Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the category “Books”

Everything Falls Apart: Book Review of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Evicted Book Cover            When I saw this book mentioned in the Sacramento Housing Alliance newsletter, I knew I had to read it. After spending hours reviewing housing listings on Craigslist, I leave work every day frustrated. Every time I see a place that looks promising for my homeless clients, or for me, I read the same message at the bottom of the page – “No criminal background, no evictions, no rental debt – no exceptions.”

Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to study the urban poor and the effect that eviction had on their lives. From May 2008 to December 2009, he lived among poor whites in a trailer park and poor blacks in the inner city, following the stories of eight families, and interacting with their two landlords to find out how eviction and extreme poverty affected the two groups.

African American landlord Shereena Tarver was an American success story. The former teacher was the owner of thirty-six rental units in the North Side area of the city and netted around $10,000 each month. For her, “the hood was good.” But most of her tenants didn’t even make $10,000 a year. She was relentless in her dealings with her tenants, evicting them once they got behind on their rent and sometimes even evicting tenants for calling 911. Tobin Charney owned the College Mobile Home Park – home to renters on fixed incomes, drug addicts, and other poor white residents of the all-white South Side of the city. Tobin sometimes made deals with his delinquent tenants, but he also forgot that a tenant had paid her rent for a year in advance. When an evicted family with nowhere to go moved into the trailer of another resident, he evicted them too, and added the first tenant’s rental debt to the amount that they owed.

The story in Milwaukee was similar to many other cities in the United States. When the economic downturn hit, the jobs usually held by unskilled, low-income workers were the first to go. Families that were barely making do were left with nothing. Desmond says, “Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in American spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans each year are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.” In December 2011, I was one of those Americans, evicted a week before Christmas.

The downward spiral of these eight families was disheartening to read. By the end of the book, only one resident, Scott, a single white male, had escaped the vicious cycle of eviction, personal problems, legal issues, temporary alliances, housing searches, bureaucratic oversights leading to loss of benefits, more searches, and another forced move. Could residents be blamed for giving up? Could Vanetta be blamed for buying new shoes for her son’s preschool graduation when she was facing incarceration? Could Larraine be blamed for buying lobster on food stamps to have one grand feast before becoming homeless again? “The difference between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure.”

Desmond found that rent amounts in the inner city weren’t that much different from amounts in more affluent areas. “Landlords at the bottom of the market did not lower rent to meet demand and avoid the costs of all those missed payments and evictions…For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” Many tenants were forced to live in housing with broken windows and without adequate plumbing because contacting the landlord could land them on the streets.

Black women were the hardest hit by evictions and black women with children had the most difficulty finding subsequent housing. Desmond’s research revealed that in Milwaukee, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of it evicted tenants….Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Crystal and Vanetta tried to seek housing outside of the inner city but were confronted with the same barrier faced by me and my clients – “No criminal background, no evictions, no rental debt – no exceptions.” Desmond determined that setting a standard was still discrimination. “But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality. Because black men were disproportionately incarcerated and black women disproportionately evicted, uniformly denying housing to applicants with recent criminal or eviction records still had an incommensurate impact on African Americans.” Having children made eviction even more inevitable. “The presence of children in the household almost tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. The effect of living with children on receiving an eviction judgment was equivalent to falling four months behind in rent.” Due to the nuisance laws in effect in Milwaukee at that time, a victim of domestic violence or a concerned neighbor could be evicted due to multiple police calls to a residence, a practice condoned by the police department. Women had to chose between safety and housing.

“Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” This is the main point that Desmond illustrates in this book. He states that landlords are more concerned with their profit margins than with the tenants who live in their buildings. One solution that he proposes is to expand the housing voucher program to include all low-income persons, so that families don’t spend most of their monthly income on rent. He compares the tax breaks given to homeowners to the amount spent on low-income families. “Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six figure incomes.” He feels that this expansion would help to eliminate exploitation of poor families.

But many families with vouchers can’t find landlords that accept them. Landlords need to reconsider their rental requirements. I lost my apartment of ten years when my Unemployment Insurance benefits ceased. It took me seven years to find another full time job and an additional six months for me to find a landlord that was willing to look at evictions and rental debt on a case-by-case basis. Eventually, I may be able to upgrade to a better apartment, but unless changes are made in rent amounts, rent restrictions, and landlord attitudes, most people in low-income communities will never escape the cycle that begins and ends with evictions. Even though I work with a program that can help tenants with initial housing costs, most landlords will not even consider them due to the credit histories and backgrounds.

