Rock Bios

Self-Portrait, DIA Chelsea, 2018

The Beautiful Ones by Prince 

Autobiography Music and Musicians 21st Century Cultural History

One part personal scrapbook, one part cultural history, The Beautiful Ones is Prince’s final “letter to the world.” Filled with handwritten notes, lyrics, and journal entries, Prince’s singular vision springs from the pages like a flight of doves. The Beautiful Ones begins with Dan Pipenbring’s moving introduction and then winds its way through Prince’s early life as the child of two musicians, his beginnings on the stages of Minneapolis, and his inevitable mega-stardom.  Every inch of this book is pure Prince: witty, naughty, melodic, and brilliantly, blisteringly cool. Even his handwriting, looping and elegant, is a sparkling work of art. 

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

BiographyMusic and Musicians – 20th Century Cultural History

Fans of Please Kill Me might like to fast forward twenty or so years to the start of the nineties when a sound that is often considered the wayward stepchild of punk began raging out from the basements and garages of the gloomy Northwest. Mark Yarm employs the model set forth by McNeil and McCain in their landmark oral history to tell the story of grunge. Comprised of almost 250 interviews conducted over twenty years that cover all the glory, gore, and greed that accompanied the movement. Everybody Loves Our Town is compulsively readable and deeply nostalgic.  

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols

BiographyMusic and Musicians 20th Century Cultural History

Alice Echols uses the life of Janis Joplin to illuminate the seismic cultural shift that took place between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Beginning with her conventional but lonely upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas, Scars of Sweet Paradise traces Joplin’s journey from a misunderstood school girl to a raucous genius of rock and blues all the way to her tragic end in a lonely hotel room and the legendary status she has maintained ever since. Echols gives us a vibrant and honest portrait of this one-of-a-kind artist. 

On the Shadowy Side of Human Sexuality

Dark Eros by Thomas Moore

Non-Fiction20th Century Human Sexuality PsychologySpirutuality

What does the work of the Marquis de Sade look like from the perspective of psychotherapist and former monk, Thomas Moore? The answers may surprise you. Dark Eros explores how sadism fits into the realms of psychology and spirituality, and can ultimately serve as a therapeutic tool for understanding the often repressed sides of our nature. Moore tackles this subject with the candor, empathy, and warmth that have made him such a beloved guide to the human psyche. 

Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty and Venus in Furs by Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Essay NovellaHuman SexualityPsychology – 19th Century 20th Century

“BDSM” has become a catch-all for any number of obscure or out of the ordinary human sexual proclivities yet it fails to illuminate the full definition of each word that initializes the acronym. In his essay, “Coldness and Cruelty,” Deleuze carefully dissects “Masochism” from “Sadism” in an effort to better understand the very separate psycho-sexual aspects of each tendency. The essay is followed by Sacher-Masoch’s seminal work, Venus in Furs which, when read with Deleuze’s insights in mind, shines in a whole new light.

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by Eric Berkowitz

Non-FictionWorld History Human Sexuality Criminality20th Century

Eric Berkowitz’s history of the criminalization of one of the most essential components of human nature is shocking, heartbreaking, and highly entertaining. From the temples of ancient Greece to the dark forests of the New World, to the prisons of Victorian England, the cases presented in Sex and Punishment offer us some answers to the question that hopefully, we will never tire of asking: Just how far have we evolved as a species when it comes to the acceptance of our sexuality?

Neglected Noir

Barber Chairs in Ice Storm, 2020

The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun by Sebastian Japrisot

Noir Psychological ThrillerFemale Protagonist20th Century

What if OTHER people seemed to be having deja vu when they saw you, swearing you’d been in the same place just a while ago, when you knew that was impossible? That’s just the start of the mind-bending plight of Dany, a Parisian secretary whose trip in her boss’s car to the sea has turned her world upside down and brought death along with it. A puzzle that will drive you mad and never lets up until the very end.

The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich

Noir Female Antagonist20th Century

 A woman, chameleon-like, seeks out seemingly unconnected men and kills them one after another. But why? What connects the men? Who is Julie, the mastermind of these murders? Woolrich, writing as William Irish, was a prodigious, mid-century master of suspense and this one  became the basis for a Francois Truffaut homage to Hitchcock. The original novel still sustains its power as we wonder all along, “Why is she killing them, and should I be rooting for or against Julie?”

The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

Noir Psychological Thriller20th Century

A psychiatrist listens as his new patient tells him leprechauns are making him give away his money. When the shrink meets what seems to merely be a little person, who now tells his patient to start giving away horses, things go from bad to worse and the shrink wakes up six months later in a psychiatric hospital with a disfiguring scar and no idea what has happened. Nor do we, but the little-read Bardin ingeniously unravels the mystery for us as the doctor assumes a new identity and strives to find out.

