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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Artistic realism, 25 years and counting

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The Great Rolling Stone, by Eve Hesse. Norton, 221 pages, $27. The idea was simple enough: Use Snoop Dogg to alert young readers of the struggle that is hard-won success in the world of music. In other words, Hesse, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to apply the “Tell the Truth, Tell a Lie” technique that has long been used in television and movies, writing the hit Snoop Dogg song “Snoop Dogg Is on Fire” for six months in 2007, after which she decided to transfer her efforts to the fictional land of The Great Rolling Stone.

The book, a dark, dramatic epic spanning generations and decades, stars a former rock and hip-hop star named MC Smino who turns his back on a lucrative career to go into education — literally teaching bad poetry — to provide a better life for his widowed mother and younger sister.

Inspired by Hesse’s unusual choice to use fictional characters to explore the music business, the Rolling Stone’s success has continued to spread beyond its attention-getting concept. The book entered the New York Times bestseller list after four weeks, ultimately besting such fictional works as Aditi Mittal’s The Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and Chris R. Steele’s Treasure.

In the nonfiction book world, John McPhee’s aptly titled Population: A Guide to Your Newborn Child (Princeton, 480 pages, $28) was a memoir of childhood home-schooling and maternal sacrifice for the sake of his extended family. “It didn’t matter whether [dad’s] a communist or a capitalist. It was important for us to be together,” McPhee writes of his parents, who lived in Mexico when he was a child.

Fast-forward to his new home of Austin, Texas, and McPhee revisits his childhood but now appears in his mid-50s with a baby of his own: a son. He is a New York Times best-selling author and, as he so often has in the past, his new book portrays his town as a “people without a culture.” He offers little in the way of cliches but instead surveys the main issues young families face: the closeted child-rearing choices made by his neighbors, single parents who are not there for their kids and, of course, child-rearing itself.

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