I hope that Desmond’s book reaches a wide audience, especially those who believe that the poor live in substandard housing because they don’t deserve anything better. By taking his readers into the lives of these families, he personalizes the struggles that they endure, making his point in a way that volumes of statistics could never accomplish. The stories of these families should be required reading for everyone who is concerned with the state of housing in this country. What happened to these families in Milwaukee is duplicated in cities across America. Even in Sacramento.

 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this unbiased review. For more information about Desmond and the book, go to www.evictedbook.com.

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Book Review: One of Us by Tawni O’Dell

511MsAl9aPL._AA160_I love Tawni O’Dell’s books. Like me, she is a product of a southwestern Pennsylvania coal mining community. O’Dell, who was raised near Indiana, Pennsylvania, writes about the lives of miners and their families – their trials and triumphs, mysteries and legends. When I read O’Dell’s first book, Back Roads, I was glad that finally, someone was writing about the western Pennsylvania where I was raised. O’Dell knows what it was like when the local mine was the center of life, as well as what happened when that center was no longer there. My father died of black lung disease in 1975 and the mine in my hometown closed down in the early 1980s, but I will always be a coal miner’s daughter. O’Dell knows that no matter if you stay or leave – the mine will always be a part of you.

In One of Us, renowned Philadelphia forensic psychologist Dr. Sheridan Doyle returns to his hometown of Lost Creek. The town was the site of the hanging of four rebellious Irish miners a century ago. Some people have claimed ghost sightings of the men, which attracted television crews to the town in search of paranormal activity. But even without ghosts, the descendants of the miners and the mine owner responsible for their deaths keep their memory alive. When Danny returns home to visit his nonagenarian grandfather, a series of murders occurs. Danny discovers that as much as he doesn’t want to identify with Lost Creek, it is his home. In spite of his designer clothes and Ivy League education, he is haunted by the coal-mining fate that he escaped, the father that abused him, and his mentally ill mother who spent years in jail for a crime that she claimed she did not commit.

“The truth is I’ve never belonged anywhere, and as much as I hate to admit it to myself, I wouldn’t have minded belonging somewhere.” Danny becomes involved in the investigation of the murders and even faces one of his greatest fears to help a troubled coal miner. He discovered that things are not always what they seem to be, not even in his own family. When the local historical society unveils a statute to commemorate the hanged miners, the image they select made me cry. It sums up what I feel about my own coal miner father. By the end of the story, Danny makes peace with his father and takes his grandfather to the land of their ancestors to lay to rest part of their past.

My only complaint about O’Dell’s books is that she concentrates on the tragedies of former company towns. In spite of being ostracized and teased like Danny, there is no other place that I would have wanted to live. I remember being soothed by the constant sound of trains, which meant that everything was running smoothly at Montour 4 Mine and my father would be coming home that day. My neighbors could be annoying and noisy at times, but in times of trouble, I knew I could count on them to be there for me. O’Dell gives glimpses of the love and loyalty that residents have for their hometown and each other, but I would like her to show more. Check out One of Us, as well as O’Dell’s other four books.

Yours is No Disgrace – Really

51ZZfzgyu3LObservations on Yes is the Answer: And Other Prog Rock Tales by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell (eds.) (A Barnacle Book)

 

 

As soon as I heard about this book, I wanted to read it. Progressive rock has been much maligned over the years, but that has never deterred my love of the genre. Some of my happiest musical moments over the years have been created by the sounds from bands such as Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, and Genesis. Just saying the titles of the songs makes me smile – “The Revealing Science of God,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Gates of Delirium” – there is nothing quite like progressive rock. Back in the eighties, I used to listen to “For Headphones Only,” a weekly show devoted to Prog Rock on Pittsburgh’s main rock radio station.

I really wanted to like this book, but many of the mostly male contributors made this hard for me to do. Most of them seemed to be saying, “I liked/loved Prog Rock once, but now I’m too cool, too old, or too normal to like it. This means that I’m better than you, Dear Reader.” I don’t mind a few guffaws or criticisms about the genre – I’ve even done it myself with an essay called, “Sailing the Topographic Oceans to the Gates of Delirium” – but a whole book of it didn’t work for me. I expected the essays to be a celebration of Prog Rock, but most of them seemed to be apologies. Seth Greenland says in his essay, “When Punk came along and beat Prog to death with a club, I was not among the mourners.” As a woman who became a big fan of Prog Rock through other female fans, I take issue with Matthew Specktor’s statement, “In fact, I’d say that most Prog, while short of being misogynistic, is generally afraid of women, hence its exclusion of them lyrically, its limited appeal to them musically…” And since I didn’t get heavily into the genre until I was in my twenties and I’ve never done drugs, I didn’t grow up Prog like Tom Junod, “stoned and semi-smart, sensitive and without any real prospects for getting laid.”

