Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I Read Good: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

by Joan Didion

I admit that although I have claimed some general interest in literary journalism as an art form, I am not all that well versed in some of the work of the big names. My primary interest has been the work of Dr. Thompson and Charles Bowden. The connection between those two writers of slightly different content and active periods was immediately evident and was a happy comfort zone of dissident tones. Clearly I am coming from a frame of reference that strays pretty far from journalism in its purest form. Because of my interest in counterculture of the 60s and more importantly the wake produced, I know that my education in New Journalism (a very outdated term now, indeed) was no where close to complete.

So, I decided to flesh out my education with a little Joan Didion.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the collection including her seminal work of the same name on the San Francisco counterculture  is a good place to start. I immediately noticed a striking difference between her work and that of the Thompson. There is a great obtuse feeling. Of course, with Hunter there is never a question of where he stands. He stands in the middle of it all and makes it clear who the characters are: who are the winners, losers, those you are to feel sorry and those you are to feel contempt.  Even in Didion’s most personal essays, I feel her distance.  Perhaps it is the old journalistic tenets showing through, but her style is also not objective. I sense her feelings, her sadness but she allows the space in between the lines tell the moral and the story.

I had a very mixed reaction to the book. The themes throughout the book are the same as many of the late 60s/early 70s authors: of moral decline, of an America in great contrast. In Slouching, the writing style, the space and ease which she slips between poetic and journalistic is striking and beautiful.  She does not glamorize the lost children she sees in San Francisco in any way.  I sense a vague judgement, but a kinship as well.  It seems like much of her writing style exists and lives within the realm of this dichotomy.  She presents the story as a journalist, seems like a friend to her subjects, and speaks to her audience in an interesting combination of lush literary flourish and journalistic brevity.

Hunter resonated with me immediately. Truthfully, he can be compared to the others in this generation only in as much as he was there and documented life as only he could. Bowden is an easier point of comparison than Didion would ever be, which is a topic for a different day. Perhaps what does not quite sit well with me is that Didion walks the line. She befriends the junkies of Haight Street, but she does nothing to contrast the way in which they had been portrayed by other media outlets.  I want to know where she stands.  She was just writing it like she sees it, I know.

Towards the end of the essay where she writes about the living conditions of one of the hippie families, I couldn’t help thinking of this and laughing:

But it’s not really like that; it is just that she is more like a traditional journalist in many ways than the outlaw journalists that I have come to love and I sense that dichotomy between traditional journalism and the need to present the story in layers, in space and poetry.

But here, again, I come back to Bowden and Thompson.  Yes, they tell the story.  Yes, they befriend the junkies but somewhere you know that Bowden and Thompson are invested completely in the deconstruction.  They lament what is broken, but there is no nostalgia for some America gone by.  Hunter is only nostalgic for the optimism and potential lost in the fray of America in the 60s and Bowden is nostalgic for the nature and the culture bulldozed by progress.  I sense in Didion’s work a nostalgia for “the way things used to be” – not just in ‘Slouching’  but in her  essays about crime, Howard Hughes, and her “writer’s notebook” essays.  I found that section of the book to be a bit frivolous. Although it’s always interesting to see behind the scenes, if you ever…for a few brief moments, saw yourself as a writer.  However,  I did not find her personals to be a great benefit to the book even though I nodded along on the importance of keeping a journal to capture small moments (“On Keeping a Notebook”).

I have to say the Yeats poem may have been my favorite part of the book. This isn’t meant to be a slam towards Didion but the poem itself lent so much context and layering to the work, that I can’t help but think that what’s left unsaid is not always the strongest message to be sent.

I would be interested to read more, in particular The Year of Magical Thinking but I don’t believe I’m up for that sort of bummer right now. As for my assessment of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, ah well, I’ve always been more attracted to the bull in the china shop approach. This isn’t a world to be written about delicately.

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

“I read good” Book Review: The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography

The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography

by Chris Elliot

My father and I were reflecting recently on surrealist humor and why we are so attracted to the bizarrely silly. I think Dad and I both pride ourselves on being up comedy. We have been Chris Elliott fans since his Late Night with David Letterman days. I think you could say we were drawn to him immediately…you know, due to the fact that he was so weird and pathetic. What’s not to love? So, I was wanting (and expecting) to receive Chris Elliott’s Unauthorized Autobiography as a gift from my Dad last year. He is an acquired taste, but I’ve always loved his affect, from Cabin Boy to Get a Life to playing Lily’s dad on How I Met Your Mother (“I’ve got diseases!”). (And Eagleheart, which I decided I can’t watch before bedtime because it sometimes gives me nightmares, but gee, I love it.)

