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LitMonkey – June 2013

July 1, 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 eighth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:

 ———————————————–

There isn’t a writer I’ve read more from of late than David Sedaris. In the seven months that I’ve been doing this, I’ve read his first four collections of autobiographical essays[1], as well as his collection of dark fairy tales, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Sedaris takes strange pride in the odd names he chooses for his books, but after approximately 1000 pages of his work, I am going to add subtitles to each of the five that I’ve read, including my latest, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. (Note to Sedaris’ publisher: you can send your “thank you’s” to 2bitMonkey@gmail.com. PayPal preferred.)

  1. Naked: The First Half of My Life Was Really Messed Up
  2. Me Talk Pretty One Day: All About Hugh and my Time in Paris.
  3. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim: All About My Mom.
  4. When You Are Engulfed in Flames: All the Funny Sh*t I Meant to Tell You but Somehow Forgot (Plus, How To Quit Smoking)
  5. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: I’ve Run Out of Funny Stories, Time To Scare The Children.

I have nothing against Mrs. Sedaris – the stories in Dress Your Family are fine – but I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns in these books. I could just be burned out on Sedaris, but I don’t think that’s it. After all, When You Are Engulfed was the last book I read by him before Dress Your Family, and about that I wrote, “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. [It] is the best writing I’ve seen from him yet. … you may very well have the perfect book.” What the two collections that I liked most (Naked and When You Are Engulfed) have in common is that they feature a wide array of characters and remarkably preposterous situations. What Me Talk Pretty and Dress Your Family share is a heavy leaning on a single individual, which while funny, becomes a little monotonous. For the first time in reading one of Sedaris’ books, I don’t think I laughed out loud once. I’m going to take a break from Sedaris – for real this time – rather than read just-released Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. I do have his Live at Carnegie Hall album on my iPhone though, and I hear that audio Sedaris is even better than the books … someone please tie me down before I hit play!

Once upon a time I was a 1990s teen, residing just at the tail end of Generation X. When I think about the pop culture that influenced me during those formative years, that I now look back upon nostalgically, it’s startling how pervasive the self-loathing, angst and cynicism is. For example, the movies that best epitomize to me what it meant to live through the ‘90s (not necessarily because the movies are representative of the times, but because they are representative of the feeling of the times) are Reality Bites, Higher Learning, American History X, just to name a few. Everyone was either angry or had given up, or both. Music was the same. In no other era could grunge music have flourished like it did. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, people sang about peace and love. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they sang about revolution (and drugs), but still with an sense of optimism. In the mid-‘70s, a truly bleak economic time, they sang about dancing! The music wasn’t any good but still it was positive. In the ‘80s they sang about cars and other material things. At no point could bands thrive on negativity. Of course you had the occasional band like the Smiths or the Cure, but people recognized those bands as music for the fringes of society. You couldn’t expect to reach mainstream success with a lyric like “Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint.

In the 1990s, for the first time in the history of human civilization, that all changed. Women were angry. African-Americans were angry. Poor people were angry. And white middle class males were angry about the fact that they felt guilty. As a result, Nirvana (and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots and countless other grunge bands) reached the top of the charts when they would otherwise have been cast aside as losers. These bands sang about alienation, abuse, depression, rape, addiction, and suicide. It wasn’t just grunge either. Two of the biggest songs of the decade had the following choruses:

Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me

and

I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here.

And while grunge imploded upon itself with the arrival of bubble-grunge (Bush, Creed, Candlebox) and pseudo-punk (the Offspring, Pennywise) bands, Beck and Radiohead were in it for the long haul.

As late as 1987 R.E.M. sang “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Jesus Jones reached the top of the charts in 1990 with his anthem “Right here, right now, there is no other place I wanna be.” How is it possible that by 1992 everything had changed? That’s what Craig Schuftan’s Entertain Us is all about. At least I think it is. The “story” of alternative rock is told by Schuftan chronologically, jumping from artist to artist, each after just a few pages and without any segue as the discussion moves from Nirvana to Blur to Riot Grrrl to Urge Overkill. There are probably dozens of books that could be spun off from individual chapters in Entertain Us (and, in fact, there are of course books just about the Seattle scene, or Lollapalooza, or Riot Girrl, etc.). Schuftan has struck gold, but he doesn’t do a very good job of mining it. For example, he writes a chapter about how different sensibilities of irony – American vs. British primarily – shaped the music of bands like Pearl Jam and Blur. Developed properly, this could have been an entire book, or at least a major section of one comparing music from the different sides of the Atlantic. (After the rise of the rock star who didn’t want to be a rock star, American alternative music vs. Britpop is the second-most prominent theme in the book. Third is women’s place in rock music. Fourth is the true meaning of authenticity. Fifth is … well, you get the idea.) But before we can delve too far into this we are into the story of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the music world’s reaction to that. And so on. You can tell that the author is extremely bright. It’s almost as if he has too much to say. Unfortunately, by telling us everything he risks saying nothing. (There’s a half-chapter where Schuftan talks about Rage Against the Machine and Marxism. It comes from out of nowhere and isn’t mentioned again. This is absolute gold, and one of the many wasted opportunities to tell a deeper, more interesting story.)