But I did enjoy the book, in spite of my disappointment. Most contributors had good things to say about their favorite Prog bands, even though most of the comments were in past tense. Peter Case says, “Form followed content, so, wherever you dropped the needle on the record, you’d be lost for a time. Like Progressive groups Pink Floyd or King Crimson, you had no choice but to follow the melodic breadcrumb train out of the enchanted sound forest. And it was wonderful.” The book has several essays on Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, and essays on other bands, including Bebop Deluxe and the Incredible String Band. Styx and Rush are given no love, and one contributor insults my favorite band, but I didn’t let those negative remarks ruin my interest in the anthology. Any catalyst to reopening a dialogue about Prog Rock, its fans and practitioners, means that the music will continue to be explored and enjoyed. We old, nerdy, (and even female) freaks are still out there “On the Silent Wings of Freedom.” Even though these former nerds/writers/musicians would look down their accomplished noses at me, a poor black woman who actually liked GTR, I would still attend a book signing and I do support this book. I even shed a tear when I heard about Peter Banks’ recent death. And I still support those Prog practitioners still out on the road. Anyone got an extra ticket for Rush?

Love, Loss & Renewal: Reading Love Saves the Day by Gwen Cooper

Ozzy & BookThis isn’t just a book review. It is more of an essay on the theme of loss, using elements of the book and my own experiences to address these issues.

A few years ago, Cooper gained worldwide renown for her book, Homer’s Odyssey, the story of her blind cat Homer and what she learned from him. Now Cooper is back with another feline, Prudence, in this Bantam Books novel about love, loss, and renewal. But when Cooper does a book tour, Kleenex should sponsor it, as I cried through most of the book. But that may say more about me than the plot of the book.

The story is mainly told from the point of view of Prudence, a brown tabby who lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with her Very Important Person, Sarah. Cooper makes sure to include details that would only be noticed by a cat – such as smells, sounds, and subtle changes that would not be picked up by humans.

When the story begins, Prudence is waiting for Sarah to come home. But Sarah hasn’t been home in five days. Instead, Sarah’s daughter Laura arrives with her husband Josh. Prudence is perplexed when they start to pack up Sarah’s belongings. Where has Sarah gone? “I’m still angry with Sarah for leaving me without saying goodbye. Mostly, though, I just hope I get to see her again someday. She’s the only human I’ve ever loved.”

Prudence is taken from her home in the Lower East Side to Sarah and Josh’s apartment on the Upper West Side. It takes her a while to get used to her new surroundings and she mostly stays in the spare room with the belongings that Laura has decided to keep, mostly Sarah’s “black disks.” Through conversations, we learn that Sarah used to be a DJ and a record owner in the seventies, but she gave it all up when Laura was fourteen. Chapters written from Laura’s point of view and flashbacks from Sarah fill in the details about their lives, but not the reason for their estrangement.

Time passes and Prudence discovers that the “Sarah-and-me-together smell” is fading from the boxes in the room. Other things are also changing. Josh loses his job and Laura’s workload is reduced. Laura is afraid that they will lose their apartment. Josh visits the neighborhood where Laura grew up and gets involved with helping tenants fight the sale of their apartment building, which has a famous studio on its bottom floor. Laura isn’t happy with his new passion, as it reminds her of the worse day of her life.

But Laura and Josh’s first anniversary becomes the worse day of Prudence’s life and the day when everything changes. During an argument that morning in front of Prudence, Josh mentions the fact that Laura didn’t take off work when her mother died. Prudence finally discovers the fate of her Very Important Person. She is devastated. “The ache in my chest from Sarah’s being gone rips back open so suddenly that I can’t breathe.” In her distress, Prudence eats some toxic flowers – and she feels the presence of Sarah.

But “love saves the day.” Not only is that the name of the store where the teenage Sarah met her best friend Anise, it is what brings Prudence back to life. Finding the kitten helped Sarah find music in her life again and Laura uses music to reach the unconscious feline who is the only link left to her mother. She realizes that her job is not as important as her family.

