Book Review Monday: The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore

It is hardly a new reindexvelation that the music of one’s youth is that which is most resonant throughout the rest of our lives. It is the soundtrack of our adolescent development, the rhythm of our initiation into love, into heartbreak, and who we are in the process of becoming.  And it sticks with us no matter how far beyond it we grow.

It is a conversation I frequently have with a colleague and friend. And though our references are often separated by a generation or two, there is enough overlap that we understand each other completely.

Libby Cudmore’s The Big Rewind is crafted around that very concept. The music throughout the novel –and there is a lot of it– is the underpinnings of both the solution of the murder mystery and the liberation of its protagonist, Jett Bennett.

Bennett, who had come to New York hoping to land a job in music journalism, feels very much a square peg in the ultra-hip(ster) world of Brooklyn. Her downstairs neighbor, KitKat, who is at the vortex of Brooklyn hipdom, has befriended her, but she dies in the first few pages, brutally murdered with a rolling pin.

And Bennett is the one who finds her.

Bennett had been bringing a mixed-tape to KitKat which had come in the mail and had mistakenly been delivered to her. Later, she “inherits” an entire box of KitKat’s mixed-tapes, music selected and arranged in such a way that Bennett believes they point to the identity of the killer.

And as she goes through KitKat’s tapes, she also re-discovers her own tapes and takes a journey through heartbreak and love and hope and despair. It is this music that will ultimately scattered the clouds that have been hanging heavily upon her.

Capturing the hipster world of Brooklyn, the basement night-clubs and the trendy brunch-eries,  the world of vegans and punks and poseurs, among those selling vinyl records and those selling pot-laced cupcakes, Cudmore gives us a fast pace mystery that is fun, nostalgic and wry.  Her eye for detail is unerring –given to us often with tongue firmly in her cheek. Irony is alive and well in Libby Cudmore.

c8809a83a670142d39ea1d5e581d018a

Libby Cudmore

And Bennett is a hero we can love. She is vulnerable, honest, and striving to understand herself. And she believes in her truth, for which she will fight. With her friend Syd, she immerses herself into the world of punk music and strippers, academia and neighborhood community, of fetishes and memory.  And she comes out okay.

There has been much written about The Big Rewind and comparing it to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.  And that is somewhat accurate. But whereas, Hornby’s novel is ultimately about his protagonist’s understanding his failures, successes and lost opportunities in love, The Big Rewind seems a little different. For one, it is a murder mystery and a fairly good one. And even after the solution seems evident, there are still enough issues yet to be resolved to keep the reader racing towards the end.

And that’s what I did. I began it somewhere over the Rockies on a red-eye flight to the East Coast and had it finished when I landed. It is that captivating.

I admit that much of the music, I did not know. Though there was still much that was familar. And many of Jett’s obsessions are understandable and familiar as well. At one point she plays Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr” over and over again. I’ve done the same with the same song. (Both she, her friend Syd and I are serious Warren Zevon fans.) I know people who, like Jett, have had similar obsessions with the Cure and  the Smiths, and some who know even the more obscure bands, like the Clarks. (Very big in Western Pennsylvania.)

Libby Cudmore is a shrewd observer, and the world she creates for her protagonist is honest and real. The Big Rewind is well worth the read.

It’s like finding a vinyl Tom Rush in the sales-bin.

 

Advertisements

Truth, Fiction, and Bigger Truth

A few days ago I received a message from my friend Gerry Bracken who started off with the words “I rarely read fiction, but I picked up a copy…” And he recommended a detective novel based in L.A. to where I was then flying.

Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Yesterday, I was browsing through Maria Popova’s blog, “brain pickings,” and I clicked on her bookshelf. (http://bookpickings.brainpickings.org/) Her site routinely discusses books, authors, and readers. And the titles she list are predominantly non-fiction: titles that I jot down and often pick up at the library.

And then last night, I read the ExPlore twitter posting (also managed by Maria Popova). It listed Bill Gates’ reading list for the Summer of 2013. The list is daunting, fascinating and wide-ranging, but except for a single novel, it was all non-fiction. (Click here to see list.)

What is with this reluctance to read fiction? Are we wasting our time? Or more importantly, am I wasting my time.

There once was a time, when the reading of fiction–particular of novels–was considered by many as a harmless past-time for idle girls and not the pursuit of serious, intelligent people. But that was 200 years ago. In the interim, fiction has taken on a bit more gravitas, a bit more legitimacy.

