LitMonkey – July 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 ninth installment. Enjoy!
Books I Purchased:
- “This Is Where I Leave You ”, Jonathan Tropper
- “Lexicon ”, Max Barry
- “Four Great Plays by Chekhov”, Anton Chekhov
- “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”, Chuck Klosterman
- “The Essential Smart Football”, Chris B. Brown
- “The Ticking is the Bomb “, Nick Flynn (autographed copy)
Books I Borrowed from the Library:
- “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 ” (e-book), Michael Azerrad
- “Hallucinations”, Oliver Sacks
- “Dads Are the Original Hipsters ” (e-book), Brad Getty
Books I Read:
- “The Polysyllabic Spree ”, Nick Hornby
- “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 ”, Michael Azerrad
- “Hallucinations”, Oliver Sacks
- “Dads Are the Original Hipsters ”, Brad Getty
- “This Is Where I Leave You ”, Jonathan Tropper
- “Twelve ”, Nick McDonell
There is a need in our society today to label things as “the best ever” or “the worst ever.” No longer is it good enough to merely be good, or interesting, or worth one’s time. For example, all year long there were insta-reviews of season six of Mad Men that went something like this: “There are so many things I don’t like about this season/episode of Mad Men, including its pacing/plotting/structure/all of the above. It’s nowhere near the highs of seasons four and five. Of course, it’s still the best show on television.” Why the need to point out that it’s not the best season ever in the history of television? Isn’t “best show on television” – or even just damn good show – good enough?
For that reason what I’m about to say is something you should not take lightly. Michael Azerrad’s tales from the “American Indie Underground”, covering 13 highly influential punk and indie rock bands from the period of 1981 through 1991, is the best music-related book I have ever read. Don’t believe me? I submit as Exhibit A the fact that the 10th anniversary of this book spurred a live concert at Bowery Ballroom in 2011 with 14 contemporary artists (including Ted Leo, Titus Andronicus, tUnE-yArDs) covering the 13 from the book. It may have happened before, but I can’t think of another book that resulted in a musical celebration like that.
One common praise for the book is that Azerrad could have chosen any number of other bands to make his point about the glory decade of indie music, and that it’s how he told a story using what appears to be a somewhat randomly chosen 13 that further illustrates Azerrad’s brilliance. Of course Azerrad had to have a chapter on Sonic Youth – “the yardstick by which independence and hipness (the very equation is in no small part due to them) were measured” – but wouldn’t it have made more sense to replace Beat Happening with, say, the Pixies or the Meat Puppets? I think the answer is no; it is in choosing these 13 bands specifically that Azerrad took his first steps towards brilliance. Chronologically these bands make sense as they take us from the immediate post-punk era right up to Nirvana’s Nevermind, i.e. the event that changed indie forever. Geographically they are sufficiently diverse, covering both coasts, New England, D.C., Seattle/Olympia, Minneapolis, Texas and Chicago. In addition to using the breadth of the U.S. indie scene to paint a picture of everything that was going on at the same time (and how the various regional scenes both did and didn’t interact nationally), he made sure that certain regions were represented twice so as to note the distinctions within an small area – Hüsker Dü vs. the Replacements, Mission of Burma vs. (years later) Dinosaur Jr. The 13 bands chosen each have a distinct style and brought something to the table that the others did not, whether it was the Minutemen moving punk away from hard core, the Hüsker’s addition of melody to punk, Sonic Youth’s introduction of high art to the scene, or Dinosaur Jr’s return to guitar rock. The personalities involved were also crucial to the story, as many of the bands included leads who were as famous for what they contributed to indie music besides the music itself, if not more so. Steve Albini’s militant indie “principles” were more powerful than the music of Big Black, and his work as a producer trumped both; Ian MacKaye’s label (Dischord) and dogmatic devotion to “straight edge” were more influential than either Minor Threat or Fugazi; J. Mascis gave the world a slacker poster boy; and of course you have Sonic Youth, the band that made other bands meaningful by association. Then there are the labels – the thing that made indie music indie. Azerrad’s 13 bands span SST, Touch and Go, Twin/Tone, Sub Pop, Dischord, Merge, Ace of Hearts, K Records, and Blast First (UK), and he spends as much time discussing the impact of the labels (most of them founded by the bands themselves) as the bands. He also smartly moves on from each band when and if they make the leap to a major, so Mudhoney’s Reprise years and the Replacements years on Sire Records are given a brief mention and then discarded.
