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All Music Coverage

Nothing could have prepared Melanie Jayne Chisholm—aka Sporty Spice—for the loneliness, isolation and debilitating episodes of imposter syndrome that accompanied the extreme highs (and lows) of fame. In The Sporty One: My Life as a Spice Girl, the singer, songwriter and tracksuit-wearing Brit carefully unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

The Spice Girls were a pop culture supernova at the turn of the new millennium. Contrary to the narrative wrought by the misogynistic media, the group was not the brainchild of industry executives. After answering a magazine advertisement, Victoria Adams (Posh), Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Melanie Brown (Scary), Michelle Stephenson and Chisholm came together to form the band Touch. When Stephenson proved to be a weak link, Emma Bunton (Baby) was recruited. It would take a pivotal name change and the reclamation of creative autonomy from their early male managers, but the Spice Girls would go on to smash records and, even more importantly, disrupt the cultural and musical landscape.

This type of rise at a young age leaves a few scars, and Chisholm isn’t afraid to recount her personal battles. The pressures of being a ubiquitous pop star coupled with her innate perfectionism brought on depression and severe anxiety. At one point after the Spice Girls had gone on hiatus and Chisholm had embarked on a successful solo career, she was nearly agoraphobic and plagued by incessant panic attacks. And despite her public image of health and fitness, the singer was secretly contending with disordered eating, which eventually led to anorexia and binge eating disorders. In 2009, Chisholm gave birth to her daughter, Scarlet. Motherhood wasn’t a cure-all for her mental health issues, but this new caregiver role allowed her to appreciate the extraordinary power of her body and all she has put it through.

Chisholm’s narrative voice is warm, funny and unabashedly real. Fans will feel as though they’ve been invited to an enlightening soul session with a close friend. Hard truths about patriarchal oppression and the fickle nature of celebrity are examined with sympathy and understanding. The Sporty One is more than the memoir of a pop star; it’s an emotional revelation.

Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.

Listening to music is a uniquely personal experience. It can evoke strong feelings and memories. It can unite us or be a source of debate. In This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, Susan Rogers (cognitive neuroscientist and Berklee College of Music professor) and Ogi Ogas (mathematical neuroscientist and co-author of Journey of the Mind) explain why we connect with certain aspects of a record. As a producer for artists as distinct as Prince and Barenaked Ladies, Rogers calls on decades of expertise regarding the musical preferences of herself and others. This real-world experience is intertwined with both authors’ scientific explanations of how the mind processes music. It’s like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians, singers and songwriters, coupled with insights about how and why our brains decipher musical notes, melodies and lyrics in particular ways.

Rogers refers time and again to an activity called a “record pull,” a music-sharing experience where friends discover things about one another by listening to their favorite records together. “Good record pulls feature as much storytelling as music,” she writes. Each chapter features a record pull suggestion to help us understand how we connect with music. It’s a fun, informative exercise that will undoubtedly open many readers’ minds and increase their musical knowledge.

In a tone that is both logical and approachable, the two authors explain that because each brain is wired to experience rewards from different facets of music, “it is misguided to suggest that anyone’s taste in music is superior to anyone else’s.” After reading This Is What It Sounds Like, lovers of all music genres will never listen to their favorite records the same way again.

This Is What It Sounds Like is like two books in one: stories of some of our most beloved musicians coupled with insights about how our brains decipher music.

In the popular imagination, the banjo is an instrument played by white bluegrass or old-time musicians plucking out traditional Appalachian ballads on their front porches. Many folks associate banjo music with the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” played by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, or Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance. However, in 2016, Laurent Dubois’ The Banjo probed deeply into the instrument’s true origins, revealing that the banjo evolved out of enslaved communities in the Caribbean and North America as Black musicians preserved the sounds of their African cultures by fashioning instruments similar to the ones from their homes. Kristina R. Gaddy’s superb Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History builds on Dubois’ work to provide an even more detailed look at the “culture and lived experience of the people of African descent who created, played, and listened to the banjo.”

