ISSUE 9 — February, 2008
This Is Your Life — John O’Farrell
To begin with a cooking metaphor (though there is no cooking in this novel; it’s set in England), some dishes are improved by a period of “rest” between cooking and serving. Roast turkey is one example, but also other meats, some fish, pies and cakes, rice, soup, bolognese sauce, and oatmeal (Scottish or Irish, the slow-cooked kind); all benefit from a spell of rest. The juices absorb, the flavors blend, and the texture settles into its perfect consistency. Likewise, I find my opinion of a movie or a book needs to “rest” after the viewing or reading — to let the flavor, the essence, and the texture settle and coalesce.
My unwillingness to offer an immediate opinion has become a joke to my wife, Carrie. After we’ve watched a movie together, she’ll start to say, “So, what did you — ” then she’ll pause, before adding, with what might be a tinge of sarcasm, “Oh, I forgot. I’ll ask you tomorrow.”
But I honestly can’t describe my response to a movie or a book immediately, not until a little time has passed — to reverse the metaphor, until the meal is digested. (It occurs to me that I would likely say the same about a great restaurant meal: “How did you like it?” “I’ll tell you tomorrow.”)
That said, in the days after reading This Is Your Life, a comic novel by English writer John O’Farrell, I was surprised at how my impression of the book continued to grow in stature, in my understanding and assessment of its qualities. The more I thought about the story and characters, and the way John O’Farrell had presented them, and modern-day England, so deftly, the more impressed I felt.
The phrase “comic masterpiece” comes to mind, and fits.
Set mostly in a dreary English seaside town, the story is surreal — an aimless, underachieving young man becomes a famous stand-up comic without ever having performed a single show — and yet it rings true, in a “Yeah, that could happen” sort of way. The butterfly’s wingbeat that starts the whirling storm occurs when Jimmy Conway pretends to have known a recently deceased celebrity. Here follows the continued summary, from the back-cover copy:
Jimmy convinces a naïve journalist that he is the latest comedy phenomenon. He then embarks on a series of misadventures, bluffing and stumbling his way up the celebrity ladder, discovering as he goes that in their desperation to be associated with the next big thing, nobody has bothered to check his credentials. Quicker than you can say “flavor of the month,” Jimmy Conway becomes a bogus celebrity, winning an award for something he never did, being photographed in magazines posing in someone else’s house, and ultimately fooling, and making a fool of, the entire celebrity industry.
Beneath the bright, snappy, comic surface of O’Farrell’s writing there are echoes of other British writers like Martin Amis, and even Graham Greene, in the dark, satiric portrayal of British society, social “types,” and especially the entertainment industry. However, This Is Your Life fairly crackles with broad English humor of the Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, and Mr. Bean variety, along with a dry wit out of Adrian Mole and Nick Hornby that infuses the spot-on dialogue. Jimmy’s friends, parents, neighbors, and even his dog are vividly drawn characters, and mostly revealed in their own words (including the dog). The “letters to himself as a grownup” by a thirteen-year-old Jimmy are only surpassed in hilarity by his inner monologues as a feckless adult. I had many laugh-out-loud moments.
To belabor the food metaphor once more, like a first-rate meal, this book achieves the rare combination of being a delight to consume, while its nourishment endures long after.
Truly, a comic masterpiece.
The Emperor’s Children — Claire Messud
This is another novel that stayed in my mind for a long time after reading it (recommended by Carrie). On one level — as social commentary with an acid skewer and deadly aim — The Emperor’s Children is almost a New York parallel to the modern-day English background in This Is Your Life. In both novels, the central group of friends is on the cusp of thirty, each seeking (or flailing) a path through the labyrinth of modern life. The authors’ methods, though, are completely opposite. John O’Farrell writes broad comedy with an undercurrent of dark reality, while The Emperor’s Children is a more “serious” literary novel, yet brightened by a sardonic touch, à la Tom Wolfe, in its portrait of New York and some of its “types” in the early twenty-first century.
Again, while a good novel is a pleasure to be savored in the reading, only in retrospect can some of its qualities be appreciated. In The Emperor’s Children, the narrative arc is so skillfully engineered that it seems both inevitable and startling. Not wanting to be a “spoiler,” I won’t mention the praiseworthy aspects of the plot, or the theme that provides the title, but I can say about one of the main plot points, “I never saw it coming” (partly because I was careful not to read any of the back-cover blurbs or review excerpts — I really like to know as little as possible when I start reading, and let the story unfold the way the author intended).
