Roots, Radicals, & Rockers; Windfalls, Fires, & Kings
Carriage Return, Week of 7/14/2017
Carriage Return is The Ribbon’s round-up of recent Literati Bookstore staff favorites, as well as an occasional place for useful links and news from around the literary web regarding upcoming events at the store.
On July 18th, Literati Bookstore is thrilled to partner with The Ark, Ann Arbor’s legendary home for folk music, for a one-of-a-kind speaking engagement with Billy Bragg in support of his stunning and comprehensive work of music history, Roots, Radicals, & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.
To even a well-trained ear, skiffle might be a faint undulation within the massive swell of rock history that followed it, particularly for American audiences. It was even that way for a young Bragg:
By the time I got listening to [skiffle] it had been forgotten. Other layers of pop had been laid down and it wasn’t really visible. I bought one of the first TV compilation albums. It was a compilation of ’50s American rock and roll, but it had a Lonnie Donegan track on it called “Cumberland Gap,” which is a two chord thrash through an old American folk song. It’s a bit high speed. And I could hear from that that this wasn’t rock and roll. It’s an acoustic guitar. It’s not an electric guitar. There was definitely something weird about this. Because I, you know, I thought I knew what rock and roll was because I’d heard Elvis. I must have been about 12 or so at the time, maybe 11. And I later come to find that it was skiffle.
What he found in skiffle, as Micco Caporale writes in In These Times, was a music scene that in its time “was an immediate success in the U.K. underground, where white working-class youth, suffocating from over a decade of rationing and austerity, were looking for a breath of fresh air,” a “distinctly British antecedent to rock n’roll propped up by a burgeoning youth movement […] a genre best likened to America’s rockabilly, with a few key differences.”
As Bragg explains in an interview with the Detroit Metro Times’ Sarah Rose Sharp, skiffle not only fits interestingly into the complicated web of global musical influence it culled from, but retained a DIY attitude that marked it as a profound and forgotten precursor to modern political music:
In many ways, [punk rock] still shapes the things I do, in the sense that I believe you don’t really need to be asked to do something or [be] given permission, you just do it. The more I read about skiffle, the more I understood about it, the more it seemed to me to be a very similar impulse.
Bragg notes that he is not “an academic — I’m a music fan and I’m a music player, trying to join the dots between some things that most of us can see.” It’s an expected level of modesty. But Roots, Radicals, & Rockers is a stunning and comprehensive feat of musical scholarship, delivered in only the intimate manner you would expect from a figure who deeply understands the role of music in social movements and in our emotional lives.
And now on to recent hardcover staff picks.
Recent Staff Favorites (in Hardcover)
American Fire, by Monica Hesse
A riveting account of a string of mysterious fires that unnerved the small communities of Accomack County, Virginia. During the six month hunt to capture the arsonist, authorities were baffled and volunteer firefighters overwhelmed. Then, on the night of the sixty-second fire, they caught the man and woman responsible. The Surprises are total: The who (which shocked and angered the community), the why (completely unexpected), Hesse’s thoroughly mesmerizing account. Much more than a timeline of events, Hesse creates a page-turning account of how this arson spree affected the tight knit communities it affected — already suffering economic decline. A deftly written, fascinating story. — Sharon
Moving Kings, by Joshua Cohen
From New York to Israel, combat zones to landing bays, pristine resort hotels to nicotine drenched rehab centers: Joshua Cohen’s latest novel examines the intricate and often frustrating approaches taken in those attempts to best perceive one’s sense of self. Though Yoav and Uri fought in the IDF for three years, their ties to Israel are waning. After moving to New York, the two begin to reestablish their lives free of outsider influence. They go to parties, drink, hit on girls, and occasionally find themselves pretending to be from somewhere other than their home. But the longer they try to escape their perceived of completely made up ties to a specific religion, race, or family, the further they float from one another. Cohen’s locomotive language, coupled with a spectacular eye for subtle emotional details, result in an expansive, chilling read. — Bennet
Made for Love, by Alissa Nutting
After devouring her deliciously dysfunctional debut, Tampa, I consider myself a devotee of Nutting’s brand of cringe-worthy absurdity. Nutting masterfully navigates the sticky complexities of human sexuality, prodding every soft spot and open wound. In Made for Love, we find Hazel — a woman desperately trying to escape her marriage to sociopath Bryan Gogol, founder and CEO of tech juggernaut Gogol Industries. She flees to her spirited but ailing father’s senior living community (trailer park) to hide among his growing collection of incredibly life-like sex dolls in a final attempt to prevent Bryan from implanting a chip into her brain that would enable him to “share” in every thought and experience. Welcome to the first 15 pages of Nutting’s fantastical foray in to the bleak back rooms of human relationships. Equal parts sinister and hilarious, eccentric and affecting, Nutting manages to craft a puzzle of a novel that is far more than the sum of its parts. — Tara
The Windfall, by Diksha Basu
Utterly charming and kind-hearted even in its most scathing moments, this comedy of manners from debut author Diksha Basu was a joy to read. Basu writes about the politics, jealousies, and traditions within a housing complex in East Delhi with sharp-eyed insight. But she also writes with near-acrobatic deftness, as she flits from character to character, leaping inside their heads just long enough for the reader to understand, “Wow, here’s a master at work.” It’s not every day that you read a book where in the span of one page, you’ve witnessed the scene through the eyes of three different characters. Everyone is so fully realized that the POV jumps are never jarring, as each character we enter feels as familiar and known as an old friend. We look forward to seeing the world through the eyes of not just the primary characters, like prideful Mr. Jha and common-sensical Mrs. Jha, but also tertiary characters like the nap-happy security guard Balwinder, and paranoid and jealous neighbor Mr. Gupta. Basu teaches us, as she teaches her characters, the sharp and arbitrary lines that separate those who belong and those who do not, in America, in Delhi, in richer neighborhoods, and in poorer ones. With all these rules, she seems to say, aren’t we better off choosing how we’d truly like to live? She makes a compelling argument, and the thrilling experience of reading her book, the result of breaking stodgy narrative rules, makes an even more compelling one. — Lillian