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LitMonkey – March 2013

April 2, 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 fifth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

After last month’s journey through the world of madness, it was time to ease my foot off the pedal and cruise through March with a little less psychotic determination.  What better place to start than with my third installment of Mr. Sedaris’ autobiographical essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. You might ask, why skip Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (chronologically the third such collection of his, after Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day)?  Did Dress Your Family get bad reviews?  Is it out of print?  Is the book all about Sedaris’ brief time as a neo-Nazi terrorist? No, no and god no (Nazis don’t wear corduroy).  The answer is a much simpler one: Walking down Lexington Ave in New York City, I saw a used (autographed) copy of When You Are Engulfed for sale.  I didn’t see Dress Your Family.  Decision made.

After I read Naked in December, I mentioned that I was “looking forward to [reading] Me Talk Pretty One Day in January” because “who could possibly, and in many cases voluntarily, live through all of this?” I was convinced that Sedaris’ uncanny ability – perhaps passion – to meet many wonderful oddball characters and tell his story convincingly and hilariously would only get better as he wrote more.  However, despite the fact that I really liked Me Talked Pretty, I said that “I can’t help but compare it, slightly unfavorably, to Naked” because “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.”  In light of that, I took a month off before launching into When You Are Engulfed and kept my expectations in check.

EngulfedSedarisI won’t make that mistake again. Naked was excellent, Me Talked Pretty was very good, but When You Are Engulfed easily lapped them both.  To use a sports analogy (get used to them, sports is a theme this month) Sedaris is like a baseball player who, after years of showing incredible All-Star talent, put all his tools and smarts together to have an MVP season.  When You Are Engulfed is the best writing I’ve seen from him yet, and features a wide array of characters and preposterous situations much like those seen in Naked. Of course there are several stories featuring boyfriend Hugh and his quirky parents, but there is also the horrible babysitter, the cranky old neighbor, the sexually depraved cab driver,  and multiple bad airplane seatmates, among other “friends” that Sedaris meets as he wanders through life.  There is also a lengthy (70-page or so) mini-memoir about moving to Japan just to quit smoking, that proves the author is capable of telling a longer story and remaining engaging throughout.  Throw in the book cover – an early painting by Van Gogh – and you may very well have the perfect book.

Guitar Zero is a brilliant and brilliantly misleading book.  Here’s the description from the publisher:

For anyone who has ever set out to play a musical instrument—or wished that they could—Guitar Zero is an inspiring and fascinating look at the pursuit of music, the mechanics of the mind, and the surprising rewards that come from following one’s dreams. Gary Marcus, whom Steven Pinker describes as “one of the deepest thinkers in cognitive science,” debunks the popular theory that there is an innate musical instinct while challenging the idea that talent is only a myth. From deliberate and efficient practicing techniques to finding the right music teacher, Marcus translates his own experience—as well as reflections from world-renowned musicians—into practical advice for anyone hoping to become musical or learn any new skill.

I picked it up because (a) I have always wanted to learn how to play guitar, (b) I have taken a grand total of one music lesson in my entire life, (c) like the author I am in my 30’s and (d) I was pretty sure that I am too old to first learn to play guitar now.  Marcus’ book promised to give me both inspiration and some practical tips towards reversing my belief in (d) and accomplishing something I didn’t believe I could, namely (a).

Having read the book, I now can say with certainty that I will never learn to play guitar.  Ever.  As early as page 27 this became clear, when Marcus talks about the need for “immersion” and how he was able to pursue his dream only because he was about to undergo a one-year paid sabbatical.  Less than 10% of the way through and if all I sought were the aforementioned inspiration and practical tips, I could have put the book down and deemed it an epic failure (and I would have been right).

What I could not have possibly known at that moment was that the most important words of the 119 quoted above were these: “Gary Marcus, whom Steven Pinker describes as ‘one of the deepest thinkers in cognitive science’…”  Marcus is a brilliant thinker.  Brilliant.  His ability to draw parallels between learning guitar and learning a language are fascinating.  Many authors would mention this obvious analogy; Marcus’ brilliance shines through in the level of detail applied to the comparison, such as in his explanation of the difficulty children have in learning the irregular past tense and how this applies to learning to play guitar.  He cites noted thinkers on the subject of music and the brain such as Pinker, Oliver Sacks (Musicophilia), and Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music), and even mentions LitMonkey’s old friend Jason Hartley! I’m glad I read Musicophilia previously, and can honestly say that in many ways Guitar Zero is everything I thought Musicophilia would be.  Rest assured that is high praise.

