Friday, August 22, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Nine

After 28 Magic Treehouse books and a few miscellaneous detours (including, of course, a wonderful revisiting of Fantastic Mr. Fox), we've been trying to find more books to read with Harper.

Not that the Magic Treehouse isn't interesting (and, honestly, Harper loves them), but, after 28 of the suckers, I'm reading for a book or two that doesn't involve time travel or magic.

So, we tried the Boxcar Children, which I remember liking as a kid.


As an adult, the writing is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable.

I can accept (and even understand the motivation behind) the stock characters (look, Benny is obsessed with food! And, look, every time food gets mentioned in the book, Benny will say something (or, more accurately, "cry" something) about how hungry he is), and I can accept the stock gender roles (the girls cook and clean, the boys explore and build shit), but I can't accept the page-by-page awful writing. Every dialogue tag is "he cried" and almost every line of dialogue merely reiterates what has been narrated in an earlier sentence and every dialogue tag is followed by a dependent clause that explains exactly what the speaker did while delivering his line.

But, then, we read two of them to Harper.

And we may read more in the future.

And I understand why it's that way.

And I understand why it's ridiculous to criticize a book meant for a younger audience through nothing but an adult lens.

But c'mon.

I mean, c'mon.

That said: for now, we're in the middle of Pirate Island Adventure, by Peggy Parish, another that I remember from my childhood. PIA is, technically, a sequel to a book called -- I think -- Key to the Treasure, but I couldn't find that one in my parents' basement before we left Michigan. And, if nothing else, the writing is an improvement over the Boxcar kids.

Summer Reading, Part Eight

Still going.

And trying to catch up before the school year begins.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames - David Sedaris.

I enjoyed this more than his last collection (Dress Your Family...), as Sedaris seems to be settling into his role of a New Yorker essayist rather than, say, a writer for Esquire.

(I mean, can you see the New Yorker publishing "You Can't Kill the Rooster"?)

Not as many laugh-out-loud-in-the-middle-of-an-11th-grade-SOL-test moments as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but many more intriguing pieces than I found in Dress Your Family.

Maybe one, maybe two essays to pull out for class, but nothing on the level of "Jesus Shaves" or "A Plague of Tics" or -- of course -- "The Santaland Diaries."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Seven

Two books on The Beatles:

Tell Me Why, by Tim Riley
Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald

Both books approach the band in the same fashion: song by song through the entirety of its career, sticking almost entirely to legitimately released tracks. And both books have their merits, though I ultimately prefered MacDonald's. Riley can't seem to find anything negative to say about a song (with the exception of unsalvageable dreck like "Only a Northern Song"), whereas MacDonald is willing to take shots at just about every sacred cow the Beatles have if he feels like an individual song is not up to the standards set by others.

MacDonald is also a bit more technical in his analysis of the songs, emphasizing, especially, the critical role of harmony in Lennon's numbers and melody in those of McCartney. When Riley does get technical, though, he tends to do so to push a particular interpretation, something that MacDonald avoids. When Riley does this well, or when his analysis (the intersection of style and theme, right?) seems justified, he's enjoyable (claiming, for example, that in "She Said, She Said," "phrases are extended from eighth notes into triplets to intensify the rhythmic stress, the thin line between confidence and anxiety"). But when the point is less apt, it can feel like he's flailing for something to say, as in this claim about the out-of-tune piano that wanders through the end of "Tomorrow Never Knows" as the song fades: "This is less a self-parody of the message than it is one more random sound tagged on to emphasize the lack of rational hierarchies in the altered state."

Reading the books meant that I got to listen a lot to the Beatles for a week or two, and that's a good thing to do once or twice a year. And there's pleasure, too -- as there tends to be reading criticism -- in finding the points of disagreement, the points where your opinion veers, perhaps sharply, from that presented. MacDonald, for example, has little positive to say about "And Your Bird Can Sing," whereas I love every damn thing about that song, from the little inhalation in the opening, to the rhythm of the guitar riff during the bridge, and from the glorious multi-part harmony during the final verse to the fact that there isn't a wasted second in it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Six

Dave Hickey: Air Guitar

A sweet collection of essays and rants, mostly on art and occasionally on music and basketball.

Some highlights:

"A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac," a post-mortem look at Hank Williams' life, told from the perspective of the man himself. Hickey opens the essay with Hank describing heaven to Bocephus -- and it ain't that great. It's "a big cinder-block structure like the education building of a Methodist church in suburban Indianapolis. It's got beige walls, terrazzo floors, acoustic-tile ceilings, and there isn't any TV or movies. There are just these big felt boards in all the rooms with cutouts of Cain and Abel, David and Bathsheba, and the New Orleans Saints stuck to them, so that you can kind of move around and tell stories if you want to." And, c'mon, that's brilliant. Indianapolis? Perfect. The big felt boards? Perfect. The slightly bizarre inclusion of the New Orleans Saints? Perfect.

"The Heresy of Zone Defense," a simultaneous celebration of basketball (and Dr. J, in particular) and an analysis of the role of rules in facilitating great art. Hickey claims that much joy (including the sort of jaw-dropping play that Dr. J made on a regular basis) is possible only through civilizing rules, rules that "translate the pain of violent conflict into the pleasures of disputation -- into the excitements of politics, the delights of rhetorical art, and competitive sport." Unfortunately, of course, the "liberating rule that civilized us yesterday will, almost inevitably, seek to govern us tomorrow, by suppressing both the pleasure and the disputation." (And the glory of that phrase lies, for me, in the fact that Hickey writes "liberating rule that civilized us" and not "civilizing rule that liberated us." But maybe that's just me).

And "The Delicacy of Rock and Roll," an argument for the primacy of be-bop and rock and roll in twentieth century art. Could the art of Pollock exist without Charlie Parker? Nope. But could be-bop exist without Stan Brakhage? Yep. Likewise, Andy Warhol requires rock, but rock doesn't need Warhol. And I'll need a long passage here, because it's so good, and I have to record a copy of it somewhere:

"Both ages [jazz and rock and roll] make art that succeeds by failing, but each exploits failure in different ways. Jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us -- simpatico dudes that we are -- while playing this complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous as well. Tragically, this never quite works out. At best, we can only be free one or two at a time -- while the other dudes hold onto the wire... Rock and roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us -- as damaged and anti-social as we are -- might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can't. The songs's too simple, and we're too complicated and too excited."

And that essay ends with this sentence, which, in whole or in part, since Dan Wineman first showed it to me in a copy of Art Issues sometime in 1995, has crept into more journal reflections that I care to add up, anytime I need a quick way to sum up whatever I've been ranting about: "Because in the twentieth century, that's all there is: jazz and rock and roll. The rest is term papers and advertising."

Summer Reading, Part Five

Ann Packer: Songs Without Words

I liked this more than I thought I would. Some of the I'm-so-depressed psychologizing gets a little old, but there is a great middle third in which the central marriage of the novel starts to fall apart that is pitched just about perfectly.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Reading, Part Four

Alistair MacLean: Where Eagles Dare.

Because it's also an Iron Maiden song.

Summer Reading, Part Three

Richard Price: Lush Life.

I read a bunch of Richard Price five or six summers ago -- whenever Samaritan came out -- and got around to Clockers this spring. My parents happened to have Lush Life sitting around the cottage, so I read it back in early July.

It's good. Maybe not as good as Clockers, which was fantastic, but better than Freedomland. Like Samaritan, I guess. Lots of fantastic dialogue, an intriguing look at a piece of a city in transition, some guilt, and an occasional attempt at redemption, whether personal or social.

But a serious problem with trying to capture a reading experience that took place a month ago is that it's just not fresh enough, at this point, to be meaningful in the sort of way that might matter in a few years when I'm wondering what I did with the summer.

By the Time He Gets to Phoenix

A sad day for soul.

Isaac Hayes is dead.

Killed by a treadmill, apparently.

He wrote "Soul Man."

He wrote the theme from Shaft.

He wrote "Hold On, I'm Coming."

Sure, the whole Scientology thing is a damn shame, but, still. No one should get killed by a treadmill.