One theme Claire Messud evokes repeatedly is “entitlement,” sometimes overtly, sometimes by intimation, and its echoes stayed with me in contemplation. Her younger characters share a kind of illusion, or delusion, that they are simply entitled to success, admiration, love — they are irrationally armored by a kind of unshakable faith that by some imminent miracle, their fates will transcend any necessity for, say, hard work or realistic goals. They will simply be “discovered.” That seems to be a common failing in youth, in these times and others.
The novel’s older characters, the previous generation, exemplify another kind of entitlement, but in their case it seems to be earned (though none the less resented by the young). At the farthest extreme, a young black orphan, DeVaughn, has been abandoned by life, and seems to be entitled to nothing.
Also at work on the characters in The Emperor’s Children, and the events that affect their lives, is envy, which I have lately decided is the first deadly sin. I used to think the ignominy belonged to pride, or vanity — “I AM MORE.” But it seems to me that envy is a more poisonous emotion, and like that sense of entitlement, it elevates the single-celled creature at the heart of it to the demand, “I DESERVE MORE.”
When you extrapolate from a dangerous individual poisoned by unwarranted pride and envy, like the unfortunate “Booty” in this novel (who reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces), to masses of people who share an ethnic or religious sense of entitlement (“we are the chosen people;” “we worship the One God”), and think or believe they “DESERVE” more, you’ve got big trouble. For some who “deserve” more, it follows that others deserve less.
As I described it in “The Way the Wind Blows,” “From the Middle East, to the Middle West/ Pray and pass the ammunition.”
The Emperor’s Children is an important novel of our times, offering social commentary and historical commemoration; but even more, it is a rare and timeless novel of ideas. Yet it is in no way ponderous; the burden is carried lightly. The writing technique is so well crafted and skillfully measured, and so gracefully accomplished that the thinking the author has done is woven into the story. The reading seems effortless, but profound and deeply-felt reflections linger.
The Emperor’s Children is a modern masterpiece.
Unfinished Journey (Twenty Years Later) — Yehudi Menuhin
Like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, reviewed in this space a while back, Yehudi Menuhin’s autobiography was recommended to me by fellow drummer Doane Perry, from Jethro Tull. Whenever Doane and I find we are both at home in Los Angeles, between tours in far-flung places, we get together for breakfast or lunch and talk about everything under the sun.
It’s true that some of Doane’s friends call him “Windy,” but his conversation is enlivened by intelligence, learning, and enthusiasm, and is never dull. (It does, however, make him the world’s slowest eater.) Another mutual friend and veteran drummer, the late, great Mark Craney, once scored a good one on Doane. Sitting in Doane’s office looking at the full bookshelves around him, Mark said, “Have you really read all these books?” Doane looked around, and nodded, “Yeah. . . I’ve read pretty well all of them.” Deadpan, Mark said, “You’d think you’d be a lot smarter than you are.”
Nothing like good friends to keep you grounded.
One morning last November, Doane and I met for breakfast at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, then walked along the (asphalt) boardwalk to Venice and back, past palm trees, inline skaters, and the always inspiring, and comforting, Pacific Ocean.
We talked a little “shop,” as two drummers are bound to do, sharing our worries about physical aches, and our occasional mental lapses. I laughed in rueful agreement when Doane said, “These days I can remember every mistake I ever make, exactly — what song it was in, what city it was in . . . ”
That was a profound insight into a musician’s “inner life,” familiar to me, and it was for that quality that Doane had previously recommended these two books, An Equal Music and Unfinished Journey, because they described so well what it was like to be a musician. Vikram Seth portrayed that inner life in fiction, while classical violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin expressed it in his own life story.
With dignity, modesty, and gentle humor, Lord Menuhin (elevated to the House of Lords by British prime minister John Major) recounts his rites of passage as a childhood prodigy and mature virtuoso. I once read an article about longevity considered in relation to work, and the longest-lived professionals were symphony conductors. The theory was that they lived so long because they exercised so much control over their lives and work. Yehudi Menuhin was a fine example of that actuary’s prediction, and the front cover photograph at age eighty shows him looking bright-eyed and radiant with health.
Lord Menuhin practised a monklike abstemiousness with food and drink (a high price for a few extra years, methinks — and you could still get hit by a bus), and was a dedicated practitioner of yoga, which I have also found offers benefits for both musicianship and health. The author’s “voice” comes across as warm, and yet cool — so modest about his accomplishments that sometimes you have to read between the lines to guess the heights he has attained: the honors, the prestigious performances, the importance of his musical collaborations.
