Lots of notable books have found their way to my desk over the past few months, and it’s impossible to cover all of them in a monthly column. So here are quick takes on some of the more interesting titles…
David Byrne: Bicycle Diaries (Viking)
This is easily one of the most overrated books of the year, and I’ve long been a fan of Byrne’s. In fact, I’m the guy who didn’t balk at the Brazilian detour years ago--in fact, I loved the show at the Lyric--and I enjoyed the PowerPoint stuff and was intrigued by his concept of playing a building. So I’ve stood by Byrne through thick and thin and given him extra points for not reconvening Talking Heads for a Pixies-ish cash grab. But who really cares about the bike lanes in Istanbul, especially if it’s little more than a flimsy excuse to purge diary entries that aren’t particularly compelling or revealing. And Byrne has nothing good to say about his former hometown, which is a shame, because there’s a lot going on in Baltimore that he should know about. But the globetrotting culture vulture seems totally oblivious to the likes of Dan Deacon, Blaqstarr, Beach House, etc., and his characterization of the city is pretty much limited to bland proclamations that Baltimore, like D.C., is “outside the government buildings and white enclaves, depressing, sad, and dangerous.” Qu'est-ce que f**k?
Taylor Branch: The Clinton Tapes (Simon & Schuster)
It's somewhat disappointing this book wasn't drawn directly from the tapes Branch and Bill Clinton recorded during the latter’s eight years in the White House. Rather, it’s based on Branch’s recollections of those taped conversations, because he didn’t have access to the recordings after they were made. So those of us accustomed to Branch’s deep sourcing and nuanced analysis drawn from multiple perspectives might feel a bit cheated this time around. But Branch’s sharp intellect and precise writing make this a good read, one that provides a behind the scenes portrait of a brilliant and flawed man living inside the presidential bubble.
Madison Smartt Bell: Devil’s Dream (Pantheon)
This historical novel about Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest returns Bell to his native south after a fruitful turn in Haiti (from All Souls Rising to his 2007 bio of Toussaint Louverture). It’s a welcome change, because Bell’s familiarity with the area allows him to define and bring to life the dichotomies that frame the region, the war, and the general. It’s a cinematic characterization, one that would translate to the silver screen. Note: it also includes the most vexing sentence Bell has ever written, an epic 91-word construction that uses the word “vixen” twice and concludes with “his hot milk burst into her dark molasses.” Still, his potent prose wins the day.