Gaddy’s lively storytelling re-creates scenes from 17th-century Jamaica to 19th-century Washington, D.C., and beyond, illustrating not only the birth and development of the banjo but also its co-optation by white people. In 1687, the governor of Jamaica’s physician recorded his encounter with perhaps the earliest incarnation of the banjo, two- and three-stringed gourd lutes he called Strum Strumps, played during religious rituals by enslaved communities from West Africa. By the 18th century, the instrument—variously known as a banjo, bonja, bangeo, banjoe and banger—was being made and played by enslaved musicians on plantations, with some banjo players leading the wider community in song. In the 19th century, white performers who wore blackface in minstrel shows often included a banjo or two in their productions, mocking the Black musical experience while also popularizing the banjo. By the end of the 19th century, collections of slave songs had started to circulate, preserving the heritage of the banjo as an instrument used in religious ceremonies by Black communities.

Well of Souls’ coda points to the work of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Allison Russell and other Black musicians who are reviving the African history of the banjo through their albums, workshops and performances. Gaddy’s captivating book likewise recovers chapters in what is still a little-known history of this quintessential American instrument.

Kristina R. Gaddy’s captivating book reveals the African history of a quintessential American instrument: the banjo.

Lynn Melnick became a fan of Dolly Parton’s music after hearing “Islands in the Stream,” a duet with Kenny Rogers, while checking into rehab as a teen in the late 1980s. Parton was already decades into her successful country music career, with songs like this one also finding a home on pop charts. But she was a joke to the people in Melnick’s Los Angeles circles. “Islands in the Stream” was the first Parton song Melnick had heard start to finish, and it became her gateway into a life of fandom.

In I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, poet Melnick analyzes the 22-track Dolly Parton playlist that she’s listened to for the past decade. As she examines Parton’s work, Melnick excavates her own past and shares what this music has meant to her over the years. Parton is a symbol of femininity and goodness, and Melnick has been inspired by Parton’s triumphs as she’s faced numerous traumas and struggles: The cocaine and whiskey Melnick used to mask the memory of being raped at 9 years old. The abusive boyfriend who kept popping up years after she left him. Deaths of family and friends. The retraumatizing effects of living as a survivor in rape culture.

While each chapter is personal, Melnick also brings outside analysis to her narrative, weaving together cultural criticism and academic research to place these songs in a broader context. And though Melnick describes herself as a die-hard Parton fan, she’s also willing to critique her hero. She examines some of the singer’s less admirable choices, such as naming a dinner show “The Dixie Stampede” or referring to the sex worker who inspired Parton’s look as “trash” and a “trollop.” In general, Parton has a knack for political neutrality, which can frustrate fans like Melnick. But Melnick also praises her idol’s charitable giving, her readiness to defend queer rights and the ways she has modeled what it looks like for a woman to make her own way in the world.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis of a beloved icon whose relevance endures.

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is more than an artful memoir about trauma and Dolly Parton; it is thought-provoking cultural analysis.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman

Sophia’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Goldman, knits hats for just about everybody she knows, and Sophia helps by making the pompoms that go on top. “Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,” Mrs. Goldman tells Sophia, explaining that “a mitzvah is a good deed.” When Mrs. Goldman gives her own hat away, Sophia wants to knit her something special, but knitting turns out to be harder than she realized. I love this sweet introduction to the Jewish concept of mitzvot. Author Michelle Edwards’ text has lots of delightful little details, like when Sophia notices that a hat she and Mrs. Goldman began knitting together many years ago still smells like chicken soup. But what gets me every time is Edwards’ description of Sophia’s emotions when she realizes the perfect solution to her knitting woes: “Sophia feels her heart grow bigger and lighter, like a balloon.” If ever a book were a mitzvah, it would be A Hat for Mrs. Goldman.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor


Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher whose obsessive analysis of the effects of unchecked consumerism becomes more prescient with each passing day. In his 1988 essay collection, America, Baudrillard follows Route 66 across the United States toward Death Valley, California, as he seeks to answer a seemingly simple question: What makes an American? The thing that synthesizes American identity, he finds, is faith: from the evangelical fervor of Salt Lake City, to Las Vegas’ ascendant belief in the dollar, to the ever-elusive future of San Franciscan tech lords. Everywhere he looks, Baudrillard finds sprawling cities not built on trade or natural resources but suspended on dust clouds, spinning rivers of capital and an unshakable belief in American mastery over nature, by whatever means. Even if you disagree with Baudrillard’s funny, sometimes biting analysis of the United States, his surprisingly nuanced poetry, complex worldview and foreign perspective still make for a unique and engaging read during these dynamic times.

—Anthony, Editorial Intern

Open Book

Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I knew that Jessica Simpson had started out singing in church. What surprised me when I read her memoir, Open Book, however, was how much Simpson’s Christian faith still matters to her all these years later. The book opens with the day she decided to stop drinking, after years of using alcohol to quell her anxiety through tough relationships and even tougher career breaks. As she gets honest with friends about her dependency on alcohol, the group decides to pray together to validate Simpson’s decision. This moment of honesty and faith is a good entry point, since these values are Simpson’s guiding lights throughout her memoir. She’s honest with readers about childhood sexual abuse, the demands of record labels, her marriage to Nick Lachey, her relationships with family and the wild ups and downs that have shaped her life’s terrain. At every point, Simpson’s Baptist roots ground her and keep her from straying too far from her authentic self.

—Christy, Associate Editor

The Sparrow

First published in 1996, Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction classic The Sparrow examines organized religion and faith on a cosmic scale. Spanning the years 2014 to 2060, the novel follows an interstellar mission led by skilled linguist and Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz to discover the source of hauntingly beautiful music that was detected on a planet four light-years away. Accompanied by a motley yet qualified group of friends, Emilio feels called by God to explore the planet and make contact with its alien inhabitants, the music makers. But as the trip unfolds, the group’s well-meaning intentions have catastrophic consequences that cause Emilio to have a crisis of faith. Raised Catholic, Russell left the church at an early age, identified as an atheist for several years and later converted to Judaism. This background, combined with her skills as a multilinguist and her career in paleoanthropology, provide a unique perspective from which to tell such a rich, multifaceted story.

—Katherine, Subscriptions

Hana Khan Carries On

Uzma Jalaluddin’s enemies-to-lovers romance Hana Khan Carries On is a joyful homage to the classic 1990s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, with an Indian Canadian family’s halal restaurant subbing in for the Shop Around the Corner. Hana is our leopard-print hijab-wearing heroine, and she dreams of someday telling true stories that honor her Muslim culture and community. The local radio station where Hana interns is hyperfocused on Muslim stereotypes, so she creates an anonymous podcast to express her true thoughts. Meanwhile, her family’s business has run up against a competing restaurant, with an attractive man named Aydin leading the charge. But as romance grows and the restaurants duke it out, the heart of the novel remains with Hana. Despite microaggressions at the radio station and outright racism on the streets of Toronto, she remains strong in her culture and religion, never abandoning these parts of herself. She finds happiness by being her whole wonderful self—a lover, a fighter, a devout Muslim woman, an open-hearted storyteller and a heroine to believe in.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Whether your own approach to religion is devout, irreverent or somewhere in between, you’ll find characters to relate to within these narratives.

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.
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When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. King’s fluid guitar riffs and lead runs still define the blues for many fans. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Visé points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Even King himself might have deferred to other blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, as more worthy of Clapton’s accolade.

Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Visé chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, but as much as he liked the Soul Stirrers and other gospel groups, he noticed they didn’t have a guitar, the instrument he most wanted to learn. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Recalling his exquisite joy at having a guitar in his hands, King said, “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar . . . happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion.”

Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Visé points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as he bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.

King of the Blues is the first authoritative biography of B.B. King, and as all good music books should, it will drive readers to revisit King’s iconic music.
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Music lovers have always welcomed the chance to read about their favorite musicians and the sounds they create. Though newspaper and magazine coverage of music has declined, those outlets are now augmented by a seemingly endless array of websites and blogs devoted to music reviews, critiques, commentary, gossip and profiles. For more in-depth appraisals, readers turn to books, and the six in this sampling represent various approaches to writing about music. Some lean toward technical appraisal, while others represent fond appreciations or reflective treatises, but they’re all informative, valuable and enjoyable treats for music lovers.

A fresh look at famous men
Current Wall Street Journal drama critic and former jazz musician Terry Teachout’s superb biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong mixes sociological observation, analytical examination and psychological portrait, while correcting inaccuracies and offering new, often stunning information about the man considered by many critics the greatest jazz soloist of all time. Teachout rejects that claim, instead labeling Armstrong the greatest “influence” in jazz history, citing him as the figure numerous other players, regardless of instrument, credited with championing the value of artistry, developing a personalized sound and being both innovative and entertaining.

Indeed, his showmanship frequently led to vicious criticism of Armstrong by more militant blacks, who felt his mugging and clowning on stage were a throwback to the Jim Crow and minstrel eras. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, including letters, private recordings and backstage conversations and accounts, Teachout shows that Armstrong was a driven, sophisticated performer with a quick-trigger temper and penchant for denouncing conduct by both blacks and whites as counterproductive.

Teachout also brings more perspective to events only briefly or incorrectly covered in previous biographies. These range from Armstrong’s longtime love of marijuana (something that got him arrested in 1930) to the simmering quarrel with President Dwight Eisenhower that encompassed more than just his anger at Eisenhower’s reluctance to protect the rights of black students trying to integrate Central High School in Arkansas. The book contains so many new bits of information—such as the revelation that his embouchure (the way he held his lips to the trumpet) was incorrect—that even the most ardent fan might be surprised. Teachout has crafted a definitive work that dissects the personality and motivations of a genius.

Journalist and filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio’s exhaustive A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is equally thorough, though it mainly sticks to one subject. Widely considered exclusively a country musician, Johnny Cash had a range, thematic impact and sound that were much broader. He was politically farther to the left than many industry comrades, and one subject close to his heart was the nation’s history and treatment of Native Americans. Cash joined forces with folk artist Peter LaFarge in 1964 to create the striking, unforgettable album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.

As D’Ambrosio’s work shows, the eight-song LP brought Cash some of the fiercest attacks and criticism he’d ever received. When the controversial album was released squarely in the middle of a turbulent era, Cash was called “unpatriotic” in some circles and the Ku Klux Klan even burned a cross on his lawn. But he stood resolute against the pressure, even as Columbia pulled its advertising for the album and retail stores quietly and quickly took it off their shelves. D’Ambrosio adds numerous interviews with Cash’s bandmates, associates and friends while telling a story of corporate cowardice and artistic integrity that remains remarkable 45 years later.

Bob Dylan Revisited isn’t nearly so encyclopedic or socially powerful, though it still proves compelling. A much shorter book than the others described here, it contains 13 graphic interpretations of vintage Bob Dylan tunes, among them “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Desolation Row” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Each song’s lyrics are matched with a graphic artist who creates a visually provocative viewpoint to embellish the text. Personal favorites include Thierry Murat’s interpretation of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Benjamin Flo’s colorful treatment of “Blind Willie McTell” and Francois Avril’s dashing illustrations for “Girl Of The North Country,” but all are delightful. This is a book with special appeal for hardcore Dylan fans.

