Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. eds, _Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z_

I GENERALLY APPROVE of the much wider mission the Library of America has been pursuing under Geoffrey O'Brien. I do not read much science fiction, classic or contemporary, nor many murder mysteries, but I see the sense of giving them shelf space alongside, say, William Dean Howells or James Fenimore Cooper. A few latter-day volumes do make me ask, really? (Barbara Tuchman.) Some seem like long-withheld justice rendered at last. (Joe Brainard.) And some are just catnip for someone like me, such as the present volume.

Fifty selections of rock (and pop) music journalism from 1963 to 2014, arranged in order of publication--which was a great idea, by the way. The subtitle suggests we have a kind of mosaic of rock history rather like Jim Miller's brilliant original Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, starting with Elvis, going through the Beatles, punk, and so on up to the present. Which would have been fine, I grant, but what we get is a bit more interesting.

We get not only a thoughtful let's-take-the-Beatles seriously piece from the 1967 by Richard Poirier, but, hundreds of pages later, Devin McKinney's and Elijah Wald's revisionist takes on the Fab Four from the early 21st century. The book's first selection is Nat Hentoff's liner notes for Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; hundreds of pages later, we get Luc Sante's "I is Somebody Else" from 2004, the best short piece on Dylan I have ever read.

There's a great memoir of Jim Morrison by Eve Babitz, but since it was published in1991, we get to it after we have read pieces on the Cars, the Ramones, the Slits, and...who out there remembers Aztec Camera? A piece on the Runaways follows a piece on Kanye.

And while we do get pieces on Elvis and on Jay-Z, as well as Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Jay-Z, and a variety of famous folk. there is no attempt to cover every important figure, and a lot of the artists who do get space are not at all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame types--e.g., the Runaways and Aztec Camera. The artists who show up in the volume show up because and only because someone wrote something insightful and powerful about them, something worth reading again, worth anthologizing. Tough break, Eric Clapton. That's the way it goes, Sting. No writer loved the Grateful Dead the way Paul Nelson loved the Dolls.

So, while history of rock and pop haunts the book, what we are really getting is the history of writing about it in fifty sterling examples, from the pioneer genre-definers (Paul Williams, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick) to the new breed (Sante, Wald, Hilton Als, John Jeremiah Sullivan). It's a fascinating story. Some of it leans towards academic formality (Poirier, Gerald Early), some of it is polished professional journalism (Jon Pareles, David Hajdu). Some of it is liner notes or record reviews. Some of it is just flat-out personal confession that may start with an affinity for a certain band but soon takes a left turn into all the reasons we--and I do mean we--start looking to certain musicians as seers who will help our lives and loves make sense to us.

These musicians may be as pedestrian as Motley Crüe (Chuck Klosterman) or Barry Manilow (Daniel Smith), may even be someone we don't even really like (Donna Gaines on Lou Reed), but the impulse to write out and make clear the way a certain band's music can seem, in those perilous years from seventh grade to your mid-twenties, to be the key--that's the impulse the animates the volume and makes it the only anthology of its kind.

Riad Sattouf, _The Arab of the Future 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987_, trans. Sam Taylor

THIS PROJECT CONTINUES to impress. This volume takes place almost entirely in Syria, save for a brief sojourn to France for the birth of Riad's second brother. Riad's father teaches at a university in nearby Homs while also trying to start a fruit orchard in the village where the family lives. The quotidian corruptions of the former and sabotage by envious relatives of the latter are likely responsible for the wiggles of white that now appear in his black hair; just the deprivation of living in a Syrian village has likely added the tiny lines under Riad's mother's eyes. (Sattouff is a brilliant cartoonist, getting striking effects from the simplest of means.) But Riad's father is not about to go back to racist France, however unhappy his wife is.

Read himself is in school, of course. His grades are excellent, and he has made a friend, but the daily whippings of students (including him, once in a while) create anxiety. He tends to terrorize his younger brother--the bullied learn to bully--and to lust for comics, toys, and videos that are extremely scarce in his small town. His father's tentative reconciliation with Islam leads to his decision to have Riad circumcised, the painful effects of which procedure are still lingering when the father announces that the family is leaving Syria for...Saudi Arabia. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

I need to keep an eye out for volume four.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Geoff Dyer, _But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz_

WHEN I DECIDED to give Geoff Dyer a spin a few years back, I bought Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It and this. I read Yoga first, enjoyed it (LLL June 26, 2016), but felt no particular enthusiasm for it, so this loitered on my shelves for another two years or so. Turns out it's a better book--more cohesive, unsurprisingly, since Yoga is a collection of occasional pieces, but also more about his subjects and less about Dyer, more insightful and less flamboyant.

