We’ve further expanded the definition of AVQ&A—our Monday and Friday discussion prompts—by asking you (and three of our regular contributors) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? If you have suggestions for AVQ&A questions, big or small, you can email them to us here.
Granted, I didn’t need a new book to tell me Soul Train was just the best. I had a solid 10 years in my childhood where cartoons + Soul Train = Saturday morning. But the past six months have been a most welcome reminder of just how seismic that program was on the American pop-music landscape. Between Questlove’s book last year and Nelson George’s new one, The Hippest Trip In America: Soul Train And The Evolution Of Culture & Style, I’m missing Don Cornelius’ smooth baritone and unflappable cool more than ever, as those carefree Saturdays fade more and more into distant memories. George is one of the best music writers around (his book The Death Of Rhythm And Blues is a revelation), and he crafts a compelling narrative on the Chicago origins of the show, the business environment of launching a black-owned, black-hosted, soul-music television show in 1971, the fashion trendsetters who appeared on it, and, of course, the Soul Train dancers. Questlove’s book was a colorful piece of eye candy, light on narrative, with the fashions and personalities and performances practically jumping off the page, but George’s book is the perfect complementary resource, providing just as vital a portrait of this time capsule of a TV show. The book includes several detailed dancer profiles, giving equal space to the big talents who never became huge superstars (Damita Jo, Don Campbell) as well as to the dancers who went on to make their own way in Hollywood (Rosie Perez, Nick Cannon).
Don Cornelius was Soul Train’s lifeblood, the architect who kept the show a going concern for more than 35 years, so it’s impossible to talk about the program without eventually examining Cornelius’ 2012 suicide. George does this tactfully, without the slightest hint of sensationalization, by framing the death as a starting point for appreciation in the book’s introduction and as a closing chapter when discussing the “Last Days.” Anyone interested in learning how Elton John made it onto Soul Train in the first place, strategies for winning a 1973 dispute with Dick Clark, or what exactly qualifies as “New Jack Swing,” should give this a read, then turn up the volume and start their own Soul Train line.
I’ve also been reading and enjoying Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead’s follow-up to her award-winning debut, Seating Arrangements. The way Shipstead chooses to lay out a relatively simple narrative spanning about 20 years is interesting, in that it keeps the novel from growing stale, but on its surface this is a small story about what happens when a small-time ballerina decides to settle down. Dig a little deeper, and it’s about the nature of love: romantic love, parental love, even the love involved with a chosen profession.
I got a Kindle for my birthday, so I’ve been plowing through a lot more books than normal, despite having stacks and stacks of tomes I’m dying to read sitting on my bedside table. I read and liked The Daring Ladies Of Lowell, by Kate Alcott. The relatively new book tells the story of a group of Lowell, Massachusetts, factory workers in the 1800s who, while struggling with horrible working conditions, are also dealing with the murder of one of their own.
On the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, I also just finished Bert Kreischer’s new book, Life Of The Party. The comedian’s autobiographical collection is due out May 27 of this year, and—whether you’re a fan of Kreischer’s “The Machine” routine or not—it’s a genuinely witty and smart read. Kreischer details how he went from a long-partying college maniac to a tearful dad, and the book pretty much finds Kreischer laying out all his best stories for readers to marvel over. He’s had a hell of a life, and his stories about hanging out with people like Will Smith and a bunch of Russian mob members are fairly fascinating.
Although it was released over a year ago, I cracked into Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman’s oral history of metal, Louder Than Hell, when books editor Andrea Battleground handed me a copy a couple weeks back. I’d been aware of the book since its release, but its heft, coupled with Jason Heller’s thoughts about it being better suited for a format other than oral history, put me off for a while. When I finally gave Louder Than Hell a shot, it proved to be an enjoyable read, even if its narratives and segues can be a bit muddled. These complaints aside, the book was most enjoyable when I allowed its disjointed narrative to break my reading sessions into chunks. The oral history format often allows for readers to jump through history at will, a practice I exercised when I realized the chapter on metalcore was focusing too heavily on the watered-down scene of the mid-2000s, skimming over its earliest acts almost entirely. By Louder Than Hell’s end, I was left wishing for something a little more distinct, which is a small complaint for a resource that features some of metal’s most important voices offering their own perceptions on the vibrant, constantly shifting movement.
Yet, for all of Louder Than Hell’s charm, it was the short-form split-comic from Ben Snakepit and Mitch Clem, Snake Pit Split With My Stupid Life, that garnered the most attention from me this month. For years, Snakepit has drawn a three-panel strip about his daily activities with a song title and band name running atop it. These strips are usually released in annual collections that span each year in their entirety. Here Snakepit and My Stupid Life’s Clem tackle a smaller chunk of time, one that starts on October 1, 2013, through New Year’s Eve. Over the course of the 90 comics, each artist challenges the other—Snakepit expresses his limited drawing ability, while Clem routinely references his fear about procrastination keeping him from completing his end of the split—but the result is nearly 180 comics from two of punk’s most unique comic voices. It’s a light, genial read, one that concludes all too soon, leaving me clamoring for another collaborative work from the pair.
May continues the onslaught of spring book releases. Here are some of note:
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (out May 6)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (out May 6)
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (out May 13)
The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry (out May 13)
The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker (out May 27)
The Painter by Peter Heller (out May 6)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings (out May 13)
Bird Box by Josh Malerman (out May 13)
The Bees by Laline Paull (out May 6)
The Girl In The Road by Monica Byrne (out May 20)
The Book Of You by Claire Kendal (out May 6)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (out May 6)
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (out May 13)
Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen (out May 13)
Boyhood Island (My Struggle: Book Three) by Karl Ove Knausgård (out May 23)
Dangerous Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (out May 20)
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (out May 6)
Michael Jordan, The Life by Roland Lazenby (out May 6)
Will Not Attend: Lively Stories Of Detachment And Isolation by Adam Resnick (out May 1)
Brunette Ambition by Lea Michele (out May 20)
Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir by Claudia Williams (out May 13)
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, And Death by Colson Whitehead (out May 6)
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristen Newman (out May 20)
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, And The Battle That Defined A Generation by Blake Harris (out May 13)