Suggested Music Biographies

The North Carolina Digital Library, provided through the Greensboro Public Library, has a great collection of biographies, and as a subcategory, a nice selection of music biographies.  Some are autobiographical; others were written posthumously about the musician(s).  Here are some suggestions for future reading.

1. Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz – I never was a fan, Title details for Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond - Wait listbut lots of folks were.  Indulge in this collage of bio, photographs and reminisces, co-told by two members of the band, along with other contributors, that covers the thirty-year plus odyssey of the Beastie Boys.

2. Mozart in the Jungle : Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall – The down-and-dirty tale of the reality of a classical musician, written by a veteran of the New York City music scene. 

Title details for Bessie by Chris Albertson - Wait list3. Bessie by Chris Albertson – An updated version of a 1972 biography of Bessie Smith, written by a renowned jazz journalist, that chronicles the tempestuous life of this amazing blues singer, who died much too early in 1937.

4. Texas Flood : The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort – An admiring biography of the blues guitar legend, who died tragically in 1990.

5. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith – Less of a standard autobiography, this one isTitle details for Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith - Available more of a year-long personal journey throughout the American West and elsewhere as songwriter and poet Smith ruminates about age, tragedy, and the changing political climate.

6. Horror Stories : A Memoir by Liz Phair – Her album Exile in Guyville turned lots of heads when it came out in 1993.  Over the years, Phair has kept on recording music, and here, she turns her unabashed style of writing to the memoir form.

Title details for Serving the Servant by Danny Goldberg - Available7. A Song for You : My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford – One of Whitney’s closest friends recounts her long friendship with Houston, and provides a different aspect of the singing star beyond the glitz and controversy. 

8. Serving the Servant : Remembering Kurt Cobain by Danny Goldberg – Nirvana’s manager reflects on Cobain twenty five years after his death, focusing more on his life and musical legacy than the idolatry of Cobain as tortured soul.

(William Hicks, Information Services)







The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell

The Last WildernessI generally like nature writing, but it depends on the density of the prose.  There are writers and their books that I want to like and feel that I should, but their writing requires some immersion and patience.

For example, I remember years ago trying to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  Beautifully written, from what I recall, but I put it down after a few pages.

I had better success with Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, as its subject was Great Britain, with particular interest in Scotland.  I never finished the book (although I intend to) as his writing is fantastic; he is just another writer that you really have to sit still as you read.

There are other books that had me at the early pages.  This book was one of them.

I noticed The Last Wilderness when I was sending it out to another library.  The premise seemed interesting – the author, no stranger to long jaunts into the wild,  focuses his series of walks to a remote peninsula of the western Highlands of Scotland – remote in that there are few roads, and the country there is rugged and hard to traverse.

To the author, the country and seasides of this area are teeming with wildlife.  An average observer might notice the seagulls or an occasional crow.  As an avid birder, Ansell sees much more, and is happy to immerse the reader in rapturous descriptions of the fowl that pass through.

Birds are just part of his interest – the author also calls our attention to the elusive otter, rarely seen whales offshore, numerous red deer, and a never-seen but sensed wildcat, who almost becomes Ansell’s totem animal.

As he tromps through this rough country of mountains and loch, sea and cliffs, Ansell ruminates on personal past and present – his childhood, where he first took interest in wildlife; a younger adulthood, where he spent five years alone in a hermit-like cottage in Wales; and his current situation, where an increasing deafness disrupts his experiences of hearing some of the very birds he cherishes.

His prose style, while initially taking a bit of patience, is ultimately very accessible.  Ansell paints this remote corner of Scotland as a very lively place, and for readers that crave solitude, this book is it.

Pair this book with Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World or Erling Kagge’s Walking:  One Step at a Time, and you can’t go wrong, in my opinion.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Point of Vanishing : A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod

A few years after a freak accident that rendered him blind in one eye, Axelrod left thepoint of vanishing urban landscape of Boston for the wooded wilds of northern Vermont.  Being able to occupy a dilapidated house for the better part of two years gave him a chance to distance himself from a frantic world that no longer provided any bearing to him.

