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LitMonkey – September 2013

September 30, 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 eleventh installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

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There are so many wonderful books in this world, and so many I haven’t read yet, that it should be only the rarest of instances to even consider reading a book for a second time. But there are books and circumstances for which that consideration must occur, and which ultimately could – should – lead to a second reading. I first read Oscar Wilde’s perfect novel The Picture of Dorian Gray during my senior year of high school. Prior to that I wasn’t much of a reader. I would ignore assigned books and rely on the Cliff’s Notes. I would ask friends for summaries and key themes. Sometimes I would go as far as to read bits and pieces of a book, possibly making it from beginning to end but skipping chapters along the way. I didn’t read for education, I didn’t read for fun – it was just a way to get by.

Despite all that I found myself taking AP English in my senior year. I was determined to attempt some, if not most, of the mandatory reading and even slightly enjoyed a few of the books, like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. None of those books really turned me on to reading though. Oscar Wilde did. I believed then as I do now that The Picture of Dorian Gray really is the perfect novel. It is equal parts intriguing plot, beautiful language, brilliant dialogue, memorable quotations and thought-provoking moral quandaries. No other book is at once smart, funny, descriptive, and complex. It has everything a novel should. Once I completed AP English (and more generally high school) I went on to read more from Wilde, including the wonderful plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. In large part because of Wilde, today I read as much as a book per week and enjoy writing as well (obviously). The least I could do, more than a decade later, was to return to reading the book where it all began. And just as I remembered it, the pleasure was all mine.

If you’ve never read anything by Wilde and are intimidated by the idea of reading one of the classics – don’t be. He is as accessible and modern as any pre-20th century author I can think of. There are countless examples of quotes that demonstrate this. Here’s one example, from near the end of Dorian Gray, which I chose just because it is freshest in my mind:

To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.

This line is just a throw-away in a long soliloquy from Dorian’s friend, the eminently quotable Lord Henry. The book is filled with such pithy and true statements (most uttered by Henry). If you think you’d enjoy a smart novel with turns of phrase like that – and I think anyone would – Dorian Gray is available as a free e-book download on Goodreads. So you’ve got nothing to lose, and so much to gain.

Joe Peta’s Trading Bases has one of the most accurate titles I’ve ever seen – it is literally equal parts Wall Street, gambling, and baseball, and not necessarily in that order. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I’ve always been a bit of a stat geek when it comes to baseball, I have a slight affinity for gambling and I’m a fan of certain kinds of stories about Wall Street.[1] I’ve read a few books that apply business strategies to sports, each of which have been great (most famously Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, and less famous but nearly as excellent The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri). And books that describe innovative gambling methods or strategies (when told as a story) have always fascinated me as well.[2] But Peta’s story – a rare one, as it is told by a true insider of both the Wall Street and sports gambling world – was the first that I encountered to meld all three.

Unfortunately, Peta as a story-teller is not Michael Lewis, or Ben Mezrich, or even Jonah Keri. Peta has many strengths, but comedy is not one of them; nevertheless he often resorts to cheap humor in an attempt to liven up what he must worry is a dull topic.[3] I find this particularly strange since Peta’s general story about winning as a baseball gambler isn’t dull at all, assuming the reader is predisposed to being interested in the topic (which obviously Peta is). I wish he’d been more confident in the ability of his story to carry itself.

Perhaps his fear of the story lagging lies in his inability to bring together consistently two or more aspects of the three he covers, let alone all three. More often than not he gets lost in one of his three worlds and leaves the others behind. No matter how much you care about baseball and gambling, it is impossible to enjoy the entire chapter about the demise of Lehman Brothers (and the intricate details of “central funding”) unless you also have a strong interest in the inside machinations of Wall Street. Similarly, there are chapters devoted to love of baseball as a game that ignore the gambling aspect entirely (“Pete’s Tavern Revisited”), and chapters focused on gambling as a general matter without regards to baseball. (In “What Las Vegas Can Learn from the Trading Floor”, Peta actually makes his point through a long story about football betting pools.) Trading Bases appealed to me because I happen to be interested in all three of Peta’s topics, but I wonder how small of a niche readership that is. If you’re in that niche, I recommend this book – it’s a light read, not too heavy on the technical details (but not entirely devoid of them either) with some pretty neat insights. And if you’re not, lament the fact that Peta didn’t enlist a writer better than himself to tell what is actually an interesting tale. Trading Bases is a good book, but it won’t captivate you or pique your curiosity to learn more the way a book like Moneyball does.

