Origins of a Song

Grogan, Jake. Origins of a Song: 202 True Inspirations Behind the World’s Greatest Lyrics. Kennebunkport, Maine: Appleseed Press, 2021.

Reason read: this was a gift from a friend who knows me all too well.

What makes a great lyric? Opinions vary. My take? A song will grab me if the artist can drop into my mind, steal my heart, and take the words right out of my mouth. Be about me. Better yet, be me. The lyrics have to say what I mean and say it better than I ever could. I want to feel as if someone has been reading my journal or listening under the bed when I talk in my sleep. Lyrics don’t have to be complicated. They just have to mean something. But Origins of a Song‘s subtitle is misleading. This book is not about the true inspirations behind great lyrics. More accurately, it’s the inspiration behind the great song itself. My current obsession (Dermot Kennedy), my longtime hero (Natalie Merchant), and one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time (Josh Ritter) are not included in this book. Everyone has an opinion and mine is this: I think some songs were included not for their brilliant lyrics, but because some songs were smash hits and very difficult to ignore. “My Girl” by Smokey Robinson, for example. What is so special about the lyrics? The tone of Ruffin’s voice, melody, and instrumentation (piano) made the song a hit, not the words.
Bonus points for Grogan: he gives credit where credit is due. If Elvis didn’t write the song (did he ever?), Grogan makes sure to tell you who did.

Author fact: According to Origins of a Song , Grogan’s favorite song “Dancing Queen” inspired him to write the book.

Book trivia: Confessional: I couldn’t find a rhyme or reason for how Origins of a Song is organized. Songs are not in alphabetical order, nor are the artists. It’s not in chronological order according to the release of the song, either.

As an aside, I was going to catalog all of the songs and musicians Grogan mentions, but since the whole point of the book is just that, I refrained.


Whiskey River

Estleman, Loren D. Whiskey River: a Novel of Detroit. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2015.
Estleman, Loren D. Whiskey River: a Novel of Detroit. New York: Bantam books, 1990.

Reason read: Michigan became a state in January.

The first novel in Estleman’s Detroit series, Whiskey River, takes the reader into Detroit’s dark and dangerous Prohibition era where true events and real people are cooked together with vivid imagination, humor and grit to serve up a tasty story. Torture, murder, prostitution, political scandals, suicides, grand jury trials, corruption, and Detroit’s seedy underground keep the reader enthralled.
Constance “Connie” Minor goes from having bylines in the local newspaper to his own column in the tabloids. The price for this upgrade? Riding shotgun with warring mob bosses, Jack Dance and Joey Machine. He gets a ringside seat to kidnappings, smuggling, and up-close and personal torture and murder. Why is so liked by these mobsters is beyond me.
Hattie was one of my favorite characters. By day her establishment was a funeral home but by night the lights were turned low for more “lively” entertainment. She was a dame who took no gruff from anyone.
As an aside, I found the inequality and racism a little difficult to stomach, especially since nothing has changed since the 1930s: “Is he white?…If he weren’t they wouldn’t have bothered to call it in” (p 57).
I most enjoyed Whiskey River as a period piece. the 1930s comes alive with the vernacular, fashion, and transportation of the day: spats, derbies, top coats, silks, wingtips, stoles, fedoras, stockings, LaSalles, Auburns, Packards, Model As, Vikings, Buicks, and blind pigs.

Quotes I liked, “Remember, it took a fresh kid to tell the emperor his ass was hanging out” (p 30), “Someday maybe I’ll learn not to write the whole story until I’ve met its subject” (p 37), “Something had gone wrong with the natural order when an Oklahoma train robber was shot to death at the wheel of an automobile in downtown Detroit” (p 67), “Courage is the first casualty of experience” (p 92), and lastly, “A dream come true: I had a gangster for a critic” (p 199).

Author fact: Estleman won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus award three times.

Book trivia: Whiskey River is the first in seven novels about Detroit. I am reading all of them for the Challenge.

Playlist: Bessie Smith, “Potato Head Blues,” Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, “Royal Garden Blue,” “What a Friend I Have in Jesus,” Praise God, For Whom All Blessings Flow,” and Glen Gray’s “Casa Loma Stomp.”

Nancy said: Pearl explains there are seven “Detroit” novels and calls them sweeping and gritty (More Book Lust p 26).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Big Ten Country: The Literary Midwest (Michigan)” (p 25).


Changed Man

Prose, Francine. A Changed Man. New York: Harper Collins,

Reason read: Happy New Year! January is traditionally the month to turn over a new leaf. Read in honor of resolutions. I also read this for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge (category: a book that gives you hope for the future).