His time in the woods forced the author to not only experience true human solitude, but to confront personal demons, namely unresolved feelings about his accident and a brief but intense relationship in Italy that ended abruptly.

The country changes Axelrod – he is able to except his aloneness, but on a Thanksgiving trip back to visit extended family, his interactions with people are compromised, even scary.  He can handle his near-hermithood, but is out of his element even when taking an early morning stroll in the suburbs.

The end of the book leaves the author ready to leave his solitary existence but unsure of how he will re-enter society.

A first-time look at this book might have the reader drawing parallels with Into The Wildanother more well-known book about a young man feeling the necessity of withdrawing from the known to the rural and distant.  That book is even mentioned in The Point of Vanishingas Axelrod’s best friend refers to it during a concerned phone call to him.

As I’ve now read both books, I can tell you that they are vastly different – similar situations, but in this one, the author is telling his own story, and he’s not quite the desperate soul that Chris McCandless was.  Axelrod is less the romanticized doomed hero and more of an individual coming to terms with his social and visual perceptions.

The Point of Vanishing can be a little bit navel gazing in its approach, but I suppose that two years with little or no human contact will probably bring that out in a person.  At its best, the descriptions of rural Vermont are vivid, and Axelrod’s writing is worth savoring.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

save me the plumsRuth Reichl is a consummate foodie.  Her entire career has been food-centered; she’s been a book writer, restaurant critic/food editor with the Los Angeles Times, and then with the New York Times as restaurant critic.  In the late 1990s, Gourmet Magazine offered her the job of editor in chief, a position that Reichl almost turned down.

She didn’t, and held the job for ten years, until Gourmet folded in 2009, due to recession downturn.  During her tenure there, life as editor in chief of a prestigious food magazine proved to be vastly different to being a restaurant critic.

Being in charge and negotiating the delicate pecking order of the staff was one set of challenges.  Answering to the higher-ups and big wigs of Condé Nast, Gourmet’s parent company, was another.

In the early days, Reichl certainly had her doubts about her abilities, but she started recognizing the good brains of her staff and learned the intuitive art of bringing in someone new.  This was her choice at times – at others, newbies were foisted on her, as positions within Condé Nast shifted according to the dictates of the powers that were.

Reichl learned to hobnob with the restaurant world royalty, to hire and fire, and talk food with the best of them.  Gourmet changed direction, and a publication that Reichl once considered stuffy and out of touch became a cornerstone of food trends.

New hires and writers for the magazines continually pushed for innovation, whether it be photography techniques or subject matter.  Some of the subjects were potentially controversial (the chapter about David Foster Wallace and his 2004 article for Gourmet is worth the reading of the book alone).

The magazine shouldered on, losing some readership but attracting others, as younger readers picked up on Gourmet’s new ideas.  Unfortunately, reality hit in big way during the recession when advertisement sales plummeted, and Gourmet had to call it quits.

Save Me the Plums is a dizzying account of herding cats, of business deals and eating, of travel and family, and of the sheer joy of having a moment in a particular place.  There’s lots of name-dropping and gossip here, but the journey was so much fun that I didn’t care.

It helps if you’re familiar with Reichl’s writing style.  I read two of her other books (Garlic and Sapphires, Not Becoming My Mother) and enjoyed them both, so I knew what to expect.

There are recipes.

(William Hicks, Information Services)













The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal

There are scores of books about running.  The precursor to most would be James Fixx’sincomplete book of running The Complete Book of Running, which came out in the 1970s and greatly popularized the sport.  It certainly got me started on my on-again off-again jogging career.

Peter Sagal, known as the host of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, serves up his own adventures as an avid runner.  Sagal had run as a teenager, then started again when he turned forty, and, well, ran with it, through sketchy weather, leg cramps, and worse.  As of the publication of this book (last year) he’s still pounding the pavements.