Night Thoughts is the first book of poetry that I’ve read … ever. That being the case, perhaps I’m not in the best position to judge it. Or maybe I am actually the ideal person to judge it, having no preconceived notions about what poetry should be. In any event, take my thoughts for what they’re worth (i.e., possibly very little). The book is actually split into two parts – the first half consists of 70 poems of identical length and format, written by Arvio as a collected documentation of her dreams. The second half is what she calls her “notes” and is meant to provide explanations and analyses of those dreams. I personally loved the poems, reading each one multiple times in an effort to immerse myself in the portrait of her mind that Arvio wonderfully depicts. Despite not having the faintest experience in translating imagery into meaning, I felt that I understood much of the poet’s world by the time I’d completed this half of the book. Expecting the “notes” to confirm or deny my intuition – but in either case to illuminate – I eagerly began reading them, only to find that the notes were in many ways more cryptic than the poems themselves. I walked away a bit confused, but not (I don’t think) due to my own inexperience. Arvio’s notes are written as an abstract form of literary art that obfuscates rather than enhances the reader’s experience. Her mind is obviously a complicated one, her experiences are unique and traumatic, and her dreams are quite vivid. She could (and should) have let her colorful poetry stand on its own. After all, if a rube like me could understand all that without the notes, I think we’d had been better off without them.

Just like I don’t read read poetry, I am not typically a fan of romantic comedies, but when one is done well it illustrates how the genre can be one of the best there is. The movie “Silver Linings Playbook” was one of my favorites of 2012 (possibly even my favorite); as evidenced by its eight Academy Award nominations, it was a critical favorite as well. Writer/director David O. Russell – as well as stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver – exhibit a remarkable compassion for mental health issues and thus use the main characters’ mental disorders to tell a very touching story. My one quibble with the movie was that I found it a bit over the top. The way in which Cooper’s character (Pat Peoples) is so totally consumed by his bipolar disorder to the point where he is somewhat dysfunctional as an adult in society is somewhat alarming. I understand that bipolar disorder can be overwhelming, but given that Pat was released from a psychiatric hospital I would have preferred to see a man who was closer to fully functioning and happened to suffer from bipolar disorder than the man in the movie, who probably still belonged in the hospital. That said, it’s the job a movie to sensationalize for the audience’s benefit, and this one blemish did not limit my appreciation for the movie overall. Moreover, I expected the book from which it was adapted to tell a more balanced story and was excited to get my hands on it.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick was about as far from what I expected as could be possible given that I’d seen the movie. That’s not because the story is that different from the one on screen – it isn’t. It diverges from the movie version about as much as movies and the books they’re adapted from usually do. Ultimately though, based on Quick’s handling of the main character, I’m left to conclude that the moral of his story is a very different one than that delivered by the movie. We start the book at the moment that Pat is being released from the mental hospital, but along the way we learn the sequence of events that led to him being institutionalized: Pat is an ordinary adult male, who successfully held down a job as a history teacher and had a wife with whom he had a difficult – but functioning – relationship. Pat failed to live up to his wife’s expectations in ways that too many men do – he gained weight, he watched too much football, he wasn’t literate enough. One day Pat comes home early from work and finds his wife cheating on him, with their wedding song playing in the background as she f**ks another other man in their shower. Pat loses his cool, jumps into the shower and hits the man, knocking him out – it seems that the man’s life may have only been saved when the cheating wife hits Pat over the head with the CD player. The wife files for divorce, takes the house and all of the marital assets in exchange for the cuckold not pressing charges, and marries her cheating partner. Somewhere along the way Pat loses his memory of the cheating and the beating and everything that came after – he can only remember his marriage as it existed prior to that day. Did Pat go too far in (possibly) nearly killing the man? Perhaps, though the playing of the wedding song was a particularly galling detail. Is he crazy for blocking out the memory of all the awfulness that happened to him from the moment he found his horrible wife cheating on him? I emphatically say no.

Pat spends four years in a mental hospital, subjected to an endless array of tests and given an incredible number of pills, and though he never regains his memory (and believes he has only spent months in the hospital, not years) he is eventually discharged into his parents’ care so long as he takes his pills and sees a therapist weekly. Pat has lost his wife, his job, everything he owns, and four years of his life (during which his brother was married and his best friend had his first child) … yet all he cares about when he comes out is winning back the lost love of his wife (whom he doesn’t even know has divorced him).

Post-institutionalized Pat, who is also our narrator, speaks and thinks like a child. He makes no effort at finding a job – the idea does not even occur to him. Instead he spends all of his time working out so as to get into shape to impress his ex-wife. His lives in his parents’ attic – suffering from the occasional aural hallucination – and all of his outside activities are paid for by his brother. Everything about Pat is childlike – the pills and treatment he’s received have transformed him from mentally unstable to mentally slow. I suspect that if this Pat took an IQ test he’d qualify as mentally retarded. Yet he is making progress in his quest to be “kind instead of right”, and so people like stupid Pat. His mother, his brother, his friendly therapist, his new mentally disturbed girlfriend – they all love new stupid Pat and they all very much hate his ex-wife. They’re rooting for him, which includes rooting for him to regain his memory and give up on his obsession to win her back. In the end he succeeds in in his real quest which was to find his “silver lining”, which he figures out was not winning his ex-wife back (which incredibly he still wants to do even after learning the truth, because he has the mind of an obsessed child), but finding a friend who needs him and whom he needs.

