Monday, January 31, 2005

Nick Hornby, Polysyllabic Spree, 2004.

This collection of articles appeared in Believer magazine from September 2003 to November 2004. Hornby starts each piece with two lists: books bought that month, and books read.. He then goes on to talk about why he bought what he did, why he read what he did (and why he didn't read), and what he thought about books that month.

In short, the pieces aren't really reviews, although they sort of are--and so I needed to read the articles just because of the similarities to this very blog. All of his essays are breezy, chatty, and light: they take reading seriously, as an absolutely essential part of life, but he never takes reading too seriously. Reading is essential to Hornby's life, but never becomes snobbish about any notion of canon.

I enjoyed reading his reactions to various books. I loved watching how one book led to another and how one blurb on the back of a book could lead to the next. These articles are far more fun as a description of a reader than they are of the books mentioned within the pieces. Pick it up: it's a quick read, and if you're one of those people who can't stop reading, then you'll love this book.

One short example of the way Hornby writes about books:

Books are, let's face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. "The Magic Flute" v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. "The Last Supper" v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. ...And every now and again you'd get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I'm still backing literature 29 times out of 30.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice, 1997.

I have said much about this writer's work. There isn't a lot to say about this collection of Christmas stories, other than to know that it includes his earliest work for NPR: the "Santaland Diaries." Sedaris details his time spent as an elf at Santaland, in Macy's department store, and what he sees and overhears. The stories are funny, and one can see why they caused such excitement, but I prefer the drier and more self-mocking stories of the later collections.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 1887.

I recently acquired the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and have begun making my way through the stories I enjoyed so much when I was younger. The four novels, though, are not in the first two volumes of the ASH: they'll appear in the third volume, due to be published around November. I wanted to reread A Study in Scarlet, though, because it sets the tenor for the stories.

The story is as I remember it: fun, light, entertaining. It sets up Holmes as the ultimate observer, able to acquire even the minutest detail and then--the important bit--able to correlate all of the pieces in his mind, thereby assembling a completed jigsaw puzzle that lays out every nuance of the truth.

Despite the Holmesian ideal that has haunted me all my life--I first read this story when I was very young--this story is feather-light, indeed. A murder, the word "Rache" (German for revenge) written in blood on the wall, another dead man, more dead people, evil Mormons, revenge, fair maidens, adopted daughters, long-lost fiancés, etc. All in all, this story is a trite little puzzle that wraps up neatly. It's not a story worth thinking about too closely, in its silliness, but it's one to come back to and to re-enjoy, de temps en temps.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Nick Hornby, Songbook, 2003.

Hornby's collection of essays about pop music--31 songs and 5 albums--is a good example of what it means to take pop music (at least as a broadly inclusive term) seriously.

Hornby discounts the idea that memorable songs are indelibly associated with specific memories, moments, or feelings; rather, he argues that good songs are in some way catchy and arrest the hearer in some way, be it for melodic, lyrical, or some other reason. As he puts it, "I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs" (5-6). The book is, in one respect, and extended polemic that demands that pop be taken seriously:
That's the things that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompas soul, reggae, country, rock--anything and everything that might be regarded as trashy) is beneath them, or behind them, or beyond them--some preposition denoting distance, anyway: Does this mean that you never hear, or at least never enjoy, new songs, that everything you whistle or hum was written yeards, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourself the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo) because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don't know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I'll bet you're fun at parties. (16)

He goes on to talk about how much he's enjoying being driven "potty" by "I'm Like a Bird" by Nelly Furtado. While I can't say I've ever been a fan, I remember donning and having a whole bunch of friends and students going about singing that for months on end, seemingly ceaselessly. Horny acknowledges that he'll eventually "solve" the song, and that it "will seem thin and stale soon enough," which means that it is "disposable" in one sense, but what's interesting in his argument is that he asks why disposability "makes any difference to anyone's perceptions of the value of pop music" (17). He argues that the disposability might be "a sign of pop music's maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse" (17-18). (There's also a funny moment where he writes "That's what gets me: The very people who are snotty about the disposability of pop will go over and over again to see Lady Bracknell say "A handbag?" in a funny voice. They don't think that argument's exhausted itself?" [17]) Going through all these songs, showing what attracted him to them is the single best argument in his arsenal in the war to convince people to take pop seriously.