There are those of us in the middle age department who are just fine with jogging 2-3 times weekly and waddling through our monthly 5Ks.  Not so with Sagal – he’s done the Boston Marathon, not to mention other ones, several times since turning the big 4-0.

His most significant Boston Marathon was in 2013, where he served as guide to a blind runner.  The two made it across the finish line just minutes before the bombing that killed three people and injured over two hundred more.  It’s this event that Sagal revisits several times in the book.

The Incomplete Book of Running is a likeable memoir of a man who finds strength from an endurance sport while enduring other life challenges, be they race tragedy or painful divorce.  If you are fans of Sagal and his show, you’ll enjoy his wise-cracking humor that flavors much of the book.  I found his conversational style reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s, which is to say that I liked the book.  Sagal is also quick to give credit to all and anyone who helped him along his journeys, including James Fixx himself; the cover of this book is a humorous nod to Fixx’s original.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running By Haruki Murakami

what i talk aboutI never completely understood Haruki Marukami’s short stories.  I found them rather cold and flat, and they made me wonder if he believed in love and everything beautiful and wonderful about it.  However, when I came upon his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on my solo trip to Japan, I had to read it.  I was compelled to, because it was a memoir about running.  I spent three years running in the cross-country and track teams in my high school years.

I was not the best runner in the least, and I have never run a marathon, although I think about it every now and then.  Marukami has even run ultra-marathons, where one runs day and night for hundreds of miles.  I am nowhere nearly as invested in the sport, but I did learn a few things while running.  First, you are racing against yourself, your best former self, but not really anyone else.  Along with that, running is a sport that I believe is 99% mental and 1% physical.  Lastly, running teaches you endurance and the will to go on.

I believe Murakami would agree with me about what I learned about running.  He also tells his story as a writer in the pages between descriptions of running races.  I do not remember much about those parts but I believe his process of running and process of writing are intertwined in some way.  For me writing can be an endurance sport also, of finishing your story.

My favorite quote from his book goes like this:

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

I feel that this quote may have originated from somewhere else, but I like the notion that it is a choice to suffer or not.  It is totally up to each of us to dwell in misery and self-defeat.  We can choose otherwise.  It goes along with the idea of choosing joy over sadness, and it took me a very long time to understand it and practice it.

I haven’t found Murakami to be a particularly positive writer in his novels and short stories, but I found lessons I could relate to and learn from in this book.  I hope that readers can experience his little gem of a memoir and see how it speaks to them.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

Maggie & Me : Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland by Damian Barr

Revisit the Thatcher years as seen from the eyes of a working class teenager from a smallMaggie & Me town near Glasgow.

In 1984, eight year old Damian views Margaret Thatcher’s televised iconic survival from a bombing on the first night he is living in a stranger’s apartment after his parents split up.

The stranger is his mother’s new boyfriend, who turns out to be highly abusive to Damian and his sister.  It doesn’t help that his mother soon has another child with her boyfriend, and shortly after is hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage.  When his mom comes back home, they eventually leave the abusive boyfriend, but the next living arrangement is far from ideal.

His father still has his children every other weekend, and Damian is remains close to his dad, even though the dad’s girlfriend is a piece of work and tends to dominate things when the kids visit.

Growing up with his peers is not easy.  Damien is always the tallest and geekiest in his class.  He also knows early on that he is gay, and gets a lot of flack from the other kids for it.  He also meets some lasting friends and understanding teachers, finds that he’s good at most academics (math excepted), and has a life amidst the squalor that makes up home.

Damien comes to terms with Margaret Thatcher in his own fashion, alternatively seeing her as enemy or motivator.  That’s one of the things I liked about the book.  He has his issues with Thatcher, being from a working class environment, but doesn’t completely vilify her.  As a slight nod to the Iron Lady, each chapter begins with a Thatcher quote to set the tone.