All of that is just to focus on the structure of and choice of material for the book; without Azerrad’s brilliant prose, 500+ pages on indie rock may not have flown by so easily. (Honestly, I wanted more.) The writer has a way of turning words on a page into picture and sound, so that the reader can experience the 1980s indie scene and truly know what it was like to witness any of these artists perform and evolve, even if he or she had never heard a single note from, for example, the Minutemen. Consider this paragraph about Sonic Youth’s move to a major label and all that is conveyed in a few simple lines:
The move to SST instantly catapulted Sonic Youth out of the New York art ghetto and onto a national stage. None of their New York peers ever made a comparable leap. It helped that at the same time, Sonic Youth had come up with an artistic breakthrough of an album. Released in May ’86, EVOL made the band more accessible and strengthened their alloy of the physical (Stooges) and the cerebral (John Cage), not only embodying the debate then beginning to peak in the art world about “high” and “low” art, but perpetuating a hybrid that rock music had been exploring since the Beatles’ Revolver and on through the Velvets, Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, and beyond.
Incredible. All of Our Band Can Be Your Life is as descriptive as this. Of course, when writing about a band like the Butthole Surfers, Azerrad shifts from being poetic to crude and funny, to reflect the music (you can tell he really enjoyed writing that one). The chapter on MacKaye’s Fugazi is a bit self-righteous, the one on Albini and Big Black is condescending, and the one on the Replacements is accessible and inspiring. Towards the end, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, one can easily contrast Azerrad’s viewpoint on late-’80s indie bands Dinosaur Jr and Mudhoney – the former is a story about a band that but for its own self-destruction could have been Nirvana before Nirvana; the latter is a story about a band that had that opportunity present itself but was never talented enough to seize it. I could go on for another thousand words (and then probably two thousand more) writing about this book, and perhaps one day I will. The most important thing for anyone who’s considered reading it but hasn’t yet to keep in mind is not to be intimidated by the bands. You don’t need to know the music of all, or even most of them ahead of time. Azerrad will bring the bands to you.
What are the rules for handling an autographed book? As loyal readers may recall (yes, I’m still pretending I have some of those), several months ago I attended The Believer magazine’s 10th anniversary party at (le) poisson rouge, where I won a bundle of the four Nick Hornby books published by McSweeney’s – More Baths Less Talking, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and The Polysyllabic Spree. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the copy of The Polysyllabic Spree was autographed by Hornby, which was nice, though I kind of wish he’d stuck around long enough that night for me to meet him and have the book signed personally. (As if Hornby hasn’t given me enough already by inspiring this column, writing several excellent novels that I’ve enjoyed immensely, recommending books month after month in his Believer columns, writing two books that were adapted into very good movies and the screenplay for another … now I also want him to schedule his evening around signing a few books for me, a random prize winner? Maybe I’m being just a little selfish. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.)
Digression aside, Hornby’s unexpected John Hancock left me with a bit of a dilemma. This short book, a series of his columns from late 2003 through the end of 2004, was the perfect summer reading in that I could pick it up at any time, bang through a column in under 15 minutes, then set it aside for a jump in the pool, some shut-eye on the beach or, most likely, banal conversation with family and friends. (Just kidding dear family and friends – please don’t stop speaking to me.) However, that style of reading inevitably leads to what I will now call the “summer book effect” – droplets of water (or even sweat) landing on the cover, sand getting mixed into the pages, the sun baking the binding to the point where the book becomes loose, perhaps even a coffee spill desecrating the entire volume. There’s no getting around the “summer book effect”; some books were meant for light summer reading and are treated as such. It’s actually a benefit to the world of literature that books are such a rugged technology – they can take this kind of abuse and still serve their intended purpose (generally to be read). Not all books are meant to be handled that way though. Certain ones need to be handled more delicately, so that they can be displayed like the trophy pieces they are once completed. The Polysyllabic Spree is not such a book … but might an autographed copy of The Polysyllabic Spree be? And if so, what would be the point in having Hornby’s autograph but not actually reading the book, for fear that I would sully it?
