We all have that one book that we like that just never seems to get the love it deserves. Sure, it might not be the best book ever, but is it so bad that it should be regulated to the bottom shelf of the world's worst thrift store, ignored for all time? Here's five books that in my opinion should be getting much more praise than they currently do. And, yes, I've read all of these!
The Last Rock Star Book: Or: Liz Phair, a Rant
by Camden Joy
A down on his luck writer is commissioned to write a quickie bio of musician Liz Phair but can't get his life together enough to even get her song lyrics correct, much less finish the book. Haunted by the memories of his sister who ran away from home when he was young, his ex-girlfriend who just might be the illegitimate daughter of dead sixties rock star Brian Jones, and a photograph of a mysterious woman, Joy writes in a spit it out spiel like a man setting fire to his life. At turns hilarious, sad, morbid, and
too true and familiar, this rambling journey of a rant on a life gone haywire is compelling and, for me as an outsider musician, hits extremely close to home.
Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality
by Paul Barber
Vampires and the undead have been a constant in many culture's myths and legends for thousands of years. Across the world, the stories are eerily similar. Yet how is this so? Paul Barber wondered about this and has written an excellent book here that starts out with true accountings of actual claimed vampire encounters throughout history, then moves onto the scientific rational of how a decomposing corpse could have been believed to have become a vampire. Now we ain't talking about Dracula or Twilight here, which Barber makes clear; he makes a distinction between "fictional" vampires and those of folklore. He's after the facts, and only the facts.
This book is not for the squeamish as Barber gets extremely detailed with what happens to a human body after it's buried, and believe me, it ain't pretty. Thankfully Barber presents it with a slyness that makes it palatable, entertaining, and informative. I love books like this.
Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels
by Richard Halliburton
I found this vintage thick hardback book in a thrift store and bought it for a buck. The cover was fading, the spine cracked and falling apart, the pages beginning to crumble, but the pictures inside were deliciously intriguing to a guy who grew up watching Indiana Jones and whose favorite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia. Richard Halliburton was a world traveler and a popular travel writer before there was such a thing. He didn't just travel to strange lands and write about them, he told stories about these far away lands, their strange customs, the intriguing people who lived there, and found a way to make it mesmerizing for his audience. All the while talking himself into as a celebrityhood in the process.
After finding this book I looked up just who Richard Halliburton was and discovered he was a homosexual writer, out and proud in the pre World War Two era, who hung out with Hollywood elite, writers, politicians, and scientists, and disappeared without a trace on a voyage across the Pacific ocean in a Chinese junk.
During his journeys he did amazing things such as jumping off waterfalls, swimming solo through the Panama Canal, descending into the Mayan Well of Death, he rode an elephant cross the Alps, climbed the Matterhorn, made the first winter ascent of Mt. Fuji, snuck into the Taj Mahal to take photographs, and flew a small plane around the world for 18 months. (On this trip he took the first aerial photograph of Mount Everest, was the first to fly a plane into the Philippines, and nearly lost his life when he forgot to fasten his seatbelt before the pilot did a loop in their open cockpit biplane!)
He was not only a real life Indiana Jones, turns out he was one of the actual real life inspirations for Indiana Jones. Many of the places he visited in these books no longer exist, their once proud monuments crumbling, the jungles and deserts grown over with cities, holy places turned into tourist traps, so all we have left is Halliburton's whimsical prose and haunting photographs. Why Hollywood has yet to make a movie about Halliburton and his marvelous life has me completely mystified.
Howard the Duck (Film Novelization)
by Ellis Weiner, based on a script by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Do you recall a time when every single movie that was released had its book counterpart? The "novelization" of the film as it were. I'm not talking about films made from books like Fight Club or The Accidental Tourist but when, in order to make even more money off a profitable film, the studio would hire a writer—usually some hack, or a writer in need of cash while he was between blockbusters, occasionally a good writer just looking to score some extra cash and willing to write under a pseudonym—to quickly type up a few hundred pages based on the screenplay and release it into bookstores the week of the film's release. There were literally tens of thousands of these in the pre-internet age.
I had read the Howard the Duck comics in the seventies, and came across the novelization paperback the week before the movie came out. I devoured it in one sitting, laughing my way through the entire thing, and couldn't wait to check out the movie. I actually called in sick to work the next day and walked by myself to the movie theater not far from my apartment so entranced was I with the book. I couldn't wait any longer to see this film. Imagine my disappointment. Yes, the movie was pretty horrible. Not at all like the very funny, edgy, and capable comic book it was based on, and not even close to the funny, engaging story I had read the night before. The movie was not very funny, way too long, and that duck costume was plain horrible.
I went back home afterwards and read the book again. The novelization of the movie, written by a writer with the unlikely name of Ellis Weiner (one of the looney writers for National Lampoon) is masterpiece in how to take a third-rate movie script and—while still remaining true to that script—find a way to make it stronger, funnier, and so much better than what ended up on film. Weiner writes like Harlan Ellison in his lighter moments, gives us plenty of interior dialogue so we know what's going on inside the character's heads, and finds a way to actually make sense of quite a bit of the plot holes and silliness that was onscreen. He adds entire scenes that were never scripted, even adding in characters and sub-plots that were never there, yet it all works, everything fits into place naturally as if it were meant to be. They should reshoot this film based on Weiner's book. It would completely change people's minds about Howard the Duck. I've re-read this book at least four times over the years and it's always a fun, quick, escapist journey.
Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World
by Joe Adamson
This book is so much more than a biography on the most original comedy team of all time. Adamson understands that nobody wants to read a boring, stiff account of the Marx Brothers and their lives, so he gives us a rollicking read full of one-liners, double-entendres, and comedic double-takes without losing the thread of the story. The Marxes were kings of improv, always two steps ahead of their peers (but only occasionally their bookies and ex-wives) and led incredibly interesting lives outside of the movies.
A highlight for me is the tales of Hollywood's infancy. The Marx Brothers started in theater and were some of the first popular talkies to be filmed. You think Hollywood is a crazy town now, you should have seen it back then.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
by Herman Melville
If you've gotten this far into this essay you're probably saying to yourself "Wait just a gosh darned minute, this is book number six! The title says five books, not six!" Well I am a bass player first, a writer second, and neither one of those is a mathematician, so you'll just have to deal with it. Besides, now you get to read about Moby-Dick. Yes, THAT Moby Dick. "But," you say, "Moby-Dick's a classic! Everyone's heard of it, everyone knows the story, I thought this essay was about lesser known books?" Sure, but how many of you have actually sat down and read what just may be the best American novel of all-time and read it all the way through cover to cover? Not watch one of the many film versions, (This is the type of book that, no matter hard everyone tries, nobody could ever do a film adaptation justice.) but actually read the damn thing? It's a true classic for a reason. Yes, it's long; yes, it's a hard read, but it's also so satisfying.
Melville was an excellent and many layered writer. His writing style has held up over the centuries, better than many writers of his era. Melville used every trick there was in this tome. Chapters that were written like a Shakespearean stage play complete with director's notes. Chapters that were nothing more than a history of whaling, or an exposition on how a whaling ship worked. There's so much symbolism packed onto every page one could spend years trying to decipher it all. Melville created a genre that had not fully existed before and brought the characters to life so well they practically leapt off the page and became a part of our common heritage. The opening sentence is one of the most famous in the English language, the plot familiar to millions of people who have never even read it.
This is a tale of obsession, religious fury, the madness of men, and still incredibly relevant in today's world.
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville.