IN THE PLEASURE GROOVE: LOVE, DEATH AND DURAN DURAN

I am a sucker for rock memoirs (ie Born To Run and Not Dead Yet), and I’ve had In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death And Duran Duran by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor on my TBR for a long time. I listened to it on audio this summer, and am so glad that I did. This may be a top 5 read of the year!

John Taylor was born Nigel Taylor to a working class family in Birmingham in 1960. He got into music as a young teenager, traveling around England with his best friend Nick Rhodes to see his favorite bands and rock idols (people like David Bowie), while cultivating his own dreams of rock stardom. While he had other interests like art and design, he convinced his parents to bankroll him for one year while he tried to make it as a musician. The Pleasure Groove takes readers through the earliest days of Duran Duran, how the band (Simon LeBon, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor, Rhodes and J. Taylor) was formed, how they developed their sound and how quickly they got popular. The book follows the usual Behind The Music chronology – the first breakthrough single, the early success, the tours, the meteoric rise, the drugs, the fame, the women, the inevitable band tensions, the apex (Live Aid, in this case), the rift, the breakup, the spinoff projects, the rehab, the tentative reconnection and the band reunion. It’s all here. (I don’t think I have spoiled anything – this all really happened, decades ago.)

Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had. While the intensity of fame was difficult for him to handle at the time, he’s also very appreciative of his fans, then and now.

Plus there are lots of DD details, like how the band was run (as a democracy), what the album titles mean, the stories behind many of their hit songs, their various romantic relationships, etc. I loved that stuff. I decided I wanted to have a copy of this book for my shelves, so I ordered a used print copy since I only had the audio, and there are lots of photos included too. The photo quality isn’t great, but there are many pictures sprinkled throughout the book.

If you do The Pleasure Groove on audio, you get John Taylor himself as the narrator. He’s awesome. Funny, self-deprecating, eloquent. Just what you want from the guy who used to hang on your bedroom wall when you were a pre-teen. I caught Duran Duran in DC when they were on their reunion tour several years ago, but having Taylor tell me his life story in the car with me for 8 hours was also really fun. I highly recommend this book and audiobook.

SUMMERLINGS by Lisa Howorth

Summerlings by Lisa Howorth is a short novel about a pack of 10 (11?) year-old boys living just outside Washington, DC in the 1950s. John, the narrator, is best friends with two other boys, Max and Ivan, on his block. Together, they explore the neighborhood on their bikes and conjecture about their neighbors, a mix of expats, diplomats, feds and potential spies. Some are friendly, some are not, and the boys spend their long summer days trying to figure out more about the adults around them. They are particularly intrigued by Elena, Ivan’s glamorous, mysterious Ukranian aunt, who is kind to them, prompting them all to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, John’s mother is off “recovering” in a nearby sanitarium (depression?) and his father has moved out, leaving him and his distant older sister under the care of their grandparents.

Summerlings takes place about 3 blocks from my house, so I loved the DC references sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Howorth even mentioned my street at one point. That was fun. Generally, though, I had a hard time getting into this book. Not much happens, there is tons of detail, and the plot is pretty superficial. Summerlings takes place during the Cold War and people are therefore suspicious of each other, and adults drink a lot and don’t tell their kids much of what is going on. That’s about it. There is one subplot involving the kids’ plot to steal a rare, dangerous spider from the National Museum of Natural History, and that is as close to suspense as I got from the book. (I could actually picture their whole bike ride down to the Mall as Howorth described it, so that was fun.) But generally, Summerlings was disappointing. I almost didn’t finish it, but because it was so short, I powered through.

If you want to read a sweet book about 11 year olds coming of age during a less complicated time, and you’re interested in the 50s in Washington, DC, then give Summerlings a try. But if you’re looking for something more substantive, I’d give it a pass.

THE TRAVELERS by Regina Porter

The Travelers by Regina Porter is a sprawling book covering six decades in the history of two families, one white and one black, as generations grow up against the backdrop of America, from the Vietnam War to Obama’s presidency, from Georgia to New York and California. The two families are connected through one married couple, but both sides of the tree spread widely and include a broad range of people. Chapters are more like interconnected stories, as characters come and go and different threads are picked up and dropped throughout the book.

The Travelers is a tough book to sum up. There are so many characters and so many stories happening at once. The end result is a kaleidescope of love, betrayal, racism, joy and sorrow, seen through many relationships and life events. Porter is a playwright – which explains the (helpful) long cast of characters listed at the beginning of the book – and while she is expert and setting up powerful scenes, she may not yet have mastered the longer story arc. I found the chapters compelling on their own, but looking back a week after I finished the book, I am having trouble remembering many elements of it. Certain moments stand out for me, but my overall recall is pretty uneven.

Porter avoids stereotyping her characters; you won’t find predictable tropes here. In this way, The Travelers feels like real life – messy relationships that are often hard to define, great variation within families, conflicts that are never resolved. Readers who approach the book without expectations of a concrete linear story will enjoy an impressionistic, almost poetic experience rather than a deep, detailed read.

Nicole and I recently discussed The Travelers on the Readerly Report Podcast as our August book club read. Give it a listen to learn more!

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

I picked up And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for the Unread Classic category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge. I *think* I read it when I was pretty young and was going through an Agatha Christie phase, but I didn’t remember much about it. It’s one of her classic mysteries: ten unconnected people are summoned to a remote island under vague circumstances. One by one, they start dying. Who is killing them, and why?

