"White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s" by Joe Boyd (Serpent's Tail, 2007)
I'm helpless to resist anything endorsed by Brian Eno, be it a visual artist, musician, computer program, political party or gigantic underground cuckoo clock designed to chime every 1,000 years. So when I saw Eno quoted on the cover of Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles," touting it as the best book about music that he'd read in years, I was in. Not that I needed much convincing, given Boyd's mind-blowing musical pedigree. His tale is told in an engaging, conversational tone that never seems forced or boastful. And it's a hell of a journey, as Boyd effortlessly limns his salad days, which started when the recent Harvard grad began promoting legendary blues and jazz artists such as Coleman Hawkins and Muddy Waters. He booked an enormous European tour that included Lonnie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev. Gary Davis. Boyd became an expat for many years, and was an integral part of the British folk and psychedelic rock scenes in the '60s and '70s. He co-founded London's legendary UFO Club and produced Pink Floyd's first single, as well as albums by Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Vasthi Bunyan, John and Beverly Martyn, Nico, Richard and Linda Thompson and more. The segments about Drake are especially moving, painting an indelible picture of the brilliant, doomed young singer. Boyd's is an incredible story, one of those that makes you realize, truly, how much cooler things were before you were around.
— Robert Bell
"Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History" by Cait Murphy (Smithsonian Books, 2008)
Some readers won't get past the title before quarreling. Nineteen-aught-eight was baseball's greatest year? That was before black players were permitted, some will say. Others will note that it was before the home run became king, and wasn't the longball what brought real excitement to the game? Still others will claim that the greatest year in baseball history could not possibly have occurred in the old, dull days before television, when crowds at games were comparatively small (all the games were played in the daytime in an era when people worked in the daytime) and most people had to follow their heroes by newspaper. This last argument will cut no ice with older fans, who know that sports heroes were even bigger in the old days, bigger than any TV screen, as big as your imagination could make them. But picking the best year in baseball history is obviously a highly judgmental call, and starting arguments was undoubtedly one purpose of Murphy's title. Greatest or not, 1908 was enormously exciting. It was the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the year a hotly contested pennant race was lost on a famous misplay, a year when the handicapped hurler Three-Finger Brown pitched mightily, and the Cub infield, "Tinker to Evers to Chance," made the double plays that would soon have it immortalized in verse. It was a year when baseball was far more important in American life than it is now. The dust jacket identifies Murphy as a veteran journalist, and a former Little League infielder and Amherst College softball player, before declaring that "She does not throw like a girl." Nor write baseball books like one, either.
— Doug Smith
"Art in America" by Ron McLarty (Viking Press, 2008)
Steven Kearney is a failed 48-year-old playwright, novelist and poet (among his many unpublished works is his "The Lensman of Holland," "The adventures, successes, and tragedies of the fabulous Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, father of protozoology," 1,821 pages) living in New York City who's just been hit by a car and whose girlfriend has left him and wiped out his bank account. So things are looking pretty bad for Kearney until he gets a letter from a retired schoolteacher in Creedemore, Colo., asking him to be Playwright in Residence for three months, during which time he would write a history play about the town. The retired schoolteacher — who writes that she'd been "quite taken" with his contest-losing manuscript "Poker Alice Tubbs in Love" — tells him that there are "mild disagreements" over water and property rights in Creedemore but that "I firmly believe that ART, and her sister BEAUTY, can bring our community back into the fold." As it turns out, a history pageant that starts at the dawn of time and is played out in a grocery store parking lot can do just that. McLarty is crazy funny in the way Carl Hiaasen is funny (though on a higher level) and his book is equally well-plotted and peopled as the Florida writer's. McLarty's hang-dog but always kind and earnest Kearney wins our heart, as does the ancient pistol-packing feed store magnate Ticky Lettgo, who's at the center of a fight over who owns the river. But his character Sheriff Petey Myers — a Boston transplant who constantly talks to and about a dead cop who was his partner and best friend back east — is a literary coup, threading a hilarious read with zinging poignancy. If you're looking for a beautifully-written book that will make you howl and fall in love with people who exist only on paper, this is it.
— Leslie Newell Peacock
"Batman and Robin" by Grant Morrison (DC Comics; now collected in three volumes)
Batman stories, just like any other super hero comic that's been written and rewritten for years, can get a little bit tired. Bruce Wayne's parents are killed. To get revenge he becomes Batman. There's Robin the sidekick, Alfred the butler and on and on and on. But Grant Morrison's 2009 re-telling puts a much-welcomed new spin on the familiar subject matter. It's still Batman and Robin, they still fight crime, but the dynamic has changed. In the absence of Bruce Wayne, former boy wonder Dick Grayson takes over as Batman. Damien Wayne, the son of Bruce and Talia Al Ghul, steps in as Robin. The pairing is rife with tension and the characters are much different from what we've come to expect from Batman and Robin. Grayson is a much more laid-back Caped Crusader than Wayne ever was, while Robin is a dead-serious, hardened crime fighter. It's an interesting re-imagining of a tried and true formula and it's as fun as it is dark.
— Gerard Matthews
"Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life" by Hal Needham (Little, Brown and Co., 2011)
I'm normally a fiction freak — too much time spent dwelling on reality for my job to ever wanna read real- life stuff for pleasure, I sup-pose — but I recently read this autobiography of Arkansas-raised stuntman, film director and Hollywood pioneer Hal Needham as part of the research I did for an interview when he came to town for the Little Rock Film Festival. It's a hell of a ride, not to mention one of those love songs to the American Dream that we all need in these troubled times. Born in Memphis, Hal grew up in sharecropper shacks all over Arkansas during the depths of the Great Depression before his natural fearlessness took him West to a life as a Hollywood stuntman. Once he got there, he worked on just about every classic TV series you can name, setting himself apart from others by being willing to go higher, bigger and faster. Later on in life, Needham befriended Burt Reynolds, tried to break the sound barrier on wheels in a rocket car, invented the high-fall airbag for stunt work, averaged over 100 miles-per-hour during a coast-to-coast race on public roads, dated Hollywood beauties, founded one of the most successful NASCAR teams of the 1980s, and directed several films, including "Smokey and the Bandit." His story reads like fiction mostly because he's lived a life that any 10 men would be proud to wheeze about on their deathbeds. Definitely a good time.
— David Koon