Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940
By Gary Giddins
$30, Little, Brown
While the halls of popular culture still echo with the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, the man who made both of these icons possible seems to have fallen off pop's fickle radar screen. These days, as Gary Giddins points out in his splendid biography (now in a softcover edition), Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years, 1903-1940, if der Bingle is thought of at all, it's for his avuncular duet with David Bowie, "Little Drummer Boy," during a 1977 Christmas special.
For the uninitiated, Giddins' book should be a revelation - and, for the rest of us, it's a welcome reintroduction to a trailblazing artist. That's right: trailblazing. When Harry Lillis Crosby left Spokane to try his luck as an entertainer in Los Angeles, whether a song was a hit or not was measured by the sales of its sheet music.
In less than 20 years, this would change, due largely to a demand created by Crosby's extraordinary popularity. Crosby didn't create the record business, but he made it a big deal. He was also the first musician to realize that the microphone was an instrument unto itself, a discovery that forever changed the relationship between singers and their audiences.
Most important of all, though, was Crosby's seemingly effortless mastery of jazz singing. As Giddins makes clear, Crosby did for jazz what Presley would do for rock - he didn't just appropriate a black idiom, he embraced it. Indeed, no less a light than Louis Armstrong considered Crosby the finest singer of his generation. Or, as bandleader Artie Shaw famously put it: "The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States."
Crosby, of course, would go on to revolutionize radio and then dominate the movies. He would, in short, be willingly adopted as the archetypal 20th century American guy: easy-going, accomplished and quick with a quip. His amazing trajectory wasn't without cost though. As Crosby"s star ascended through the Depression era 1930s, he distanced himself from jazz in favor of Hollywood sentiment. Giddins takes the reader up to this point in Crosby's life.
It's the story of a self-taught artist endowed with an uncanny originality who leads a kind of rake's progress through the speakeasy scene of the Roaring '20s, playing with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Armstrong and Paul Whiteman, passing out under tables and in hotel rooms, yet finding success at every turn. In Giddins' hands, Crosby's story also turns out to be a history of 20th century American pop culture, from minstrel shows and vaudeville to records, radio and movies. It's a big book and a welcome point of entry to the sunlit music of this unflappably elegant, peculiarly American stylist. -David Hoppe
Hello to the Cannibals
By Richard Bausch
In the prologue to Richard Bausch's Hello to the Cannibals, the reader learns that two things happened to Lily Austin on the night of her 14th birthday. She was traumatized by the sexual assault of an elderly man and she received a book called Great Explorers that includes a photograph of Mary Kingsley in it.
Her parents, actors absorbed in the drama of their own lives, worry a little about the sudden change in her after that night; they're bemused by her obsession with Mary Kingsley's West African adventures. But they're easily enough convinced that Lily's withdrawal into a private world reflects no more than the natural secrecy of adolescence.
Lily keeps her secret, living with "a strange non-feeling chill at her heart," until she is a senior in college and a chance meeting with her roommate"s half-brother, Tyler Harrison, awakens her. She's drawn to him immediately, and he feels the same way. But he appears and disappears over the next few months, threatening her already fragile emotional state until, finally, suddenly, he proposes marriage.
Adrift, desperately in love with him, she says yes. Ho-hum, you're thinking. But this is not your ordinary love story. All too soon, Lily's life with Tyler begins to unravel and she becomes immersed again in the life of Mary Kingsley, determined to finish a play she's been working on for years.
The book moves back and forth between their lives, bridging them with letters Lily writes to Mary in her loneliest moments and letters Mary Kingsley addressed to an imaginary person "somewhere far past the boundaries of [her] life." Sustained by Mary's courage in following her dream deep into Africa, Lily becomes an adventurer in her own journey of self-discovery.