In the event that you don’t go off and read Guitar Zero right after reading this post (and I highly recommend that you do), there are two quotes I picked up in the book that I must share.  The second I will come back to at the end of the post; the first is a statement by Marcus which I think is one of the most profound observations I have ever read about music: “If I had to sum up human music for intergalactic travelers in a single concise phrase, it might be this: Repetition, with variation.”  Think about that statement and apply it to the music you love – I believe you will see how right Marcus is.

I’m not sure why I picked up Jewish Jocks.  Actually, that’s not true.  There are people I know who take immense pride in athletes who identify themselves as Jewish, such as current Jewish boxers Yuri Foreman (who famously fought Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium in 2010) and the “Star of David” Dmitriy Salita (who was scheduled to fight Hector Camacho in the Barclays Center last month, but the fight was postponed due to an injury to one of the main event fighters).  I’m not one of those people.  I’ve never much cared about an athlete’s ethnicity or religious beliefs, even if they coincided with mine.  When a friend took me to see Salita fight in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn), I was more excited about having ringside seats to my first ever live boxing match than I was in seeing the “Star of David.”  Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the Salita fight, but I really enjoyed the co-headlining fight featuring Brooklyn’s Luis Collazo, who knocked down his opponent three times in the first three rounds in thrilling fashion.

What Jewish Jocks had that roped me in was an impressive list of well-known contributing writers, such as Steven Pinker, David Remnick,  Jane Leavy,  Buzz Bissinger and Stephen Dubner, and lesser-known writers whom I happen to like reading on a regular basis, including Jonah Keri, Robert Weintraub and Josh Levin.  It also covers such an extraordinary number of featured “jocks” – there are over 50 pieces in the book – that at a minimum I knew I’d enjoy at least some of them, and the others I could skip.  And generally speaking I was right – the good writers wrote good pieces (Bissinger excepted) and there were enough captivating stories that I didn’t mind skipping about 1/3 of the stories overall.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend Jewish Jocks to myself if I could do it all over again, and for that I blame the editors.

First, I’m not sure who made the decision to organize the book chronologically, but I think that was a poor choice.  I genuinely believe that I would have enjoyed the book more had it been the exact same stories organized differently.  Because the first batch of stories told all took place in the first half of the 20th century, the focus of many of them was, in some way on another, the role of anti-Semitism in shaping the principal’s career.  Now, I am in no way minimizing the huge impact that anti-Semitism had (and continues to have) on Jewish society, but I simply was not interested in reading a variation of the same story over and over again.  Moreover, while the book established a general theme via these initial stories, this theme of overcoming anti-Semitism wasn’t carried through in a meaningful way as the book went along.  Most (though not all) of the more present-day stories ignored this aspect entirely.  This created a lose-lose dynamic whereby a reader (like me) who wanted to read about Jewish jocks but not necessarily about the Jewish struggle was turned off from the get go, while a reader who was interested in reading more about the struggle was disappointed when the book went in a different direction.

Another reason why the chronological setup didn’t work for me is that despite what I just said about there being an overall feel to the first half of the book, the individual stories did not lead into one another seamlessly.  There is no commonality upon which the book holds together, other than the word “Jewish.”  The myriad authors clearly were not given any mandate.  Were they supposed to write about how being Jewish affected the character’s life and/or career? Or were they only supposed to choose a major sports-world personality who happened to be Jewish and write about that person more generally? David Leonhadrt taken an interesting perspective on Bud Selig, for example, though the essay has nothing to do with Selig being Jewish.  Ron Rosenbaum, on the other hand, delves deeply into a critique of society’s (both Jews and non-Jews) Jewish stereotyping, both positive and negative, in his essay on notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein.  Further, were the essays meant to cover famous people who happened to be Jewish (e.g., Howard Cosell, Sid Luckman, Sandy Koufax) or people who famous because they were Jewish (like Tamir Goodman, aka the Jewish Jordan)?  Any of these approaches may have made for a fine book; or better yet, this book could have been organized to reflect the different nature of the many essays.  There was a point to be made by these excellent writers – probably more than one – but the point gets lost as one is jumping from a story about Nancy Lieberman (woman basketball star) to Howard Cosell (broadcaster) to Renee Richards (transsexual tennis pro) without any direction from the editors.

Finally, someone has to ask this question:  What the hell was the point of including the essay on Corey Pavin, born Jewish, born-again Christian?  It wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t desirable, it didn’t fit in at all with the 51 other essays in the book and it can’t have been well received by the book’s intended audience.  One job of editing has to be to know when to say “thanks, but no thanks.”