While Margaret Thatcher’s era is the framework for Maggie & Me, the story is all Damian’s, and he renders his teenage years vividly.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Blue Like Jazz : Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller

blue like jazzMany years ago, while I was a part of a Bible study group, the leader of the group gave all of us a copy of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Apparently, he was so smitten with the book that he wanted all of us to read it.  I actually read it and fell in love with  Miller’s unconventional journey in his Christian faith.  I wanted an adventure like him too, and to be able to tell the tale in an authentic voice.

After more than ten years of reading the book, with notes scribbled all over the pages and margins, I am revisiting it for a review.  Why did I like Blue Like Jazz so much?  It was refreshing to me after reading many books on Christianity.  Some Christian books feel like books of advice to me, but this one has a narrative, a story to tell, from a different and other perspective.  It has moments that everyone could relate to, for instance:

Believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is making a decision.  Love is both something that happens to you and something you decide upon.

Now that is something I can relate to, much more than an interpretation on Scripture that another book might do instead.  I am not saying that those types of books are bad and irrelevant –  just that someone young and open like me will most likely appreciate Miller’s open and poignant faith journey more.

However, I do not think Blue Like Jazz is a perfect book, as a review from stated that “the great failing of this book is the author’s belief that Christianity is a feeling, and is not something that can be rationally explained or understood.”  I believe it may be best to take this book as one man’s experience with Christianity, not the gospel truth, and get the best out of the book with that in mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a memoir; it inspires me to attempt to write my own.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I borrowed a copy of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls years ago from a classmate.  Iglass castle was picking through his small bookshelf, and he recommended the book to me.  We had very different thoughts about what’s important in life, and I desperately wanted to know what was important to him because I wanted to understand him.  Now to the book.

The Glass Castle is a memoir of a woman who lived through poverty.  What I liked about the book, actually, is that the author did not wallow in it.  I liked that she did not go on about the misery of being poor and living in uncertain circumstances.  Jeannette has a story to tell, and I believe it’s not all about overcoming her impoverished childhood.  I believe a lot of it has to do with her relationship with her father, of coming to terms with who they were, and most importantly who they were together.  At least that is what I found poignant to me.

A few years after I had read the book almost feverishly, the movie was released.  I had long said goodbye to my classmate, but I still wanted to see the film.  So I did, and although I cannot say that it was a perfect movie, I thought that the director (Destin Daniel Cretton) casted the movie well, especially with Woody Harrelson as the father.  They were as believable to me as the real life characters I imagined them to be while reading the book.  Even though my memories of the details of the book were a little fuzzy by then, I believe Cretton did a good job overall of making the book come to life.

There is a beautiful passage in the book about a tree I want to share.  I will quote it here:

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.  Mom frowned at me.  “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said.  “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Those words struck a chord in me as I have been through struggles in my own life as I am sure many have, albeit of a different kind.  What Jeanette’s mom calls beauty, I would like to call strength and character.  And they can be beautiful indeed.

I highly recommend discussing this book with your friends.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

A Year of Less by Cait Flanders

The Year of LessIn recent times, I have realized that, like many American people, I have fallen into bad habits of consuming way too much.

I borrowed a copy of A Year of Less by Cait Flanders, wanting some help on purging my belongings, a project that I had intended to start on for months or maybe a year.  I was then delighted to find that the book is actually a memoir, one of my favorite genres of writing, chronicling the life of a young woman wanting to spend less and save more.  Not only that, she purged other things in her life such as unhealthy food and television.

I found it rather poignant and insightful to find how she dealt with her life’s happenings, especially the divorce of her parents.  Although it may not be apparent as to why her parent’s divorce is in a memoir of living on less, describing that aspect of her life helped me understand what was important to her and what was not.  I believe that was what the book was really about.  Denying herself made her aware of the things she most wanted in her life – the things that made her happy and gave her meaning.

I do not want to spoil what happens to her at the end of the book.  I have gone through similar questions that Cait has had about jobs, money, materials, traveling, etc.  I recommend that you take a read at this blog-turned-book and gather what one person has to say about life.  I as a young woman personally found myself agreeing and saying, “I totally understand!”

The library has copies of this book in print and also as an eBook through the North Carolina Digital Library.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)