Friday, June 17, 2011

3 Great Books by my 3 Favorite Songwriters

Oof. Been doing a fair bit of hard work recently-- reading Foucault's Pendulum (which I am loving) and packing up my tiny apartment for a move this weekend. I'll probably take the next post off because of the latter-- look for your update around Thursday of next week or so. It'll probably be about Faulkner.

So what I am doing is listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen. New Skin For The Old Ceremony is definitely in my top-5-all-time-favorites list of albums. And it's been thunderstorming all day. And I just had a great dinner with a dear friend. So here's kind of a fluff list while I take it easy at the end of the day. Three of my favorite songwriters each happen to have a novel or two to their name. And they're all really fantastic books. I'd definitely advise you to pick them up.

Master of Reality, by John Darnielle
Yes, this is the umpteenth Darnielle shout-out on this blog. Deal with it.
Deal with it.
Master of Reality is a beautiful, beautiful book. It takes the form of the journal of a 16-year-old boy, who is writing said journal because the doctors at the mental institution he is in require it. They've locked him up, they've taken his shoelaces away, but worse-- they've taken his Walkman and all his Black Sabbath cassettes. So for the course of 100 pages, he describes what Sabbath's 3rd album, Master of Reality, means to him, how much it saves him and provides a reassurance of his humanity, in a desperate attempt to give his tapes back.

It's simple and it's powerful and it's true-- up until the release of We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle worked as a nurse in a mental institution for young men. There's so much love in this book for the main character, so much contempt for the people who don't recognize the healing power of angry, bitter art. The voice of our narrator in particular is real and powerful, and I can't help but tremble sometimes at how much it made me think of the most miserable parts of my teenage experience. Besides the terrible haircut, I mean. It's about being 16 or 17 and getting up close and personal with the demons that are going to be inhabiting you the rest of your life, and about how Tony Iommi's guitar is sometimes the best weapon at hand for beating them into submission.
Pictured: the brightest light in the world.
I reread it recently during the hour of waiting around before my college graduation. It's 100 very small pages but it is still a pretty hard book to read at times.

And the Ass Saw The Angel, by Nick Cave
When I handed this book to my girlfriend and had her read the scene in which the main character, Euchrid Eucrow, is birthed with a dead twin in the back of a rusted-out car and sterilized with moonshine, her comment was "oh my god, it's like all the subject matter of Faulkner and O'Connor but with the  language of Marquez!" And that's why you should read And the Ass Saw the Angel (and why I should marry this girl someday, but that's neither here nor there).
"If you need more incentive, consider that I have a large collection of rocks, and some of 'em are killin' rocks."
If you've listened to any of mid-80's Nick Cave (and if you haven't, go get a copy of Tender Prey immediately and make peace with your God before you listen to it), you know what to expect: blood, God, the Bloodgod, God's Blood, whiskey, madness, whiskey-madness, and fire. The main character is a schizophrenic mute living with two abusive parents (his mother beats him for not speaking, his father catches animals in homemade traps and makes them fight) on the edge of a religious community in the Deep South.

It treads a line between the Southern Gothic and Magical Realism-- think the lush textuality of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the heat and the language of Absalom, Absalom!, and the shimmering madness of Wise Blood. It's definitely not a perfectly-constructed book (Cave was on a lot of heroin at the time and would usually write until he passed out facedown on the typewriter), but there's a relentless heat and force to it and the savage inevitability of its violence. It's also a beautiful spectacle, watching an Australian junkie living in London write about a South he only knows through Faulkner novels and bizarre stories.
"Wait, Mississippi's a real place?"
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Coehn
This one's kind of cheating: one, unlike the other two, Cohen was actually a novelist and a poet before he became a musician, and two, it's a much better-known book. Still though, it's a pretty astonishing and emotionally raw novel and it would be unfair to leave it out. Also, I can't have a list with just two points.

I would say that Beautiful Losers is about sex and Judaism, but, c'mon. It's Leonard Cohen. You know it's about sex and Judaism. So it's also about a love triangle between our narrator, his wife (who he fetishized because he was an anthropologist who specialized on her tribe), and their mutual friend and lover F. Its language is and rich and raw as anything else Cohen wrote, and the characters as wry, bitter, and loving as those of his songs.
Not a particularly cheerful guy, as it turns out.
Beautiful Losers is about that wonderful drive towards self-immolation, the human need to burn away all our faults and become that which we love. It's incredibly Cohen-ish, touching on all those moments in his song where the individual strives to destroy itself with sex and G-d and passion-- think of the opening of "The Future" or all of "Who By Fire." If you like those songs (and if you don't then why the hell do you like me?), this is a book that'll hit you like a speeding car.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

REVIEW: What I've Been Reading Lately

So this one'll be kind of oddball. I've been doing a lot of reading the past couple weeks, but none of the books has been as strange/wonderful or as perfectly fitting as most of the books I try and dedicate a full column to. But, not wanting to let all that reading go to waste, I still want to talk about them briefly. So instead (and, in part, inspired by the fact that my girlfriend got my Nick Hornby's Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which does the same thing), I thought I'd just do some short rundowns of the stuff I've been going through recently.

(Proper article next time, though. Either "3 Great Novels Written by Musicians" or an in-depth author profile).

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler
This book is... different. It's intensely Victorian, like the ink was made from tea leaves and meat pie filling. However, one gets the feeling that, like Alasdair Gray's Poor Things or Alan Moore's From Hell, it's immersing itself so perfectly in the Victorian age in attempt to show the real Victorianism.
Just hollowed the old broad out and wore her as a suit.
The Way of All Flesh is ostensibly about the young man Ernest Pontifex and how he became a good, non-religious freethinker and charming gentleman just like Butler himself. The fact that the last 70 pages or so are about that makes me pretty sure Butler wanted us to take away that message. However, the real story-- the one that is far more emotionally powerful and forms the best parts of the novel --is Ernest's relationship with his abusive, overbearing father. Butler does an incredible job of showing the kind of power that a dominant parent can have over their child, and the scenes between Ernest and his father are far and away the most intense of the book.

Butler also does a great job of really digging into the roots of Ernest's father's cruelty, both in showing the origins of his need for power and constant affirmation of his importance (a childhood spent in the shadow of his own father, never having the courage to challenge those who were not dependent on him) and the reason's for his wife's meekness and the absolute need she has for her husband's happiness. Butler also ties these beautifully with Victorian ideals, making it absolutely clear that this domestic tyranny and cruelty is a natural extension of Victorian moralism and the sense of obligation.
"Have I mentioned that Jesus was a lie?"
The ending goes on for too long as Butler tries to make the story about religion and society instead of a fucked-up family-- if a good chunk of Ernest's college years had been removed, and the actual ending had been the moment where Ernest finally tells his parents that he doesn't need them and they have no right to control him, it would have been a much stronger book --but it's still a pretty great novel, and has some incredibly powerful moments in it.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
Okay, I'm torn with this book. I really, really enjoyed it while I was reading it-- I picked it up at 11 at night, read the first 2/3rds, went to bed, and finished it immediately upon waking up --but I'm a little hesitant to wholeheartedly recommend it. In part because I'm not sure I want to go on record as having liked it.

The Wasp Factory contains some of the most brutal, fucked-up content I've ever read. Our narrator, Frank, is a teenage sociopath living on the West Coast of Scotland, getting drunk, killing animals, arranging their skulls on sticks along invisible ley lines, and reminiscing about the three children he murdered when he was younger.
Why are there people like Frank?
I don't mean to imply that it's just shock value, Bret Easton Ellis / post-Invisible Monters-Palahniuk style. This is a very, very good book. One of the most horrifying aspects of it is that we come to understand Frank's logic and, while never feeling that his acts of evil are right, the audience is able to see his rationale and understand the logic by which his world operates. At its core, I think it's a book about adolescence: to be 16 is to be creating a set of rituals, codes, and totems that are exclusive to you alone, and Frank, violent and brutal though he is, is trying to do this without the tools to do so in a way that prevents his rituals from being bloody and savage. He never takes joy in the three murders he committed, but recognized them as necessary acts for the pattern he sees in the world that no one else does. I mean, I just listened to a lot of Raw Power and took up the guitar, but the principle's the same.

