Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Jim DeRogatis

Jim DeRogatis is the pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, the co-host of Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions,” the world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show, and the author of several books about music, including Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic and Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips, both published by Broadway Books.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
By necessity, as part of the music beat, I read almost all of the major pop-music books published in a given year, often because I have to review them; these can range from the ridiculous (one recent assignment was to tackle Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga by Ian Christe) to the, um, if not exactly sublime (the four greatest rock books ever: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs; Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches; The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth, and The Night (Alone: a novel) by Richard Meltzer), than at least the slightly less ridiculous (Clapton: The Autobiography or Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan).

When it comes to reading for sheer pleasure, however, along with sucking up every issue of The New Yorker, I devour almost anything I can get my hands on in the totally unrelated realm of military campaigns and the politics and social movements behind them, ranging from almost-current affairs (some recent favorites here included Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by Jim Mann, and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner) to, well, just about every other era imaginable (with the Napoleonic period holding a special fascination; still on my nightstand and yet to be filed away on the groaning bookshelves are In the Legions of Napoleon: The Memoirs of a Polish Officer in Spain and Russia by Heinrich Von Brandt and, for the second time, The Campaigns of Napoleon, the classic overall history by David G. Chandler).

At the moment, I’m two-thirds of the way through The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, published last year by former Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, and which I dived into immediately after consuming An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, which he published four years earlier. These are the first two volumes of what the author calls “The Liberation Trilogy”—the final installment, obviously, will start in Normandy on D-Day—and while the United States’ role in Europe during World War II might seem to be the hoariest, most romanticized, and mostly overly dramatized topic of the century just passed — remember all those endless Baby Boomer-crafted tributes to their folks in “the Greatest Generation”? — Atkinson breathes new life into the subject via exhaustive research (relying much more on seldom-consulted official documents and personal diaries than the hazy recollections of sometimes self-aggrandizing veterans) and exquisitely sharp and descriptive writing. His books are, quite simply, a joy to read, and he refuses to ever don the rose-colored glasses, whether he’s writing about a long hushed-up disaster involving the U.S. Army accidentally poisoning its own troops and Italian citizens with mustard gas, or the ferocity with which the Germans fought for every yard of North Africa and Italy, even though it had long since become obvious to many from the foxholes to the headquarters of high command that the war was a lost cause.

I know what you’re thinking: I never want to read another book about World War II again. I felt the same way, until I heard Atkinson speak at the Pritzker Military Library (like I said, I’m a geek for this stuff), and hearing him convinced me that, yes, there was still more to say, and no, the ultimate books about that conflict have not been written. But after about 1,000 pages of his work, I have to say he’s coming pretty darn close.
Visit the website of Jim DeRogatis to read his Chicago Sun-Times blog and recent articles (including album reviews of R.E.M.'s Accelerate and Gnarls Barkley's Odd Couple), and to learn more about his books and other projects.

--Marshal Zeringue