The core of the book is eight short stories. I'm not sure Dyer would call them short stories, and they are certainly not typical short stories, but they are quite a bit like the short stories of Guy Davenport--that is, they depict actual historical figures, figures Davenport studied long and deeply, and they are written with a poet's feel for language. Dyer's historical figures are all jazz musicians from mid-century: Lester Young, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Charlie Mingus, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Duke Ellington (whose story, about a road trip with Harry Carney to their next show, is broken up into segments and interspersed between the seven others).

The stories are usually set in a particular moment (e.g., "He left the asylum on a clear late-autumn morning, noticing the crunch of gravel under his feet, the waiting car") but evoke the whole career ("Monk was used to always doing what he felt like and if he felt like staying in bed for ten years he'd so that, regretting nothing, wanting nothing"). Leitmotifs occur: encounters with racism, the difficulties of getting paid, the lure of alcohol and drugs. Dyer's portraits tend to drift into poète maudit clichés sometimes, but they still succeed in dropping us into what feel like convincing evocations of the musicians' days and nights.

The stories do not always dwell closely on the music, but to make up for that we have the book's concluding piece, a 30-page essay that draws on George Steiner to talk about the great paradox of jazz, at the same time both saturated in tradition and improvisatory, born of the moment.

I think this is only entire book about jazz I have read, so it would be ridiculous for me to say it is the best book on that subject, but it's hard for me to imagine there are many better ones.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Alan Hollinghurst, _The Sparsholt Affair_

 I HAVE NOT read all of Hollinghurst's novels, but having read four of the six, I'd say he's among the best living British novelists.

This one is structurally similar to the previous one, The Stranger's Child. It has some aspects of the classic multi-generational novel since we are following mainly one family over the course of many decades; it also has some aspects of the classic historical novel, since Hollinghurst wants to get down the texture and preoccupations of particular eras in the past. The brilliant thing is that he forestalls the tedium to which those genres are prone with a kind of hopping or fast-forwarding through time.

We start in Oxford during World War II--though it turns out we are reading a memoir of that period that one of the characters composed decades later--seeing the temporary obsession of one group of artistically-minded undergraduates with athlete and future fighter pilot David Sparsholt.

In the novel's second section, we are in the mid-1960s, getting mainly the perspective of David's son Johnny, who loves to draw people and is also figuring out that he loves other boys. We are in the last few weeks before a complicated political-corruption-plus-male-homosexuality scandal erupts in the tabloids, a scandal at whose center is David--the "affair" of the title.

In the third, we jump a decade to the mid-1970s, and Johnny is now a young man newly arrived in London, studying painting, finding himself in the outer orbits of the circle formed by those artistic people so fascinated by David back in the 1940s. He is also exploring London's new out-and-proud club scene, where he often has to explain his relationship to the still-notorious Sparsholt with an affair named after him.

The fourth section finds us in the 1990s, Johnny doing well as a portrait painter and also a father by virtue of having agreed to be the sperm donor for a lesbian couple.  The artistic friends from Oxford are aging, getting a bit hemmed in by their accumulated treasures. David has re-married and maintains a friendly but not particularly close relationship with Johnny.

Fifth, and finally, somewhere around now--Johnny's daughter Lucy is about to marry,  Johnny himself has become something of a celebrity as a portrait painter and is getting involved with a much younger man who says things like "thanks for reaching out." David dies, and the nude drawing of David made way back in the book's first section, having passed through a few hands, comes to Johnny.

Each section runs eighty pages to so, each with its own Updikean array of glancingly rendered period detail. Since each section also focuses on a relatively short period of time, weeks or months, we feel close to daily routines and quotidian events at all times, in the great realist mode, but since we have the daily routines and quotidian events of related groups of people over five different decades, we also get the long view, a deep historical perspective, especially about the astonishing changes in possibilities for LGBTQ people. All in a book that is not short--400-something pages--but never feels long.

It's a deeply traditional novel in many ways--or should I say one that skillfully mines the  resources of the tradition--while also re-inventing its possibilities.