The mystery of what happened to Laura and Sarah is revealed. The miracle of Sarah finding Prudence at the spot where another beloved tabby perished brings the story full circle. And finally Laura is able to grieve for her mother and realize the depth of her mother’s love – though a long lost song. Prudence says, “I know now what Sarah meant when she said that if you remember someone, they’ll always be with you. Sarah is here with us now. As I listen to her sing, I know that she never left.”

The day that I finished the book was the seventeenth anniversary of the day I adopted my first cat, a Himalayan named Smokey. After I put the book down, I pulled out my photo album of Smokey, who died in March 2010. As I looked as the photos, I realized that not only did I no longer have Smokey, I no longer had most of the belongings shown in the photos with him. In December 2011, after three years of looking in vain for work, I was evicted from my apartment, along with my black cat Ozzy. Sarah’s story of watching her home being destroyed reminded me of throwing out the rugs, comforters and other belongings that I didn’t have room for in my storage unit. Like Prudence, everything smells strange to me now. I no longer have a home, a place with a “me smell.”

For seven months, I was separated from Ozzy, as I was homeless on the streets of Berkeley and Los Angeles for three months and then spent four months staying with friends while Ozzy stayed with a foster family. In July 2012, the foster family went on vacation and Ozzy had nowhere to go. I called the local no-kill shelter, where I had received volunteer training a month earlier. When the director stated the shelter couldn’t take Ozzy, I became hysterical, like Sarah became hysterical when she thought she would lose Laura. Previously, the director had offered to get Ozzy a free veterinary checkup, but when I tried to contact her after I had calmed down, she never returned my calls or e-mails. Like Laura, Ozzy was all I had left of my old life. But maybe if Ozzy had gone to the place that Prudence called “the Bad Place,” he wouldn’t still be with me. I know that he has health problems, but I am glad that my friends allowed him to stay with me. Once I get back on my feet, I will have to take him for a checkup, which may signal the end of our almost seventeen year relationship – the longest time I have lived with anyone other than my father. I find my eyes “filling up with water,” as Prudence would say.

But I will let those words about remembering be my guide. In Love Saves the Day, Cooper included some real life events from the Lower East Side and immortalized a long lost cat named Honey. The story of Prudence will remain with me for a long time as I face my own losses, memories, and renewal.

Book Review: Dance of the Electric Hummingbird by Patricia Walker

LinkedIn can be a wonderful thing. It hasn’t brought me the job of my dreams, as my career coaches implied, but it did bring a beautiful spirit into my life. I joined a group of memoir writers on LinkedIn and read the descriptions of the books that the participants were working on. Most of them were similar; stories about abuse, loss, and horrible events that had happened in their lives. I was quickly disillusioned with the group. My life stories weren’t anything like what these authors were writing about. Everyone has negative things happen in their lives, but I didn’t want to dwell on them.

But one author stood out from the group of doom and gloom chroniclers. Patricia Walker had written a book about a transformation that happened in her life, a transformation that involved rock musician Sammy Hagar. Transformation? Rock and roll? I was intrigued. I sent a message to Patricia, letting her know that I was glad to meet another rocker chick in the group. She referred me to her website, where I read some of her concert reviews and other postings. I felt a connection to this writer in Colorado, and looked forward to hearing more about her journey – both literary and personal.

Dance of the Electric Hummingbird is subtitled, “An ordinary woman’s accidental journey to enlightenment, the supernatural, and rock star Sammy Hagar.” It sounded like a lot to cover in 329 pages, but once I opened the book, I was immersed in Patricia’s story. On October 11, 2003, Patricia is in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with her second husband Dee to attend a series of shows at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina. Little did she know that after that night, her life would never be the same again. A hot, sweaty rock bar seems an unlikely venue for a transformative experience, but that is what happened. As Hagar started to sing “Dreams,” the words bring up memories from her past. She thinks about her life. But what is happening is more than a flashback. “The sensation of being an audience member falls away in slow motion, as my body suddenly becomes paralyzed, lighter than air, and I feel myself lift right out of it.” Her out of body experience fills her with positive sensations and brings joy into her soul. In a few minutes, it is over. At first, she wonders if she had drunk too much tequila, but she isn’t drunk – she is aware.

The feelings don’t fade, but become stronger. Pat reviews her life, including her abusive first marriage, which had caused her to question the beliefs of her Catholic faith. She becomes more in tune with her sexuality and more open in her musical tastes. But unexplained things keep happening to her. She starts writing them down in a journal. And where does Sammy Hagar fit into all of this? She writes a poem about her experience and sends it to Sammy. He writes to her and encourages her quest. She discovers that Sammy has also had supernatural experiences. Could they be related? He sends her a list of books to read and she discovers other authors and guides on her own.