As with any good novel, you can't help but wonder where Hello to the Cannibals came from. A traumatic sexual experience; an adventurous Victorian woman; selfish parents; careless, fateful intimacy born of loneliness; a boy who appears at just the right - or wrong - moment. Bausch deftly weaves all this and more into a story about a bright, damaged girl coming of age in a vacuum, struggling to understand the joys and obligations and sorrows of making a family that will last and how to hold the nearly impossible balance between passion and real, enduring love. -Barb Shoup
By William Gibson
Cayce Pollard has a gift that places her in great demand with the world's largest and most powerful advertising agencies and media consultancies. She has an intuitive grasp of logos and icons that allows her to simply know whether or not they'll be successful. Multibillion-dollar marketing campaigns are launched or aborted on her word. (And it is literally her word - yes or no. Cayce is not allowed to make creative comments or suggestions and is not qualified to do so.)
Cayce Pollard's gift is also her curse. She becomes violently ill at the sight of the Michelin Man. Her clothing must be free of logos and tags. She is obsessed with a mysterious series of film clips posted on the Internet - creator, location, intention unknown. She is not the only one; even beyond the worldwide Internet community of similarly obsessed individuals, the mavens of marketing want the creator of the footage found, its peculiar power harnessed for their own ends.
Cayce is also haunted by the specter of her father, who disappeared in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson has created a novel set in a present that feels like the future. Devotees of Gibson's genre-defining cyberpunk novels will be right at home in the London, Tokyo, Moscow and, most especially, cyberspace these characters inhabit, where people get to know each other through Google searches and e-mail correspondence.
In a profound way, Cayce Pollard's nationality is Internet: She may intuit the next new thing on the streets of New York and Mexico City, but she is truly comfortable only when she's plugged into the Web. Readers unfamiliar with Gibson's fully immersive style would do well to be patient; Pattern Recognition is peppered with Japanese phrases, technospeak, insider jargon and street slang, and the effect can be maddening. Gibson explains nothing. It's his story, and he's not waiting for you to get it. But your patience will be rewarded.
Gibson's clipped, sharp-edged prose reveals a world that is dense and dangerous and sadly beautiful: a post-Sept. 11 world in which many of us are still dealing with ghosts, still searching for a place we belong, still scanning the ether for a grand design we can understand and embrace. -Ken Honeywell
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
By Adrian LeBlanc
Some stories of poverty we read out of a sense of moral obligation, but once in a great while, a book like Random Family comes along, so compelling, so vibrant, with so many unexpected joys and unimaginable, everyday tragedies that it not only demands to be read, but is impossible to put down.
LeBlanc spent more than a decade, from the mid-'80s to the end of the '90s, chronicling the lives of four kids from the same impoverished Puerto Rican Bronx neighborhood: Jessica, a charismatic, sexually voracious young woman who soon becomes one of the many lovers of Boy George, a roguish up-and-coming drug lord whose genius for crime matches his head for business; Jessica's younger brother Cesar is a sweet-faced street punk with a taste for violence, who falls in love with Coco, a relentlessly optimistic little dynamo with fierce maternal instincts.
Parents, lovers, friends, enemies and children drift in and out of their young lives over the years, but for better or worse, the fates of these four are inextricable. At first, Boy George's heroin business bankrolls an impossibly lavish lifestyle, and he and Jessica escape the Bronx in chauffeured limos and even a yacht; George's generosity to Jessica is matched by his brutal possessiveness of her.
Back in the Bronx, Cesar's criminal activities grow deadly serious as Coco's love for him deepens; he is in juvenile detention when she gives birth to their first child. An FBI investigation of Boy George lands both he and Jessica in prison, and Cesar gets 14 years for accidentally shooting his best friend during a gunfight with a rival gang. Coco marshals the courage to move her ever-growing family out of the Bronx in an attempt to escape the violence of the city, but finds the same struggles of single motherhood waiting for her in upstate.
Though these themes - poverty, abuse, violence, dependence - are relentlessly familiar, Random Family is remarkable for LeBlanc's approach to the narrative. LeBlanc excises any trace of her own authorial perspective, forcing the reader to engage with Jessica, George, Coco and Cesar on their own terms and in their own words. If it is true that God is in the details, then LeBlanc's meticulous reporting reveals the grace amidst the chaos of this fragmented, de facto family, and the millions of others like it. -Summer Wood