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Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Broke, USA," "Shell Game," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Thursday July 8, 2010
SIGNED, SEALED, AND DELIVERED: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder
SIGNED, SEALED, AND DELIVERED: The Soulful Journey of Stevie WonderMark Ribowsky
ISBN 978-0-470-48150-9
337 pages

WHEN THAT ROUGH GOD GOES RIDING: Listening to Van MorrisonGreil Marcus
Public Affairs
ISBN 978-1-586-48821-5
195 pages

Reviewed by Dave Shiflett
The lives of celebrity musicians are a bookseller's dream, especially when there's plenty of sex, detox and perhaps a spin at talking in tongues before the star expires in hideous delirium -- hopefully with cameras rolling. These new books on Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison are a little light on the lurid, but their subjects have produced substantial bodies of work, especially Wonder. Both are also still with us, and both books hold out hope they have more good music up their somewhat frayed sleeves.
Mark Ribowsky's "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered" bills itself as the first biography of the Motown wunderkind -- now 60 -- who has racked up 26 Grammys and 34 top-10 hits in a career spanning nearly a half-century. Wonder's life has its intriguing aspects. Born in Saginaw, Mich., in 1950, he lost his eyesight hours after birth, and there is some dispute over his exact birth name; Ribowsky writes that the name on his incubator may have been Steveland Morris, though other accounts say he was born Steveland Judkins, which was later changed to Morris. There was also a booze-guzzling father who doubled as his mother's pimp and a later trip to a faith healer in hopes of bringing the boy's eyes back to life.
His ears, however, were always top-notch. He played the bongos before he could walk and was a prodigy on another front as well, having his first sexual experience as early as age 8 (his sex drive never seems to have deserted him, as Ribowsky reminds us throughout the book). While there are also plenty of details about Wonder's hardscrabble upbringing and latter troubles, including a residual sadness and a near-fatal encounter with a logging truck on a North Carolina highway, the emphasis is on his music.
It's not always a pretty picture.
Wonder inked his first Motown contract at age 11, signing the document with an "X." His virtuosity as a harmonica player, infectious stage presence and eventually a long string of hits won him many fans, including Ribowsky, who writes that Wonder is "dripping in genius" and "he is more than cool. He is real." There's no doubting his contribution to the American popular music songbook, from early hits such as "Fingertips (Part 2)" (1963), "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" (1965) and "For Once in My Life" (1968) to terrific albums including "Talking Book" (1972) and "Songs in the Key of Life" (1976), the latter, in Ribowsky's view, representing Wonder's creative peak.
Ribowsky's reverence does not always extend to Wonder's musical associates, and his book will reinforce many negative stereotypes about the music business. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, comes across as the Tyrannosaurus rex of music industry weasels. The contracts he offered musicians, Ribowsky writes, "could be the definition of chattel." According to the author, the proceeds from a million-selling record went almost entirely into Gordy's deep pockets: the artist would get $20,000 while Gordy would take $730,000 plus whatever expenses he wanted to tack on. No wonder Marvin Gaye referred to Gordy's company as the "Gestapo." Gordy also claims to have come up with the name "Stevie Wonder," though Ribowsky suggests an origin lower down the corporate roster.
Gordy was not the only one to exploit Wonder, and he certainly treated him with more respect than other musical colleagues, including the Rolling Stones, who used Wonder as an opening act during their 1972 tour supporting "Exile on Main Street" (the Stones had opened for Wonder on one of his 1965 tours). He was usually paid no more than $1,000 per show, Ribowsky writes, and after dividing the loot with his band he "would end up poorer than when he began." Keith Richards called him vulgar names, and the Stones "hated the overheated reaction he got" and "found it tough to follow him." In retaliation, "they took steps to undercut him," including keeping his name off the marquee for most performances.
Van Morrison has not enjoyed Stevie Wonder's marquee success, though his "Brown Eyed Girl" may have been played at more frat houses than anything Wonder ever wrote. He, too, has attracted fiercely loyal listeners, none more so perhaps than Greil Marcus, whose deeply considered views are presented in "When That Rough God Goes Riding."