And with that the book ends. Pat has a relationship. He doesn’t have one with his father (who never respects him as a human being), or a job or really any kind of real life at all. But he has a friend and people who root for him, as if he is competing in the Special Olympics of life. I suppose the moral of this story is that with enough pills and therapy (but mostly pills) any ordinary person who’s made one reasonable mistake can be reduced to a pile of mush. Pat may be bipolar (or he may not be – who’s to say for sure) but he is “cured” of what I suppose is perceived as that horrible disorder and made to be a nice buffoon instead. This book is excellent, as long as you read it for what it must be – a scathing criticism of modern psychiatry. (And I’m not saying that facetiously – I actually rather enjoyed this book, much like I enjoyed Thank You for Smoking.)

I’ve already said everything I have to say about David Sedaris’ latest, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, and I won’t bore you more about the football books, as I’ve already touched upon Smart Football.[4] I’m going to hold off on writing about Lewis Black’s books until I read my second one and Retromania until I get it back from the library and pick up where I left off.[5] That leaves Matthew Stearns’ entry in the 33-1/3 series, Daydream Nation.

33thirdThe 33-1/3 series is starting to get some mainstream traction; for the first time this past month I saw a huge display of the books in Barnes & Noble. I’ve been hooked since reading my first, Ben Sisario’s take on the Pixies’ Doolittle. I read Doolittle before seeing the Pixies live for the first time (performing Doolittle in its entirety), then did the same with Nick Attfield’s entry on Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me (with the band performing that album in its entirety at the 25th anniversary show I wrote about here). Sadly, I won’t get the chance to do the same with Sonic Youth, who broke up when lead singer Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon divorced. But that doesn’t change the fact that Daydream Nation – like Doolittle and YLAOM – is one of the greatest albums of all time[6], and so Stearns’ book was exciting reading.

It wasn’t my intention to complete a trilogy of 1980s indie-rock classics (albums “left of the dial“), but of all the entries into the 33-1/3 canon those have been the most appealing to me thus far. And I will likely continue along those lines with my next choice – notice in my list of books purchased one about the Replacements’ classic Let It Be[7] and another about Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine. Maybe it’s because that was a time when albums were just that – albums – carefully constructed to form a single work of art, and not a collection of songs thrown together for easy digital consumption. Or maybe it’s because each of those artists are amongst the most creative but least appreciated (in the mainstream anyway) and so any opportunity to think about them in more critical detail is welcomed. Or maybe it’s because I grew up listening to the alternative rock of the early-mid 1990s, and those three albums (and more generally those three artists) each significantly influenced the sound of the artists that followed, giving me a reason to explore those roots. Sort of like a person investigating their family history or their cultural background to understand more about who they are. Yes, I think that’s it. I didn’t grow up listening to the Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth, but the bands I listened to did, and so I don’t need a writer to guide me through the listening process of Nirvana’s In Utero or Radiohead’s OK Computer or Kid A (though each of those books exists too).

I read Daydream Nation the same way I read the other 33-1/3 books. I didn’t pick up the book until I felt that I was fluent with the music, feeling like I had fully digested the album and fallen in love with it. Then, when I finally decided to read the book, I did so while listening to the music, repeating songs, verses, guitar riffs, and drum solos as Stearns dissected each of those elements into its most elemental parts. Standing alone, I don’t know if Daydream Nation the book is expertly written or even above average as far as music criticism goes. But these books are not meant to stand alone. As a companion piece to Daydream Nation the album, the book enhances the listening experience through the sheer enthusiasm and effort that Stearns puts into it. He is unabashedly in love with Daydream Nation. Thus, while his analyses of the songs may not be perfect, they are genuine heartfelt expressions of what the music means to him. Coming from such a devoted fan, that makes them plausible if not likely explanations for the sound coming through the speakers. And that in turn makes the music come even more alive than it already is, adding another dimension to this already classic album. I hope Meloy feels the same way about Let It Be.


[3] Here’s one example: When discussing traders’ fear of losses he writes, “After ‘I thought I told you extra cheese on my chicken parm – what the hell good are you as an assistant anyway?’ the second most common expression I heard during my years on the trading floor may have been ‘Lord, get me back to even and I’ll never get long again.’” I don’t know about you, but I would have enjoyed this point made without the extra cheese.

[4] I will note though that for the first time in the six years I’ve been reading them I was disappointed in the Football Outsiders annual. My favorite parts of the books has always been “Further Research” since it is the one section that shows FO’s innovation from year to year, and also the one section that has applicability beyond the season in which it is written. This year there were no such articles as “Further Research” was replaced by “Further Data.” The remainder of the book was still good, but this was a big disappointment.

[5] One more note: I love the library (as loyal readers already know), but this is the one drawback. I didn’t start Retromania until I’d had it out for a while, and it was due back before I’d finished it. The book was on hold for another patron so I could not renew it, and I didn’t want to purchase it since I’d already folded over some key pages and I hope to get the same copy back (the NYPL only has two) complete with my mutilations.

[6] Don’t take my word for it – Kurt Cobain said so too.

[7] This one has the possibility of being one of the more unique entries into the series, as it is written by a musician, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy.

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