Saturday, January 23, 2010

Robin Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life of an American Original

For Christmas, Santa Claus gave me an Amazon Kindle. And the first book I downloaded and read via Kindle was this excellent biography of one of jazz's great pianists, Thelonious Monk.

First, let me discuss the book itself.

Kelley's pacing is impeccable as he recounts the early years of Monk's parents, the years growing up and starting out in the Harlem club scene, as well as the "un"-years, the bebop explosion, and the final years in seclusion. While sufficient time is spent analyzing the songs for which Monk became well-known, Kelley never allows the writing to become jargony or overwrought with obscure musical terminology. And his reverence for Monk is seen in his treatment of Monk's behavior over the years, erroneously attributed to mere eccentricity and irresponsibility; this may not be the first book to explore Monk's depression and how it affected his performance, creativity, and public perception, but it becomes quickly evident that the author loves and deeply respects his subject matter, making this all the more enjoyable to read.

If you like this era of jazz and you're looking for a biography that is a "good read," I highly recommend this book.

As for the Kindle itself, I love it! Never thought I'd say that, since I've always been a bibliophile who enjoys the aesthetics of a good book -- the smell of a used copy, the physicality of the pages, the book jacket or cover art, etc. But the Kindle is light and compact (much lighter than lugging around Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day, I tells ya!), and easily allows you to adjust the font size for a comfortable read. Combine that with the built-in New Oxford American Dictionary, highlighting and annotating features, and online access ... and you have a fun little device that actually enhances the reading experience! Now, it's not perfect, and I do have further observations about the reading experience that I'll explore here at another time, but I gotta admit: I am thoroughly enjoying my Kindle.

Now the big question: Which book do I download next?? Any suggestions??

Monday, January 18, 2010

Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century

For the past month or so, I've been working through a few different sources that will enhance my upcoming Dickens seminar in Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, and this is one of the books I found especially helpful.

Linebaugh's The London Hanged is an excellent examination of capital punishment in 18th Century England and how it related to an emerging awareness of personal property. The author draws from a wide variety of source material and spins a good yarn as chapter after chapter takes the reader through criminals and their crimes, class warfare, the slave trade, social uprisings -- all motivated by (and influencing) Britain's changing perceptions of socio-economic status within the 18th century. My primary focus while reading this book: the Gordon Riots of 1780, one of the worst social uprisings in English history and the subject of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.

Very readable, very engaging!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare

Any biography of William Shakespeare is automatically hobbled by one inconvenient fact: there isn't very much known about the guy. Once you get past the dates of "birth" and death, his formative years in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the approximate order in which he wrote and performed most of his plays, the rest is pure conjecture. So the mark of a truly good biography of Will becomes a question of how the biographer fills in the gaps.

Burgess, himself the author of A Clockwork Orange as well as dozens of additional novels and scholarly works, does an excellent job of filling in the gaps in this well-researched and highly readable biography of the Bard. He handles nicely the placement of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson within the Jacobean milieu in relation to Shakespeare, and he examines convincingly the ways in which historical events -- both social and political -- likely influenced Shakespeare's subject matter as he wrote his sonnets and plays. But what I most appreciated in this was Burgess's control of his style: while some novelists who don the cloak of biographer often let themselves get carried away by their own Muse (I'm talkin' to you, Peter Ackroyd), Burgess seasons his writing with just enough anecdotes, speculation, and wit without overshadowing his subject.

If you read one biography of William shakespeare, this is it. If you are beginning the study of Shakespeare's life and works, start here. This is an excellent read.