Marcus provides a few details of Morrison's life, including that his mother became a Jehovah's Witness while his father remained a table-pounding atheist, which may shed some light on the spiritual nature of much of his work. The brief book, however, almost entirely concerns the music, about which Marcus can wax quite ecstatic, especially when discussing Morrison's masterwork, "Astral Weeks," which was recorded in New York in 1968.
He characterizes the album as "forty-six minutes in which possibilities of the medium -- of rock 'n' roll, of pop music, of what you might call music that could be played on the radio as if it were both timeless and news -- were realized, when you went out to the limits of what this form could do." He says he's played the album more than any other record he owns.
Thankfully, the book is not an exercise in extended treacle-ladling. Marcus slices up his subject pretty well, both personally and artistically. Morrison, he writes, "is a bad-tempered, self-contradictory individual" who has made a great deal of lame music, including "the endless stream of dull and tired albums through the 1980s and '90s" whose titles, he adds, read like "warning labels," including "No Guru," "No Method," "No Teacher" and "Inarticulate Speech of the Heart." Elsewhere, he says Morrison's cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" is "an affront ... to the song if not the songwriter," and in a notable negative superlative Marcus writes that the recording of "Friday's Child" includes what "might be the worst instrumental break in the history of the form."
Yet neither author insists that his subject is washed up. Marcus says that Morrison's "Behind the Ritual" (2008) is a turn toward the better while Ribowsky, quoting Wonder from a 2004 interview, holds out hope that he's not a spent force: "For me to say I've reached my peak is to say that God is through using me for what he has given me the opportunity to do. And I just don't believe that."
Let's hope he's right -- this sad world can always use another good song. May the worst fate to befall either of these musicians be a steady gig at a minor Vegas resort.
Dave Shiflett is a writer who posts his original music at

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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BROKE, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. -- How the Working Poor Became Big Business
Gary Rivlin
ISBN 978 0 06 173321 5
358 pages

Reviewed by Justin Moyer
Remember the episode of "The Sopranos" when that sad-sack poker player, awash in debt, must let Tony take over his sporting goods store and repossess his son's car? From about 1990 through the economic crisis of 2008 and beyond, many poor Americans had to submit to similar practices with the blessing of Wall Street as the federal government looked away. "There are any number of strange but seemingly lucrative splinters that are part of the poverty industry," Gary Rivlin writes in "Broke, USA." It's an exhaustive expose of pawn shops, check-cashing rip-offs, payday loans, auto title loans, rent-to-own schemes, subprime mortgages and other "equity stripping" means of getting poor people into debt they can't carry, then taking their houses and cars while derivatives backed by those bad loans are sold to investors.
Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter who has also written a book about Bill Gates, tries to remain objective as he interviews the usurious architects of payday-lending (one, who operates 1,300 outlets, complains that making $10,000 an hour isn't enough) and the activists trying to protect impoverished communities from their influence. Eventually, however, he must take a side. "I began to liken the entire Poverty, Inc. industry to those energy companies whose strip-mining destroyed vast tracts of wilderness areas," Rivlin writes. "Short of government intervention, the consumer advocacy side didn't stand a chance." Some desperate person somewhere is always ready to pay $1.20 next week to borrow $1.00 today, and the recession may end up boosting the business Rivlin so painstakingly details. But at least the Soprano family never asked for a bailout.
Justin Moyer can be reached at moyerj(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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SHELL GAMES: Rogues, Smugglers, and The Hunt for Nature's Bounty
Craig Welch
ISBN 978-0-06-153713-4
274 pages

Reviewed by Juliet Eilperin
Craig Welch's "Shell Games" has the most unlikely of central characters: the massive geoduck clam, a tasty creature that resides in the waters of Puget Sound and resembles the raciest part of the male anatomy. Pronounced "gooey-duck," the valuable shellfish and the humans who cannot resist plundering it make for a compelling tale that is at once ridiculous and tragic. Writing in the vein of a detective novelist, Welch recounts how a group of dedicated state and federal wildlife agents devoted years to cracking down on the lucrative trade in geoducks (scientific name: Panope generosa) in the Pacific Northwest.
