Madeleine Blais: To the New Owners-A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir

August 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir – Madeleine Blais – Atlantic Monthly Press – Hardcover – 978-0-8021-2657-3 – $26.00 – 272 pages – July 2017 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

Madeleine Blais is a truly wonderful writer – she began her writing career as a journalist, now teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1994 book In These Girls Hope is a Muscle. But I had never really read her work before my friend George Gibson, knowing I had spent time on Martha’s Vineyard, recommended this book to me. Reading this book was a great experience for me, one of those times when I found myself reading sections aloud to my wife, who spent most of her life going to Martha’s Vineyard each summer. This book is full of beautiful passages about place, family, and the magical experiences that summer vacations engender for so many of us.

Back in the 1970s, Madeleine Blais married into the Katzenbach family, and with them, their somewhat rustic vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard. Located on an old one-lane dirt road, the house was more a shack, without electricity or running water. But for spending old fashioned quiet vacations decompressing from daily life, the house was ideal, and very representative of the kinds of places that were then common in traditional east coast vacation spots.

The house was near Tisbury Great Pond, facing the ocean and open to the sky, and over the years, the old shack was rebuilt and modernized, but the more or less rustic lifestyle of the family and their visitors remained a constant. There was no heat, no TV, and no telephone, and typically terrible cell service. But as Blais documents, the days were marked by time spent on the beach and on the Vineyard’s beautiful waters, meals prepared and enjoyed with extended family and their many visiting friends, all logged in a series of notebooks made by the family over the decades – almost half a century of family stories to be preserved and loved.

But life is full of changes and with the passing of the original family owners, in 2014, the house was sold. In To the New Owners, Madeleine Blais tells some of these stories of the house and her family’s life within it, and stories of the Vineyard, including some of its recent history, and some of the people whose visits have now made it so well known.

But this book is really about the places that matter in our lives, the power of place to ground and center our lives and the importance of memory and stories to help us understand who we are.

While this book is a memoir about this one distinctive east coast island, it will resonate for the many of us who have experienced well-loved places that have changed over time. Change is the constant feature of modern life, and family summer places like this one may be disappearing forever. New generations will find their own ways to understand and appreciate the places around which they build their histories. Those of us who have had the pleasure of experiencing Martha’s Vineyard will likely love this book as much as we love the island itself, and remind us of our own stories and the memories that keep us whole.

Madeleine Blais was a reporter for the Miami Herald for years before joining the faculty of the School of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts. She is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, Uphill Walkers, and The Heart Is an Instrument, a collection of her journalism. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Aside from being a fine writer, Madeleine also tells great stories, and gave us a wonderful interview. Special thanks to George Gibson for recommending this excellent book to me.

“For anyone who has ever been curious about life on the Vineyard, or fantasized about settling in, Blais offers a diverting portrait . . . Blais has stitched together [the memoir] from the writings and stories of others, as well as her own wistful, often wry observations . . . Throughout, Blais exhibits a veteran reporter’s instinct for even-handedness.”―Boston Globe

Patrick Lynch: A Field Guide to Long Island Sound

August 4, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

A Field Guide to Long Island Sound: Coastal Habitats, Plant Life, Fish, Seabirds, Marine Mammals, and Other Wildlife – Patrick Lynch – Yale University Press – paperback (flexibind) – $27.50 – 9780300220353 – 416 pages

I grew up around Long Island Sound, and have lived near it most of my life. I have always loved the shoreline and the water, the birds, marine life and the landscapes of the coast, and I have enjoyed its beauty and diversity, and even spent time as an amateur naturalist studying its ecosystems, but it was not until I read Pat Lynch’s comprehensive guidebook that I felt I fully understood this magnificent environment.

This book is beautifully illustrated, and full of fascinating and readable information about the natural history of Long Island Sound, and its varying New York and Connecticut coastlines. This estuarine body of water is surrounded by millions of people – and threatened not only by over-population and industry, but now by climate change as well. While we have made a great deal of progress in recent decades in improving the ecological health of our waters, we must increase our level of involvement now, as climate change will have tremendous impacts on the all important marshlands of the Sound and other coastal zones.

