Book Reviews for Winter-Spring 2011
By Robert B. Parker (GRS’57,’71) Fiction (G. P. Putnam’s Sons)
Parker was so prolific—he wrote more than 60 books over 37 years—that new titles were appearing on store shelves even after his death, in January 2010. His first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, published in 1973, featured a Boston private eye named Spenser. It seems only right that his last, Painted Ladies, completed the year before he died, would call upon the sensitive tough guy, who throws a mean left jab as easily as he spouts a Whitman verse.
This time, Spenser’s been hired by a forensic art consultant who needs protection while he swaps ransom money for a stolen painting. Of course, it all goes wrong and now Spenser, miffed that the scholar was blown to bits on his watch, wants a little vengeance. But first, he has to dodge a couple of attempts on his own life.
The story is a fast read, and the dialogue’s got snap. After leaving another murder scene—the victim took two bullets to the head—Spenser has this to say: “Shooting somebody in the forehead twice is like wearing suspenders and a belt.”
Explaining Spenser’s popularity to Bostonia in 2005, Parker said, “He’s heroic, and people like heroes. And he doesn’t always prevail, but he’s never defeated.” Even with his creator gone, the likeable Spenser seems destined
for a very long life, if not immortality, in print. ~Cynthia K. Buccini
Please Come Back to Me
By Jessica Treadway (GRS’06) Fiction (University of Georgia Press)
In this elegiac collection of short stories and a novella, characters often lie to themselves or to those around them as they try to do the right thing and make sense of their lives. In the first story, “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon,” a mother struggles to come to terms with a reckless crime committed by her young son. To stave off the horror she must confront, she busies herself with plans for a swimming pool. In another story, a daughter frantically creates distracting tasks to keep at bay a realization about her father that she cannot accept.
Treadway’s characters live in rural towns, many in upstate New York. But there is nothing pastoral or bucolic about the places they inhabit: their landscapes are filled with neon-lit bowling alleys, forgettable apartments, and featureless suburbs.
Regret is a frequent motif in these stories. In “Dear Nicole,” a man must face the realization that he has married the wrong woman. In “Oregon,” a dying woman admits to her goddaughter, “I just wanted people to know I was here.” And in “Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back,” two strangers confess their marital infidelities to each other.
The characters in Please Come Back to Me, albeit flawed, are decent and hardworking. Many have been forced to give up their dreams—of marriage, children, college. But Treadway steadfastly refuses to allow them any self-pity. The people here take wrong turns—both literally and figuratively—but are painfully aware of the choices they’ve made. And while their lives are grounded in reality, several of the stories are tinged with a kind of surrealism that leaves the reader wondering what’s real and what isn’t.
Please Come Back to Me is Treadway’s third book of fiction and earned a 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The author demonstrates in this collection her enormous empathy for the lives of everyday people and the often startling ways those lives can be upended. ~John O’Rourke
A Pointed Death
By Kath Russell (COM’71) Fiction (RWWRA Publishing)
When Nola Billingsley stumbles on a decapitated body while walking her beloved pointer, Skootch, she unwittingly plunges her life—and the lives of those around her—into a shadowy world of corporate espionage and international skullduggery.
Nola quickly ascertains that the man she has literally fallen over is none other than Roger Chen, whom she had recently fired for embezzling money from her now-failed dot-com. Forced to return to her old job as a biotechnology consultant, Nola accidentally discovers that at the time of his death Roger had been working for a company called Screen Leaf Biosciences. Curious, the well-connected Nola begins snooping into the company and soon discovers that it’s not what it purports to be.
Nola is a refreshingly original sleuth: a woman who loves to shop almost as much as she likes to drink scotch, comfortable in her own skin, but haunted by her past, a feminist who embraces romance and sex.
The intrepid Nola is surrounded by a cast of eccentrics who get pulled into her investigation of Screen Leaf. There’s her 80-year-old mother, Janie Belle, a steel magnolia who lives with her. And there’s the aforementioned Skootch, “a spoiled, undisciplined, overweight slob” of a dog “and the dearest creature on the planet.”
Rounding out the cast are her former business partners, Dakota and the tart-tongued Sally, who describes Nola as “the Typhoid Mary of Romance,” as well as assorted friends and business acquaintances, all of whom have a role in unlocking the nefarious secrets hidden in Screen Leaf’s computer files.
Now a full-time writer, Russell spent decades in the biotechnology field, starting when it was in its infancy. She knowingly describes a world of IPOs, entrepreneurial scientists, and cutting-edge medical research.