Capturing a moment
Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 covers an art form whose greatest stars were unknown to most music fans. Even within the notoriously insular jazz universe, the style known as “loft jazz” never had a wide following. The music was made by instrumentalists coming to New York from many places, including the West Coast, as well as some city residents. They found artistic solace and living space in previously abandoned buildings like the one at 821 Sixth Avenue, which was the home of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s book focuses on the exhaustive materials Smith amassed between 1957 and 1965.
Musicians well-known (Thelonius Monk) and obscure (David X. Young, Hall Overton) recorded there, while Smith took their pictures in all manner of situations. Some accounts are funny, others sad or odd, but all are intriguing and memorable. Part of an ongoing research project conducted by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (there’s also a radio series and photographic exhibition), the book spotlights a valuable collection of vignettes and snapshots that chronicle an underreported, vital part of jazz and cultural history.

There’s not exactly a wealth of unknown material or lack of familiar faces in our final pair of books. Indeed, top photographer Jim Marshall proclaims in the introduction to Gail Buckland’s Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History 1955-Present that “too much [expletive] is written about photographs and music.” While the accounts of great people manning the camera are often quite entertaining, it’s famous shots like Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin in 1969 (taken by Jim Marshall) or David Gahr’s picture of Janis Joplin leaning off to the side in 1968 that make Who Shot Rock and Roll far more than simply another photo book.

Rather than a collection of pictures by a multitude of photographers, Elvis 1956  is a showcase for the dazzling, frequently surprising photos of Alfred Wertheimer, whose majestic work is also featured in the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition “Elvis at 21.” Rather than just gathering concert footage (though the book contains incredible on-stage shots of Presley, Scotty Moore and company doing acrobatics and charismatic maneuvers), Wertheimer sought places and situations that conveyed the attraction of Presley and his magnetism off the bandstand. These great scenes include one of an elderly black woman poised right behind Presley at a Southern restaurant at a time when segregation was a fact of life. Her presence, and Presley’s easy, nonchalant manner sitting a few feet away, speaks volumes about the simmering racial explosion on the horizon. Likewise, shots of him with Steve Allen or sequences showing waves of girls fighting to touch him at shows convey the enormous sex appeal of the youthful Elvis.

While no book will ever be a worthy substitute for the thrill of hearing great music or the sense of achievement felt by those who play it, these volumes effectively communicate the sense of community among music lovers and the importance it holds in our lives.

Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.

Music lovers have always welcomed the chance to read about their favorite musicians and the sounds they create. Though newspaper and magazine coverage of music has declined, those outlets are now augmented by a seemingly endless array of websites and blogs devoted to music reviews, critiques, commentary, gossip and profiles. For more in-depth appraisals, readers […]
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This is a rich season for readers whose imaginations (and libidos) were first unleashed back when vinyl was the dominant musical medium and Broadway was still a wellspring of popular songs. Five new books provide a kaleidoscopic view of that charmed era.

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice is a gossipy, immensely readable account of Frank Sinatra’s rise from sweet-singing mama’s boy to teen idol to Academy Award-winning actor. (The biography ends on the night of March 25, 1954, with Sinatra walking the streets of Beverly Hills and brandishing his best supporting Oscar for From Here To Eternity.)

Kaplan could have just as accurately subtitled his book The Groin, since he focuses as much on that busy region as he does on the entertainer’s golden throat. Central to his chronicle is Sinatra’s love affair with and marriage to Ava Gardner, the one woman whose temper and sense of entitlement were as formidable as the singer’s own. “Like Frank,” says Kaplan, “she was infinitely restless and easily bored. . . . Both had titanic appetites, for food, drink, cigarettes, diversion, companionship, and sex. Both loved jazz and the men and women, black and white, who made it. Both were politically liberal.” The author also assesses the influences of such other Sinatra intimates as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, Sinatra’s long-suffering publicist George Evans and his even longer-suffering first wife, Nancy. There are few new facts or insights here, but Kaplan does a masterful job of stitching the reams of previously published material into a vivid, fast-paced narrative.

