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Book Notes From The Underground: July 2014



Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley
Musician (Saint Etienne) turned rock critic Stanley has penned a history of pop music that is chock-a-block full of interesting facts and opinions about the great (and not so great) popular artists from the dawn of rock ‘n roll to just past the millennium. Whether you’re partial to classic rock, soul, hip-hop, doo-wop, grunge, heavy metal or punk, Stanley has something that will interest you. But perhaps the best of all, he gives you plenty of reason to argue with him. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” is the first rock ‘n roll song? I beg to differ!


Mr. Gwyn & Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco
You may remember Baricco from his highly regarded 1997 novel Silk. His latest novel is disguised as a pair of novellas. In Mr. Gwyn, we meet an author who has given up writing novels to pursue writing “portraits” of wealthy clients that he bases on silently observing them in his studio for a month. After Gwyn abruptly disappears, his assistant Rebecca discovers that he has pseudonymously written a book called Three Times at Dawn, the plot of which revolves around two strangers who encounter each other three separate times in the same hotel. Baricco’s off-center worldview has often been compared to that of Italo Calvino. High praise? Well, in this case, it’s well-deserved.


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben McIntyre
While there have been countless books written about Kim Philby and the Cambridge FIve (sounds like the name of a rock band, doesn’t it?), McIntyre’s offering centers on the close friendship (and ultimate act of betrayal) between three spies: Philby, MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, and CIA bigwig James Angleton. This is catnip for Cold War spy fans, but even for those who aren’t, McIntyre provides a gripping, sordid, alcohol-soaked tale of treachery and deceit.



The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov
A heavyweight of modern Russian literature, Bitov is regrettably too little known here in the United States. His latest novel is a postmodern tour-de-force. OK? Still with me? If you are interested in a plot, than you will have to look elsewhere. (Bitov doesn’t need no stinkin’ plots.) If you are interested in stories and/or storytelling, than this may be your cup of tea. The book hangs on the conceit of protagonist Bitov recalling an English novel he read years ago called The Symmetry Teacher. He wants to translate it, but he can’t find a copy, so the meat of this novel is his memory of that novel. This is a book for the head, and not for the heart. A simultaneously maddening and exhilarating mind game of a novel.


Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger
The life of Michelangelo told through the stories of six of his masterpieces: the Pietà, the Last Judment, David, the Medici tombs, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and vaults and dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Art historian Unger discusses the idea of each work, its creation, the political difficulties encountered and the public reception. (Most people were outraged by the nudity of the Last Judgment). The real value of Unger’s book lies not in the particulars of Michelangelo’s life, but in the description and analysis of the works in question. An informative, brisk look at the life of this Renaissance master.


Warburg in Rome by James Carroll
In 1946, David Warburg arrives in Rome to direct the new U.S. War Refugee Board. When he discovers the Vatican “ratline”, an escape route maintained by Church officials for Nazi war criminals, he turns to U.S. Intelligence. That, however, turns out to be a mistake. Former priest Carroll (who wrote the National Book Award winner An American Requiem) has produced a literary thriller that masterfully captures the chaos, treachery, and deceit that defined Rome (and much of the rest of Europe) in the immediate aftermath of WWII.


Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett
In short four-to-five page essays, Bonnett explores the nearly real-life equivalent of Calvino’s Invisible Cities—underground cities, ice islands, a community that lives in a Philippine cemetery, and an island that appeared on maps for a century until it was discovered not to exist. These are just a few of the fascinating places that the author contemplates in this most unusual of armchair travel books.




Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert
Naomi Hill is a fame-seeking, troubled nightclub singer trying to make it in Chicago in 1965. Her precocious ten-year-old daughter Sophie watches her final performance at the Blue Angel knowing that Naomi is finally going to be a star, but all she wants is her mother’s love. Telling the story from the Sophie’s and Naomi’s distinctly different perspectives, Rotert creates a heartbreaking world full of passion, neediness, and the redemptive power of music.


The Valentino Affair: The Jazz Age Murder Scandal That Shocked New York Society and Gripped the World by Colin Evans
In 1917, in front of several witnesses, Chilean heiress Blanca Errázuriz shot and killed her estranged husband Jack De Saulles during a custody dispute. At her trial, she was acquitted. Although Rudolf Valentino only makes a cameo appearance in Evans’ account of this scandalous affair, there is still enough juicy intrigue, despicable behavior and lurid gossip to make this a real page-turner.


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