One of the book's charms lies in the vibrant array of crooks and saints who have spent years immersed in the geoduck underworld. An unlikely duo from the state of Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, the tough-talking Ed Volz and the chain-smoking but soft-hearted Kevin Harrington, stake out poaching vessels at night and dodge bullets from irate fishermen. Nichols P. DeCourville, a Las Vegas seafood broker, takes pride in boasting about his Mafia connections to one of his suppliers, only to fall apart when confronted by federal agents in his home. But none of them compares with Native American artist, geoduck diver and convicted felon Doug Tobin, a larger-than-life federal informant whose activities shape Welch's tale.
Welch writes that Tobin, a skilled sculptor and raconteur with long black and silver ringlets, "could have passed for Louis the XIV, if the Sun King had favored flannel shirts open to his ribs and had worn a whale-tooth necklace." He spends much of his time building and tearing down alliances, whether with the white geoduck fisherman who first introduced him to the trade, his Canadian business partners or the federal and state agents who depend on him for information on Pacific Northwest smugglers. In large part the book is driven by one question -- at the end of the day, whose side is Tobin on? -- and the answer helps explain how complicated it is to penetrate a smuggling operation that starts in the waters off western Washington and extends to Asia and beyond. The human penchant for betrayal is what allows the good guys to do their job, but it means they're constantly questioning which snitch they can trust.
On a broader level, "Shell Games" examines the burgeoning traffic in wildlife, which ranks as the world's third-largest black market, behind drugs and guns. Scaled-back trade barriers and the rise of both the Internet and express shipping have fueled the illicit trade of plants and animals worldwide. Everything that has made worldwide trade easier has also connected wildlife traffickers with potential buyers, expanding the customer base for either outright poaching or in the case of geoducks, over-exploitation of a vulnerable species. The economic growth of first Japan and then China has intensified the demand for seafood delicacies such as the geoduck, which -- served raw, in a Mongolian hot pot, stewed or sauteed -- can be worth as much as heroin in some places.
While the book could have benefited from closer scrutiny of the consumer culture in Asia, one of its strengths is its depiction of Puget Sound. Welch gives his reader a sense of both the region's amazing natural bounty and of the quirky people who seek geoducks out. Whether it's clam kings such as Ivar Haglund -- whose television commercials for his seafood restaurant show cavemen dancing around an eight-foot clam with the slogan: "Ivar's: Dancing around clams since 1938" -- or the Evergreen State College students who embrace the geoduck as their mascot with the chant "Go, geoducks, go/Through the mud and sand, let's go," the Pacific Northwest makes full use of its rich natural heritage. Welch describes with precision how fishermen haul geoducks from the sea floor, bring them on deck and heave them "on top of one another until the clams pile up like glistening stacks of hundred-dollar bills."
At times, Welch's love of detail threatens to overwhelm the reader. Is it essential to know the color of the slicker an unnamed detective is wearing in a bar as he listens in on a new informant, or to delve into an old caviar-trafficking case or the Makah tribe's whale hunt in the late 1990s? No, and these digressions undermine the narrative's otherwise rapid clip. The book could have used a bit of streamlining toward the end, when it gets bogged down in the mechanics of the wildlife detectives' final bust.
But these are minor criticisms. Welch has clearly done his homework, which has allowed him to write an engrossing tale of both human excesses and the attempts of a few brave souls' to curb them. Everyone, not just the denizens of Puget Sound, has a stake in this battle's outcome.
Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's national environmental reporter and can be reached at eilperinj(at symbol) She is writing a book on sharks.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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DOGS. A mixed litter of canine lit
NA pages

Reviewed by Yvonne Zipp
Dogs are easy to love. Dog books are trickier.