One frequent complaint of this book is the way Schuftan quotes so extensively from other sources – it’s almost like an oral history cobbled together from magazine articles and other assorted first-hand accounts. That aspect of the book doesn’t bother me at all. I actually highly enjoy this method of story-telling and do it myself on occasion (though I hate actual oral histories). There is no reason to re-write that which has already been said better by others. But with this style of writing comes an even greater responsibility to form strong opinions and organize one’s thoughts into consistent and coherent messages. Schuftan doesn’t do that to the extent I would have liked. Entertain Us is highly thought provoking, but doesn’t do the extra work of actually thinking itself. It is, however, a worthwhile read for a broad overview of the time – the sheer volume of compelling information (some of which I’ll hopefully retain) about 1990s music and culture is astounding – it’s gold – assuming you actually care about that sort of thing.

One of Schuftan’s many excerpts is from the Riot Grrrl manifesto, as he specifically quotes the following: “We don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.” “[We] seek to create revolution in our own lives every single day by envisioning and creating alternatives to the bullshit christian capitalist way of doing things.” “We must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.” He notes that Riot Grrrl had “built an underground empire out of paper and cassette tape – a cross country network [… with] chapters in Washington, Portland, Seattle, Austin and a dozen other cities [that] held weekly meetings in kitchens bedrooms, diners and apartment house laundries.”

This felt eerily familiar to another book I read this month, though this one is completely male-dominated, having only a single female presence. Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel, Fight Club, is about 30- and 40-something year old white males raging against exactly the same things that Bikini Kill and their sisters were singing about. Both Tyler Durden and Kathleen Hanna “hate capitalism in all its forms.” Both formed an army of like-minded (and demographically identical) souls who’s goal was to subversively destroy capitalist America from within. Apparently, that’s what the mid-‘90s were all about. I was there. I’m starting to wonder what we were all so angry about.

I don’t know why it took me this long to read Palahniuk’s first and most popular book. When the Brad Pitt / Edward Norton masterpiece of a film was released in 1999, it instantly became my favorite movie and remains in my top 10 to this day. (My top 10 is theoretical right now, therefore no link. But Fight Club is in there.)  After seeing the film in the theater I read his second novel Choke … and then seven others, until finally getting around to Fight Club. The timing could not have been better for me. Because while the book isn’t all that different than the movie, I am finally able to see both in a new light. I’m not here to declare that Tyler Durden wasn’t fighting an important war, I’m merely suggesting that I’m not as sure about that as I was in 1999. He may have simply been a megalomaniacal sociopath with multiple personality disorder.

Joe[2]/Tyler was as much in the dark about his mental disorder as is humanly possible.  Fight Club is told in the first person from half a person’s perspective. There should be a term for this – maybe half-person narration? Joe – and the reader, who gets all of his or her information from Joe – is completely delusional. The book I read just prior to Fight Club was the opposite story. Lizzie Simon is hyper-aware of her bipolarity. Only 23 years old, she had been through enough in her life to have decided that her disorder was a driving force behind who she was, and she set out on a road trip across America to find and interview others like her.

The contrast in these books made them fascinating to read in tandem, even though one was a memoir and the other a fictional account. Lizzie seeks to find inner peace by finding her “herd.”Joe finds his peace by removing himself entirely from society. Lizzie wants to bond; Joe wants to destroy. Lizzie eventually discovers that there is no herd for her, she is just one girl with problems, who meets some other like-minded but ultimately different people. Joe inadvertently mobilizes an army of like-minded people – a herd –who unquestioningly follow Tyler’s every sick command. Lizzie calls her world 4-D, saying that, “She’s survived mental illness and experienced a new dimension to existence, a fourth dimension.” She notes that she can take her 4-D glasses on and off, meaning that she can see the world either through a bipolar or a neuro-typical prism. By way of example, she describes her love interest Nick: “In 4-D, he’s my prince, my warrior, my angel. But as mortal beings living one little moment at a time, Nick is a mentally ill coke fiend, resisting treatment to both conditions.” Meanwhile, Joe doesn’t see through 4-D glasses. He lives in the fourth dimension. He lives in a world where his own actions happen absent his control – absent even his knowledge. Lizzie’s story is one of triumph over mental disorder, what happens when one becomes aware of a problem and challenges it head on. Joe’s story is the ultimate failure, what happens when one loses themselves inside their own head, rather than face society directly. For what it’s worth, I recommend Fight Club to everyone. It’s probably the greatest psychological thriller I’ve ever read. But for those suffering from manic depression, I recommend Simon’s book even more. Her experiences resonate more than any fictional account possibly could.

