Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey by Steve Lowenthal

dance of deathJohn Fahey carved out a little-known but influential niche of acoustic guitar music from the late 1950s on. His recordings, in a guitar style later known as “American Primitivism”, combined fingerpicked blues with other folk and classical music elements.  In his early 20s, Fahey also became an avid 78 collector who went with friends on forays through the deep South to find obscure recordings of pre-war blues performers.

His own earliest music coincided with the exploding folk music scene, and you figure that Fahey would have ridden the wave of the movement, but he largely eschewed the leading proponents of the folk craze – he even despised some of them.  Fahey followed his own counsel when making records and marketing them.  He even started his own label (Takoma) for his own releases and others, including a young Leo Kottke.

Dance of Death explores the art and mind of John Fahey – as a musician who fused the familiar and strange into his own brand of folk music, and as a troubled man with addictions who often pushed away his closest friends, even in his later years, when he lived through homelessness and health issues.

The author, though obviously an admirer of Fahey’s work, does not sugarcoat his treatment of the man – there was quite some darkness behind the fingerpicking genius.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene

sheetrockWhen I read a brief description of my book club’s most recent selection, my first thought was, “I’ll skip this meeting; I can’t imagine being interested in a book about the social history of a small Georgia county.”  However, I did read it, and I didn’t want to miss a single word!

This is the story of the 1970s in McIntosh County, located on the Georgia coast between Brunswick and Savannah.  As the book opens, two trucks, one filled with boxes of shoes, collide on Highway 17, and the less affluent residents of the county carry home the cargo.  They do this with the blessing of the county’s corrupt sheriff!  Later in the book, a woman faces a winter with no sheetrock in her small house to protect her from the cold.  She prays about it, and soon a truck – carrying sheetrock – has a wreck nearby.  One of her relatives brings her two loads of sheetrock, absolutely free.  The sheriff finds ways – sometimes dishonest – to provide some services to the poor, but he and the other local officials do not help these people to find jobs or provide assistance through county services.

The local people have heard of the civil rights movement, but it seems far away and has largely passed them by.  Finally, Thurnell Alston, an uneducated African-American man, becomes a county commissioner; he begins advocating for the poor and working with lawyers committed to social change.  The tale of Alston’s heroic acts and of the sad events of his later years is thoroughly compelling.

Greene’s writing style makes the reader visualize the scenes she portrays and live through the events with the characters.  Praying for Sheetrock reads so much like a novel that, as I read portions to my husband, he kept asking, “Are you sure this isn’t fiction?”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke

Modern day mystery writers dish on their favorite mystery novels.books

That’s pretty much the gist of Books to Die For. With its setup, this compilation is a great introduction for the mystery reading novice.  Avid mystery readers will probably enjoy the book as well, and get ideas for more books to devour.

Latter day novels and older classics get their due – and the fact that the reviewers are well-known authors themselves makes this a worthwhile read.  You’re not just getting book reviews so much as recommendations of favorites.  Also, if the reviewers happen to be favorites of yours, you get to see, somewhat, what makes them tick, what has inspired them, etc.

This book got my vote when I noticed that Donna Tartt’s A Secret History was one of the entries – and expounded upon by no less than Tana French.  That’s what I like to see – books not typically considered mysteries are occasionally included in here.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

tibetanIn his literary life, Tom Robbins has crafted a manic prose that has fueled a (fairly) long list of novels and other prose for over forty years.  This one is his latest, a memoir of sorts that careens forth from the beginning paragraph.  In Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins turns his crazy lens on his own long life, beginning with his childhood in Depression-era Blowing Rock.

In his eyes, a sleepy mountain town became a stage, where snakes and circuses and ill-reputed road houses took mythic proportions, plenty to jostle his fertile imagination.  As Robbins entered adolescence, his family moved to Virginia, where he continued his misadventures through military school (a tenure enlivened by a fire), college, and then time in the air force, teaching meteorology in Korea, and then discovering the bohemian enclave in Richmond during the 1950s.  But wait, there’s more – this is all within the first 132 pages.