Howard Sounes’ Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney is impressively thorough and up-to-date. The author devotes a mere 22 pages of his mammoth text to McCartney’s youth—that is, the period before he joined his first real band, the Quarrymen—and he polishes off the Beatles era less than halfway into the book. That’s as it should be, given the substantial body of work and public presence McCartney has created on his own. While Sounes did not talk with McCartney or the other surviving Beatle, Ringo Starr, he did interview well over 200 other people who were closely or tangentially connected with the star. The picture that emerges is of a man well aware of his place in musical history but given to taking artistic short cuts, not quite demanding as much from himself as his talent could render. Still, his bedrock of compassion and generosity generally shows through. Sounes allots plenty of space to McCartney’s disastrous marriage to Heather Mills, a test of character if there ever was one.

No one else has anatomized Bob Dylan, his music and his personality as relentlessly or as minutely as Greil Marcus. Witness now the culmination of that obsession in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Marcus first came face to face with Dylan in 1963 at a Joan Baez concert in New Jersey. That experience was so transformative that he has since viewed the iconic singer/songwriter as something of a cultural weathervane. These essays and speeches tend either to sigh with admiration or seethe with contempt as Dylan goes through his various stages from folkie to rocker to Christian convert to elder statesman to enigma-in-residence. No album or gesture goes unnoticed. All the pieces aren’t strictly about Dylan, though; in some, he’s just a footnote, a shadow passing by. Readers who are not into Dylan minutiae can still follow what Marcus is talking about, since most of these writings were for publications that catered to broad audiences. But this is more than a study of Dylan—it’s a jagged portrait of the age.

Spurned by rock critics for being over-hyped, depraved and savage toward the press, Led Zeppelin finally decided in 1975 that it might be a business advantage to invite a handful of top-tier reporters to accompany the band on what was certain to be a triumphant tour of America. One of the chosen few was Stephen Davis, a former writer for Rolling Stone who, on this trip, would be on assignment for The Atlantic. The upshot is LZ-’75. Zeppelin proved to be just as thorny and exhausting to cover as expected. As Davis chronicles it, the tour was a transcontinental bacchanal, in which each member of the band had his own peccadilloes and flash points; imagine Spinal Tap with higher IQs and better management. Davis, who would later write the much-disputed Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, misplaced his notes of the tour (The Atlantic declined his proposed article) and didn’t find them until 30 years later. Thus the delay, and the sense that we’ve read all this before, though the material and the gossip still compel.

Readers are hereby warned not to start on Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat if they have vital appointments pending. His prose is just too alluring to put aside. This is the first of two planned volumes in which the great lyricist recounts his experiences writing songs for musical theater; the book covers 13 plays from 1954 to 1981. Besides providing and discussing the lyrics to all his songs in these plays, Sondheim also offers illuminating critiques of fellow Broadway songwriters. He is a hard man to please, finding literary fault with such master stylists as Oscar Hammerstein II (his mentor), Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin and Noel Coward. He is more admiring of Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, although not unreservedly so. It’s astounding the number of classics Sondheim can claim, among them “Maria” and “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music—the list goes on, and fortunately, so does Sondheim.

This is a rich season for readers whose imaginations (and libidos) were first unleashed back when vinyl was the dominant musical medium and Broadway was still a wellspring of popular songs. Five new books provide a kaleidoscopic view of that charmed era. MAN WITH THE GOLDEN THROAT James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice is a gossipy, […]
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For the men on your list, this year’s selection has a sporty bent, with side trips into macho movies, manly pursuits and muscular journalism.

Leading off the pack—and combining good reporting with a story ripped from the headlines—is Tom Callahan’s His Father’s Son: Earl and Tiger Woods. Callahan, author of the acclaimed bio Johnny U, brings a two-tiered approach to the story of the two Woods men, outlining father Earl’s life and maverick mindset and placing the great golfer Tiger’s own life and career into that broader context. Is the child father to the man? Perhaps so, though Callahan seems better able to profile Woods the father, with his varied markers as military man, Vietnam vet, college athlete and major influence on Tiger. We also gain some insight—if not outright understanding—into the Woodses’ way with women, and that should interest many readers, this being the first major volume to grapple with Tiger’s personality since his endlessly publicized fall from grace in late 2009. (That said, Tiger still comes off here as pretty elusive emotionally.) Callahan infuses his text with many accounts of Tiger’s achievements at major tournaments and also quotes notable golf figures such as Ernie Els, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on Tiger—the athlete and the man.

