Utne Reader Book Reviews: March-April 2009

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Music Geeks Gone Wild

Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
by Jeffrey T. Roesgen (Continuum)

In 1985, simply putting out an album titled Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and produced by Elvis Costello was enough to guarantee a certain cachet with the punk set. Luckily for every spiky-haired kid who picked it up for its rich promise of degradation, the Pogues’ breakthrough album was a mind-blowing trip through time and across borders, drawing unexpected connections between Celtic folk, punk rock, and American roots music. In this book by the same sordid name, Jeffrey T. Roesgen tells the story behind the album, interwoven with a tale of his own creation, a seafaring narrative starring the band and several of their lyrics’ characters.

If this all sounds like something by and for serious fans, you’re right. The book is one of the latest in the 33 13 series, a collection of smartly dissective tomes about notable rock albums, from Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica to the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder and beyond. (See the full list at www.33third.blogspot.com.) The idea is to hitch up talented music writers with the object of their audio obsession and let them parse and probe it at length—an enterprise that, as you might guess, is as fraught with peril as being adrift at sea with the Pogues. There is the ever-present danger of wrecking on the shoals of metaphor, then flailing about in search of adjectives.

Roesgen, for his part, steers clear of such hazards and delivers a spirited novella along with vivid snippets of rowdy, romantic rock ’n’ roll history. —Keith Goetzman

 

But Will It Play in Ottawa?

Jack   by Mike Spry  
and   All our Grandfathers are Ghosts   by Pasha Malla (Snare)

Canada: First they took our geese, then our bacon, nowadays our literary hijinks. But thanks to Snare Books, a Montreal-based press, even we Yanks can plumb the poetic fruits of the “experimental Canadian literary tradition.” Even if you thought experimental poetry wasn’t your cup of tea, hold up. These poems aren’t avant-garde exercise routines. They’re funny. An erotic ode to Natalie Portman? Neato! A series of meditations involving a breakup, brutal self-mockery, and sardonic moping over imaginary photographs? You mean, there’s unrest in—Ottawa? Though Snare’s offerings are occasionally precious, they prove that the Great White North has just as many zany nutballs telling some version of the truth as there are anywhere else. —Michael Rowe

 

Nude, Not Naked

Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object
by Kathleen Rooney (University of Arkansas)

It’s not about being naked. In fact, Kathleen Rooney feels naked for only the first 30 seconds or so when she’s modeling for artists. Nudity, she says, is wholly different from nakedness, in that it suggests confidence rather than vulnerability. What draws her to posing for artists as a “live nude girl” is deeply rooted in empowerment and sexuality, respect for the many shades of beauty, and the quest for immortality. Brimming with enticing personal stories, Rooney’s memoir also reflects on her predecessors whose images in art have survived lifetimes longer than their bodily forms. A spirited and thought-provoking exploration of the human figure,
Live Nude Girl beckons the oft-clothed to share the thrill of taking it all off. —Kari Volkmann-Carlsen

 

On the Grift

Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders
by Paul Maliszewski (The New Press)

History is full of fakers, from circus con man P.T. Barnum to literary fabricator James Frey, writes Paul Maliszewski in Fakers. How do they con us? “People can believe, willingly, in what they know not to be true. Fakers require—and exploit—such willing believers.” People crave great stories, he explains, but they expect them to be dramatic, engaging, and truthful—a tall order when real life is rarely so and when questioning the authenticity of an author’s experiences is deemed “inappropriate, or perhaps even a form of psychological violence.” Although we scorn the puppeteers who dupe us, Maliszewski writes, we’re still charmed by their handiwork. —Elizabeth Ryan

 

Utne Reader Approved

Literary hounds commence drooling: The British Library and BBC have released The Spoken Word: British Writers and American Writers . Each three-disc collection features rare, restored recordings of authors and playwrights discussing their lives and work.

The stunning and ambitious I Live Here (Pantheon) comprises four colorful notebooks filled with writings, stories, and artwork created by and inspired by displaced people in Chechnya, Burma, Mexico, and Malawi.

There’s a renewable energy source right under your nose, writes Tamara Dean in The Human-Powered Home (New Society Publishers), which celebrates off-grid devices driven by pedals, treadles, and cranks—from water pumps to sewing machines to juicers.