Long Island Sound comprises a diverse collection of marine, estuarine, and terrestrial ecosystems, and is located in one of the most densely populated regions in the United States. The Sound and its coastlines are home not only to myriad species of plants and animals—from shorebirds and turtles to whales, seals, and fish—but also to more than twenty million people.

Author and illustrator Patrick Lynch has put together a thoroughly engaging guide to this incredibly complex set of environments. The book includes maps, photographs, and drawings, and covers every aspect of the Sound’s various ecosystems and locales.

On reading the book, I felt that I learned more than I have done in a lifetime of living on or near the Sound and for me, it is now an indispensable companion whenever I walk the coastline or am lucky enough to get out on the water near where I live. If you live anywhere near New York or Connecticut, this book will help you fully understand the importance and breadth of the Sound environments. And even if you live in another part of the country, Long Island Sound is well worth learning about, just as any other great natural area would be. I only wish we could have had this conversation at the beach or some other interesting outdoor venue, but the Sound is too windy for making intelligible recordings.

Patrick J. Lynch is a former senior digital officer in Yale University’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications and is an award-winning author, designer, illustrator, and photographer. He lives in North Haven, Connecticut. He was kind enough to spend some time with me in New Haven recently to talk about this book and his sense of the future of Long Island Sound.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe: A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression

July 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression – Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe – HarperCollins – paperback now available – 9780062216427 – 336 pages – $15.99 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

First, let me say that this is one of the most interesting, readable and thought-provoking works of American history I have read in a long time. It’s interesting to think about how two writers can work together to create a consistent and compelling authorial voice – Andrew and Jane have done that brilliantly. One must assume they have a very special marriage that enables them to both collaborate and live happily together.

If you are interested in food and how the American palate has changed over time, this book will certainly have much to offer. But I think the story here is broader than it may first appear. It’s not just a “culinary history” but a comprehensive social history of one of the most important periods of American life told through the issues surrounding food and nutrition in a challenging time.

Yes, it is “an in-depth exploration of the greatest food crisis the nation has ever faced – and how it transformed America’s culinary culture,” but I think the larger story is that this book uses food as the lens to through which to view how Americans lived during our greatest economic and cultural crisis.

History writing that brings the past to life and engages us in the human dimensions of the big moments of the past is real storytelling. This kind of writing helps us understand and sympathize with the people who came before us. It makes us better able to deal with our own crises, of which there are indeed many.

So this book is important whether food is “your thing” or not. I’d recommend reading it no matter your specific interests, just because it will make you think, will make you care, and will help you to feel that the past really is always prologue. It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk in person with Jane and Andrew about A Square Meal.

Jane Ziegelman is the director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center and is founder and director of Kids Cook!, a multiethnic cooking program for children. Her writing on food has appeared in numerous publications, and she is the coauthor of Foie Gras: A Passion.

Andrew Coe is a writer and independent scholar specializing in culinary history, and the author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, which was a finalist for a James Beard Award. He appeared in the documentaries The Search for General Tso and Eat: The Story of Food. Jane and Andrew live in Brooklyn, New York. And recently, A Square Meal was announced the winner of the 2017 James Beard Award for best nonfiction book of the year.

NPR’s Fresh Air did a wonderful interview (called “Creamed, Canned and Frozen”) with Jane and Andy about this book in August, 2016. And I interviewed Andy about his book, Chop Suey for Writerscast a few year ago.

Photo of the authors by Sasha Maslov for The New York Times.

 

Jessica Anya Blau: The Trouble with Lexie

June 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel – Jessica Anya Blau – HarperCollins – paperback – 9780062416452 – 336 pages – $14.99 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

I interviewed Jessica Anya Blau in 2014 about her previous book, The Wonder Bread Summer, which I found to be wonderfully entertaining and fun to read. Her latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, displays Blau’s signature wit and fast paced story telling. But it is a complicated book with a seriously flawed and emotionally scarred main character, who faces a very challenging situation in her life.