Mid-century Stalker Noir

Watcher Ekebergsletta, Oslo, Norway (2018)

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

20th CenturyNoirSuspenseThriller

Best known for Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels, Highsmith was best with psychopaths and stalkers. His marriage in ruins and his sexuality in doubt, Robert Forester starts observing and then stalking a young woman, who befriends him. But in this odd and awful small-town tragedy, few things are what they seem, fewer people can be trusted, the dead live, the past returns and the stalker may be the least evil person we meet. Highsmith at her most acidic.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

20th CenturyNoirSuspenseThriller

Dix Steele is aimless in Los Angeles after World War II, a former Air Force pilot who now sponges off a rich relative while prowling out of the way places and following women out on their own. But is he the strangler that is haunting the city? And will his war buddy, now a cop, figure out what Dix has become? We spend the novel inside the mind of the charming, volatile sociopath while wondering when he will make a mistake and when we, like his friend Brub, will know for sure what Dix has done.

Beast in View by Margaret Millar

20th Century NoirSuspenseThriller

Who is Evelyn Merrick and why is she calling? Nothing good happens anytime this mysterious stalker calls, and while Millar’s febrile psychological thriller may resemble a standard “find the stalker” potboiler, the thrills come not from figuring it all out but the fascination about what drives Merrick and the titillation from what she will do next. The madness behind Merrick’s behavior is a dreadful poison for anyone it touches and Millar’s mid-century classic deserves revisiting.

Just Some Poems

because in times of uncertainty, poems can be buoys

Gowanus, 2019

“The World below the brine” by Walt Whitman

Poets and Poetry19th Century

 My very favorite Whitman. Something about the world that exists below, in the darkness of the ocean, reminds me that there are things that we humans will never know, and that, for some reason, makes me calm and hopeful. 

Read The World below the brine

“American Smooth” by Rita Dove

Poets and Poetry21st Century

Rita Dove is a genius of verse and one of our greatest living poets. The dueling powers of serene elation and melancholy reality make this poem both exquisitely tragic and perfectly (and tragically) American.

Read American Smooth

High Windows” by Philip Larkin

Poets and Poetry 20th Century

Larkin is one of my top five favorite poets of all time. This was the poem that first pulled me to him.

Read High Windows

Surf Noir

Ionian Sea- Giardini Naxos, Sicily, 2018

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn 

Surf fictionNoir20th Century

The progenitor of the surf noir genre, Nunn drops a man on a search into a dangerous Huntington beach blender of drug dealers, wacked out surfers, angry Vietnam veterans, and plenty of violence on the dark side of the Golden State. Built on the California ennui style Ross Macdonald crafted in his Archer novels, Nunn’s book helped create a different setting for the lonely man fighting for what’s right among the lotus-eaters.

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Surf fictionNoir 21st Century

Now better known for his Cartel drug trilogy, Winslow created the ideal surfing detective, an ex-cop private investigator who works only so he can surf every morning with other aging boarders. But when he’s given a chance to correct a haunting mistake from the past, as well as work with an attractive attorney on bringing down an insurance scam, he’s in. Winslow is pacey, sure, and engaging as ever, though the rot inside the Golden State breaks through.

Pirata by Patrick Hasburgh

Surf fictionNoir21st Century

A former successful California car salesman ends up down, out, and one-eyed in Mexico, where he surfs, drinks and hangs out with other wave-mad expats. But the monsoon season brings shifting relationships and when a body washes up on the local surf spot, the past, as always, returns in unexpected ways. Humourous and suspenseful, it’s a wild ride.

Personal Essays

Current Events, 2020

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 by James Baldwin

Non-Fiction20th CenturyPersonal EssaysClassics

The Price of the Ticket contains almost every piece of nonfiction the great and prophetic Baldwin wrote, from his earliest published works to those in the final years of his life. Ranging from his longest and most famous essays like The Fire Next Time to shorter works of literary criticism, Baldwin’s brilliant and exquisitely articulated observations are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Steadfast and melodic, the ghost-like echo of Baldwin’s singular voice rings out from every sentence, every word. The Price of the Ticket is an essential American classic. 

The Art of the Personal Essay, An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present Selected by Phillip Lopate

Non-FictionAnthologyPersonal EssaysClassics

A comprehensive compendium of the form, The Art of the Personal Essay begins with the work of “forerunners” like Seneca, Plutarch, and Hsiu. In the four sections that follow, Lopate winds his way from Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Edgeworth to Woolf, Baldwin, and Rodriguez, and almost every major essayist in between. Roland Barthes’ views on cinema, G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on wearing hats on windy days, and Joan Didion’s reflections on her crushing migraines, are just a few of the many topics covered in this hefty volume.

