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Book Review: A Study in Contrasts with Jack & Henry

I am enjoying the juxtaposition of reading two wildly different biography/memoir books at the same time. The first is Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House, by Sally Bedell Smith; and the second is Get in the Van, by Henry Rollins about his experience as lead singer of the iconic hardcore punk band Black Flag. Now, neither of these books is newly published (both have been out about 10 years) and I might make you dizzy if I unraveled the chain of thoughts that led me to be reading them both at the same time. The former is a book about a couple that I feel I should admire but I find I am wary of doing just that. The latter book is about someone that I have long and unabashedly admired- and yes I have the order right, Jack and then Henry.

Jack & Jackie Kennedy

Jack & Jackie Kennedy

Both books are enjoyable and transporting in their own ways. Grace and Power is written in a graceful, elegant style- never using one word when two would do, and thus providing rich, majestic detail about the people, lives, and style of the Kennedy White House. The grandeur and personalities, along with the money and society at their disposal make the entire narrative feel surreal. Times certainly have changed and it’s nearly impossible to imagine having such a collegial atmosphere between people representing so many parts of the spectrum – political, social, journalistic, and artistic.

Henry Rollins cranks it to  eleven

Henry Rollins cranks it to eleven

Rollins’ recollections in Get in the Van, cover the early eighties with tight clipped sentences, plenty of profanity, and blunt assessments of the people, situations, and music. You’d never catch yourself thinking, “tell me how you really feel.” Despite the economy of speech and the lack of descriptive language (or perhaps because of it), what’s revealed is a gritty, passionate, bloody, intense world of music and the ethos of the hard core punk scene.

Reading about these two men and their worlds in parallel is fascinating because it highlights the degree to which human beings can occupy different spheres- not just in the world but in their own minds. One minute, I’ll be curled up with a coffee, ensconced in my safe suburbia feeling the tug of the mayhem of the frenetic 80’s punk scene, ready to smash and rage and riot; and the next time I sit down to read, I feel transported to a world of witty, erudite conversation, ambitious agendas concealed behind a veneer of sophistication and culture, and flexible morale standards that would make the most enlighted on my cul-de-sac blush with shock.

Examining history, even recent history and the lives of colorful, diverse people that have become cultural icons, has to be one of the most interesting ways you can while away a Saturday afternoon. Enjoy!

Get the books from Amazon:

Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith

Get in the Van by Henry Rollins

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