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The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  175 Ratings  ·  41 Reviews
In 2009, musician Franz Nicolay left his job in the Hold Steady, aka “the world’s greatest bar band.” Over the next five years, he crossed the world with a guitar in one hand, a banjo in the other, and an accordion on his back, playing the anarcho-leftist squats and DIY spaces of the punk rock diaspora. He meets Polish artists nostalgic for their revolutionary days, Mongol ...more
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by New Press, The (first published April 5th 2016)
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Feb 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Author travels and plays shows on the outskirts and underground of Russia Ukraine Siberia Romania Bulgaria Hungary. Playing some squats and bars and a few more upscale venues. Writer leans heavily in this toward history and some travel description and asks "why things are the way they are" as a punk, as an astute observer. Good book. With bonus listening list of cool music at end. No maps or photos.
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-travel
An important lesson to be learned from this fun and smart book is: Just because something is recommended in The New York Times, it doesn’t mean you must avoid it.

This book passed the ultimate test, the baptism of fire for books, which is to say, it kept me amused and entertained before and during a transoceanic airplane flight. I even laughed out loud, although you couldn’t hear me over the engines’ roar.

However, if you are very square, as I am, so you don’t know Nicolay’s music already, and/or
Alex V.
Mar 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a beautiful travelogues of terrible clubs populated by desperate sweethearts from ruined nations, all trying to scrape by and rebuild and be something in deference to a world political machine that wants nothing for or from its people. It's dizzying, and you really don't need to know Franz Nicolay's music to get what this book is laying down. If you wish Paul Theroux had some ulterior purpose to traveling besides just traveling, something to focus that weary lens, this is it.

Now I want h
Patrick Book
Aug 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
Yes, Nicolay is a musician, but that fact is practically irrelevant. You don't need to be familiar with his music to pick up the narrative thread; he admits as much in that he only talks at length about the performances that take him across Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Siberia, and every place in between only once, and in a generic, summary fashion.

This book reminds me a lot of David Byrne's "Bicycle Diaries," in which the author uses a common reference point as a gateway to take his readers into
Jan 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
A decisive book that takes the narrative of a folk-punk tour to investigate the socio-political reasons for the formation of punk dialectics in Eastern European and Asian countries. At times, the book is vast in scope, reaching across generations to describe the rise and fall of power dynamics in under-stated communities. Other times, Nicolay reaches into his own experiences to describe often humorous moments of cultural difference between himself and his acquaintances. Overall, I found The Humo ...more
Marcia Anglarill
To be honest, I only got about 60% through this book. I couldn't finish it. Some of the travel observations were good and interesting, but it would often veer off into the weeds of some historical fact or the commentary of some obscure figure to the point of just being tiresome. At one point, I felt like I was reading a dissertation on Russian punk music history. If you're into punk music, this book might appeal to you. And it does have appeal if you're into travelogues, particularly of off the ...more
Dec 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Although I'm neither a fan of The Hold Steady nor (as I found out after listening when I'd completed the book) the author's solo material, I enjoyed this travel memoir. I picked it up because it seemed like a good bookend to a year when close to the start of it I read a book about Pussy Riot and in general I enjoy hearing about punks worldwide. Mr. Nicolay is a fine writer and I also enjoyed his reading of the audio book which was unusually unpolished in small ways, which made it feel real.

Dec 27, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: music, nonfiction
This book took me an embarrassingly long time to read because I felt like it didn't have any narrative cohesion. Had it been a travel blog where Franz Nicolay posted every day, I would have loved it. As a book, it failed to keep me engaged for more than 20 minutes in one sitting. The best thing I took away from it is this toast:

To us, the beautiful! And to those who disagree, may their eyes fall out.
Feb 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
A musical travelogue following a musician through the eastern bloc. Provided a combination of a rock and roll story, a historical accounting of untold stories and a collection of the people that make up the day to day.
Mar 23, 2018 rated it liked it
I really would like to do away with the stat system for rating but I understand it’s simplicity.

Here is a way if you are previewing this book as a possible read (and you know, so much easier to do this in hard copy, right?) is to look at the subtitle and then look at the bibliography. It is 7 pages or so long. It includes Boris Pasternak and Robert Kaplan and Mandelstam and Montaigne. There are BBC news references about Russian rock stars and Russian news sources on Siberian punk. And then Chekh
Jul 25, 2018 rated it liked it
I bought this book on the strength of its title and because the writer included Ukraine as one of his stops on his tour. I feel like it should have been more interesting than it was, given the territory he covered - Russia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine. Perhaps it's because I don't really follow the punk music scene, so the music stuff didn't grab me. But even in describing places I'd been (like Kyiv!), I felt like the author never quite got the essence of them. Every location ...more
Arseny Khakhalin
May 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
When reading this book, make sure you have a computer or a phone nearby. Every time a new musician is mentioned (which happens about once every other page), start their song on youtube. Every time the author moves to a new place (which happens about every 5 pages or so), google some images. It makes for a lovely and educational virtual trip!

