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LitMonkey – January 2013

January 31, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the third installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

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Music ruled the day in January.  OK, music always rules the day in my world.  But I was especially drawn to an eclectic group of music-themed books this month, starting with Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, which I touched upon earlier this month while thinking about his chapter on music and depression.  In that piece I discussed why I like Sacks so much, but in my opinion Musicophilia isn’t one of his best books.  I said in that piece that “Musicophilia is a tour through every conceivable aspect of human life and how music affects it all neurologically.”  That part is true.  But the tour feels a bit meandering as Dr. Sacks fails to tell these stories in his normally compelling way.  It’s as if Sacks’ heart really isn’t into this one.  In previous books I’ve read by Dr. Sacks (The Mind’s Eye, An Anthropologist on Mars) I’ve been amazed by how captivating of a story-teller he can be while delving in great detail into the lives of people whose various brain abnormalities have completely changed the way they live.  Here, with rare exception, Dr. Sacks goes into far less detail with each person and abnormality.  He doesn’t let us get to know the person, only the situation and sometimes the remedy or resolution.  The stories are extraordinary and quite interesting, but they lack the depth and personality found in The Mind’s Eye.  I don’t know why the topic of sight would be handled in 7 deeply impassioned stories while music would be handled in 29 less developed ones, but I highly prefer the former approach.

Before moving on to more music-themed books, I made my now monthly appointment with David Sedaris.  I don’t know how I feel about my second encounter with a Sedaris memoir, Me Talk Pretty One Day.  On the one hand, there’s no question that I liked it. Not a single story bored me, never once did I want to put it down, and several times I literally laughed out loud. (I love doing so on the subway; the looks from nearby passengers are priceless.) Still, I can’t help but compare it, slightly unfavorably, to Naked (read last month). Sequels rarely surpass the original and Me Talk Pretty is no exception. However, most sequels fail because they exaggerate those qualities which made the original special, going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Me Talk Pretty does the opposite. The stories seem less embellished than in Naked, which was likely a conscious choice by Sedaris in reaction to criticism of placed on his writing at the time, but I feel that it makes the stories slightly less interesting.  Moreover, moving the story to Paris is rather mundane.[1]  While it serves to create some farcical situations, those situations are often funny merely because of the cliché of the American stuck in Paris. Generally I found the book generally less character driven and more anecdotal, and therefore somewhat boring. There is a lot of focus on this particular time with Sedaris’ boyfriend Hugh, and far too little time with his family. Last month I write that after reading Naked I learned that Sedaris was “a man rich with experience and a family to match.”  Me Talk Pretty, with its paucity of characters and varying situations, would not independently lead me to the same conclusion.  Finally, Me Talk Pretty goes out with a whimper with its last story, “I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing,” which doesn’t nearly measure up to “Naked,” the hilarious last story in Naked.  Is it fair for me to measure Me Talk Pretty One Day by Sedaris’ prior work?  Probably not.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t clearly state that it’s a very good book, I highly recommend it and I will read more from him.  But Sedaris set my expectations high and, well, just fell a little short this time.

At the end of the month, I read two other music books at the same time – 2007’s Best Music Writing anthology and Wish You Were Here.  I never before read any of the Best Music Writing series, so when I saw the 2007 edition in a local bookstore for $2, I figured that even if I only enjoyed a handful of the essays, I’d at least get my money’s worth.  I can say that I got my money’s worth, but also that I didn’t get much of a bargain.  My biggest problem with the book is the following:  Though guest edited by Robert Christgau, the “only full-time rock-critic, experienced music editor, or for that matter professional journalist ever to assemble one of these books” (Christgau’s words), Christgau all but ignores rock and roll in assembling the collection!   He avoids a theme to include THE BEST WRITING (emphasis his) and to “demonstrate … [that] the music I imperialistically call rock and roll continues to inspire more acute, original, informative, engaging, funny, and idiosyncratic writing than can be stuffed into a 300-page book.”  This is a noble goal … but where is the rock and roll?  The highlight of the book (consensus opinion, not mine) is a Jonathan Lethem opus from Rolling Stone on “Being James Brown.”  Similarly massive is a piece on the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka “The Jazz Baroness.”  (Yawn.)  There are pieces on the depth that people fail to see in Mariah Carey and Beyonce.  (Come on.)  Some of the pieces are interesting – Neil Diamond’s anthem “America” being adopted by Latinos, Barbra Streisand’s stalker-like fans, the history of New Orleans hip-hop[2] (told in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), but none of this is rock and roll.  By my count, 6 pages of the 370 are somewhat devoted to rock – a 4-page newspaper story on the demise of a classic rock radio station in San Francisco, and a short NY Times op-ed on the closing of CBGBs.  Meanwhile, 10 pages are devoted to the rap wars of … Israel?? Yes, good writing can stand alone, but some of these topics are so irrelevant that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish (or even begin) a fair number of the essays.

