Review: Janis

Following her breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 Janis Joplin catapulted to stardom. Although it seemed like Joplin was an over night success, she cultivated her voice and singing style from an early age, mimicking classic blues performers such as Bessie Smith. But Joplin was plagued with a dark outlook on life that she held at bay with substance abuse.

In Janis: Her Life and Music, biographer Holly George-Warren thoroughly records the ups and downs of Joplin’s short life. Although Joplin perpetuated a myth of being a misunderstood and neglected child, her parents doted on her and accommodated her creative interests. Their influence showed in Joplin’s voice, which she inherited from her mother, and an intellectual curiosity and love of reading, which she learned from her father.

Janis (digital galley, Simon & Schuster) recounts Joplin’s rich life, from her youth in Port Arthur, Texas to her rise to fame in San Francisco with Big Brother and the Holding Company. While in high school in Port Arthur she frequented nearby Louisiana clubs where she heard R & B and “swamp pop music.”

After high school Joplin enjoyed fits of creative genius and her talents shone when she went to college in Austin, where she fell in with like minded musicians. But Joplin had recurring problems with drug and alcohol abuse and at times resorted to dealing and turning tricks to earn cash. Her journey eventually led to San Francisco where she explored her music and a wider array of drugs. She eventually joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band that, although not up to Joplin’s level of talent, helped launch here to stardom.

The well researched Janis gives performers, family and friends an opportunity to recount stories from Joplin’s life. With melancholy I read about her remarkable voice and performances that left audiences stunned, wondering what may have been. Joplin said she turned to heroin when “her feelings tormented her.” Unfortunately her life came to an end in 1970 with a fatal overdose.

Friday coffee notes

This is a short review of one of King’s best recent novels, The Institute. The book explores relationships among children with “special talents” held and abused at a secret installation. This is a good-vs-evil story that’s hard to put down.

Brittany Howard is a pure joy to watch perform. Her current tour ends in November and I hope she plans to do festivals next year so I have a chance to see her again live. Until then, there’s an NPR Tiny Desk Concert from this week to hold us over.

I’m working on a longer review of Janis: Her Life and Music, which will be released October 22. But for now it’s enough to say go ahead and pre-order a copy. It’s a well-researched and well-written page turner by Holly George-Warren.

Listen to Janis Joplin before Big Brother & the Holding Company in the 1964 bootleg “Typewriter Tape” recording. Her talent shows as she sings with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, while his wife types a letter in the background.

It amazes me that there is a subway station in the basement of the Old State House in Boston. It’s not a big building and it’s odd to walk out of the station and see where you are. You can see it here on Google Street View. Here it is the 1906 Old State House with the subway, or East Boston Tunnel, entrance at the back left of the building. And before the subway in the early 1890s, when the basement was occupied by a telegraph office.

A brief review: Daisy Jones and the Six

Daisy Jones & the Six would have worked better, or just worked, as narrative fiction. The interviews in this oral history format overwhelm with minutiae and feel contrived. The format only serves to contrast this made-up rock band history with biographies of real rock bands. Just skip this and read the real thing. There’s a Janis Joplin biography coming out in late October 2019. Or pick up one of the many books about Fleetwood Mac, on which this book is based.

Review: The Warehouse

What would the world be like if Amazon ran everything: From housing to entertainment to food production? Rob Hart’s new novel The Warehouse gives a peak at that scenario with a thriller that explores a world governed with corporate diligence.

The Warehouse [digital galley, Random House] is set in the near future where The Cloud runs most of the economy by employing, housing and feeding workers in an environment regulated by technology. Those who can’t get jobs at The Cloud find themselves living in a dystopian world of chronic unemployment. But someone is suspicious of the corporation’s success and has infiltrated one of its facilities to find out what’s really powering the company’s success.

Unfortunately there are too many holes in the plot and an incongruous ending made me question whether the bad guys were really that bad after all. And if so, what was the point of all of the sneaking around early in the book.

Review: Recursion

New York City police officer Barry Sutton gets wrapped up in a time-travel adventure while investigating the mysterious False Memory Syndrome, in Blake Crouch’s Recursion. Along the way he crosses paths with neuroscientist Helena Smith, who discovered the secret held in people’s memories and realizes the danger she has unleashed.

There is a sense of impending doom as reality as everyone knows it begins to unravel and every effort to right the course of history introduces new problems. I don’t want to say more about the plot for fear of revealing a twist, but this is a fast-pace thriller that infuses fresh ideas into the time-travel genre.

Crouch has already written a number of successful thrillers, including Dark Matter and the Wayward Pines series, but this is his best novel yet. Recursion (digital galley, Crown Publishing Group) deals nicely with the many paradoxes that inevitably crop up with time travel and Crouch wraps up everything neatly at the end.

Review: Once More Unto the Breach

During the Allied liberation of Europe Rhys Gravenor, a Welsh farmer, travels to France looking for his son in Once More Unto the Breach. With the help of American ambulance driver Charlotte Dubois he sets off on a roadtrip across the country following clues and encountering one dangerous situation after another.

The novel was off to the races before we ever got to know the main characters or their motivations. And the plot hinges on a too convenient and improbable meeting at the beginning of the novel.

Once More Unto the Breach (digital galley, Polis Books) has promise but is, unfortunately, full of stiff dialogue and it’s not really clear why Rhys is so desperately looking for his son. After all, he’s just one of millions wrapped up in WWII and displaced from their families. What makes this situation and relationship so unique that it was worth commencing a search during wartime?

I continued to wonder what exactly I had done to deserve a woman like Valerie. Nothing, probably. I observe the world as it unfurls, I thought. Proceeding empirically, in good faith, I observe it. I can do no more than observe.