Dee and Pat keep returning to Sammy Hagar shows – his birthday week shows in Cabo San Lucas and his Cinco de Mayo shows at his club in South Lake Tahoe. No longer “just a housewife,” she is drawn to the power and sensuality of rock and roll. The more she learns about energy changes and mystical transformations, the more she realizes that she and Sammy Hagar have a connection that may be part of another dimension. Her newfound transformation isn’t enough to stop personal losses in her life, but music once again saves her soul. “I’d been so wrapped up in grief and anger, and judging God and even myself, perhaps I was blocking anything positive from coming to me. I forgot about my passion and my connection to the Divine Spirit. I forgot all about my mystical journey. And because of that, I forgot how to live.”

At one of his shows, Sammy tells his audience about Pat and her poems. When she calls in on a radio show, Sammy says that she will write a book. He seems to have more faith in her than she has in herself. But she keeps writing and starts to get her poems published. She continues to correspond with Sammy. Birds appear as Spirit Guides whenever she starts to doubt her mission.

Pat doesn’t have all of the answers. But her book fills me with hope. A transformative experience is possible for all of us, even without a rock and roll soundtrack. Pat’s quest for the answers in and purpose of her life made me think about the events in my own life. I underlined one passage in the book, “…doing what we love most is an avenue available to all of us, and that’s what our lives are all about. Maybe when things don’t happen the way we think they should or as fast as we want them to, we give up and that’s the one reason nothing changes.” I recommend her book to anyone with an open mind, a questing soul, and a belief in a Higher Power.

(Pat’s book can be found on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, among other places. To receive an autographed copy, go to Pat’s website, http://www.bajarockpat.net. And the book is on sale in the gift shop at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.)

Welcome Back…

Today is the birthday of Soleil Esperanza DeSalle, one of the main characters in my novel, Three Chords One Song. If Soleil was a real person, she would be 34 today. When I “interviewed” her at the start of the novel, she “told” me that she was born on November 2, 1978. I had planned to write about her today, but after several false starts and after yesterday’s events, I decided to write about myself instead. What was I doing on November 2, 1978? Fortunately, it was easy to find out, as I have kept a diary since January 1, 1970, three days before my 13th birthday.

It wasn’t a very eventful day. I washed my hair and did laundry. I went to the hospital to visit my Aunt Elizabeth. I went to Hills, a department store similar to the Target of today. And I got a call for a job interview at Miller’s, a high-class ladies’ fashion store at South Hills Village, the local mall. In the fall of 1978, I was 21 and unemployed, having left my very first job, in retail sales, a few months before I graduated from Pitt, so I could devote my time to finishing my final term papers. I had spent the last few months looking for work and contemplating a life-altering decision. Two weeks later, I would get a job at Gimbels, a department store where I would work for the next year and a half, making some lifelong friends. The adventure of my adult life was just beginning, even though I didn’t know it at that time.

On November 1, 2012, my photo appeared in the online version of the New York Times, along with a few sentences from an interview I had with reporter Catherine Rampell on October 11, about issues affecting the long-term unemployed. The interview came about because a year earlier, I had sent one of my essays (a version of “Driven to Tears” is in the July Archive) to the National Employment Law Project and indicated that I would be willing to be interviewed by the media concerning unemployment issues. The interview took about an hour, but the text used in the article was three short paragraphs. The article didn’t mention the problems of finding work when potential employers required credit checks and the possession of “reliable personal transportation.” It indicated that after losing my apartment, I had stayed “occasionally at train stations.” Now, I don’t consider two nights spent sleeping at Union Station in Los Angeles to be “occasionally,” but I guess it sounded more interesting than my real LA experience of staying in emergency shelters for six weeks, staying in transitional housing in South Central for one month, and staying in a Santa Monica hostel for two weeks. But I am grateful for the publicity, even though I would rather my Times debut would have been on the Best Sellers List. I sent out e-mail to my friends and posted the link on my Facebook page. I gritted my teeth and even read some of the comments about the article on the website. (FYI – the article will be in today’s print edition of the paper.)

When I started work on the novel that would become Three Chords One Song, I knew that one of the main characters would be a female musician. After selecting the name from a song on Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, I visualized a tall, beautiful multicultural woman with the voice of an angel and the shredding skills of a demon. Soleil was created as a microcosm of many women I have known over the years, both personally and professionally. She is the descendant of the blues women I have admired, from Bessie Smith to Baby Washington to Romaine, a friend of my parents who used to visit when I was a little girl, who could coax magic from my old upright piano. Soleil’s story of tragedy and triumph is duplicated in the lives of women everywhere. She is all of us, with a bravado forged from fighting to make a name for herself in her world. As I was writing the book, I found Soleil to be the character that I was drawn to. Maybe in some ways she became my alter ego – the woman that I could only imagine becoming. Maybe she was the daughter I might have had if things would have been different 34 years ago.

Maybe years from now, I’ll look back on today’s diary. Maybe I’m embarking on the next adventure of my adult life, embracing my inner Soleil – whose middle name means “hope” – but I don’t know it yet. Today is also the birthday of keyboardist Keith Emerson. As ELP used to say, “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.” Maybe the show is just beginning. Only time will tell.

My eBook Three Chords One Song is now available on Amazon.com.

The New York Times article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/business/economy/lingering-unemployment-poses-long-term-risk.html

Book Review of Uncle John’s Band by Deborah Grabien

Finally, I was able to get my hands on Deborah Grabien’s latest installment of the JP Kinkaid Chronicles. In Book 6, Uncle John’s Band, guitarist JP Kinkaid, his wife Bree, and his bandmates stay close to his San Francisco home. I couldn’t wait to enter JP’s world again, the real world of rock/blues musicians told from and by the perspective of an insider.

After British rock band Blacklight’s phenomenal “Book of Days” tour and JP’s successful surgery and recovery after a heart attack, the guitarist finds himself ready to play live again. His local group, the Fog City Geezers, plays the 707 Club in San Rafael. By the end of the show, new faces have made appearances backstage. Promoter Norfolk Lind, his business partner Star Woodley, and Lind’s son Curtis, the new boyfriend of Solange, daughter of Blacklight’s other guitarist Luke Headley, meet JP and Bree. But the meeting isn’t a first for all of them, as Bree and Star share a secret past.

After the show, Bree tells JP about their past connection, which involves him and his first encounter with a seventeen-year-old Bree. But in spite of that decades-old history, Bree agrees to host a meeting at their home for the new owners of the 707 Club, which include Norfolk Lind and Star Woodley. Days after an altercation between Bree and Star during the meeting, Star is the sole casualty in a fire that destroys the 707 Club during a private performance of the Fog City Geezers, who are joined by several members of Blacklight. The fire is determined to be arson and Bree is advised to get a lawyer. JP and Bree hire investigator Patrick Ormand to find out who and what was the real cause of the fire. The mysterious and volatile Norfolk Lind seems to have a lot of enemies, including his own son, but would he have killed his business partner?

But of course, things aren’t always what they seem. As everyone waits for the formal fire investigation to be completed, life goes on. JP works on a new song with singer/guitarist Curtis Lind, Solange gets acclimated to her new San Francisco home and career, and Bree gains and loses an attorney. When Ormond discovers new information about the minority shareholders of the Club, JP visits an old acquaintance that he didn’t expect to see again for a long time.

As she has done in the previous books, Grabien details what life is like for a musician with multiple sclerosis. Now JP’s implantable cardioverter defibrillator and Bree’s diabetes are added to the mix. But life hasn’t slowed down for the couple, nor have their limitations diminished their affection for each other. There are a few well-placed comments about the state of health care in America that resonated, especially in this election year. The resolution of the mystery is satisfying and logical, but a few twists along the way keep it from being obvious.

In spite of the title, there are fewer musical performances in this book when compared with some of the other books in the series.  But with the Fog City Geezers getting a recording contract, the 707 Club being rebuilt, and three more books left in the series, I’m sure that JP will be bringing out Little Queenie and Big Mama Pearl for some more rock and roll blues.

Uncle John’s Band is a great story, with characters and situations that keep readers interested until the last page. Even though there are references to the previous books in the series, this story can be enjoyed on its own merit. I’m looking forward to Book 7 and the next adventure in this rocker’s life.

Finding Mik

He had gotten a faraway sad look in his eyes until the waitress brought his coffee. Then he turned on his rock star charm and smiled broadly, displaying perfect teeth. Lucy shook her head and watched the performance.

A woman with salt and pepper hair had timidly approached the table. “Mr. DeSalle, may I have your autograph?” She handed him a pen and a page from her pocket calendar. Lucy noticed that the date was August 3, Mik’s birthday.