That said... I'd be careful with this book, if I were you. It may be understandable and ring uncomfortably true, but it is still a brutal, brutal novel. I'm not even going to describe any of the most chilling scenes in it because I don't want to be responsible for putting them in your head. Just know that, if you do read it, there is a reason behind all of it and it does have a point. And it's a book you will almost certainly tear through in a white heat and be very, very glad to finish.
"I write about spaceships! And five-year-olds being blown to pieces!"
Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not, by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello

Several years ago, when the three of them were all just starting out as actors, the authors of this book did a TV show. It ran from 1999 to 2003. It was a parody of after-school specials called Strangers With Candy, and it was wonderful: surreal, strange, and operating by its own beautiful, inexplicable logic. It was easily one of the best TV comedies of all time and it's astounding that something as dark and weird as it ever made it onto television in the first place.
The character on the right never moves on camera and always makes that face.
Wigfield, their print follow-up, is not the same level of brilliant nonsense. It's still a damn fine book though.

Wigfield is the story of Russell Hokes, former highway line painter turned writer, who signs a contract to write 50,000 words about the disappearing American small town and rapidly discovers he can neither write about nor care about the disappearing American small town. Hokes's narrative voice is the best part about the book: he's a terrible, terrible writer who thinks he's a great one, and most of the book's best jokes come from his attempts to sound eloquent (and pad his word count), such as his claim that "with the future in my rearview mirror, I set a course for the past," or the fact that you can clearly identify the passages in which Hokes has attempted to use a thesaurus (usually in trying to find synonyms for "small town").

The town Hokes alights in, Wigfield, is "a charming architectural melange, the overall effect being that of a series of children's forts made from stolen highway equipment"-- a hastily-constructed shantytown/trailer park constructed at the base of a soon-to-be-destroyed dam as an obvious insurance scam. The book becomes an absolutely vicious satire on the "small town" and, moreso, on our love for the town. One of the biggest recurring jokes is the moment at which one of Wigfield's vaguely insane residents (there's supposedly a local serial killer, but it could be pretty much any citizen) will say something absolutely horrible, following it with a proclamation of small-town pride. Wigfield is essentially the worst place on earth, and Hokes is able to convince himself, and hopes to convince his reader, that it's "charming" and "quaint" just because very, very few people want to live there.
And then Stephen Colbert is in this picture.
Essentially, if you enjoy Strangers With Candy, or if Tina Fey's and Jon Stewart's endorsements on the back sound like pretty good advice, check it out. Wigfield is fun, weird, and, at times, unspeakably vicious satire. Also, it stops mid-moral because Hokes reaches 50,000 words, which is a pretty beautiful joke.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The 5 Most Badass Classic Authors

One of my favorite posts I've done here was my list of The 5 Most Badass Modern Writers. It was a helluva lot of fun to write and research, and I think the end result was pretty freakin' great. That said, though... look, I don't think that we're becoming emasculated by the passage of time or that we need to "reclaim our manliness" or any of that quasi-macho bullshit.

But I do think that, back when everyone knew how to use a sword, there were probably a lot more terrifyingly insane geniuses.
I mean, I'm a Douglas. Clearly, there's been some watering-down over the years.
So with that in mind, here's a companion to this piece: in no particular order, 5 men who lived before the 20th century and were able to totally tear up an age without anesthesia or basic hygiene. They may scare us, but hey, a Ford Taurus would make them puke in terror so at least we have that advantage should they declare war on our modern poets.

Spoiler alert: 4 of these men had sex with men. Ain't literary history fun!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

5 Things I Love About Goethe's Faust

"How lucky we were,
We hit the cathouses and we sampled their wares
We got as drunk as a couple of Tsars,
that night I swallowed my lucky stars.
Who's that dancin' on the jailhouse roof
Stampin' on the ramping with a cloven hoof?"

--Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Up Jumped the Devil."

Goethe's Faust is one of the great triumphs of human literature. It is a damn shame that it's not omnipresent in American education-- it's every bit the equal of Shakespeare's best. Honestly, if Germany had won the war, we could take cold comfort in the fact that at least Americans could grow up knowing their Goethe.
"The Spacebots told me about a universe where that happened! And we all did the I Chi!"
Yes...yes Philip. We know.
I was considering trying to a guide to the work, but let's be honest-- I cannot. I spent a semester taking a course on this book and it was still fairly hurried. Goethe spent 60 years of life reading it, the most I can do to try and shepherd you through is to tell you to pick up the most recent Norton Critical Edition, which is a really great translation with hundreds of pages of notes, annotations, and help.

Instead, I'm going to revert to the method of communication that watching High Fidelity every Friday when I was 16 instilled in me: Top 5 lists. There's a huge amount to go into, but here's 5 things from the epic that are my favorite parts.