The book’s opening is pretty compelling (as book openings should be!):

The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the
Klonopin. And it wasn’t even really that she had stolen
them . . . the problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had
fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin.
And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

Lexie is an engaging and sometimes irritating main character. As we watch her try to figure out her life, I suspect most readers will want to reach into the pages of the book and tell Lexie directly when she is about to make a big mistake. But she is on her own path and we must follow along as she makes her way toward and through disaster.

Lexie James makes for a terrific main character. She is funny and thoughtful, comes from a decidedly untraditional family, and as a relatively young adult, has figured out how to conquer her panic attacks. She is also engaged to a truly nice guy, and has a job as a counselor at a prestigious private school (presumably in Massachusetts).

But with the wedding fast approaching, Lexie is faced with doubts about her future and who she really wants to be. She falls into a wild love affair with an older married man, a typically bad decision that readers know will have serious consequences.

Most of us have been in similarly fraught situations at one time or another, always convincing ourselves that we’re different and “everything will work out” when we know that is not really true.

Lexie’s story is an example of that central human foible, a form of hubris that makes us believe we can beat all the odds when we want something so much we know we cannot possibly attain. What makes this novel work is that despite knowing that she is headed for a cliff, we end up liking Lexie so much that we want to believe there is a better future for her, and by extension for ourselves. You will have to read the book to find out how this one turns out, no spoilers here.

I very much enjoy talking to Jessica about her books, her characters and stories, and hope you will find our conversation as enjoyable and entertaining as it was for me.

Eugene Mirabelli: Renato After Alba (a novel)

June 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Renato After Alba – Eugene Mirabelli – McPherson & Company – hardcover – 978-1-62054-026-8 – 192 pages – $24.00

Eugene Mirabelli has been writing novels since the late 1950s. His first book, The Burning Air, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. Over the years, his style has changed and matured as he developed his voice as a novelist. I was introduced to Gene’s work by his current publisher, Bruce McPherson, who is the kind of publisher who hands you a book and says, “you need to read this.” Over the years, I have made many literary discoveries by following Bruce’s recommendations.

Renato After Alba is the sequel to Gene’s 2012 novel, Renato, the Painter. It is warm, painful, and and highly personal. This book is called a grief novel for a reason. Do not be afraid to pick up this short novel, and dive into this writer’s exploration of sadness and beautiful sorrow. It is moving and entertaining, and revelatory, and as the best fiction does, will make you feel deep emotion in a transformative way.

Artist Renato Stillamare’s beloved wife of fifty years dies unexpectedly, leaving him heartbroken and dazed. The novel is a pastiche of fragments, much like a collage, with the artist trying to discover where all the pieces of his life and memories belong. He recounts stories of the members of his Sicilian-American family, conversations with friends, family members, and even new people in his life. All of it is an effort to rebuild a life without Alba, or with the memory of her, in a way that will enable Renato to continue living. There is humor, and pain and discovery, all the things in life that make it worth living, and a book well worth reading.

One of the pleasures Writerscast has brought me is the opportunity to read great books and to talk to their authors about writing, art and life. Meeting Gene Mirabelli through his writing and in conversation has been a singular pleasure for me.

“For anyone who loves the work of James Salter or William Trevor, Eugene Mirabelli is another writer to treasure, and Renato After Alba is one of the best books I’ve read in ages — a beautiful, profound and exhilarating novel about what sustains us in the face of inevitable loss.” — Elizabeth Hand, author of Hard Light and Generation Loss

As Robert Gray reported in Shelf Awareness:

November 4, 2016 was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”

Eugene Mirabelli is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels — five of which feature members of Renato’s extended family and his friends. Visit Eugene’s website is here. Publisher McPherson & Co. website is here.

Elizabeth Hand: Fire

May 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Fire (Outspoken Authors Series) – Elizabeth Hand – PM Press – paperback – 978-1-629632-34-6 – 128 pages – paperback – $12.98 (ebook version available at $9.99)

Over the years, I had heard of Elizabeth Hand, and knew she was a writer to be reckoned with, but I had never read her science fiction and mystery novels or stories. She was just not on my radar. Now, having read this fantastic short collection of some of her fiction and nonfiction, I have belatedly begun to understand the scope of her work and enjoyed the opportunity to experience her powerful writing.

