Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Books I Recommend: July 2011

Here are some new books I recommend checking out for the month of July.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson 

Set in Vermont and NYC during the days of hardcore-punk music and the straight- edge movement. The main character, Joel, deals with the overdose of his friend during New Years Eve 1987 and relocates to New York City. He falls in with the straight-edge movement after joining the Hare-Krishnas. The book is a great journey through the days of CBGB, "Krishna-Core," the beginning of AIDS, and 1980s NYC through the eyes of a young man who refuses to accept his parents hippie culture lifestyle as his own.

Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson 

According to Internet Movie Database, Steven Spielberg has already attached himself to a film adaption of this book (unknown on whether he will produce or direct it). Released during June 2011, this book is already picking up incredible buzz and popularity. The story has been compared to Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain." It's a story of the coming age where artificial intelligence comes back to bite us in the ass. As a fan of Isaac Asimov, this one has me VERY excited. I also see this one climbing up the bestseller charts in the weeks to come. Move over zombies! Robots are making a comeback as the new sexy!

Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari 

Maziar Bahari, a London journalist, went to Iran to cover the 2009 presidential election. While he was covering the election, he was arrested and imprisoned for 3 months in Iran. He wrote about his imprisonment and also told the story of his father who was imprisoned by the Shah of Iran during the 1950s, and his sister who was imprisoned by Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1980s. This book chronicles the brutal regimes, coups, and the revolutions that have caused strife and polarization of the Iranian people. This is not just a great tale of survival, but a good look into the disregard of human rights in Iran under different eras of intervention from the west, the fundamentalist based revolution, and the modern day totalitarian state.

Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach

I was a bit taken back when I first saw this. Whether you're a parent or not, this book is hilarious. Written in the poetic tone of "Goodnight Moon," this expletive filled spoof of a children's book will have you doubled over in laughter as you read page by page. Example: "The cats nestle close to their kittens, the lambs have laid down with the sheep. You're cozy and warm in your bed, my dear. Please go the f**k to sleep."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bob Mould's Wild Ride

The 1980s were an interesting time for music, there was an evolution in the mainstream and underground music scenes. While bands like Duran Duran and pop-icons like Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts, the hardcore-punk scene was starting to pop up all over America in various cities. The Los Angeles based record label, SST Records, was leading the way in the hardcore punk movement. SST Records' roster included several of the legendary names in hardcore punk music such as Black Flag, The Minutemen, The Meat Puppet's, and a Minnesota based band known as Husker Du.

Bob Mould was the the frontman for the band Husker Du. If you've never listened to Husker Du, you have never experienced the sometimes raspy vocals of Bob Mould screaming out lyrics that dealt with broken homes, broken hearts, and more emotional depth than most of their contemporaries who were about destruction, chaos, and anarchy. His book tells the story of his childhood and growing up in Malone, NY. He discusses his 175 IQ, his violent father, his love of music, his ability to compose music at a very early age, and his relief when he left home for college; his college days are where he met Grant Hart and Greg Norton, whom he started a local band that spent time gigging around Saint Paul, MN doing covers and playing a few originals they wrote; the band eventually became Husker Du. The band's name was inspired by the board game of the same name. The band attracted the attention of SST Records and Black Flag guitarist, Greg Ginn, who signed the band to the label.

Mould discusses the early days of the band spent in a van provided by his father as they played all over the United States. The band spent time hopped up on truck-stop speed and alcohol, and soon he was coming to grips with his sexuality, trying to make sense of the band's finances and record releases as SST Records encountered cash flow problems, and the crowd shenanigans at the band's shows. The mentioning of his homosexuality touches upon his fears in the early days of AIDS, his attempts at a romantic relationship with various men, his long-term relationships, and the homophobia of his father and his contemporaries (The Bad Brains are mentioned in a story he tells about how they stayed with Grant Hart and left him an anti-gay note the following morning).