Will Nola begin another start-up? Will she find lasting love in the arms of police inspector Bob Harrison? Will her beloved pointer lead her into another life-threatening situation? The book’s cover promises that A Pointed Death is “First in the Pointer Mystery Series.” ~JO
LZ-’75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour
By Stephen Davis (CAS’70) Nonfiction (Gotham)
When Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant shouted, “I am a golden god!” from a hotel balcony overlooking the Hollywood Hills, a cry immortalized in rock lore, Davis was there, notebook in hand. In fact, it happened in his hotel room, he writes in LZ-’75, the latest addition to his extensive rock-biography catalog.
In 1975, Davis spent two weeks on tour with the British megaband in support of their continually delayed album Physical Graffiti. He flew with the group aboard the notorious Starship, cruised in their limo entourage, hung with the groupies, and haunted the Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, dubbed the “Riot House” for the rock-star antics that took place in its rooms and hallways. And through it all he was scribbling in his notebooks—notebooks that he misplaced for 30 years.
On assignment for the Atlantic, Davis, along with photographer pal Peter Simon (COM’70), was part of a small group of reporters traveling with the infamous band, including Cameron Crowe and William S. Burroughs, all of them in pursuit of the band’s elusive, mystical leader, guitarist Jimmy Page, while living in fear of oft-drunk drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham. In the end, Davis’ piece was killed by the Atlantic editors, and he packed away his notebooks and tour memorabilia in a box. When he started writing what would become the 1985 international bestseller Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, he had no clue where the box had gone. In 2005, it turned up, a time capsule of sorts.
In unadorned, diary-like style, Davis draws on those long-forgotten notes to depict life on the road with a wildly popular band at its creative—and self-indulgent—apex, while at the same time, one plagued by health problems and subpar live performances. Davis eventually scores quality face time with Plant, with Simon snapping away. LZ-’75 is sprinkled with Simon’s unreleased photos. In the end, Davis even manages to grab a few late-night minutes with Page in a bar. His answers are both elliptical and abstract.
Davis cut his journalistic teeth at the BU News, a predecessor of the Daily Free Press, then moved on to the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone. He’s since established himself as one of America’s preeminent rock biographers, turning out authorized and unauthorized coverage of rockers from the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Jim Morrison to Bob Marley, Levon Helm, and Guns n’ Roses. He also ghostwrote Michael Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk.
LZ-’75 is as much about getting the story as it is about Led Zeppelin. Davis scoops unopened fan mail from the trash before the janitor gets to it. He lingers after one concert to describe what’s left behind on the floor. He even admits talking Burroughs into sharing his article on Page, which he secretly copies and delivers to the anxious guitarist in hopes of landing an interview. “I’d learned that serious reporting was often about deceit and manipulation,” he writes.
At just over 200 pages, LZ-’75 is brief, and before you know it, the raucous trip is over. Thank God for YouTube. ~Caleb Daniloff
The Still Position: a verse memoir of my mother’s death
By Barbara Blatner (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97) Poetry (NYQ Books)
At first glance Blatner’s “verse memoir” of her dying mother’s last days might seem like a gimmick. But read through this slender, affecting volume and you are likely to return to the beginning and read it a second time. Gathered in sections titled for each day and framed by verse reflecting on “before” and “after,” Blatner’s spare poems bring to life a troubled family. The character of Betty, the mother herself, is revealed to us even as her “broken birdbody” utters a few bewildering final sentences other than the longed-for “I love you.” “You’re lucky,” she murmurs, or, “What are you two fighting about?” or, with what Blatner calls “Jewish bravado,” she asks an aide, “Is there anything you can do with this mess?”
In asides impressionistic or sharply detailed, Blatner folds the indignities, the losses, the obsessions, and the physical trappings of her flawed mother’s long life into these stanzas. The verse is punctuated throughout with the queasy baggage of near-death, from soiled diapers to morphine to the sugary liquid that Betty must be cajoled to sip to slow the shutting down of her wisp of a body.
By way of introduction, Blatner lists the players in this deathwatch drama, a small circle that includes Betty’s Samoyed dog and black cats. In several of the poems, the hopeless confines of Betty’s room widen to let in some air and embrace the wildlife lurking just outside her home in the Helderberg Mountains of upstate New York. In the physical as well as the emotional world she creates, Blatner’s lens expands from microscopic to wide angle, then collapses again.
Betty dies early on a Friday morning, when, Blatner writes, “stillness wakes me.” It’s over:
we almost see
that quilt rising
For anyone who has been here, the final poems in The Still Position are likely to elicit a deep sigh of recognition. For others, know that what she writes, while it may not be universal, is true. ~Susan Seligson