And Then There Were None is definitely one of Christie’s creepier mysteries. There is no way on or off the island, so the killer has to be one of the ten people there, right? Who can be trusted? When the deaths start mirroring a children’s maudlin poem framed on the wall of the each of the guest rooms, the tension is ratcheted even further. You know HOW the people are going to die, but you don’t know WHO will die, or when.

My podcast co-host Nicole warned me not to read And Then There Were None at night, especially while in strange hotels when I was traveling. So I saved it for the plane ride home, which was a crowded daytime flight flooded with sunlight. That ended up being a good choice, because I wasn’t all that scared. It was a good mystery, and the characters’ backstories made it interesting. The resolution is pretty satisfying, if a bit (!) unrealistic. I was struck by one thing: this book is outdated! One minor character is referred to as a “dirty Jew”, and the deaths two of the victims – a butler and a maid who are married – are barely even acknowledged because they are hired help. I didn’t realize that Christie was anti-Semitic and that other racist language had appeared frequently in her works. This book actually had two earlier titles, both of which were racist and had to be changed.

I could have gone in a million directions with this category of the reading challenge, and this was a painless, if not terribly memorable, way to tick a book off the list.

THE LAST ROMANTICS by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin was a buzzy book last spring – it as Jenna Bush’s first Read With Jenna pick – and my IRL book club picked it for our August read. It’s a family drama about four Skinner siblings – Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona – whose father passes away suddenly and whose mother subsequently goes into a deep depression. During the years of the their mother’s depression – which they call The Pause – the kids (aged 4-11) are left on their own. Renee, the responsible oldest, takes on the role of the mother, getting her siblings to young adulthood while missing out on her own adolescence.

Once the siblings grow up, however, they head off into different directions. Renee is driven and focused, attending medical school and becoming a surgeon. Caroline marries her high school boyfriend and has children early, providing them the stability she missed in her own childhood. Joe, the golden boy with the once-promising baseball career, finds the allure of money and booze too hard to resist, and Fiona uses physical connections with men – which she blogs about at “The Last Romantic” – to take the place of meaningful intimacy. Joe’s sisters watch him devolve with increasing alarm, yet they are powerless to stop his decline. How they respond to him puts a strain on their relationships and permanently transforms the dynamics between them.

I loved The Last Romantics. It’s beautifully written, poetic at times, and I really got to know these four characters well. Some chapters are told from the year 2077, when Fiona is a famous poet at age 102 looking back on her life. This was an interesting construct, both unsatisfying due to very limited parsing of details about the future (hint: it doesn’t sound great) and also poignant because of Fiona’s perspective looking back on her life. Ultimately, this is a novel about love (in all forms), loyalty and loss, and the imperfect ways in which we connect with and support the people we love. [Warning: the end is reminiscent of the Six Feet Under finale. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know why I am issuing the warning.]

This was a good one! Go pick it up.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

My second vacation read was The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, a book I learned about from the Read Between The Wines blog this summer. It’s about a woman assigned to be the housekeeper for a brilliant math professor whose short term memory only lasts for 80 minutes ever since he was injured in a car accident. He can remember complicated math theorems, but he can’t remember people he met two hours earlier. This has led to a string of short-lived housekeepers, as they grow frustrated with having to reintroduce themselves every time they get to work.

The housekeeper of the title, however, is different. She gets to know the professor and pays attention to the math he teaches her and the connections he makes between numbers. Unlike the others, she finds him fascinating, and her world begins to expand beyond her job in his little house. She also introduces him to her 10 year-old son, and the boy bonds with the professor over their shared love of baseball. Although there are limitations on where their relationship with him can progress, they become very fond of him and learn to adapt their interactions to accommodate his memory loss.

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a quiet, poignant book. These lonely characters find connection in unexpected, imperfect ways, teaching the importance of living in the moment and behaving compassionately. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. Though you never learn the characters’ names, they form a triangle you won’t easily forget. Bonus: it takes place in Japan and there is lots of baseball!

THE OTHER’S GOLD by Elizabeth Ames

I am back from vacation! It was a great trip. Not much downtime, which means not much time for reading. I did manage to make it through four books, which of course was only half of the eight I brought with me. Sounds about right for me and vacation – I always overpack books. (Because running out of books on vacation would be awful.)

Here is one of my favorite reading spots on the trip – the balcony of our hotel in Sagres, Portugal, also known as “the end of the world”:

The first book I read was The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames. It has one of those plots I like – four friends from college and how they fare into adulthood. Margaret, Lainey, Ji-Sun and Alice meet as freshmen when they share a suite at an elite East Coast school. They come from different backgrounds, but become fast friends, enjoying an intimacy and closeness that persists through four years in the same suite.

The Other’s Gold is structured around four mistakes, one made by each of the main characters at some point in their lives. They are pretty significant mistakes, which impact the course of their lives and affect their families, and later, their friends and husbands. I don’t want to spoil anything by saying what the mistakes were, but they form the narrative structure of The Other’s Gold, allowing Ames to shift focus among the four women and delve more deeply into their individual stories.

I really enjoyed this one. It read quickly and Ames is a beautiful writer. The women were frustrating at times, and made questionable decisions, but I felt invested in their lives and friendships and wanted to see how things ended up. I liked Ames’ use of detail – never extraneous, always making me feel a part of the scene. My only complaint is that I had trouble connecting to one of the women – Lainey – throughout the book. I found her inconsistent and difficult to relate to. Maybe we are just really different, but she isn’t like anyone I have known and I didn’t find her all that credible.

The Other’s Gold is a debut novel, coming out on Tuesday. I really liked it and recommend it – makes a great end of summer read.