For every "My Dog Skip" or "The Dog That Bit People," there's an author out there exploiting dogs' selflessness for his own mawkish ends. These folks are easy to spot. They inevitably kill off the dog. Exhibit A: "A Dog's Purpose" (Forge, $22.99), a new novel by W. Bruce Cameron, in which a dog is reincarnated repeatedly as he (and sometimes she) tries to figure out the meaning of his (or her) lives.
But if you want to read about a dog who's a real hero, try Susannah Charleson's refreshingly grounded memoir, "Scent of the Missing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). Charleson recounts the journey she and her golden retriever puppy took as Puzzle grew from a "fuzzy tater tot" to a search-and-rescue dog with a Dallas area K-9 unit. Charleson has to train as intensively as her flirty blond partner, spending weekends learning to rappel from several stories up and run through burned-out buildings. The reward for all this hard work? Waking in the middle of the night to search for missing children, Alzheimer's patients and, in one instance, the remnants of the space shuttle Columbia. Did I mention she and Puzzle are volunteers? "We do it for service would be the summary response, and accurate too, but sounds a bit lofty, and canine SAR folk are not generally a lofty group," Charleson writes. "We trudge through Dumpsters too often, carry our dogs' warm poop bags too frequently to claim much glory."
Barrie Hawkins and his wife, Dorothy, aren't in it for the glory either. They turned their home in England into a rescue center for German shepherds, leading to an unexpected sideline in junkyard dogs. When "Tea and Dog Biscuits" (Chicago Review; paperback, $14.95) opens, Hawkins is trying to corral the largest one he's ever seen. As the dog -- dropped off without collar or leash -- explodes into the yard, who should show up but a tour bus of Cub Scouts led by a vicar. Then a little old lady collecting for charity helpfully opens the gate. The only thing missing is nuns pushing prams. Over the course of their first year, the Hawkinses take in animals that have been horrifyingly neglected (one hadn't been let out of his pen for eight years). Then there's the back-alley rescue of a dog who was kidnapped by a vengeful ex-boyfriend and taken to a vet to be put down. The Hawkinses find homes for them all. "Tea and Dog Biscuits" offers good-natured storytelling, judicious use of self-deprecating humor and a genuine love of its subject.
Then there are books that just don't seem to get dogs. For example, canines, on the whole, are not generally known for sarcasm. (But who knows, perhaps beagles secretly nurse a deep appreciation for irony.) In Pete Nelson's new novel, every time Paul comes home, his mixed-breed named Stella tells him, "I thought you were dead." When he reassures her, she sniffs dismissively, "Joy unbounded." Well, yes, in fact, dogs do exhibit joy unbounded when they see you. That's why most of us have dogs. To elicit that kind of response from any other housemate, you have to show up with a novelty-size check. "I Thought You Were Dead" (Algonquin, $23.95) has a low-key, indie-movie vibe, with Stella sounding like Juno's older, world-weary aunt and demonstrating perhaps the most complete lack of dogginess since Scrappy-Doo. When Stella's not around, "I Thought You Were Dead" is a fairly traditional middle-aged alcoholic's coming-of-age story, complete with unresolved parental issues and the kind of hyperarticulate and ultraforgiving girlfriend found in real life about as often as a talking dog.
Where "A Dog's Purpose" is too effusive with its dog-as-guardian-angel shtick, "Every Dog Has a Gift" (Tarcher, $23.95), by Rachel McPherson, isn't effusive enough. It offers short articles detailing the work of therapy dogs in a purely informational style. McPherson's Good Dog Foundation has won awards for its work with the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and these dogs have transformed the lives of everyone from autistic children to disabled veterans. But one wishes for a Jon Katz to tease out the storytelling possibilities here. Since the aim seems to be to inspire readers to give to the causes listed at the end of each "Closing Tails" section, dog lovers could always send a check to one and then do themselves a favor and sit down with "Tea and Dog Biscuits" or "Scent of the Missing."
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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