Mik’s smile had broadened and he absentmindedly tossed his hair. The woman told him about the first time that she saw Sheffield Steel in person. When the woman looked over at Lucy, Mik had said proudly, “This is my daughter, Lucy.”

 

I can’t remember when I met fictional singer/guitarist Mik DeSalle. When I decided I wanted to write a novel about a rock star, I got a certain image in my mind. It was an image of the classic rock star of the seventies – bare chest, long blond hair, tight pants, open shirt – the look of musicians like Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, and Peter Frampton, among others. I remembered staying up late as a teenager to watch Midnight Special and Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert, having rock star images invade my television screen and dreams. Those golden gods were larger than life and light years away from my reality. But I never forgot them or the music they created.

Since my novel, Three Chords One Song, starts with Mik’s untimely demise, he is not a physical character in the book. He only appears as a flashback and a disembodied recorded voice. But his influence on the women he leaves behind is one of the main themes. Even though I have never experienced a rock star lifestyle, I can imagine the toll that it must take on those left behind. But the same can be said for the loved ones of  anyone compelled to follow a dream that involves years of sacrifice and dedication.

I created a data sheet for my main characters, but I don’t remember if I ever did one for Mik – probably not, since he was dead. But I knew his backstory intimately – I think that it mirrored my own. Mik was born a few years before me and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. I was raised about twenty miles southwest of Pittsburgh. His dad was a steelworker – so were the fathers of some of my friends and relatives. Music was always a means of escape for me. If I could have been a musician instead of just a music fan, I’m sure it would have made a profound difference in my life. Mik decided to leave Pittsburgh to become a famous musician. I left western Pennsylvania to become a rock journalist – which never happened, except for a few pieces here and there over the years.

An editor told me that she couldn’t understand why all of these women loved Mik. I could tell that she didn’t grow up listening to Led Zeppelin or the Who. She didn’t have posters of Zeppelin and Frampton on her wall. She had never sat in a club or bar and felt the energy change when a rock star entered the room, all eyes turn like flowers towards the sun. I couldn’t really put into words what his attraction was, just like I couldn’t tell you why I fell in love with heavy metal and hard rock while my peers did not. I knew that Mik had to be born in August – a month that is filled with rock star birthdays, including Jerry Garcia, Joe Elliott, David Crosby, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Rob Halford, Keith Moon, Gene Simmons, and Robert Plant. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, Mik shares his birthday with James Hetfield of Metallica.

But it wasn’t until I was doing the last edit that I discovered Mik’s main flaw. He never grew up. I spent the better part of a decade writing the novel, but it wasn’t until I realized some personal truths that I was mature enough to recognize this fact. He never grew up to be a responsible husband and father, a man accountable for his actions. Even when the fame was gone, he still expected the perks, especially unconditional love no matter what he did, or didn’t do. He got the love, but could never return it. And that is why he left three daughters confused by and deprived of love. Maybe there is a statement in the story about my own confusion about love.

So Happy Birthday, Mik – man who never was but will always be a part of me. We shared some good times and bad times over the years. I hope the world will love you as much as I do. But even if they don’t, I’ll always be here for you. Thank you for being a part of my personal story.

 

Three Chords One Song is available as an eBook from Genesis Press (www.genesis-press.com).

Book Review : The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer

After reading Rescue Me and The Starter Wife, I was interested in meeting Grazer’s latest strong female protagonist in The After Wife. Hannah Marsh Bernal has the perfect life – an entertainment industry job she loves and a husband and daughter she adores. But it all falls apart on one fateful Saturday morning. Her husband John, a professional chef and author, leaves home for the local farmer’s market and is killed in a hit and run accident. Hannah tells us what it is like to have her life changed forever. In a few short hours, she goes from a woman making love to her husband to a widow in a world not sympathetic to sadness. “Grieving widows, a living sign of human vulnerability, are as welcome as chlamydia.”

I quickly became enmeshed in Hannah’s world. We go along with Hannah and her “Grief Team” – best friends Jay, Chloe, and Aimee – to the yoga studios, spas, cafes, and landmarks of Santa Monica. But Hannah also has more ethereal visitors. First, it is a voice in the backyard intoning, “It’s not true what they say.” A few months later, Hannah has another encounter with Trish, the deceased former owner of her North of Montana Avenue (NoMo) home, Casa Sugar. At a spa, while talking to best friend Aimee about a V-Steam, she sees a man sitting next to her, who she later discovers is Aimee’s deceased grandfather. When her daughter Ellie gets kicked out of a prestigious pre-school for mentioning that she still sees her father, Hannah sees the principal’s deceased grandmother. When she contacts a spiritualist on Halloween, she is told that her backyard is full of the dead. She loses her job when the dead relatives of her colleagues interrupt a crucial production meeting. Then she starts finding messages in the food in the refrigerator. But when John finally contacts her, he tells her that the police report is wrong. Now, not only does Hannah have to deal with living as a widow, she has to find her husband’s Range Rover-driving killer and listen to all of the dead people who have decided to use her as a conduit.

