Soul Serenade: Rhythm Blues and Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison

This is a solid four and a half star read. I loved this book! It is an autobiographical memoir of Rashod Ollison, writer and music critic. The story is set in Arkansas. Part in Malvern and Hot Springs where his parents are from, met, married and divorced and part set in Little Rock.

The story is relateable and contemporary. The voice the story is written in is so strong and the characters so well drawn that there were times I had to remind myself this was not an amazing fiction novel. The truth rings clear and the author doesn’t shy away from the tough times – when money is tight, times are lean and the lights get turned off.

It is also not populated by stereotypical characters. The people are real and they are portrayed in all of their fullness, richness and reality. His mom is a tough cookie and she comes from a family of tough cookies. His dad is a man driven my PTSD from Vietnam and being enabled by his family.

But it is the author’s personal journey that is so inspiring and moving. A gifted and talented person who from childhood is derided by friends and family as being a “faggot” and who comes to terms with his sexuality over the course of the novel.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I think it’s wonderful for anyone but I would love to see this book in high school libraries and on high school reading lists. I plan to share this book as widely as possible. I look forward to reading more from this author and would love to see him do some fiction writing in the future.

Critical Perspectives: Masculinity in Breaking Bad

This book is comprised of a series of round table discussions and essays written by academics, discussing how masculinity is portrayed in the television series “Breaking Bad”. There are ten chapters and a large annotated bibliography as well as an episode list.

The book is heavily academic so for those looking for episode recaps or easily accessible discussion this is not the book for you. It is definitely tilted toward university and college academics and those interested in academic discussions of popular culture. To that end, the book is high quality and is a very viable piece of source material for those who want to use it as such.

Some of the essays are better than others. Those that I liked, while maintaining an academic tone, also were more reader friendly and made the reader feel a part of the conversation. A couple of the essays were almost arrogant in tone, talking down to the reader. Those also happened to be the ones that were far less well written.The round table discussions were interesting and well put together making them easy to follow.

The one thing I think I found most disappointing about the book was that every essay and discussion focused on the same limited number of episodes. In five seasons of “Breaking Bad” there was plenty of material and characters that could have been discussed in relation to masculinity in this series. Most of the writing focused solely on Walter and Skyler White.

The book could have been much stronger if more of the episodes had been discussed in relation to the subject matter. I also think there could have been some positive critical perspectives about masculinity from both sexes. It felt like the masculinity being explored was less critical analysis and more just critical.

All of that being said, I would still recommend the book. Once I started reading, I was hooked and my interest never wavered. I found it hard to put down and I was always looking for a bit of time to read a few more pages or another chapter. If you like “Breaking Bad” this is a fun book with heavy ideas on which to chew.

Wind/pinball by Haruki Murakami

This was my introduction to Murakami. I can say with certainty that I will be exploring other more recent novels by this author but I did enjoy the opportunity to read these two previously unpublished novellas which is where his journey began.

The forward is wonderful. In the authors own words, he takes the reader on a journey through his process and inspiration for writing. He also readily acknowledges that both works are raw – these were his first explorations as he picked up a pen and told a story for someone else to read. As such, readers, both those who know his work and those who don’t, should be prepared for lack of polish and raw talent.

Both stories revolve around an unnamed narrator who frequents a small bar run by a Chinese man. His friend and former roommate Rat also plays a role in each story. More in the first than the second. The setting is Tokyo circa 1970’s. The more intimate settings take place in the bar and the narrators home.

“Wind” was the weaker of the two stories. It was disjointed and at times difficult to follow. There didn’t seem to be any clear purpose except getting pen to paper. There were glimpses of interest – a paragraph here, a sentence there and just the beauty of language which translated well from Japanese to English.

On the other hand, I loved “Pinball.” The story contained better writing and there was a recognizable beginning, middle and end. The narrator lives in a small apartment with a set of twins that he is sleeping with. They provide a little comic relief throughout the book. He works with a partner translating books, essays and other written works into Japanese.

In the bar, mentioned previously, the narrator becomes enthralled with a pinball game. He gets on a kick where he plays the machine repeatedly upping his score. Mysteriously one day, the pinball machine is removed from the shop. It turns out that the Chinese man merely had the machine on a lease.

The narrator becomes almost obsessed with tracking down the machine. He goes to arcades all around Tokyo. Eventually he is introduced to an academic who is also obsessed with pinball and pinball machines. He directs the narrator to a large warehouse on the outskirts of Tokyo where a collector is housing all manner of pinball machines including the one from the bar.

The writing in both is less story motivated and more about the big themes in life: loneliness, obsession, anomie and evoking emotions from the reader. I enjoyed this book but am looking forward to reading some of his more finished work.