Because our tastes in music are so different, there were only one or two songs that I would have included in my own discussion. His chapter on Aimee Mann's "I've Had It" and Ani DiFranco's "You Had Time" is one of my favourites, but I don't think it's because I like the two songs so much; it's because he's so good about "You Had Time":

"You Had Time" sets itself a further handicap: it begins with more than two minutes of apparently hopeful and occasionally discordant piano noodling.... DiFranco's song is nothing if not ambitions, because what it does--or at any rate, what it pretends to do--is describe the genesis of its own creation: it shows its workings in a way that would delight any math teacher. When it kicks off, the noodling sounds impressionistic, like a snatch of sound track for an arty but emotional film... But it cheers up a little when DiFranco makes out that she's suddenly hit upon the gorgeous little riff that gives the song its spine. She's not quite there yet, because she hasn't found anything to do with her left hand, so there's a little bit more messing about; and then, as if by magic (although of course we know that it's merely the magic of hard work and talent) she works out a counterpoint, and she's there. Indeed, she celebrates the birth of the song by shoving the piano out of the way and playing the song proper on acoustic guitar--the two instruments are fused together with a deliberate improbable seamlessness on the recording, as if she wants us to see this as a metaphor for the creative process, rather than as the process itself. It's a sweet idea, a fan's dream of how music is created; I'd love to be a musician precisely because a part of me believes that this is exactly how songs are born, just as some people who are not writers believe that we are entirely dependent on the appearance of a muse. (46-47)

Hornby goes on to talk about the song proper and its peculiar attractiveness that astonishes him by not being "anticlimactic" after the song's introduction, but this description of the beginning of the song is so spot-on in terms of its close-reading of the song and depiction of just how it works that I wish I could write music criticism like this--if, perhaps, with a little more variety in sentence structure. (The man uses more colons and semi-colons than I do, and more clauses than a lawyer hell-bent on obfuscating fourteen different meanings, so I may just like the collection because I have a bad habit of writing like that, too.)

At any rate, this is a nice little collection that I wouldn't buy--maybe if more of the analysis was like this chapter, and maybe if more of the music was music that I cared about I might acquire it, but as is, it was a nice one to take out from the library. I am looking forward to reading Hornby's collection of essays about books, Polysyllabic Spree: I think I may bite the bullet and buy that one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2000.

As I've already talked at length about two other similar books, here and here, I'm just going to quote a short section from this book.

     "Let me get this straight," one student said. "You're telling me that if I say something out loud, it's me saying it, but if I write the exact same thing on a paper, it's somebody else, right?"
     "Yes," I said, "And we're calling that fiction."
     The student pulled out his notebook, wrote something down, and handed me a sheet of paper that read, "That's the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard in my life."
     They were a smart group. (93)

I like reading Sedaris's stuff.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books, 2004.

Wharton's The Logogryph is the closest book I've ever read to the book I want to write.

In fragments, Wharton describes both a vast number of imagined books and the experience of reading them. He depicts the reading of stone books, of books written in three dimensions in ink underwater, of book constructions in landscapes, of books written solely to capture stories that exist only in oral form...

More importantly, Wharton describes experiences of reading--rapture, total absorption, distractedness, disinterested-ness, and everything in between--in terms of the soul and of the body as readers respond to texts.

All of this is done within the loose framework of a writer obsessed with a touchstone story that is the giving of stories, literally as well as metaphorically. The Logogryph is a kunstlerroman told in fragments, grasping for and after stories, with little of the development of the artist except as far as the boundless possibilities of reading exist.

The Logogryph is a beautifully made and beautifully told book; I don't think anyone who loves reading can fail to be absorbed by what it describes, or to be moved by Wharton's exploration of reading.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

David Sedaris, Naked, 1998.

I've been waiting to read this book since the end of September, when I read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
I placed holds on Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day and they've both just arrived for me at the Library.

I wrote, of DYFiCaD:
The stories in this collection are moments--some brief, some spanning a bit of time, all requiring some backstory. Sedaris writes in such a way that the stories feel both spare in the economy of their words and rich in the opulence of the images that he depicts. His eye is exacting, unflinching, and honest in talking about himself and his family. There is a pathos to each story, each bit of misery and delight, and a delightful quirkiness to those things that grasp his attention.

I'm now at a loss to say much else about Naked, and I suspect will have the same feeling after MTPOD. This inability isn't due to Sedaris being boring or repetitive; each story is fresh and exciting. I'm constantly befuddled and amused and saddened by Sedaris's anectodes: in each one, I'm drawn into the story and don't want to leave at the other end. What my repetitve assessment indicates to me is that Sedaris's strength as a writer is to capture these moments--a strength that comes across to the reader lately come to these stories, and one that's well known indeed to listeners to This American Life.

Go read Naked; you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Robert Bringhurst, The Solid Form of Language.
Bringhurst writes elegantly about scripts, alphabets, and written language, and how written language lives in a world slightly differently than the oral language from which it springs. He shows how different languages evolve different scripts according to their different characters, and how scripts can be uniquely suited to a particular language--and how other scripts can be so incredibly mutable as to allow many, many different languages to use the same script.

This book is slight, but elegant. It illustrates a number of scripts in principle and in use, and while a quick read is an eminently enjoyable little book.

It's also quite poetic. Here's the beginning:

"Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric ripples form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one's hands are fast enough. Now drop two or three words in at once. Interference patterns form, reinforcing one another here and canceling each other there. To catch the meaning of the words is not to catch the ripples that they cause; it is to catch the interaction of those ripples. This is what it means to listen; this is what it means to read. It is incredibly complex, yet humans do it every day, and very often laugh and weep at the same time. Writing, by comparison, seems altogether simple, at least until you try.
Writing is the solid form of language, the precipitate. ..." (Bringhurst 9)