Shannon discusses a selection of recent non-fiction books.
A booklist based on this talk is also available.
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’m just now getting caught up on reviewing several books I recently finished. I had taken plenty of time reading “Year Zero: A History of 1945” by Ian Buruma, from the nonfiction part of the Notable Books list. I began it in May or so, read about three quarters of it, and set it aside until a few weekends ago, when I determined to finish it.
It’s a sweeping look at the year after the end of World War II, a time when people began making organization out of the chaos of the war. Buruma addresses various topics in three general sections, describing the situation in Europe, in Asia, and in other parts of the world impacted by the war. Some chapters are primarily how individuals adjusted–how hunger, exultation, and revenge played out. Later chapters address institutions and cultures, such as how the allied countries went about re-educating the German and Japanese people. A theme that recurs is the complexity of relationships–few people, groups, or countries were entirely “clean” in motive and behavior. This is what will stick with me from “Year Zero.”
Buruma introduces the book with the story of his Dutch father, who was kidnapped as a college student to work in a factory in Berlin. When the war ended, he nearly died of starvation, but eventually made it home. His story led Buruma to ponder all of the stories, all of the adjustments, all of the things that had to be set right.
As a reader, I found this information, and Buruma’s approach, interesting. Its drawback is that his basic idea, to explore this chaotic time in regard to several aspects, and spanning continents, keeps him from developing a strong narrative thread. The view is awfully wide, and not especially deep. Certainly he explores interesting themes, but without the strong storytelling structure that would create a more compelling book.
Even so “Year Zero” addresses an era of interest to many readers. I expect that for those who are quite familiar with the time period, Buruma’s rich information and perspective will add much to their own already-developed sense of the war’s story.
“The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” by Brendan I. Koerner continues my trek through this year’s Notable Books list.
From the nonfiction side of the list, this book uses the story of one airline hijacking event in 1972 to explore the “epidemic” of hijacking in the 1960s and 1970s, before screenings and metal detectors became part of the airport landscape.
It makes for interesting reading, how Koerner keeps the thread of the 1972 hijacking intact as he weaves in additional information. In some ways it reads like true crime, this story of Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran struggling with mental illness and addiction, and Cathy Kerkow, his white “hippie” girlfriend. Koerner does a fine job describing their story in the social context of the time. That story extends long after the plane they hijack lands in Algiers.
A couple of quibbles–throughout the book, Koerner refers to “stewardesses” instead of “flight attendants.” That would be the vernacular of the day, but it seemed outdated when he was writing from a contemporary viewpoint. Second, Koerner often writes as if he knew what Kerkow was thinking or feeling. Because she disappears years after the events of the story, Koerner could not have interviewed her, and none of his many notes shows a written record of her thoughts or emotions during the complicated hijacking or the chaotic period that followed.
Even so, I’ll recommend this to people who seek social history, and to those who are especially interested in the era of the 1960’s. I could see this being a strong nonfiction choice for book groups who usually read fiction. Holder and Kerkow’s story illuminates many issues of their era, a number of which remain lively and relevant.
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.