Vincent Nolan wants to be a changed man. Once a Neo-Nazi and a self-described “punk storm-trooper rapist,” Vincent is looking for redemption in the eyes of Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor. I didn’t quite believe the situation. Why wouldn’t Maslow be more suspicious of Nolan? How does he trust this guy wants to change just…like…that? Is he really A Changed Man? How has Vincent become a moral hero overnight? On the flip side, I am also suspicious that no one at Brotherhood Watch would be worried for Vincent’s safety…if he really is a changed man. He just left a very dangerous, cult-like organization. Think gangs. Wouldn’t ARM want retaliation? Wouldn’t Vincent’s cousin be looking for him after Vincent stole his truck, prescription meds, and Soldier of Fortune magazine, and then left his little hate club?
The only parts I found believable were the times when someone was jealous of someone else (and this happens a lot): Brotherhood Watch donation coordinator, Bonny, was jealous of her ex-husband’s new wife (very appropriate) and she was jealous of her ex-husband’s importance in society (As a cardiologist, he saves lives. What does she do?); Maslow was jealous of Elie Wiesel’s “Holocaust” fame, then he was jealous of Vincent’s “changed man” fame; Vincent was jealous of the Iranian prisoner’s story getting more attention than his own transformation and he was also jealous of Timothy McVeigh’s limelight. Yes, that Timothy McVeigh. Threaded through A Changed Man is the real-life drama of the Oklahoma City bombing and the subsequent execution of McVeigh. It allows Prose to show both sides of a tragedy. The Jews were ecstatic when McVeigh was put to death while the neo-Nazis mourned and honored their hero. As an aside, Prose made Vincent look a lot like McVeigh for added creepville.
Overall, A Changed Man might be heavy on subject (Holocaust survivor, neo-Nazis, etc.) but super light on drama complete with a Hallmark-like ending.

Quotes to quote, “Becoming a white supremist for the free lunch seems even sleazier than joining because you believe that the white race is an endangered species, or because you like wearing camouflaged gear and the boots” (p 18), “Vincent’s not in the mood to explain about Raymond wanting him dead” (p 182).

Playlist: Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Ricky Martin, Marc Antony, Tito Puente, Iron Fust, Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” Beethoven, Stravinsky, Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” “Pomp and Circumstance,” and “The Wedding March.”

Nancy said: Pearl said A Changed Man was in the stack of books by her side of the bed.

BookLust Twist: from the introduction of More Book Lust (p x).


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

Reason read: I needed a book for the Portland Public Library 2022 Reading Challenge in the category of “A book that makes you feel hopeful for the future.” I don’t know why, but this one does.

It was pointed out that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn nothing happens. There is no over-the-top drama involving sex, violence, or rock and roll. Instead, A Tree is a simple and honest story about what it means to be human. Harsh realities about poverty, crime, alcoholism, life, and death are not ignored or sugarcoated. I would argue that something does happen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A little girl comes of age. In the summer of 1912 Francie Nolan was a scrappy eleven year old. At the time, her best friend was a tree that seemed to like poor people. By the end of the story, Francie has lost her father, gained a baby sister, managed to find her way to college, and started to date. It is a story of hope.
One of my favorite moments was when Francie understands for the first time she can read and the fact she would never be lonely again. Books would be her companions for any circumstance. Another favorite scene was when Francie graduates and she receives roses from her deceased daddy. It broke my heart.

Confessional: The scene when Katie is playing the piano with the children bothered me. Neely starts to sign and it is noted his voice is starting to change. It is then that Francie remarks, “You know what Mama would say if she were sitting here now?” Where did she go? She was just playing the piano. I think Smith meant Johnny. Johnny was the one who was missing from the scene.

Signs of the times, “He was a boy, he handled the money.” The candy store was a boys store and Francie had to wait outside while her brother bought her candy.

Phrasing I adored, “ground-down poor” and “helpless relaxation.”

Author fact: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has such clarity it is impossible to ignore its autobiographical nature. Rumor has it, Smith originally wrote the story as a memoir but her publishers urged her to fictionalize it to reach a wider audience. Could they not handle the truth?

Book trivia: My edition had a foreword by Anna Quinlan. She compared Francie to Jo March, Betsy Ray, and Anne of Green Gables. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also published in an Armed Services edition. The wartime copy was specially sized to fit in a soldier’s rucksack.

Playlist: because Francie’s father is a singing waiter there were lots of great tunes mentioned in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “There are Smiles That Make You Happy,” At the Darkstrutters’ Ball,” “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home,” “My Wild Rose,” “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “You’ll find Old Dixieland in France,” There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Time,” Ted Lewis’s “For When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (a song I can remember my mother singing while she vacuumed), “Molly Malone,” “The Soldier’s Chorus,” “When I Get You Alone Tonight,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away for You,” “Ave Maria,” “Beautiful Blue Danube,” “At the Devil’s Ball,” “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon,” “Kerry Dancers,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” Harrigan, That’s Me,” “The River Shannon,” “Holy Night,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Schubert Serenade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon,” Handle’s “Largo,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Verdi, Walter Wildflower, “O, Sole Mio,” “Some Sunday Morning,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Silent night,” “Annie Laurie,” “Last Rose of Summer,” “Sweet Adeline,” “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “A Shanty in Shantytown,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” “Dear Old Girl,” ” I’m Sorry I made You Cry,” “Over There,” “K-K-Katy,” “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” “Mother Macree,” and “The Band Played On.”