And then you emerge on the other side of this trip with your musical tastes completely reshaped. I'm so much into gypsy punk now, and I think I may try to gr
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
There is a good reflection in this book - travelling looks like a very interesting event, but in fact it means repeating over and over same routines: board a train, get to destination, accommodation arrangements, city viewing, meeting somebody, and again... board a train.
The big plus of the book are numerous quotes of famous people about places the author visits. Chekhov, Dostoevsky.
On the other hand there is a lot reflections on character and people connected to punk music. I suppose it might
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Deftly and wryly written! I definitely like the genre of musician autobiographies, although I liked this a great deal more than Patti Smith's newest book.
This tale, in contrast, followed Franz Nicolay's multi-national/multi-year tour route and was furthermore stuffed with history and piquant anecdotes! A refreshing read that came with a playlist tucked behind the bibliography :)
Aug 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
I listened to this on audiobook. It was okay. I liked the last part the best - it felt like he was just getting into the storytelling groove. Before that it felt really disjointed and didn't say a lot. Overall just not very engaging or informative.
C.M. Crockford
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Solid travelogue from a guy who's been in bands I've dearly loved as a punker. A mix of political summary, descriptions of the places and sights he saw, and the hardships and strange draw of touring and travel. Some quibbles (less is more, Franz!) but a lot of fun to read.
Jul 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
Sporadically illuminating but an editor could have helped condense and smooth out the distractingly lumpy texture of the narrative.
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great book. Much more of a political history than a punk travelogue, this is well-researched and fantastically presented.
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful surprise - great writing with eccentric, poignant and meaningful observations throughout. An incredible way to understand a region and its people. Loved the Socrates quote at the end!
Ian Hamilton
Mar 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Nicolay's Humorless Ladies is far from a travel genre staple, but it has unquestionably been compiled with a great deal of passion on the part of its author. Nicolay immerses himself in the people, places, and scenes that he documents, and the result is an end product that demonstrates he is more than just a musician-turned-writer. There's plenty of ground to cover, and at times I found myself wanting more. Because of Nicolay's ambitious effort to capture so much, he isn't afforded the room in w ...more
Elwood D Pennypacker
The once upon a time and currently again Sore Thumb (as in sticks out like a) of the Hold Steady has written a travelogue of his solo tours of the lands behind the former Iron Curtain. Franz's "neo-cabaret stylings" help inform his connection to the small, disparate, frequently confused and complicated punk scenes of each place he visits but there is only so much about certain music here and much about life as it is in these places. Richly worded and stunningly academic (compliment) in many spot ...more
Nov 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
What a remarkable book!

I subscribe to something called "longreads" and a link to an excerpt from this book appeared there. I was intrigued and suggested it to my local public library and it appeared shortly thereafter at the library for me to read. (It is possible that the library had it on order anyway - they seem reluctant to make it clear when it really is your suggestion that prompts them to order something.) Mr. Nicolay also has a personal web site that provides further information about h
Katie Lawrence
Jun 01, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: reviewed
Review for the Library Journal:

Musician Nicolay, formerly in the Hold Steady, the World/Inferno Friendship Society, and Guignol, details three separate tours through Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, Ukraine, and Mongolia between 2012 and 2014. Each tour is laid out in its own section and relates the author's travel woes, introduces various colorful fans and promoters, and describes his field trips around the gigs. In the first section, he travels with his wife, Maria. Part two focuses on a s
Boris L.
Dec 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biographies
Are you looking for heartfelt stories of underground shows and backstage adventures from the land of post-Soviet punk? Get a different book.

Most of the book is given over to a sort of free-form discussion of history and culture of Eastern Europe, and the author's touring of the area is kind of just a pretext for getting into this conversation. Talk of the music scene itself is minimal, generally lacking in any kind of emotional investment. At the very beginning of the book, the author mocks prev
Michael  Malone
Dec 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Franz Nicolay displays author skills on par with his considerable musical chops. A well written and insightful chronicle of Nicolay's endless tour of Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Mongolia and some other far-off posts, the singer and multi-instrumentalist performs at a variety of dives, squats and sketchy clubs, and seeks out each locale's sights of interest with boundless curiosity and wry wit. He's a clever and nimble narrator, equally versed in Melville and Montaigne as he is in obscure hardcore p ...more
Anna Klebine
Nov 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
As a punk and a person whose interest in travel is often driven by an equal interest in history, I really appreciated Nicolay's writing style. While some of the boring anti-PC politics of some places turn me off (this really depends on what kind of punk you come from, which is a whole other conversation), context is everything and it is heartily provided. I could feel the amusement, frustration, and confusion that comes with travel through his stories. I love the way he intertwines his writing w ...more
Jim Willse
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Picked this up on a whim and found it to be as an insightful and provocative travel book as I've read in a long time. Nicolay is an articulate, well-read and perceptive observer.
Jan 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
As a huge fan of his music - and the stories he tells with it - it doesn't surprise me how vividly Franz Nicolay is able to conjure the places that he has visited on his Eastern European tours. But to have it all in one place, particularly when it's a part of the world that fascinates me anyway...

This is a wonderful book. Part memoir, yes; but the way in which Franz skilfully weaves together his own experiences with historical context and his own reading is an absolute joy. Also, desperately mak
Rory Costello
Oct 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
Small wonder that Franz Nicolay has been a teacher as well as a musician, among his array of talents. He's a very learned fellow. But the erudition that he displays in this book seldom gets heavy or starchy -- this travelogue is light on its feet, with a gentle sense of humor. I learned a great deal about unusual parts of the world that I doubt I'll ever see firsthand, and I had fun doing it -- seeing these places through the prism of independent/DIY music was a great perspective.
Oct 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredible travelogue following Franz Nicolay as he tours mostly as a solo musician through Eastern Europe. He offers sharp insights on the punk rock and local level music scenes of Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ukraine, etc. while giving the reader a revealing look at the dangerous and shifting political landscape of these rapidly changing countries. The book gave me a new perspective and understanding of everyday life in this region of the world.
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