Friday, July 17, 2009

Reading Rainbow Roundup: The Hamlet, Rock Star Babylon, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, Love Is A Mix Tape, and Murder For Profit

Since all I do here now is blabble away about music, I thought I could raise the stakes and natter about books, too! Yeah! I had some down time recently that I could spend reading, and I leapt at the chance to do so. So here's what I read:

The Hamlet - William Faulkner. This is the first of the Snopes trilogy, and although I've read a bunch of Faulkner's novels - many over & over again - this was the first time I had read this one. And it was a blast. Faulkner obviously was having a hell of a great time writing it, stuffing some of his trademark poetry into a sequence about a retarded man's physical love for a cow, for instance, or spending 20 pages delving into the backstory of a minor character just so he could abruptly cut to his murder by shotgun. Although this story was so great that I sort of wish that I had read it many years ago, I'm also happy that I didn't read it until now. It doesn't break the hold that the Compson stories - especially Absalom! Absolam! - have on my imagination and heart, but it adds to my appreciation and awe of Faulkner's work, and it's a great thing when you can find something new to love about an author you've considered among your favorites for nearly 20 years. I'm going to add the next two Snopes novels (that's The Town and The Mansion) to my list, but I'm not going to rush into them. Hell, it took Faulkner 17 years to get back around to the Snopes story, and as I'm entering middle age, I find that I'm not in as much hurry to get there as I used to be, either. Funny how you want to slow down when time is starting to rush by faster, getting more and more precious, but that's life, baby.

Rock Star Babylon - Jon Holmes. From the awe-inspiring to the awful and insipid in one small step. Most of what I know about Holmes is that he's a British radio DJ, and I would guess from this book that he's a lad-mag-loving shock-jock type. See, he takes a great idea: he's going to tell the apocryphal stories of rock music à la Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, because they're fun and schlocky regardless of their truth. But Holmes is really, really, really fucking lazy. The book reads like he knocked it out in a couple of days with minimal research and the dipshittiest humor that just cracks up his buddies and sycophants. By which I mean every page is packed to the gills with queer panic jokes. Because, I suppose, if one doesn't think that homosexual men and women are inherently hilarious (because they're gay! Get it?) then one must (ha ha ha) be uptight or something. Or maybe - and I'm just throwing this out there - maybe it's just not very funny.

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (33 1/3) - Jeffrey T. Roesgen. But, see, here's a guy writing about music who has not just a working brain and a work ethic but moreover can write like hell. Jeff Roesgen's 33 1/3 book is about the great Pogues album, yes, but it's also a well-researched work of fiction built around the cover art, a modified version of Théodore Géricault's painting Le Radeau de la Méduse with the band members' faces superimposed over the faces of the men on the raft. Here's the story of the Medusa, for your reading pleasure. Roesgen tells the story from the point of view of a musician - Jem from the Pogues, if I'm reading it correctly - who has sailed with the Medusa with the rest of his band (who are, indeed, the Pogues) and who ends up on the fateful raft after the captain stranded the vessel in open seas. Along the way, Roesgen pauses his narrative to talk about the songs on the album. I found the novella quite affecting and the analysis enlightening. I've read some complaints about the use of fiction as a way of discussing music, but I clearly don't give a shit. And neither does Roesgen, and thank god for it.

Love Is A Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield. Sheffield's day job is reviewing music and other aspects of pop culture for Rolling Stone, but this memoir dates to his life before his writing success, when he was a grad student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He fell in love with a girl - a fellow DJ and aspiring writer - and then he married her. They lived happily for a few years, and then she suddenly passed away from a pulmonary embolism one day while they were at home together. Christ, the horror. Sheffield frames his story around a series of mix tapes that he made or she made for him, which incidentally (and poignantly) captures how important mix tapes were us music geeks in the pre-CD days. The girl he loved: I should say something about her, because he writes about her so beautifully and clearly. But it's hard to do so, because that's really what the book is about, introducing people who never got the chance to meet her to the girl he loved. I'll say that her niece, who she unfortunately never knew, is my son's best friend at their preschool. And after reading this story, I can see a lot of the aunt in the niece, which is also a little beautiful and poignant. I told her mother, who clearly misses her sister, that I had read the book, and she sent me this, an article that she called Love Is A Virgin, which further illuminates how unfortunate we all are that her time was so short. I read this book just after a funeral, my wife's beloved grandmother, and I also couldn't help but feel for my wife's grandfather, a widower now like Sheffield, and how horrible it is to survive, to suddenly have a person-shaped hole in your life.

Murder For Profit - William Bolitho. This one was a recommendation from Leonard Pierce, and bless him for it. This is a fictionally-written nonfiction take on several serial killers in history, written in 1926 by a guy whose real name might have been Charles or William Ryall (the web is unclear on the matter), and GODDAMN could this guy write. The whole book can be taken as an attempt to profile a serial killer in the early days of psychology with the variable results you may expect, but Bolitho's wit and style carry him through the stories. If you have the patience to read it online, here's one of the chapters, a section on George Joseph Smith, who murdered a number of women in 19-teens England in a money-making scheme that recalled the gritty/horrific movie The Honeymoon Killers. Consider some of Bolitho's lines here:

  • "Truth loves economy; there is no need to make her a fool, or him a genius."

  • "It is an act, a corporal violence, like the thong of a whip laid across her face, the apparently senseless, but by no means causeless, worrying of a sheep by a vicious dog. The passivity, the meekness of this educated woman had aroused some other nameless devil in him besides his biting fear-born avarice. Other dupes were to him only jumping figures in a cash-book. This most unhappy woman was to him flesh and blood. She had landed on the island of his egotism; he was afraid he was not alone."

  • "The way of a murderer and a boa-constrictor are opposite. Where the one sweetens with his saliva, the other must carefully contrive to hate." [This is my favorite.]

  • "At thirty-eight a woman's affairs are her own concern, and seldom easy to tell."
It's out of print, but there's used copies to be had on the cheap from Amazon. Avail yourselves!


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