Meanwhile, while good writing can stand alone, Wish You Were Here is not an example of it.  Where do I start with what’s wrong with this book?  How about at the beginning, the title.  The implication is that the book covers a wide spectrum of music scenes.  False.  There is one chapter about late ‘90s-mid 2000s emo, a second about late ‘90s-mid 2000s emo and nine more about late ‘90s-mid 2000s emo.  Then there’s the snark that borders on cruelty. Why does Simon “Wish You Were Here” anyway?  Does she hate you?  She must, given how much disdain she has for the music fans that make up the “scene” in these 11 cities.[3]  Also, how were these cities chosen as the representative music scenes of the U.S.?  Seriously, Long Island has a noteworthy music scene because Taking Back Sunday and Brand New both came from there? And where is the “Essential Guide”?  Am I really to believe that there’s a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks in every one of these crucial cities that must be visited to understand the music scene?  Yes, I have so many questions; Simon has so few answers.

Most appalling though is the complete lack of factual accuracy.  Take the chapter on New York City for example.  It mentions CBGBs and the bands made famous there, culminating in the Ramones “making punk palatable, which, unfortunately marked the end of an era in New York City.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani was cleaning up the streets and not even the city’s music scene was safe from his disinfectant wrath…”  Huh? Giuliani took office in 1994! So not only does the author say that nothing of note happened in Giuliani’s 8 years in office (until the very end and the release of Is This It? by the Strokes), she doesn’t even acknowledge that the years 1980-1993 happened! Then, after the Strokes, apparently the only bands of note to emerge from NYC were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol.  As for the current day, it is “a sad state of affairs.  By the decades end, it seemed as if many NYC scenesters were so disheartened by the direction that things were heading, they decided to pack it in.”  So in short, according to Simon, since 1980 – over 30 years – there have been three bands of note to emerge from New York City and now the city is dead.  Hard to argue with that, right? Ugh.  This isn’t a New York specific problem either.  The Seattle chapter begins with Sunny Day Real Estate, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.  As if those are the bands anyone would associate with the Seattle scene.  Even the members of Modest Mouse don’t think so.  Meanwhile, the Bay Area chapter makes it sound like the ‘60s were irrelevant and the scene has been set there by that most influential band, Green Day.  Yikes.

Honestly, I didn’t have very high hopes for this book.  It’s just too much to ask that a single writer could make you feel like you were part of 11 different critically important music scenes spanning eras, genres, and locations.  I picked it up in part because I hoped (not thought, but hoped), that it could give me a taste of these scenes, so that I could be a little more informed about each and decide which I wanted to explore in more detail.  I never expected the full immersion that 98bowery.com provides to the NYC punk scene, but I wanted what I wrote about in the last paragraph of my column about that great punk art site – something “that allows me to live through the Seattle alternative scene from the mid 80s through mid 90s, London during the time of the Beatles and Manchester during the heyday of the Smiths, San Francisco during the late 1960s, Woodstock and NYC in its immediate aftermath, and so much more.  All shown through the eyes and ears of an insider…”  This book wasn’t close.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  There is one chapter where Simon comes close, and that is the one on Omaha, Nebraska.  I don’t know a thing about Leslie Simon’s biography, but I would confidently guess that she’s from Nebraska.  When discussing the Omaha scene, she is far more coherent – she better explains the scene’s development over time, its key contributors, and even the token coffee shop mention (The Foundry) seems a little more insider-y.  I could imagine Simon writing a book just about the Omaha (or more general Nebraska) music scene that would be similar to Stephen Tow’s excellent “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge.”  Her book wouldn’t be as good – again, Simon writes like a teenage bully – but there are at least the seeds of something interesting here.  I wouldn’t read it, but someone as infatuated with Conor Oberst as Simon is would.