The split with Husker Du as told by Mould was due to each of the members drifting apart, fighting over creative differences, and the nail in the coffin comes after he and Greg Norton discover Grant Hill's heroin addiction. He later finds himself picking himself up and resuming as a solo act and discussing the events of the 90s, a brief hiatus while he took a job working at WCW, and into the current day as he continues to make music and tour. The troubled relationships, the issues with his management, and finally finding peace with himself while not looking back prove that Bob Mould has the ability to heal and persevere. This is definitely a great look into a fascinating period in musical history as well as into the life of one of the hardcore-punk movement's most influential figures.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

5 Questions for "Columbine" Author Dave Cullen

April 20, 1999 is a day that many of us remember--it was the date of the Columbine High School massacre. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree through their high school killing 15 people and injuring 24 people before they they took their own lives. What happened afterwards was a media frenzy. The facts surrounding the case reported by the media were a spectacle; the stories about the shooters led to questions of who, or what, to blame for this horrible event. There were a lot of untold truths of that day, but 10 years later, Dave Cullen released a book that tells the real story of Columbine.

"Columbine" exposes many of the myths and tells the whole story of what happened before, during, and after the events of that day. I asked Dave Cullen some questions I had about the book since I read it back when it was released.

You spent 10 years doing research for "Columbine." When you were able to put all of the facts together, were you a surprised with the media's inaccuracies?

Very surprised. I actually discovered how badly we in the media got it back in September 1999, when I did a big piece on what really happened for What surprised me the most was that nearly ten years later, those myths were still firmly entrenched.

The one thing that I was a little taken back by was the supposed martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. Your research states that Cassie Bernall didn't have the exact exchange with the assailants as it's been reported. What has been the response to that particular part of the book?

No, Cassie never had a chance to say anything. Response to that varies, but the vast majority of readers I've heard from have been grateful to know the truth. That includes Evangelical Christians, many of whom were deeply moved by the story they had read or heard. Many are sad to let go of the myth, but would rather know the truth. And Val Schnurr's story of professing her faith and then living to tell is powerful, too.

In a particular part of the book, you mention a psychologist who examined the materials that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left behind. The summary of what he said is that there is no treatment for the psychopathy that Eric Harris had. You also mentioned Eric's many run-ins with the law. Do you believe someone could have stopped them had they actually acted upon the warning signs that he was showing?

Yes, there is no known treatment for pyschopathy. Often, treatment makes them worse--by tutoring them on how to perfect their performances as they con us. We don't know how to make a psychopath better; the best we can do for now is lock them up. Unfortunately, they have to commit serious crimes before we can put them away for very long. So yes, there are so many times and ways that Eric could have been caught before this happened, and we could and should have stopped this attack.

The question remains though: what would have happened once he got out of prison, if in fact, he ever did time? Psychopaths are a huge public menace, and it's incredible that we have so little in our arsenal against them. If ever there was a public health issue crying out for more research, this is it.

The insights into Dylan Klebold's life are much different than Eric Harris' life. Dylan had loving parents, he seemed to have goals, and yet he was involved with Eric Harris. How much influence do you think Eric Harris had over Dylan Klebold?

I think Eric had tremendous influence. Any best friend in high school can have a lot of influence, but Eric was a master manipulator. He read people expertly, knew what they responded to and played them. Eric played nearly everyone around him (except Judy Brown), and above all, he played Dylan. In his journal, it's clear what an abysmal opinion of himself Dylan had. He was crying out (privately) for someone to help him make him feel better about himself. I think Eric saw that, and played to it. He made Dylan feeling worthy. That's powerful.

What has been the response you've received from the survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones that day? 

It's been mostly very positive. Nearly all the families I've heard from have told me it helped them understand the killers and therefore understand why it happened. There was tremendous frustration that ten years later, they still didn't know. We can't ever know everything about Eric and Dylan, but they left an incredible amount of material explaining themselves, so we know a great deal.

Many thanks to Dave Cullen for allowing me to interview him. You can find out more about "Columbine" and Dave Cullen by visiting

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books

The Guardian has composed their list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books.