Platform by Michel Houllebecq

Review: Working with Color

The Urban Sketching Handbook: Working with Color is both instructional and inspirational. The book teaches how to use color to convey mood and emotions in urban sketches and should appeal to anyone looking for guidance and fresh ideas.

The book is packed with wonderful artworks and would be good to keep at hand just for the inspiration they provide. Author Shari Blaukopf does a thorough job of discussing how to pick, create and use palettes and gets into the specifics of mixing colors to create proper tone and emotions.

Working with Color (digital galley, Quarry Books) does not, however, dive into the basic techniques of sketching and drawing. There are other Urban Sketching Handbooks for that. This book is best suited to those who consider themselves to be beyond the absolute beginner level who are interested in improving their use of color.

A history book for comedy wonks

Improv Nation is an exhaustive history of improv, from its beginnings in Chicago in the 1950s through current day. Sam Wasson’s book catalogs the important characters, events and institutions of improve and fluctuates from sharing compelling and funny stories to reading like a textbook. This book will go down as an important work recording this uniquely American art form.

Review: The Parisian

The Parisian book cover

Midhat Kamal dreams of his bright future as he travels to Paris during WWI to attend university, in The Parisian. While there the young Palestinian discovers love, loss and the bitter bite of prejudice.

After the war Kamal returns to a Palestine under British rule where he begins to learn his family textile business and start a family. But as political tensions erupt in the region, he can’t help but be swept along in the flow.

Isabella Hammad has a beautiful writing style and has a lot of material to work with in The Parisian (digital galley, Grove Press). Unfortunately the plot moves at a sluggish pace and the story often ebbs. If you have the time, Hammad’s vivid descriptions and wonderful turns of phrase are enough to give this novel a chance.

Incompetence in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl book cover

I’m about a third of the way into Midnight in Chernobyl, an account of the 1986 nuclear accident. It’s shocking to read about the number of institutional and design errors that led to the event and then about the missteps in reacting to it.

Even before Chernobyl the Soviets had a history of accidents and meltdowns at their reactors. There was even a prior meltdown at one of the Chernobyl reactors you probably didn’t know about due to layers of Soviet secrecy.

The first sign in the west of an accident was when workers reporting to a Swedish nuclear power plant started setting of radiation alarms when entering the facility because they had picked up so much Chernobyl radiation from the landscape.

In contrast to Chernobyl, the Swedish authorities immediately alerted the nearby town and ordered a facility evacuation. The type and amount of radiation made them think it was their plant leaking. They soon new better.

Review: The Light Years

Chris Rush began doing drugs at the age of 12 when his sister’s friend gave him acid. This began his long embrace of the American counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, which Rush recalls in his poignant memoir The Light Years.

The son of a wealthy, Roman Catholic New Jersey couple, Rush was prone as a boy to running through his neighborhood in a pink satin cape. He was eventually ostracized from his family because of his father’s hostile attitude toward Rush’s behaviour and mannerisms.

Rush spent time in a series of boarding schools and then fled out west for a number of risky adventures, eventually landing in the Arizona wilderness. During this time he better came to understand his own sexuality as a young gay man. His parents were largely indifferent to his activities while he was away. They were always more focused on their own lives and troubled marriage.

Rush, a renowned artist whose work appears in many museum collections, has written a masterful coming of age story. The Light Years (digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) paints a vivid picture of a young man searching for his place in the world. Rush shows remarkable grace in recalling a trying adolescence that would have broken many individuals.

Review: Beginning Pen & Ink

If you’re looking for a little push to get started with drawing with pens, Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink (digital galley, Quarto Publishing Group) is a good place to start. The book does not get bogged down in descriptions of equipment, as some art books do. It covers those basics quickly and moves on to instruction.

Make no mistake, this is a book geared to beginners. It moves at a pace suitable for those getting started, as I am. Author and artist Desarae Lee gives specific and achievable instructions that clearly explain the concepts. And the exercises that accompany each chapter helped improve my understanding of the drawing techniques.

At 128 pages, the book is short and quick to get through. Anything longer might overwhelm anyone just getting started. I felt like Portfolio: Beginning Pen & Ink gave me a good starting point from which to practice before moving on to more advanced instruction.

Review: The Wolf and the Watchman

Following a night of heavy drinking, one-armed night watchman Mikel Cardell is rousted to fish a limb-less body from a putrid Stockholm lake. Set in 1793, The Wolf and the Watchman pairs Cardell with incorruptible investigator Cecil Winge, who is on the verge of death from consumption.

The investigation quickly leads through the dangerous underworld of Stockholm to the possibly more treacherous secret world of the ruling noble families. But Winge is not swayed by intimidation, due to his pending death, and refuses to back down from either ruffians or the wealthy.

The Wolf and the Watchman (digital galley, Simon and Schuster) is an engrossing detective story that brings to life a faraway time and place. The historical setting and the story’s many memorable characters add a rich depth to Niklas Natt och Dag’s first novel.

Review: The River

A pair of college friends set out on a canoe trip on a remote Canadian river planning to bond over fishing, books and their love of outdoors. But they quickly find themselves in a desperate and brutal bid to survive the wilderness in Peter Hiller’s The River.

Wynn and Jack knew there would be certain risks associated with canoeing on an isolated river, but a huge wildfire they spot raging in the distance changes their itinerary and they try to make a quick exit north to Hudson Bay. Along the way they hear a man and woman arguing in the fog and when the man turns up later, alone, their trip takes another, more desperate turn.

Hiller is author of the best-selling and masterful, post-apocalyptic thriller The Dog Stars. In The River (digital galley, Knopf), Hiller shows his talent at combining raw adventure with poetic and insightful writing. His novels ooze with humanity and he seems to capture perfectly the emotions and unique responses people have to adversity.