I remember reading Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues back in the mid 1990s and liked the mix of the spiritual and the absurd.  In Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins continues in these themes and doesn’t disappointment, in a laughable life story not-quite-a-memoir.  Take the journey, and get out of yourself for a while.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

world untilThis fascinating book compares traditional societies with modern society.  The term “traditional” refers to the societies of some relatively small groups of people in remote areas of New Guinea, Africa, and the Amazon region, to name a few.  These were also the lifestyles of our ancestors in the past.  While Diamond is an acclaimed scholar, he presents information in an accessible way.

Since Diamond spends part of each year in New Guinea and has many friends in traditional societies there, he often focuses on those experiences.  However, he also discusses cultures from Australia, North and South America, Africa, and Asia.  Topics include war, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dealing with danger, religion, language, and health.  His book made me more fully appreciate the advantages of modern society – regular access to an adequate food supply, modern medicine, a longer lifespan, and less violence, to name a few.  Diamond also thinks that considering other cultures’ ways of dealing with problems might help us in solving some of our society’s difficulties.

There are many amazing facts in the book.  For instance, among a group of 20 New Guinea natives, each spoke from five to fifteen languages—and this did not include dialects.  The conversation around a campfire moved easily from one language to another.  This is typical of traditional societies, where people learn a variety of languages during early childhood.

War in traditional societies is extremely deadly.  In one war in New Guinea, warriors on one side killed 5% of the enemy’s population, including men, women, and children, within one hour.  If the atomic bomb had killed 5% of the population in the Hiroshima area, there would have been four million casualties rather than 100,000!

Since the !Kung people in Africa don’t have weapons powerful enough to kill animals immediately, they must track the wounded prey for hours.  Usually, they arrive to find lions feeding on the prey and run the lions off with sticks.  As dangerous as these confrontation are, they are necessary if the !Kung are to avoid starvation.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish home cooking : Yiddish recipes revisited

indexArthur Schwartz writes the kind of cookbook that is chatty and personable.  I bought his What To Cook When You Think There’s Nothing In The House To Eat years ago with no regrets – I occasionally thumb through it when depressed, for a mood lift.

In this one, he takes the reader on a historical journey through the foodways of New York City’s Jewish community, using his own childhood memories as a benchmark.  He explains the basics of keeping kosher, discusses how ways of eating evolved within the Jewish community during the twentieth century, and bemoans the demise of some time-honored dishes.

If bagels and latkes comprise your entire knowledge of Jewish cooking, this book will certainly be an eye opener.  The author’s style helps – the text reads like a one-on-one tour through the recipes and stories that defined the eating habits of an entire community, and influenced others.  Schwartz’s tone is very conversational – he makes the reader feel like they’ve just stepped into the kitchen of an old friend.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

dearieJulia Child was bigger than life.  Her gregarious manner, outspokenness, and towering height made her a force of nature, and a friend of millions, when she first signed on in the early 1960s with WBGH, the public television station in Boston, to do a cooking show.  The French Chef, as it was called, ran for ten years and made Julia a household name.

But long before that, she was Julia McWilliams, who grew up in a well-to-do family in Pasadena.  After finding it difficult to pin down a career, in her early thirties Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services with posts in Washington DC, Ceylon, and China.  While over in Asia during World War II, she met Paul Child, an East Coast native who had a taste for good food and conversation.  They married, and after the war, Paul maintained a government job, which got them posted to Paris – and Julia had her first epiphany with French food.  She not only loved to eat the delicacies in France, but wanted to learn how to cook them.  She took classes at Le Cordon Bleu and earned her mettle there in classrooms largely made up of American servicemen.

Julia’s approach to French dishes had its first exposure to American audiences with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.  Several shows and cookbooks later, she was still shouldering on, living a schedule that would put others half her age under.

Dearie gets to the core of all things Julia – her early disappointments with employment, her troubled relationship with her father, and her ultimate flowering as a media icon.  It’s an admiring biography, but the author is not averse to showing Julia’s rough edges.

Julia Child was an indefatigable personality who deserves an exhaustive biography.  She gets it here.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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