At times, however, I feel haunted by that ancient attitude. And at other times, I feel deliciously guilty for sinking into a novel. Shouldn’t I be learning something? Shouldn’t I be boning up on something? Refining what I know? Discovering new ideas?

Well, I don’t know.

A while back, I ghostwrote a book on the history of Ireland. I researched assiduously, read primary and secondary sources, talked and listened to people and their stories, pored over all the news reports, particularly those on the current events that were unfolding before my eyes.

books.transatlantic_1

Colum McCann’s true fiction TransAtlantic

But I know I never got near the truth that I got in reading Colum MCCann’s novel Trans Atlantic. The section(s) on George Mitchell and the Irish peace negotiations, for instance, was better history than I could have ever gleaned in a biography or history book. There was life in those pages, in the account of Mitchell’s days in Belfast, on his dealings with the myriad politicians and organizations, in his observations of the ordinary people and the details around him. Did everything happen the way McCann described it? Probably not. Was it true? I believe very much so. A bigger truth than the historians can share.

I have learned much from fiction–I have learned about people: people in drastic circumstances, in simple ordinariness, in great passion, and in wrenching heartbreak. I have learned about pride and hubris, of great loyalty and great betrayal, of sacrifice and of love. I have met more people in the pages that I have read than I ever could have in the life that I led.

And, in a way, after all, that is what we’re here for–to learn about the wide variety of fellow human beings who share our moment in time and space.

I need to turn my back on this guilt about reading fiction.

Book Review: Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner…coming of age in Scotland

Chisolm Tartan 2013 jpbohannon

Chisolm Tartan
illustration © 2013 jpbohannon

Alan Warner belongs to a certain group of writers who came of age in Scotland in the last decades of the 20th century. Those with more recognizable names would included Irvin Welsh who gave us Trainspotting, James Kelman with his unique voice of urban rootlessness, Ian Banks (who died last week) and A.L. Kennedy with their distinctive fictions, and Ian Rankin who gave us Inspector Rebus and his Edinburgh detective novels. Among these, Alan Warner seems the one who has gained less recognition over here in the States. And that is a shame.

Warner’s first novel Morvern Caller was a magnificent tale of a young woman who steals her dead boyfriend’s novel from his computer, changes the name on the manuscript and quickly and decadently burns through the advance that the novel garners, moving from her dilapidated Scottish town through the ravages of the European rave scene. A later novel with the unfortunate title The Sopranos follows a group of high school choir girls from a rural western outpost on its class trip to Edinburgh. Both novels are memorable for their voice, for the seeming accuracy of Warner’s portrayals of 16 and 17-year olds. And both are fun.

Warner returns to the same locale from which Morvern Caller and the girls from The Sopranos escape in his newest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal. And again, he is dealing with characters of a certain age, characters who are between childhood and adulthood, characters who are innocents even as they are losing their innocence.deadman-s

The novel takes place around “the Port,” Warner’s fictionalized treatment of the town of Oban in western Scotland and is held together by the train line that serves the area and which is dwindling in impact. In fact the title “Deadman’s Pedal” refers to a device that on a runaway train is set to brake in the case of an engineer losing consciousness.

Simon Crimmons is turning sixteen and wants to quit school, get a motorbike, and get a job. He is considered well-to-do by his companions because his father owns a trucking company, but wealth is a relative thing, and the Crimmons family is certainly working class in comparison to the lordly Bultitude’s. In fact, Simon, the town and the novel itself are greatly aware of class distinctions. And this is a running theme throughout.

Yet it is in terms of young Simon’s desires that the class distinctions are most evident. For he is torn between the beautiful and always available Nikki Caine from the Estate houses and the enigmatic Varie Bultitude–of the town’s legendary, aristocracy. Managing such affairs is always risky and managing one between such two disparate worlds is like being on a run-away train.

When Simon mistakenly gets a job as a trainee train driver–he thought he was applying for a hospital position–he discovers the extent of these class divisions. He says to Vaire, “I’ve got the whole railway telling me I’m not working class enough and I’ve got you telling me I’m not middle class enough. This country needs to sort out the class question. As far as it applies to me.”

And to make matters more difficult, Simon’s father is caught up in it as well. He sees his son’s work on the trains as a betrayal, as his son’s working for a competitor that could ultimately put him out of business. It’s never easy being sixteen. It seems much harder for Simon Crimmons.