Fire is a short book that packs a big punch. Maybe it is the ideal introduction to Hand’s work, and maybe that was PM Press’ intention in publishing it. The title story was written especially for this book. It is a powerful post-apocalyptic short story set in a world – our own – approaching global conflagration.

In a useful essay, “The Woman Men Couldn’t See,” Hand examines the work and life of Alice Sheldon, who wrote some stunning science fiction novels under the pseudonym “James Tiptree, Jr.” in order to conceal identity from both readers and her bosses at the CIA. In another nonfiction contribution called “Beyond Belief,” Hand talks about how she went from being a troubled teenager to a serious writer. Other pieces include some of her short fiction, a bibliography of her writing, and PM’s own interview with the author (which I tried to not replicate in my own conversation with Elizabeth).

After seeing Patti Smith perform, Hand became involved in the nascent punk scenes in DC and New York. She worked at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Hand is the author of a number of novels and three collections of stories and her work has been recognized by the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Tiptree, and International Horror Guild Awards. Her novels have been chosen as notable books by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Hand is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Book World and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and lives with her family on the coast of Maine.

Talking to Elizabeth Hand was great fun for me. She is as good a conversationalist as she is a writer, and has alot to say that I think listeners will find interesting.  I hope this interview with Elizabeth Hand will be a useful and meaningful contribution to our literary landscape. Now that I have become familiar with her work I intend to add Elizabeth Hand’s fiction to my ever expanding list of “must-read” books. Thanks to PM Press for introducing me to this wonderful writer’s work.

John Manuel: Hope Valley (a novel)

April 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Hope Valley: A Novel – John Manuel – self published – paperback – 9780998111209 – 284 pages – $14.95 (ebook version available at lower price)

In the early 1970s I lived in the more or less rural county outside Durham, North Carolina. It was a far different cultural milieu than I had ever experienced previously, surrounded mostly by farmland and people who had grown up as native North Carolinians. To someone like me, raised in the urban and suburban northeast, North Carolina was, at that time, still very much the traditional Old South, resisting so much of the cultural change that was sweeping America then.

But it was not long after this that things began to change significantly in the South, as increasing numbers of transplants came to places like Durham, Charlotte and many other towns and cities in North Carolina.

John Manuel, who was a classmate of mine in college, got to North Carolina himself in the early 1970s and has stayed there as a writer and cultural observer with considerable skills in both. John is the author of two fine books, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast (John Blair, 2003) and The Canoeist (Jefferson Press, 2006). His environmental journalism has been published in Audubon and many other magazines and his short stories have appeared in the Savannah Anthology and the New Southerner.

John’s novel, Hope Valley, is set in the same general area in which I lived when I was there, and both the geographical setting of the book and its characters will feel both familiar and comfortable to anyone who spent time there or in other parts of the South during the late 20th century, a period of immense change and disruption.

The story centers on Hurley and Opal Cates, who in their retirement live on a small farm on the edge of the growing orbit of Durham. Hurley is committed to caring for his property, particularly its large lawn, and also the house he built for his son, Buddy. But Buddy sells his house to a young female couple, creating a bit of a crisis for the Cates family. Despite many challenges, the two families learn how to co-exist, despite their vast cultural differences.

Much of the novel involves the ways that Hurley and Opal and their new neighbors learn to live together. But things are not so easily resolved, and this sometimes sad and also uplifting story becomes a parable about the difficulties that face modern America today. The book carries a warm and loving message about acceptance and change, and the meaning of respect, mutuality and yes, the valley of hope we all desire for our families and communities.