After coffee dates with a handsome widowed banker, they decide to go on a real date. That’s when Hannah finds out that she also sees the newly departed. She sees the deceased mother of the principal of her daughter’s new school minutes before the principal receives the phone call. She sees her best friend’s dog minutes before a coyote’s howl and the dog turns up missing. What does it all mean? Is Hannah destined to have a foot in both worlds? When she discovers a secret about one of her best friends, she asks herself, “Was I helping people with this ‘gift?’ Or hurting them?”

But life goes on, even for those visited by the dead. The bills pile up, but no job offers are on the horizon and no life insurance payment either. Hannah loses a job as a barista and accepts an offer to sell Casa Sugar and leave NoMo. But of course, that doesn’t happen, once Hannah discovers that she can contact the other side for profit. She is able to save her house while giving others closure with their departed loved ones. The final chapter solves the mystery of John’s death and lets us know that Hannah and her “Grief Team” have a lot of happiness in their future.

I liked Hannah, the reluctant widow who learns to reinvent herself while picking up the pieces of her life and the clues to her husband’s demise. Her descriptions of life North of Montana Avenue made me chuckle. Fate made Hannah realize that her lifestyle was a fleeting one. “I was gawking at my future – typical Santa Monica homeless woman – and she was mocking her past – typical Santa Monica latte-slinging, hand-wringing, hybrid-driving, liberal-voting, yoga mat-toting bourgeoisie.” But in spite of the humorous descriptions of Santa Monica residents, it is obvious that Hannah, and Glazer, love the residents of Santa Monica. A fun, uplifting read and another success for Gigi Levangie Grazer.

The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer will be published on July 10, 2012, by Ballantine Books

 

Book Review of “Graceland” by Deborah Grabien


I love Deborah Grabien’s JP Kinkaid Chronicles series, published by Plus One Books. So far, six books have been published in the series. The latest one, Uncle John’s Band, came out this month. This is my review of Graceland, the fourth book in the series and the first one I read. I went back and read the earlier books, then Book of Days, which came out last September. I want to hang out with these characters! Thank you, Deborah, for giving me some cool new friends.

I don’t like mysteries. But I do like rock and roll. The only way an author could ever get me to read a mystery would be to give it a rock and roll backdrop. San Francisco author Deborah Grabien does just that in her JP Kinkaid Chronicles. I happened upon Graceland, the fourth book in the series, one day at my local library. The cover photo of an empty stage with a Gibson electric guitar in a stand in one corner intrigued me. Once I read writer/musician Grabien’s bio, I knew I would be checking out this book.

Grabien’s protagonist, renowned British guitarist and San Francisco resident JP Kinkaid, is immensely likeable from the first page. Kinkaid, like Grabien, has multiple sclerosis, which plays a prominent role in the character’s daily life and his interaction with people, most notably his wife Bree. The story resolves around the induction of guitarist Farris “Bulldog” Moody, one of Kinkaid’s Mississippi Delta heroes, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When Ches Kobel, a writer who spent time with legendary blues sideman, is found dead of a heart attack in front of the Hall of Fame building in Cleveland, Kinkaid suspects foul play. Throughout the book, Grabien immerses her readers in the world of seasoned musicians. And she inundates us with what it is like for a guitarist to travel through that world while dealing with a debilitating illness. Grabien spends a lot of time developing the relationship between Kinkaid and his wife. From their unspoken communication cues to their sex life, she provides a fine portrait of a complicated, but loving relationship. I have not read the earlier books in the series, but it feel like this development has been a progression from one book to the next. It is a lot different from the stereotyped portrayal of the personal life of a rock star.

Halfway through the book, I figured out the identity of the murderer, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. But the story left me with several questions. Is a biological lineage really more important than a perceived heritage? And does it matter, as long as you believe? I plan to pick up the three previous books to learn more about the world of JP Kinkaid and his bandmates. According to the list at the front of the book, Grabien plans five more books in the series. I’m looking forward to reading every one. But just don’t call them mysteries, okay?

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