The joy of the novel–apart from the very real depictions of young desire, lust, and confusion–is the language itself. Some may find the dialect off-putting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature, but the narration itself is pure genius: A funeral for a dead train man is told with humor, nostalgia and poignancy; Simon’s first kiss is described as sweet, anxious, innocent and thrilling; the grounds of the Bultitude property are given an almost gothic eeriness and grandeur. (The Bultitudes are said to bury their dead in glass coffins…the aristocracy is always with us!)

Early in the novel, Simon and his friend Galbraith show Nikki the secret hideout they have built out in the wilds. They make her promise not to mention it to the other boys knowing that it is a childish thing and that the others would tease them for it. It is here that Simon and Nikki first have sex– in a short scene that is both innocent and knowing. It is a scene–positioned in his boyhood escape– that captures the very tension of this novel, the tension between innocence and adulthood, between desire and attainment, between the people and their landscape.

Alan Warner Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner
Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner is an extraordinary writer. That his name is little known outside Britain is an injustice, but one that may be set aright by Deadman’s Pedal–a novel that is larger than its Scottish setting, a novel that is universal in its wonders, its desires, and its struggles.

Book Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

A new acquaintance of mine asked if I had ever read the book Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.  I hadn’t, though I had read several others by the South African writer.  We talked about many things that morning, and, to be truthful, I had forgotten all about the book until about a week later, when a package arrived in the mail with a gift-wrapped book. Inside was a copy of Disgrace with the note: “I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.”

And so I began.

Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a 52 year-old, twice-divorced, white South African professor of Communications and Romantic poetry.  Quite early in the novel he is forced to resign from his university under the disgrace of having sex with one of his students.  As Lurie  rationalizes to himself, the sex itself was not rape, but it certainly wasn’t completely consensual.  He admits guilt but not contrition–which infuriates even those trying to help him.

In disgrace, hounded by reporters, and bereft of his job, Lurie leaves town and drives out into the eastern countryside of the Cape. There his daughter has some land where she raises flowers and kennels dogs.  He is there presumably to write an opera on Byron, Byron’s mistress Teresa, and her husband.  But it is not the most conducive area for such refined creation: it is a hard land and an area still simmering in the afterbirth of the post-apartheid era.

As Lurie settles into the rhythms of country-life, of physical labor and simple pleasures, even volunteering in an animal shelter, his life is once again shattered when he and his daughter are attacked by three men.  All the dogs are slaughtered, Lurie is doused in alcohol and set on fire, and his daughter is gang-raped (and impregnated) by the three men.  The very crime for which Lurie was censured has been visited trebly on his daughter.  The very world he has known–the power he has always arrogantly assumed for himself–has been violently wrenched away.

As both father and daughter try to come to terms with the horrors that have visited them, as they learn more and more about the identity of their attackers and their relations to people they know, and as they struggle with the essential character of each other’s personalities, Lurie comes to better realize the nature of the world around him.  His views on racism, on feminism, even on animal rights, must be examined and re-calibrated.  The world he has known is, simply, no longer.

I knew nothing of the book when I opened it. I thought it was contemporary, not published in 1999–a mere five years after the historic elections in which the African National Congress overwhelmingly won and from which apartheid’s demise can best be dated. The difficulties that Lurie has in understanding the new order, the distrust, fear and violence among the various peoples, even the “modernization” of the University all make better sense. (Lurie’s teaching of Communication is in itself ironic–Communication skills are what this country and its people are badly in need of.  An expert in the British romantic poets–those type of courses are considered fluff in the new university structure–Lurie teaches both Communications 101 and Communications 201. The one Romantic Poets course he teaches is a salve that the administration gives its older professors.) In many ways the novel is a reflection of the birth pangs of the new country: it is violent, bloody, and at times deadly.

Does everything get resolved?  Of course, not.  Is Lurie a better person at the end?  I’m not sure.  I think he is. Early in the novel when a tribunal is questioning Lurie on his womanizing, he states that he believes that every woman he has bedded has “enriched” him in some way.  The question at the end of the novel then must be  “has the violence and catastrophe that he has suffered also enriched him?”  Again, I don’t know. But he is a different man than he was at the beginning of the novel.