Intimations by Zadie Smith

Non-Fiction-21st CenturyPersonal Essays

In six essays, the inimitable Zadie Smith offers her crystalline observations of life during the early days of the lockdown. Setting her keen eye on the individuals she encounters on a daily basis, Smith brings their lives into focus against the backdrop of a world grappling with both COVID and the unrelenting virus of hate. In a time of social isolation, Intimations reminds us that we are still here and if we put down our phones long enough to take a look around, we may notice each other, not simply as masked strangers, but as fellow participants in this “global humbling.”

Nature Writing

View of the Grand from Delta Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

NatureNon-Fiction-20th Century

Little noticed when published posthumously, Leopold’s ruminations on the seasonal changes in the natural world near his farm in Wisconsin, along with his essays on humanity’s impact on the environment up until that time, helped set off the movement to restore and protect Earth’s ecology. We aren’t only stewards of the natural world – we are OF the natural world and Leopold reminds us that it is inescapably part of who we are.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Creek by Annie Dillard

NatureNon-Fiction20th Century

Dillard has said she doesn’t think of herself as a nature writer, but her inner monologues about God, Christianity, nature, consciousness, evil and meaning are grounded in the natural world even when they lift off into airier planes. As a stylist, she’s superb, but her observations about nature put her in the company of one of her literary heroes, Thoreau.

King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz

NatureNon-FictionAnimals20th Century

Nobel prize winner and one of the founders of ethology, or the study of animals as they behave in their environment, Lorenz wrote charmingly and provided whimsical illustrations in this effort to popularize what then might have seemed radical – that animal behavior is understandable, learnable and much closer psychologically speaking to human than we might care to admit.

Narratives in Verse

Baltic Sea From Helsingør, pastel on paper

Omeros by Dereck Walcott

Poets and PoetryEpic20th Century

Nobel Prize winner Dereck Walcott’s epic masterpiece, Omeros, is Homeric in scope but entirely Walcott in both its message and poetic technique. The poet tackles the tragedy of colonialism, the subjugation of land and people, specifically, his native island of St. Lucia (“the Helen of the West Indies”) with luminous, natural imagery and a loose yet impactful terza rima scheme. 

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

Poets and Poetry20th Century

Written as an exercise to detach from the tedious demands of an economics doctoral program, The Golden Gate explores the complexities of monogamy, marriage, and friendship in 1980s San Francisco. What makes this work so singularly impressive is that Seth is able to utilize the sonnet as a vehicle for conveying an expansive yet nuanced narrative of modern love and loss.  

Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson

Poets and Poetry21st CenturyBiography

Poet and essayist Maggie Nelson tells the story of her aunt Jane’s short life and murder through a series of poetic, dreamscapes that draw from her aunt’s journal, family memories, and her own exquisite imagination.  The result is a haunting biography in verse that both celebrates and eulogizes a young woman whose promising life was mercilessly cut short.

Writers on Writing

Solitary Turbine, oil on canvas, 2017

The Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Style guide20th Century

Concieved on the cusp of WWII, Graves and Hodge’s guide to writing prose in the English language was developed in an effort to preserve some semblance of certainty at a time when life, as they knew it, was about to become a memory. The Reader Over Your Shoulder is not only a guide for creating clear and impactful prose; it is also an exploration of the history of writing in English, peculiarities of the language itself, and the many styles of writing that can be crafted from it. Above all else, Graves and Hodge shepherd us through the essential techniques needed to set down our thoughts with clarity and grace. 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Memoir20th Century

Perhaps Bird by Bird is so widely beloved because it honestly acknowledges the terror and self-loathing that can be felt by so many of us who endeavor to write. With humor, warmth, and practicality, novelist and essayest, Anne Lamott offers her wisdom on dealing with “shitty” first drafts (“the child’s draft”), perfectionism (“the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”), how to quiet negative voices (“say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we are going to do right now is write a description of the river at sunrise…”) and how to get started on a short assignment (write down as much as you can see “through a one-inch picture frame”). Over and over within this little gem of a book, Lamott gives us the gift of light in the void of self-doubt.

On Writing by Stephen King

Memoir21st Century

“Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” This is Stephen King’s way of telling us to just keep writing, even if we feel like the entire enterprise is useless. Indeed, of all the advice the prolific novelist doles out in this Memoir of the Craft, the one that resonates most is that in order to learn how to write well, one must practice writing “without fear and affectation” and dispense with the notion that there is actually “good” or “bad” writing. With his razor-sharp honesty and biting humor, King reminds us that the real monster in every writer’s closet is him or herself.