The 100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books

The ones that I have read:

  1. "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe
  2. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave" by Frederick Douglas
  3. "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius
  4. "Walden" by H.D. Thoreau 
  5. "Thus Spake Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche 
  6. "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli
  7. "The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine 
  8. "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 
  9. "The Wretched of the Earth" by Franz Fanon 
  10. "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
  11. "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote
  12. "The Gulag Archipelago" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (I read the abridged volume)
  13. "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank 
  14. "Die Profundis" by Oscar Wilde 
There are definitely some good ones on the Guardian's list. Tony Judt's "Postwar" is one that I have on my list to get to. I've also never read Primo Levi and also have his books on my list. 

My own list composed of the books I've read on that list includes an interesting blend of titles. I read Nietzsche when I was in my early 20s--and while taking a philosophy course when I was an undergraduate; I didn't find his views to be all that fascinating when compared with John Locke or Michael Foucault who were more interesting in my opinion. "The Communist Manifesto" and "The Prince" are 2 books that go to the extreme when it comes to their political points of view. "Walden" by Thoreau remains as one of my favorite books of all time. Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" is one of the best true-crime novels of the 20th century. 

Reflections on Richard Wright

I recently read Richard Wright's biography, "Black Boy," and his novel, "Native Son." Richard Wright was never required reading when I was in school; his name came up several times in books that I have read, and his novel "Native Son" was mentioned in the movie "American History X" that sets the father off in a tirade about "Affirmative Blacktion" to the family at the dinner table. While reading James Baldwin recently, I learned that he and Richard Wright had a feud over political matters.

"Black Boy" is a fascinating, deep autobiographical depiction about growing up in Mississippi during segregation and Jim Crow. The novel not only reflects upon the discrimination that he felt over his skin color, but it also showed the effect that it had upon his family. His grandmother and most of his family were devout Seventh-Day Adventists. His mother became ill and he was forced to live with various relatives for short periods of time and most of his life with his grandparents who were nursing his ill mother in the same household. His grandmother shunned him because he refused to accept that particular belief system to where she provided very little for him; she refused to let him get a job on Saturdays so he could provide for his own basic needs and his education; he was dragged to church and put on the spot by friends and family; and he spent a lot of time arguing and pondering the existence of a God while he was faced with the reality of his surroundings that made him believe religion was more of a ploy to feel comfortable with segregation and income inequality.

Wright's later life includes one of educating himself through reading books on philosophy and psychology--he pursued understanding reason and became mindful of his own surroundings as his liberation from the harsh reality of not being treated as an equal amongst his co-workers, family, friends, and society. He also became a communist and became active with a communist organization--something that he writes extensively about when he was questioned about his reading material and was shunned for developing a sense of intellectualism. His views on being a communist were something that he later wrote a great deal about explaining his frustration with it.
When I was a member of the Communist Party I took that party seriously, and when I discovered that I was holding a tainted instrument in my hands, I dropped that instrument...Communism had not been for me simply a fad, a hobby; it had a deep functional meaning for my life. Therefore when I left the Communist Party I no longer had a protective barrier, no defenses between me and a hostile racial environment that absorbed all of my time, emotions, and attention...
Wright's "Native Son" is even more fascinating as a work of fiction. The character known as Bigger Thomas is a young, poor, and frustrated young man living in Chicago in the 1930s. Bigger goes to work for a white wealthy family as their driver and recognizes their daughter as an actress that he saw in a movie. The family owns the building that Bigger's family lives in that is overpriced, infested with vermin, and is located in a part of town where blacks are forced to live. Bigger is ordered to take the daughter out for the evening which leads to a rendezvous with one of her male suitors who is a member of the Communist Party. The night leads to the daughter and the male suitor known as "Jan" patronizing Bigger; they force him to take them to his neighborhood, eat with them in a restaurant in his neighborhood where Bigger's accomplices and his girlfriend frequent, and then the night ends with Jan being dropped off and Bigger murdering the daughter by accident, and then burning her body in the furnace. Bigger then acts as if nothing has happened and then gets the plan to try and get ransom out of the family who believes she's missing; Bigger then murders his own girlfriend and is later caught by the authorities who equate him to the level of a monster. Bigger then meets an attorney named "Max" who comes up with a defense in court proving that Bigger's surroundings and situation of being a segregated male in society led him to the act of brutality.