Rather than end on that depressing note, allow me to end on a different depressing note – the state of our country, particularly from an economic perspective.  Upon reading Nicholas Eberstadt’s brief but powerful book “A Nation of Takers” I was shocked to learn the extent to which entitlement programs have taken over our national economy and are largely, if not almost exclusively, responsible for our current untenable national debt.  Whether you agree with Eberstadt’s cause and effect conclusion or not[4] – that due to the unprecedented expansion of entitlement programs we have shifted as a nation from being “exceptional” due to our cultural resistance to government entitlements, to one where an entitlement lifestyle has been the normalized, where exercising one’s legal rights (and even cheating or “playing” the system) to entitlements is now part and parcel to the American way of life –  there is no debating the statistical data he presents that we are in the midst of a 50 year period of unprecedented expansion of entitlement programs and that our country is on an unsustainable fiscal path.  You can debate whether our nation has become a country of Takers with a capital “T” (though I think Eberstadt has made a pretty compelling case that we are), but for the past 50 years we have most assuredly become a country of takers, with no end to the government’s largesse in sight, and a day of economic reckoning likely to come.

Staying in the political spectrum, but in a very different way, I “read” the parody book Don’t Let the Republican Drive the Bus!  Full disclaimer: I’m not anti-Republican.  I think there is much to be critical of with respect to both major political parties today.  Nevertheless, I picked up this book in the library expecting a clever, or at least funny, take on what is wrong with the Republican Party. After all, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is the ideal book to parody (kind of like the oftenparodied Goodnight Moon in that regard). Unfortunately, this book just wasn’t that funny. The tone was inconsistent and it was extremely over the top in its hatred of all things Republican. Pick it up in a bookstore, flip through, and if you’re very familiar with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus you’ll chuckle a few times. But that’s all.  Also, don’t bother showing it to your kids. I made the mistake of leaving it out on the dining room table and was asked some questions that I (and the book) were not prepared to answer.  There’s nothing to learn here, even if you agree with the politics.  Frankly, I’d sooner read my kid A Nation of Takers and hope he learns to be self-sufficient.

I fear that I’m sounding a bit too negative overall, but to over-hype books I didn’t love just so you’d leave my site with a warm fuzzy feeling isn’t my style.  A common theme for my reading this month was unmet expectations – whether because prior works by the author were so great that meeting the expectations would be nearly impossible (Sacks, Sedaris), or because the premise of the book held so much promise but didn’t quite deliver (Best Music Writing, Wish You Were Here, the Pigeon parody) – but maybe I expected too much.  I mostly enjoyed my month of reading and don’t want to leave you feeling otherwise.  It was a pleasurable if not overly exciting month.  Just please avoid Wish You Were Here at all costs.


[1] I understand that as a memoir Sedaris is merely tracking his real-life journey, which took him to Paris.  Nevertheless, as a reader I don’t care where Sedaris is – I care where the protagonist is, and in this case he’s moved to Paris, which I found somewhat trite.

[2] Which is called, incredibly, “Gangsta Gumbo”

[3] Think I’m being harsh?  Consider one of the many such examples, this from the Long Island chapter, where Simon “dissect[s] the different ways that hardcore and post-hardcore types have achieved their much sought after level of manliness, even while making some of the wimpiest music around.”  (Bear in mind that this is the music the author loves.)  Tip #4: “Be A Dick: To say that dudes in Long Island have a bad reputation is kind of like saying that human blow-up doll Heidi Montag sorta sings off key.  If you really wanna hang in the Long Island scene, then you have to be a tough-guy douchebag.  Talk really loud at all times, pick fights for no reason, spill your drink on innocent bystanders, and then blame it on them.  Just make sure to never apologize for anything.  After all, being from Long Island means never having to say you’re sorry.”

[4] For what it’s worth, I do.

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