Back in the third dimension, a few weeks ago in my “What’s Making Me Happy This Week” column (shameless self-promotion!), I mentioned that Nick Hornby’s description of his experience reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes was one of the things making me happy. I specifically noted (self-quoting! Can I get any lower? Yes I can!):

Hornby notes that “Hermes’s book is a prime example of the sub-genre that has probably emerged as my favorite over the last few years: readable, rich, and intelligent nonfiction about the roots of creativity.” I agree that this is a fun new sub-genre – the inner workings of creativity and the mind interest me as well – and I am pleased that such books continue to get written and attract attention.

To back up my assertion I can just point at three of the books I read this month, each of which delves into the world of the origin of artistic creativity. The first is the already-discussed Entertain Us. Second is Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, which is nominally about how a dozen television dramas transformed TV as an entertainment medium. His approach though – interviewing show creators, writers and network executives, and reporting in detail the behind-the-scenes drama that made these shows possible – creates a narrative about how interesting and smart television is made, especially in a time before people used the words smart and television in the same sentence. By focusing his book as much on the people behind the shows – people like David Chase, David Simon, David Milch, and even people not named David – as on the shows themselves, Sepinwall wrote a book that was far more interesting than it probably had any right to be.

I am a fan of good television, but I’ve only seen four of the twelve shows covered in The Revolution Was Televised.[3] I was skeptical that I’d enjoy the chapters on shows I’d never seen, such as Oz and The Wire, let alone those I’ve never had any interest in, such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica. It turned out that didn’t matter at all. All that mattered is that I cared about the subject – challenging, serialized, television dramas. My desire to watch Oz and The Wire was enough to make this book work. If what you’re looking for is a book about a movement – a period in time when things changed – and not just show recaps, the fact that you haven’t seen all of the shows in question shouldn’t give you pause. If anything, the chapter on Lost was my favorite, as its origin story (much like the one on the show, or so I hear), is the most unusual and telling. More than any other, it drives home the book’s recurring theme: Innovative creators given room to create – and some good fortune – will create good work. As did Sepinwall. (Note: Sepinwall has written a lot about The Sopranos and James Gandolfini, including a great chapter in The Revolution Was Televised. My reaction to the news of Gandolfini’s death, and Sepinwall’s take, can be found here.)

I don’t know much about photography or famous photographers, but from what I gather based on his own sort-of memoir Marilyn & Me, Lawrence Schiller was a star Hollywood photographer in his younger days. He had the distinction of taking photos of Marilyn Monroe on two different occasions later in her life, once on the set of “Let’s Make Love,” the other on the set the aborted film “Something’s Got to Give.” Schiller was a baby – in his early twenties – when he got these opportunities, and he achieved his “lifelong” dream of having a photograph on the cover of Life magazine with his nude poolside pictures of Marilyn on the “Something’s Got to Give” set. (Those iconic photos can be seen here.) While the book is obviously about Marilyn, and Schiller’s reflections on her life and death (he saw her the day before she died), there is a second, subtler, aspect of this book that intrigues me nearly as much. (I say “nearly” because it is impossible to convey anything more interesting than a first-hand account of interactions with Marilyn Monroe.) Schiller was relentless in his desire to be a world-renowned photographer despite his youth. He makes no bones about the fact that he wanted the cover of Life, and that Marilyn was the device through which he’d get there. He also describes how being blind in one eye helped him as a photographer, and the methods he used to get the best possible pictures from Monroe, her approval to use them and the exclusive rights to sell them. His take on Monroe is fascinating, in that it was informed by a few brief but obviously intense and critical interactions with her. If you’re interested in the creative process, his take on himself (which isn’t always explicit but is easily inferred) is fascinating in its own right. (Also, the book should take about an hour to read and includes truly exquisite photographs of Marilyn Monroe. So what have you got to lose?)

Next month … light summer reading?


[2] In the movie version, Joe’s name is changed to Jack.

[3] The Sopranos, 24, Friday Night Lights and Mad Men. Of course, I’ve seen every single episode of those four shows.

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