I’ll stay with the theme of sports while talking about Man in the Empty Suit, a novel without a single sports element in it.  This book reminds me of the last decade or so of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest.  That may seem like a bizarre comparison for a novel about a time traveler who annually celebrates his birthday partying with himself.  Our protagonist – is he one or many? – travels every year to an abandoned hotel in New York City in 2071, drinks lots of Scotch with all the other versions of who he has been and who he will be, and eventually witnesses a murder which he must solve.  It’s a fascinating premise, but it reminds me of the many difficult dunks attempted in the post-Michael Jordan era which were impressive in design but could never be completed by the Air Jordan wanna-bes attempting them.  Sure it’s nice to watch someone try and pull off a 360-degree windmill alley-oop off the backboard two-hand slam, but what’s the point if he’s going to fall far short of his goal?  Wouldn’t we all be better off if the good-but-not-otherwordly athlete realized his limitations and (successfully) attempted a less challenging, but still interesting, dunk?  We would all clap our hands, put up our 8.5’s and go home satisfied that we saw an entertaining show.  Instead we’re subjected to missed dunk after missed dunk and thoughts of what-might-have-been had these creations been put in the hands of more able-bodied slam dunk artists. Sean Ferrell is an OK writer with a fascinating premise.  There was simply no way that he could pull off something that would have been a challenge in the hands of Kurt Vonnegut.  What we’re left with is a novel full of holes and inconsistencies and a frustrating feeling of what-might-have-been.  Save yourself the trouble and Man in the Empty Suit.  If you’re desperate for a psychological science-fiction self-exploration, pick up Chuck Klosterman’s The Visible Man instead.

While reading Super Bowl Monday, my first reaction was to say that though I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone that isn’t a fan of the New York Giants or the Buffalo Bills, or a die-hard connoisseur of all things Super Bowl, if you do fit into one of those categories I could not recommend it more.  Giving it a little more thought though, I think that this book is a must-read for any serious professional football fan.  Super Bowl XXV has been underrated historically and it was time that someone gave it its proper due.  From a purely aesthetic perspective, this is the story of two teams headed in opposite directions.  The Bills were beginning a run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, while the Giants were about to win their second Super Bowl title in five years, after which they’d miss the playoffs each of the next two seasons.  It was also a clash of two franchises who approached the game differently.  On the one hand you had the high-powered K-Gun offense of Jim Kelly‘s Bills, and on the other the league-leading “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense of the Lawrence Taylor-led Giants.  The game itself was a rare occurrence of the event matching the pre-determined narrative, as the Giants used a conservative offense to control the tempo of the game and score 20 points in over 40 minutes of possession, narrowing hanging on to a 1-point victory as the Bills scored 19 points in their limited 19 minutes of possession.

Fortunately, Adam Lazarus rises to the task he’s taken on of telling the story of this time in football history.  Super Bowl Monday is a wonderfully detailed account of not only the game, but of the surrounding circumstances, especially the impact of the Persian Gulf war on the game, and of the key personnel involved.  The storytelling is vivid and obviously well-researched – you get the feeling that from the final whistle on that Sunday evening in January 1991 Lazarus began the painstaking task of chronicling this moment time.  For example, despite being a lifelong Giants fan, I was surprised at how little I knew about Super Bowl heroes such as quarterback savior Jeff Hostetler and Super Bowl MVP Ottis (O.J.) Anderson, both of whom rose from nearly being out of football to stardom in the course of the latter stages of the 1990-91 NFL season.

What makes this book great, though, is how in addition to telling the stories of these important players, as well as those of key figures Kelly, Bills’ running back Thurman Thomas, Bills’ coach Marv Levy, Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells, Giants’ defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, and kickers Scott Norwood and Matt Bahr, the lesser figures from the game – down to the assistant coaches, the special teams players, the reserve players with family in active military duty – are also covered and given their moment of fame.  There are memorable quotes from obscure players and poignant observations from and about minor members of each team. Lazarus left no stone unturned and allowed me, a reader and a fan, to relive a significant time in my team’s history and enrich my memory of that era exponentially.

I also read Unknown Pleasures this month, but I realize that if I write again about Joy Division, Ian Curtis or Peter Hook, this site will have to be reclassified a Joy Division fan site.  So rather than write (again) about the book, I refer you to the piece I wrote when I purchased it at an author event at PowerHouse Arena bookstore, where Hooky gave fascinating insights about Curtis and the band, or the piece I wrote comparing Unknown Pleasures to Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 documentary about the same.

Finally, here is the second quote I promised, one offered up by Marcus in Guitar Zero courtesy of (Brooklyn’s) Abraham Maslow: “Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often, if not always, expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.”  I have nothing to add.  Just let it sink in.

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