I decided to read The Polysyllabic Spree this past month, consequences be damned. On a very hot beach day a few droplets of water dripped from my bottle forming spots on the cover and somehow – though I couldn’t say how – sand got mixed into nearly all of the pages. But I also got to take several breaks from this light reading, swimming in the ocean, chatting with a new friend whose umbrella nearly maimed me, and enjoying the slow stroll to the nearest sandwich shack. It was a great book, perfect for the summer. And in no way do I feel I ruined it.
The summer is also a good time for some light fiction – Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You fit the bill perfectly. This is my first attempt at a Tropper book, and although I liked it as an easy breezy read, I walk away mostly unimpressed. The publisher’s description calls it “riotously funny” and “emotionally raw”; I would have gone with “kind of amusing” and “moderately emotional in an obvious sort of way.” Various reviews compare Tropper favorably to Nick Hornby or Tom Perrotta; I see the basis for the comparisons (all three men successfully delve into the psyches of the middle-aged suburban male), but Tropper’s work isn’t on par with those authors. Hornby is miles ahead when it comes to character development. By focusing on a single character or two in each of his novels, and bringing in a few carefully chosen supporting characters, Hornby is able really delve into the psyche of each person in his novels and paint them in a very detailed manner. Here, Tropper has a single main character that is surrounded by at least 10 significant supporting characters. Each of these supporting characters – all part of the protagonist’s extended family –is meant to be complicated and three-dimensional, but the limitations of a 340-page novel render that impossible. Instead, each is an obvious cliché – the younger brother that’s the f**k up, the responsible older brother, the jaded housewife. Meanwhile, Perrotta – who can also be guilty of character simplification – has a much darker sense of humor than Tropper. He is capable of surprising the reader because you know that he is willing to take the story in just about any direction. Little Children – now that is “emotionally raw”. You don’t get that same sense from Tropper, and so none of the stories within the novel have any real payoff. Ultimately, This is Where I Leave You is the literary equivalent of watching a good sitcom about a semi-dysfunctional family. It’s “Modern Family”. It’s well-written, you’ll laugh a little, and the emotional manipulation will feel nice while you’re watching/reading it but will prove forgettable. By contrast, Hornby’s novels are like 1980’s John Hughes movies – unforgettable self-contained worlds where nothing and everything is at stake, with characters you can identify with and sympathize, and at the end you laugh and cry at the same time. Meanwhile, if This is Where I Leave You can be turned into a big-screen romantic comedy (and trust me, it will – in fact, it almost seems as if it was written with that explicitly in mind), it’s not surprise that Perrotta’s novels thus far have only been adapted and released by indie houses.
It may be July, but I couldn’t read only collections and light fiction. The mind needs a little exercise even when school is out (or so my grade school teachers used to tell me), and that’s just what Oliver Sacks is for. Sacks’ books are treadmills for the mind. Hallucinations is the fourth Sacks book I’ve read in the past couple of years including most recently Musicophilia. As I wrote back in January:
[I]n my opinion Musicophilia isn’t one of his best books.… [It] is a tour through every conceivable aspect of human life and how music affects it all neurologically…. 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 think I can do a better job that that summing up how I feel about Hallucinations. It is a tour through the world of hallucinations and illusions, focused mainly on the different forms they can take (e.g. visual, auditory, tactile, and sub-categories within each of those) and the complicated neurological conditions likely to bring them on (e.g. sensory deprivation, illness, sleep disorders, etc.). Maybe the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to the deeply touching stories that Sacks tells in The Mind’s Eye and An Anthropologist on Mars (and by all accounts in his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). I think that’s giving Sacks a bit of a free pass though. He’s capable of taking just a few of these stories and turning them into something as meaningful as what he conveys in his earlier work, he just doesn’t go there. The choice is made – as it is in Musicophilia – to provide breadth over depth. It’s an enjoyable and illuminating book, and one I’m happy to have read, but not quite the one I was hoping to read.