Hope Valley is a well conceived and beautifully written book that I hope will reach a wide audience, not just in the south. My conversation with author John Manuel reflects my deep appreciation for his book, and John’s quiet, sincere belief in humanity and our future. Learn more about John and his work at his website. You can find the book at most online retailers and also at independent booksellers in North Carolina, for example, the wonderful Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

Brad Watson: Miss Jane (a novel)

March 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Miss Jane: A Novel – Brad Watson – W.W. Norton & Company – Hardcover – 9780393241730 – 284 pages – $25.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

I originated the Writerscast series of conversations with writers at least in part, to remind myself to keep reading book length prose. I didn’t want to miss out on discovering great books and finding new writers to read. In this era of too much noise and stimulus, reading a novel or a serious work of nonfiction can be a wonderful pleasure, as well as a reward for escaping the rhythms of daily life. It does take time, and sometimes finding time to read is difficult. But there are some books that are completely fulfilling to spend time with. Having the opportunity to read a novel like Brad Watson’s Miss Jane was a deeply rewarding experience, and one I will not soon forget. Discovering books like this one is a special experience for me.

This is the kind of novel that you don’t come across that often. It is not action packed. In fact, it is more quiet than any novel I have read in a very long time. And it is fully engrossing.

I really love this book and have found myself talking about it to people all the time. It is that special. The writing is luminous, and the characters are as alive and present as if they were in the room with us as we read. I cannot imagine it is possible to not fall in love with this book.

But enough rhapsodizing about the book. I need to give you just a bit about the story, so you have a sense of what it is about. Miss Jane is based on the life story of Brad’s own great-aunt. Because he did not know her at all really, he had to imagine her life in rural, early twentieth-century Mississippi, born with an unusual and not talked about genital birth defect, that would prevent her from having either sex or a marriage. But just as Brad’s real aunt lived a full and long life, so he imagines Miss Jane to live, alone, but with family and other relationships as well. Her life was completely her own, and while it was not her choice to be made the way she was, it was her choice completely to live a complex and deeply experienced life of her own.

Brad Watson is a truly fine writer. The reviews for Miss Jane bear that out. He is the author of two collections of stories and the novel The Heaven of Mercury, which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award. His fiction has been widely published in magazines. Most recently, Brad was selected to receive the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2017 and Miss Jane is included on the 2017 longlist for the Wellcome Book Prize. He teaches at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.

I hope you will enjoy listening to our conversation about this amazing and wonderful book.

Ethan Mordden: When Broadway Went to Hollywood

February 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

When Broadway Went to Hollywood – Ethan Mordden – Oxford University Press – Hardcover – 9780199395408 – 272 pages – $29.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

Ethan Mordden is probably our leading commentator and historian of Broadway musical theater, as well as their somewhat more fraught Hollywood musical cousins. This is a really fun and enlightening book for anyone who is interested in the history of this unique modern American art form. Even if you don’t love musicals, the history of musical theater and its relationship to the movie business is integral to an understanding of twentieth century mass entertainment and popular culture.

The success of the now iconic musical movie, The Jazz Singer, which was among the first films to integrate synchronized music into a storyline in the late 1920s, spurred many of the best songwriters of the “Great White Way” to go west in search of riches. The list included George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart, among many others, who like many New York based playwrights, were enticed by the huge amounts of money paid by Hollywood producers for established east coast talent.

But when Broadway writers and songwriters ran into the very different business and production methods of the movie business, it did not always work out for the best. Movie producers did not want to follow the same structure and outlook of the theatrical forms, and had to aim their products to a very different kind of audience than attended musical theatre in New York City, which Mordden very brilliantly identifies as segmented by the geography and cultural divides of twentieth century America.

There are so many interesting themes to this book. Mordden discusses the various struggles that Broadway songsters had with the Hollywood system, traces the history of the musical in theater and film, and critiques the best and worst productions of both coasts. Reading this book, we get to think about some really interesting questions – did Hollywood create opportunities for storytelling with music, or is film simply antithetical to the musical form? Are movie musicals and theatrical productions really compatible at all?

Mordden has great stories to tell about so many of the people involved in both theater and film, has probably seen more movies than anyone you will ever meet, and knows enough about music to really talk about it technically in a way the average reader will understand. He makes sense of a lot of complicated history and along the way, we get to learn some behind the scenes stories about the great musicals most readers of this book love to watch, and some of the truly terrible musical films that Hollywood has managed to create over the years.

