, it is really WHO I will remember–Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Spurling’s portrait of this man, his isolating persistence and righteous conviction, his seeming disregard for his family, and his ultimate separation from his work, show how Buck’s vision was shaped.
I will also remember that Buck chose her own way. She divorced her first husband to marry the second. She found a good place for her disable daughter when often disabled children were simply hidden. She lived fairly lavishly toward the end of her life.
I nearly returned this to the library without finishing it, because it was due. I’m glad that I took the time to finish it out–the final fourth of the book is especially interesting.
I’ll recommend this to people who read a lot, who have probably read “The Good Earth.” I’ll also recommend it to people who are generally interested in China, and in the issues that arise when people of very different cultures come together.