As an aside, when I read Musicophilia there was one chapter that stood out for me and inspired a column of its own. The chapter was called “Lamentations: Music and Depression” and my column, “Piercing the Heart: On Music and Depression.” In Hallucinations it was a theme, rather than a chapter, that I believe could inspire an interesting column, or perhaps even a book of its own, though I’m not equipped to write either. There appear to be an extraordinary number of literary works inspired (in varying degrees) by hallucinations. Among the writers mentioned (mostly in passing) by Sacks are Fyodor Dostoevsky, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Guy de Maupassant, Aldous Huxley, Henry James, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. And that all-star array of writers is presumably just the tip of the iceberg. If someone were to write a book about the use and influence of hallucinations in literature, it would immediately go on my “to-read” list.
Twelve was written by Nick McDonell at the age of 17. Apparently that is a big deal to some people. (The L.A. Times called McDonell “Wonder Boy” and “teen Tolstoy.”) However, there is a fair amount of suggestion that Twelve was published solely as a result of privilege and nepotism; both McDonell’s parents are well-connected writers and editors. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would explain a lot. I’ve known a decent number of high school seniors who could write this well. Frankly, I can’t possibly guess as to what the point of this novel was, except to get McDonell published. Even though I didn’t hate the book, I refuse to get into its merits and flaws – I’ve already spent too much time with characters I’ll never remember. If you’re of a certain age – say, younger than McDonell was when he wrote this – and already have a distorted vision of privileged New York adolescents, you probably will enjoy this novel. Otherwise, read Bret Easton Ellis. Now there was a young genius.
I read Dads Are the Original Hipsters in its entirety one morning on a terribly long commute. What could have been a painful 90 minutes breezed by as I literally laughed out loud several times, sometimes for the content but just as often for the photos (which, incidentally, worked just as well on the kindle reader as they would have in paper form). The book isn’t for everyone, but it probably appeals to a far broader audience than you might expect. (It’s not just for the dude shopping in Urban Outfitters; his older brother and parents will laugh from it too.) I think the reason I loved this book so much – even more than similar and also hilarious Stuff White People Like – is that it works on three different levels. First, the author has a knack for choosing just those things that the hipster reader may not have realized that “Dads” had first: boat shoes, skinny jeans, big headphones, vintage bikes. Second, the photos! (Including the names of each dad in the back of the book!) Third, the writing itself is excellent, which is where many of these good-concept humor books fail. For example:
- Under “Cycling Caps”: The lead-in goes, “Back when Lance Armstrong was swinging two-deep …”
- Under “Guitar”: “He was a garage god that got shreddy on a Marshall half stack.”
- Under “American Apparel”: “So Hipsters, next time you’re listening to Sleigh Bells in the dressing room while trying to look indifferent in the mirror …”
There’s more at the blog that spawned the book – check it out.
Finally, please indulge me while I take a few words about some of the books I purchased but didn’t read this month. The Polysyllabic Spree inspired me to buy the book of Chekhov’s plays, even though I know I’ll almost certainly never read them. Chekhov is mentioned in the final column of Spree, which undoubtedly stuck in my head as I came across this old collection for just $2. At just 50 cents per “great play” how could I resist? It’s basic math.
Also, I haven’t yet read Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat but I’m almost certain to do so next month. So there’s your homework if you want to keep up with me – read my tale of seeing Klosterman on his book tour at Brooklyn’s Book Court, then go out and buy/borrow/steal and read I Wear the Black Hat and we’ll compare notes in early September. And then if you like, read Chekhov too. Let me know how that goes.
 The bands are: Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening.
 Naturally, it also suffered from “summer book effect.” I dripped/spilled some coffee on the binding of my paperback, spreading its way to the front and back cover, where somehow one of the stains formed in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. I delighted much more in this Mickey Mouse silhouette than I had any right to.
 I wrote that before visiting Tropper’s website, which features This is Where I Leave You on the home page with the following: “Soon to be a major motion picture starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda … will begin shooting May 2013.” This was so predictable that suddenly I like the book that much less. (Though I won’t miss the movie. Does that make any sense?)
 OK, I’ll give one meaningful critique: If you’re a creative writing teacher and are having trouble communicating to your students what it means for a character to be too one-dimensional, assign Twelve. The characters in “Saved by the Bell” had more depth than McDonell’s fictional NYC teens.