Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer

This 627 page bio of Clash frontman Joe Strummer seems like a daunting undertaking even for a loyal fan, but it's actually an easy to read  if you have the time. Author Chris Salewicz, a friend of Strummer's, wrote Joe's obituary for The Independent, and spent the next few years writing and researching Redemption Song. The book answers lots of questions about him and humanizes a complex man. Certain punk legends like John Lydon, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith , Joey Ramone, et al, could be encapsulated in a phrase or blurb. One could sum up their personas as combative, ice queen, poet, heroic misfit, and so on. Despite all the information in Redemption Song, Strummer still remains somewhat of an enigma, so it's hard to pinpoint a phrase to describe him even after finishing this hefty book.

We learn that that his father was a diplomat and the family lived in several different countries, including Egypt, and that his brother committed suicide as a teen-ager and Joe found his body. There are lots of anecdotes to pique the memories of older punk fans (Paul Simonon was married to Pearl Harbor of & Explosions fame, for example). There's a pic of a crude drawing of a chord chart Joe used when he first learned to play the guitar, and an account of the first time he saw the Pistols play at the Nashville. (They opened for the 101ers). And there's pesky Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, alternatively guiding the band and undermining them. There's no strategically placed denouncement or rush to christen Strummer with a label. Written by a friend without an agenda, the book is void of pretension.

Redemption Song, along with the Julien Temple documentary The Future Is Unwritten, gives us an incredible amount of material on Strummer's life. Redemption Song draws a picture of a complicated man, neither cartoon or tragic figure, who just happened to be one of the icons of the punk rock era.

(This review first appeared on the Punk Rock Demonstration website in September 2007).

Book Review: The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional

I loved creative writing and composition class in grade school and junior high. Teachers praised my essays about Lord Tennyson’s poems and book reports about YA novels. There was only one sour point in my Language Arts experience- grammar. I remember that we had a tiny green book for grade school grammar class. Don’t ask me what was inside it!  I dreaded walking up to the chalkboard to diagram sentences, or getting called on to describe the difference between subject and predicate.  Any residual knowledge about grammar or usage came from reading and rereading newspaper articles I loved til the correct writing style was ingrained in my subconscious.

Philip Yaffe’s The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking Like a Professional (Indi Publishing Group) is the sort of book I really needed in school. Hell, I really need it now.

Yaffe, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, currently teaches communication courses in Brussels, Belgium. The Gettysburg Approach uses Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech as inspiration for the book’s tenets on good non-fiction writing. Lincoln’s 272 word speech, says more than most people could say in several thousand, Yaffee writes in the book’s introduction. He later emphasizes that writers are predisposed to pay less attention to instructional and marketing material than creative writing. Novels, poems and plays are entertaining. Brochures and news reports put readers to sleep, so why bother polishing them like one would a novel?

In this 275 page book, the author introduces techniques that will enable writers to put as much verve in their press releases as their poetry. He reiterates the rules of clear, concise writing in a down to earth, relatable style. You’ll recognize old evergreens like “Use Active Voice”, “Write Fast, Edit Slow” and “Avoid Too Many Prepositions in One Sentence” from journalism class, Strunk and White, and the Chicago Manual of Style. Yaffe takes these rules and provides comparisons between poor, better and best versions of them in action. You’ll find yourself referring to these examples and the other tips in The Gettysburg Approach when struggling for the best way to edit a report, article or manual.

There’s also a section on effective public speaking, with pointers on when and how to include slides, use notes, and deal with minor mishaps at the podium. The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional is a great reference book for seasoned journalists, bloggers, students and anyone who wants to improve their non-fiction writing skills.