Good lord, is this man silly! I can’t say I read this book quickly (it took me over 6 months to get through it. In my old age I have become a pretty slow reader, usually due to distraction.) The good news about this book is you can pick it up after a month and only vaguely remember where you were and it really doesn’t matter. There’s no real story (literally!) and you’re just in it for a good one-liner. It really is absurd though. I can’t tell you if I liked it or not. I laughed a lot. I cringed a little at how truly ridiculous it was. I thought it was an interesting writing device – to write your own unauthorized autobiography and by gum, if anyone can do that, it’s Chris. But at times, it teetered towards unfunny as it spiraled out of control.

The highlights:
His well-documented addiction to tartar sauce and other condiments. I giggled each time that came up.

The fact that he claimed his parents were Bette Davis and Sam Elliott. I particularly found the Sam Elliott jokes hilarious for some reason. (Particularly funny since Chris’ famous father, Bob Elliott often portrayed Chris’ father in films.)

When Chris developed hysterical blindness due to the eating death of his pet lobster, Snappy.

The oneliners. The only reason to read this book is for one-liners. As a whole, it’s too…bizarre and ridiculous to read as a BOOK. This is real breaking the 4th wall stuff. I didn’t get a lot of the references, and maybe my age was detrimental.

On the upside, it was filled with sex and violence. Mostly because Chris would keep accidentally (or on purpose) killing people throughout the book.

File this one under  a laugh out loud, bizarre, enjoyable waste of time. I do love me some Chris Elliott.

“I Read Good” Book Review: The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History

by Jim Walsh. 

In a new feature of this website, I will prove (with some doubt) that I know how to read.  I just finished Walsh’s oral history on The Replacements.  How exciting that we finally do have some Replacements content! I was excited to read it and it took me about a year to get my hands on a copy.  I have to say that considering the place that The Replacements hold in my heart, my technical knowledge of them was limited, even having stood in the First Ave at different times in my life.  Maybe that is the thing with being an underground band – but that’s really no excuse since my head is filled with pointless information about bands that hardly anyone has ever heard of outside of our little musical community.

Anyway!

When you read a book like this, the content and material presented is so wonderful but the format does seem to take center stage.  Walsh’s book, a collection of snippets, some new interviews, some clips culled from magazines, gives you a funny, poignant and interesting view into a conundrum of a band. Walsh’s book was very enjoyable, informative and, in it’s own way, a great primer on Replacements history without delving too far into the specifics.  I have read better oral histories, however.  The format is a blessing and a curse, no matter the subject matter.  Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is a wonderful oral history.  (Although apparently Anita Thompson thinks it cast Hunter in a negative light, I found it to be fairly even. Apparently a lot of other people agree with her, but when reading about any these characters, you do expect some warts along the way.)  There are other viable comparisons between the two books, and I may get back to that.  Back to the problem of oral histories, they often come across as though you are sitting at breakfast with a bunch of people who went to a great party that you didn’t attend.  They can create a great snapshot, a Polaroid that gives you a better picture of the actualities, but you never really get the full story and you don’t leave feeling like you did anything more than listen in on a few friends telling stories.

One review on Amazon also complained that Walsh culled a lot of information from easily accessible articles and news sources, rather than rely on new interviews.  I agree that this is detrimental to the book overall.  Those snippets are important and they DO add a lot, especially given Paul & Tommy refused to be interviewed for the book.  However, the book is also very loosely organized into 5 chapters – only lightly chronological.  Walsh’s use of older interviews then becomes a continuity problem.  Publisher’s Weekly called it “ramshackle” and I think that’s an accurate assessment.  (I had to flip to the back of the book to check the footnotes to find out, “Did Paul say that in 2004 or 1988?” Sometimes it would be, I thought, pretty relevant to how it should be interpreted.  Checking footnotes does make me feel smart though!)

I might be slightly disappointed in the book, if I hadn’t recently discovered that Arizona’s own Bob Mehr is writing the definitive Replacements book.  This exciting news makes the oral history a welcomed complement to what I expect to be a more thorough analysis of the band.  Walsh’s history with the band and with the Minneapolis music scene is also a great benefit to the book and I think you do get some sort of puzzle to put together from the oral history format that can be really fun.  While some throw-away story of Paul flipping a craft services table, or Bob Stinson playing in a garbage can may not have made headline news in a regular book, oral histories provide that storytelling element, that straight rock biographies can sometimes lack. Oral histories also seem so relevant to music and the music scenes we all kick around in.  I mean, a lot of what I’ve learned about our scene here in Tempe stems from someone saying, “Oh…this one time….” We gossip, we tell tales, we spread them around.   It’s not just some story – but something that fosters the depth, and to some degree the legend of the Tempe scene.  (As I believe it does for all music communities.) It’s communal, in a way and that’s valuable, especially when you’re a kid from Des Moines who showed up 10 years too late.

I think that is part of why this book holds up for me, despite some of the holes.  It feels so familiar.

I do believe that the book was a labor of love for Jim Walsh and I liked what he did, overall! Some of the stories are priceless.  You cringe, laugh, and tear up. I also loved that he included, not only comments from Minneapolis insiders, but also from people like me.  Just fans, who can’t believe their luck that they found an underground band so close to their hearts.

 

 

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