Nancy said: Pearl called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a “classic coming-of-age” story.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Girls Growing Up” (p 101).


Lost in Place

Salzman, Mark. Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Reason read: China is a big influence on Salzman. There is a spring festival that takes place in China at the end of January/beginning of February. For the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge I needed a book for the category “An older book by a favorite author.”

Salzman can take an ordinary upbringing and turn it into a tragic comedy full of deep sighs and tears of laughter. What were American boys in the mid 70s obsessing over? Sex, drugs and rock and roll…and Bruce Lee. Picture Mark Salzman at thirteen listening to Ozzy Osbourne and practicing flying kicks just like his idol. Only add a bald wig, cello lessons, and an obsession with all things Chinese while living in the suburbs of Connecticut, and you have the makings of an incredibly sweet and hilarious memoir. This should have been a movie.

Line that made me laugh, “Man, you know the world is a confusing place when you’re a boy and your dad tries to get you to switch from self-defense to ballet” (p 112).
Most profound line, “We all crave certainty, we dream of serenity, and we want to discover our true identities” (p 266).

Author fact: Salzman is one of my favorite authors. I have already read Iron and Silk and The Soloist. I have two others on my Challenge list.

Playlist: Aerosmith, Aldo Parisot, Bach, the Beatles’s “Michelle,” Black Sabbath, Boy George, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chick Corea, Chopin, Duane Allman, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix, Jan Hammer, Jaco Pastorius, kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ozzy Osbourne, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon,” Ravi Menuhin, Stanley Clark, Ted Nugent, Talking Heads, Ten Years, Van Halen, The Who, Weather Report, Yo Yo Ma, “The Candy Man,” and “Dreamweaver,”

Nancy said: Pearl called Lost in Place funny and self-deprecating and totally irresistible.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter “Mark Salzman: Too Good To Miss” (p 194).


Tangerine

Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. New York: Scholastic Signature, 1997.

Reason read: I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Tangerine, Florida seems like a strange and dangerous place to live. Constant lightning strikes in the afternoons, continuous underground muck fires, and resulting sinkholes plague the community. That’s not all. Prized koi fish are mysteriously disappearing from the community pond. Swarms of mosquitos are so thick, trucks with choking pesticides spray daily as if on war patrol. Multiple houses need fumigating because of termites. Then the robberies begin…and the vandalism and graffiti.
Paul Fisher and his family have recently moved to this unstable area and all middle-schooler Paul wants to do is make the soccer team. Despite having a disability (he is legally blind), he is an excellent goalie. He just needs a chance. Since all eyes (pun totally intended) are on Paul’s older brother, Eric, the high school football star destined for greatness, that chance seems slim. Everyone adores Eric so why does Paul fear his brother so much?
Tangerine stuns the reader with harsh realities usually missing from young adult novels. Publishers Weekly said “it breaks the mold” and I agree one hundred percent. Confessional: some scenes were so harsh I found myself catching my breath.

Line that gave me pause, “Eric was as phony as he needed to be” (p 57). Little did I know how telling that line would be.

Author fact: Bloor has written a bunch of books but I am only reading Tangerine for the Challenge.

Book trivia: Tangerine is Bloor’s first novel. My edition has an introduction from Danny DeVito.

Playlist: “Try to Remember.”

Nancy said: the only thing Pearl said specifically about Tangerine is that it is more appropriate for boys than girls.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Best for Teens” (p 23).


Monkeys

Minot, Susan. Monkeys. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.

Reason read: Even though Monkeys isn’t about animals, I am reading it in honor of the television series “All Creatures Great and Small” first airing in the month of January. In addition, I needed a one-word title for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge.

Monkeys was the term of endearment Rosie Vincent called her large brood of seven children. Cheerful and sometimes silly, Rosie was the glue that held this chaotic family together. When she is tragically killed the children are left to deal with their grief. Sometimes they are forced to parent an alcoholic father who can’t focus on his responsibilities (but manages to remarry in a year). As a stand alone novel of vignettes Monkeys may seem disjointed and fuzzy; not very well thought out, but when you consider Monkeys as a transparent autobiography, it makes way more sense. Minot herself has six siblings. Her mother was killed at a train crossing, exactly like Rosie Vincent. The first story (told in first person) could very well be Minot herself reliving her childhood memories. The rest of the stories are in third person and might be true events about her siblings.
As an aside, it would be interesting to read Monkeys along with with the works of her sister (The Tiny One) and brother (The Blue Bowl) for comparison.

One quote to quote, “One evening, Mum asked her to promise she wouldn’t commit suicide until she was eighteen” (p 81).

Author fact: At last check, Minot lived in Maine.

Book trivia: Monkeys is Minot’s first fiction.

Playlist, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

Nancy said: Pearl said that Monkeys was one perspective on growing up in a large, dysfunctional New England Catholic family.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “All in the Family: Writer Dynasties” (p 5).