J.M. Coetzee

And while the summary of the plot seems rather dark, the novel itself is quick moving and understated.  It is a very subtle but easy read, and it sucks you into its disparate worlds–the urbane world of the university and the stark world of the South African countryside–quite easily.

And so much dovetails together within the novel: the womanizing man of letters writing about that grand literary womanizer Byron; the mirrored rapes; his evolving attitudes towards women underpinning his new understanding of animals; his role as both teacher and father. It all comes together seamlessly and wonderfully, not like a patchwork quilt, but a beautifully woven cloth–like the Ashanti patterned bedspread that Lurie’s daughter presents to the woman living on her land.

J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for Disgrace in 1999, four years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His writing is succinct and accessible. In many ways he is a quiet writer, not at all flashy. (Not surprising, considering that his dissertation was on Beckett.)  Intelligent, subtle, and layered, the writing is satisfying and rewarding from the very first, and ages richly with subsequent reading.

Susan Sontag

I have always been fascinated by Susan Sontag. I envied her seeming crystal-sharp intelligence, her confidence in her opinions, her strength in writing, her omnivorous reading.  While I certainly have not read everything of hers, I have read quite a lot.  Once as a reader for The Franklin Library’s First Editions, I read the galleys of The Volcano Lover, her historical novel about the triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma and Lord Nelson. It was the first piece of fiction of hers I had read. Like all of her writing it was intelligent, sharp and incisive.  And it had a truth that can only be found in fiction. Her following novel, In America, was not as satisfying for me–it seemed undone.  Or perhaps overdone, might be a better word, for the brilliant characters and storyline are over-examined and over analyzed as if Henry James were writing the screenplays for MadMan.  The novel is crushed by the intelligence.

However, I have read much of her non-fiction: Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966),  On Photography (1977),  Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1978 and 1988) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). (The Illness as Metaphor book was revamped in 1988 in order to address the scourge that was AIDS in the 1980’s.)  It is this non-fiction, her essays that make her an major figure of the late 20th-century.  It is in these essays that the true brilliance shines. Hers is a hard intelligence, but a very clear intelligence.  Her Against Interpretation gave readers an argument “against what something means” and for “what something is.” It includes insightful–and new–readings of  Sartre, of Beckett, of Bresson, among others.  Illness as Metaphor moves us from the tuberculosis and consumption that affected so many of the 19th century’s literary characters and creators to the cancer that became the overriding metaphor of the twentieth.  On Photography discusses the relatively new art of photography–only since the mid-19th century– in a way that will change how even the most amateur viewer–myself– views photographs again.  And at the beginning of the second Iraq war, I once gave a section of Regarding the Pain of Others to a class of 18-year olds, and it surprised me how well it worked with theml.

A few years ago, I went to the Brooklyn Art Museum to see a photographic exhibit on Sontag by Annie Liebovitz, perhaps America’s most famous and celebrated portraitist at the time. Liebovitz–who had had a decades long romantic relationship with Sontag–captured Sontag’s final years, among family and friends. Many of them were during her final days, during her final battle with cancer. To this day I don’t know if I am more affected by the words Sontag wrote or the images of her that I saw that day.  Both, suggest an admirable toughness and wit.

What I also don’t know is why today, the NYTimes decided to publish a sampler of Sontag’s work in the Week in Review section of the Sunday paper. There is no anniversary that I know of. It just appeared.  But good, it made for a good read on a Sunday morning, and a good afternoon going through some old books. The excerpts are just that–excerpts–but they show the range, the depth and the honesty of her writing and her mind.  The article is below: enjoy it.

Sontag by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Opinion

A Sontag Sampler

By SUSAN SONTAG
Published: March 31, 2012

Art Is Boring

Schopenhauer ranks boredom with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life. (Pain for have-nots, boredom for haves — it’s a question of affluence.)

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us. But most of the interesting art of our time is boring.

Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (This doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.) We should not expect art to entertain or divert anymore. At least, not high art. Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye — but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented).

If we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

On Intelligence

I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.”

Why I Write

There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written.

I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.

But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.

This is what I meant when I said Thursday evening to that offensive twerp who came up after that panel at MoMA to complain about my attack on [the American playwright Edward] Albee: “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”

Love and Disease

Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One “falls” in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life. Or maybe it’s better always to be in love with several people at any given time.

On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

This material is excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980,” by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff.  A version of this was originally published in the NEW YORK TIMES, April 1, 2012.