Ethan Mordden started out in theater, as both composer and lyricist; he wrote musicals, but he is best known as a prose writer. Mordden’s fiction output includes several gay themed novels in his “Buddies” cycle, as well as some excellent historical fiction, including The Jewcatcher, and most recently One Day in France. He is also a prolific writer of non-fiction, including six volumes detailing the history of the Broadway musical from the 1920s through the 1970s, guides to orchestral music and operatic recordings, and a cultural history of the American 1920s entitled That Jazz! He has also published Demented, an examination of the phenomenon of the operatic diva, and a coffee-table book on the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. His Love Song: The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya is a dual biography chronicling the romance and professional collaboration of these two icons, and in 2013 he published Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. He has also written a number of books on film.

Having grown up in a family that lived some of the history in this book, talking to Ethan about the meeting of Broadway and Hollywood through musicals was tremendous fun for me. He is witty, charming and always entertaining. I think you will really enjoy listening to this conversation.

Robert Greenfield: Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III

February 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III – Robert Greenfield – Thomas Dunne Books – Hardcover – 9781250081216 – 288 pages – $25.99 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

For many of us who came of age during the decade loosely known as “the sixties,” the name Augustus Owsley Stanley, AKA Owsley or Bear, remains iconic and recognizable. He is best known as the maker of some of the best LSD ever manufactured;  “Owsley” branded acid could convince psychedelic adventurers that the tab on their tongues would be safe to take and would produce a good trip. And of course his role as the LSD source for the very famous “acid tests” run by writer Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters was well known to most hippies and fellow travelers “back in the day.”

But few then knew much else about this mythic character. Owsley, who was the scion of an iconic southern political family, known to his friends and admirers as Bear, was an individualist in an era of individualism, a deeply anti-authoritarian truth seeker, who lived his life accordingly during a time when it was all too easy to simply proclaim oneself “against the man,” but then do very little concretely to make things different. Owsley was himself a different sort of individual, his thoroughly unique mind and personality opened doors for others and changed the world in meaningful ways for thousands of people.

Owsley seems to have been everywhere and done every thing that mattered during one of the most creative and recognized periods of modern history. He was a self taught sound engineer and chemist, and later in his life a practical climate scientist and accomplished craftsperson. He was brilliant and iconoclastic, difficult and sometimes paranoid (taking lots of acid does change one’s brain chemistry).

Early on, Owsley recognized that the Grateful Dead, then just among the many early Bay Area hippie groups, was an historic band, and being in the right place at the right time, he provided the money they needed to hone their sound, and ultimately become one of the greatest bands of all time. As their founding sound engineer and musical adviser, he recorded almost all of the Dead’s greatest live performances (which have been released over the years to great acclaim), and designed the massive sound system that was known as the Dead’s signature Wall of Sound. Owsley even designed the band’s now ubiquitous logo after he realized the need to identify their equipment when the group played at live venues with other bands.

Being the central popularizer of LSD and creator of the Grateful Dead’s sound system might be sufficient accomplishments for most people, but there is much more to tell about Owsley’s life than this. Owsley’s complete life story is here brilliantly and lovingly chronicled by Robert Greenfield, himself a well traveled and accomplished veteran of sixties pop culture. This is a fine biography, compelling and sympathetic, and whether you were “there” then or not, it is well worth reading about this fascinating and perceptive individual. When I read the book, I found myself wishing that Bear was still alive and still around to tell tales and open minds. We’ll just have to make do with this story of his life and times. It’s almost enough.

Robert Greenfield is the former Associate Editor of the London bureau of Rolling Stone magazine. He is the author of several classic rock books, among them S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones, as well as the definitive biographies of Timothy Leary and Ahmet Ertegun. With Bill Graham, he is the co-author of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, which won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He has also written novels and short fiction. His novel Temple, won the National Jewish Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His book, Timothy Leary: A Biography, which he spent ten years researching and writing, is a major work of cultural history, as is another fine book, A Day In The Life: One Family, The Beautiful People, and the End of the Sixties. Greenfield lives in California.

It was a great pleasure for me to talk with him about Bear, this book, and the period that so much influenced who we are today.

Interestingly, even though Bear was killed in a car accident in 2011, his website is still up and running, and is interesting to visit.

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