Two seasons ago, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac took the sports publishing world by storm with its offbeat collaborative writing and unique graphics approach. The writers identified with are at it again, in The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, which applies the same on-the-edge journalism to analysis of the game’s past, from the development of the early leagues, to the rise of the NBA, to rundowns of the impact on the sport by figures such as Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain through to the more modern era of Bird, Magic, Jordan, Barkley, Shaq, Kobe, etc. The text, as quirkily readable as ever, further ranges over pop culture, books, movies and on- and off-court events that have become emblazoned in the public mind in the television age.

For the escapist, movie-fan guy, two new entries in the Bond Collection offer fun reading and browsing. With text by Alastair Dougall, Bond Girls and Bond Villains present nostalgic, evocative pictorial coverage of all the evil geniuses, henchmen and seductive and/or poisonous ladies encountered by the seven cinema James Bonds, in films ranging from Dr. No (1962) to Quantum of Solace (2008). These are fabulously entertaining volumes, though curiously, the actors who played the many roles, men and women, are never identified by name in the text, nor are the Bonds (spanning Sean Connery through Daniel Craig). In that case, the book is particularly recommended for those who think of the Bond phenomenon—and its many personalities—as more fact than fiction.

“A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. In an age where tobacco is anathema to most—a sneaky killer and a social no-no—there are still folks who treasure the singular culture surrounding the cigar (which still goes nicely with brandy, by the way). Churchill, for example, supposedly smoked 8 to 10 of them a day (and Sir Winston lived to be 90). Don’t forget George Burns, Bill Cosby, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain and Fidel Castro, to name but a few on the long and worthy list of tokers. For those who embrace the occasional habit, Lawrence Dorfman’s The Cigar Lover’s Compendium: Everything You Need to Light Up and Leave Me Alone is pretty much a must-have volume. Like cigars themselves, Dorfman’s guidebook is, uh, thoroughly satisfying—from the history of cigar-making to connoisseur considerations to anecdotes and aphorisms. Plus, there’s a useful list of cigar bars and shops in the U.S. and Canada; also a glossary of terms. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Finally, in praise of good writing—and an interesting gift for the guy who appreciates it—is The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese. Talese is internationally known as a purveyor of the so-called New Journalism and author of literary nonfiction classics like The Kingdom and the Power and Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Yet Talese was also a sportswriter, first plying that trade as a teenager for the Ocean City (N.J.) Sentinel-Ledger. Later, he wrote for the University of Alabama’s Crimson-White and eventually the New York Times, Esquire and other major publications. This anthology gathers his pieces from every era—the earliest dating from 1948­—and displays his interest in more than merely the final score, with notably atypical, sometimes surprising reportage on basketball, football, baseball, golf, horse racing and even speed-skating, with a 1980 profile of Olympians Eric and Beth Heiden. He weaves discussion of race, media and society into these stories, and, apropos to his age group (Talese is now 78), there’s a good deal of coverage on boxing, as befits its former standing as a major, print-ready sport. Though Talese famously sympathized with underdogs, the book’s title derives from his famous 1966 Esquire article on Joe DiMaggio—still, decades later, a sports icon.

For the men on your list, this year’s selection has a sporty bent, with side trips into macho movies, manly pursuits and muscular journalism. EYE OF THE TIGER Leading off the pack—and combining good reporting with a story ripped from the headlines—is Tom Callahan’s His Father’s Son: Earl and Tiger Woods. Callahan, author of the […]

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