While it's a tall order to try and understand the last part of that without reading the book, I think it applies to society as a whole. Many of the people who commit crimes in this world are acting out as a result of their environment. When you examine the home lives or the backgrounds of some people who have committed some of the worst crimes in the history of the world, you get an understanding of what led them to that point. "Native Son" and "Black Boy" are books about one's own surroundings and the struggle to try and understand and make peace with them. These aren't just typical African-American literature novels, but they both make deep philosophical points about anyone's life.

If you have never read "Native Son" or "Black Boy," you should definitely put them on your list. Richard Wright was one of the gems of American Literature. His unique experiences and narratives will make you see many things differently. His experiences with communism show that he was striving to discover an understanding of our lives when it comes to making a living and having some self-respect in the world only to find that things are not always what they seem. His stories of educating himself and survival of some truly hard times in his life will give you a reality based sense of inspiration.
“The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.” - Richard Wright

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Political Books

The one thing I can say about working as a bookseller is that no matter what your political views are, political books can be a hassle when they are new. The outrage that political books carries baffles me, and it's not just one side over the other--both sides seem to be fascinated by sticking it to the other side in the bookstores. I've seen copies of various political books vandalized, turned backwards, hidden behind other books, opposing view books placed in front of them, etc, etc, etc. It's kind of funny when you consider that both sides of the political aisle cry freedom of speech.

The customers who buy political books are also upset when they arrive in the bookstore and their beloved author has stirred up so much controversy that everyone and their mother are calling the bookstores and holding mass amounts of the book; the 40-100 copies are flying off the shelves in record numbers on the first day; and then the conspiracy of booksellers hiding the books starts when the books have sold out. The authors stir up more controversy on their radio or TV shows saying that the books are being "hidden in the back" by evil booksellers who oppose your political views.

The one thing I can say about political books as a politically minded person is that they aren't a large chunk of my book collection. In fact, I don't read as many political books as people assume. People don't consider that the majority of people who write political books don't exactly write them from a neutral point of view. Ann Coulter is going to write her views from her right-wing perspective knowing that the people who read her books are going to be offended or slap their knees in laughter saying "YOU TELL 'EM, ANN! GOD BLESS YOU!" We all know that Noam Chomsky isn't going to pull punches in his anti-war/anti-imperialism books. Political books serve the purpose of rallying the troops; you are going to find whatever it is you're looking for whether you read Glenn Beck's books or Keith Olbermann's books. If someone is writing from a centrist point of view, it will likely attract people who have an interest in hearing someone reach across the political aisle--and there aren't too many of those books out there (or they are written by Thomas L. Friedman or Fareed Zakaria, who are proud self-proclaimed "centrists").

When do I read political books? The only times you'll catch me reading a political book is when I want to get an idea of what someone's point of view is on a specific subject. Before Barack Obama announced his candidacy, I read "The Audacity of Hope" to find out where he stood on the issues and what his beliefs were. I've found myself skimming Mitt Romney's books looking in the index for mention of specific issues. Or I find myself reading a book related to a particular issue that I have an interest in such as why are the media outlets so untrustworthy, or why truth and reason are so unpopular these days. My firm belief most of the time is that political books are mostly junk. Looking at a political book on the display or bookshelf is the one time where you really can judge a book by its cover. When I see a book with "DEMONIC" written across the cover with Ann Coulter's name on it, you can pretty much guess where she's going with that title.

When it comes to political authors, I have noticed that there are many on the left and right side of the aisle who need to learn how to write, do research, and cite their sources. There are very few political writers who have mastered the art of writing in my opinion, and the list of the ones I hold in high regard I will keep to myself. Another thing I've concluded is that many of them who single out specific people could be sued for libel and slander if anyone had the time to pursue a long, expensive court case to prove libel and slander while the author claims his/her freedom of speech is being pounced upon, or someone cries political martyr.

What responses do I give when people have asked me about the political books they're buying? "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't read political books, but this one is selling pretty well." The belief of the book retailers is not to engage with the customer about political books, and I agree that is the best policy to have when you're dealing with the general public. And while you're buying that Glenn Beck or Howard Zinn book, know I'm happy to take your money for it and could careless that you are buying it.