In an otherwise friendly and graceful book, one jarring note was struck for this reader. It is by no means a “deal breaker,” but more of, let’s say, a “talking point” for Bubba’s Book Club. I only even mention it because it seems an important distinction — what is the limit of our tolerance for others’ outlandish beliefs? In this case, it was Lord Menuhin writing about his belief in homeopathy. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined a homeopathist as,“The humorist of the medical profession.”
Now, I know so-called alternative medicine is full of yet-to-be-discovered science. Aspirin, quinine, and birth-control pills were once folk remedies. I know there are mysteries out there, and have expressed that thought in our song, “Mystic Rhythms.” I have spoken with healers in China, Africa, and both Aztec and Mayan Mexico, and been fascinated by their lore. On other spiritual planes, I have been utterly gobsmacked by an impossibly accurate tarot reading; I have felt energy in places and from people; I can embrace a lot of possibilities. Multitudes. And yet . . .
The administering of homeopathic tinctures may be harmless enough (except for the hippie couple I knew who treated their children’s ailments with homeopathic remedies — until one of them ended up in the hospital), but the very notion feels like an assault on one’s reason. A generous level of tolerance allows most rational people to overlook innocent beliefs others might embrace, but when there is talk of engrams and Thetans, magic underwear, or a few molecules of some “essence” in a huge volume of water having healing properties — you just have to take a breath, and maybe a step away, and think, “You believe that?”
I guess one can still be tolerant of even such seemingly unwarranted (le mot juste) beliefs, in the limited sense of leaving people alone with them. But even if such a belief doesn’t really hurt anybody, it seems offensive — it offends reason.
But never mind — have your homeopathy, your sciencefictionology, your special religious garments, whatever. Just don’t expect others to take you a hundred percent seriously.
I must stress that this tangent (and rant) only represents a minor quibble with a great man’s life and work, a mere talking-point. Lord Menuhin seems to have lived an exemplary life, as artist and human being, and left behind a legacy of good works to carry on his memory, and a noble path to follow.
This Is Your Brain on Music — Daniel J. Levitin
Getting back to the subject of music — and book reviews — this is a piece of “layman’s science” that aims to explain the neurological effects of listening to, and performing, music. Among many interesting observations, backed up by the research of other neuroscientists and the author’s own laboratory work, Daniel Levitin — a former rock musician and recording engineer — shows how almost the entire brain is activated by music.
One idea that particularly pleased me was the “Ten Thousand Hours” theory — that whatever one might say about native talent, it takes a minimum of ten thousand hours’ practice to master a difficult pursuit, like those the author cites, “composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you . . .”
He also clarifies the overworked notion of “child prodigies,” pointing out that just because Mozart, say, wrote a symphony at age six, it doesn’t mean it was a great symphony, or would have meant anything at all without the mature work that followed. And in any case, Mozart’s father was considered the greatest music teacher in Europe at the time, determined to develop his young son’s abilities, and no doubt the young Wolfgang Amadeus had already put in his ten thousand hours by age six.
At a party in Los Angeles, I was introduced to a woman who considered her six-year-old son to be a precociously gifted drummer. She was a single mother, and seemed to be seeking my advice, so I suggested she get him started with lessons and practising, and see how he flourished. That’s the advice I give to parents of would-be drummers, recommending that they not go out and buy the kid a drumset right away, but see how it goes with just a pair of sticks, a practice pad, and lessons. If that survives a year of dedication, then it’s time to think about bringing real drums into your home. (Remembering the Chinese saying, “If thine enemy offend thee, buy each of his children a drum.”)
But this would-be stage mom had bigger ideas. Without bothering with all those “technicalities,” she simply up and moved to Nashville, where she thought her son’s genius might be sooner recognized. (That’s what I said — “Um, what?”) In contrast to Mozart’s father, who believed his son’s future rested on rigorous training, this parent convinced herself that her boy’s special light just needed to be discovered. (Entitlement, again — projected this time.)
One element of music I do wish Daniel Levitin had looked into would be the difference in the quality of one’s experience listening to music of quality (no I’m not afraid to define my terms — music made with passion, skill, and care; honest music). Perhaps that is material for a future book, but I have to believe there must be an elevation in the brain activity of a listener whose responses are more sophisticated (believing in the maxim “taste is an acquired luxury”). You would think the brain activity would be deeper in its range and intensity for a listener who truly loves music, versus one who just likes a good tune. And what about a musician performing music he or she deeply feels, rather than playing what they hope will sell?
But these studies don’t seem to note a distinction in response to, for example, a singer who pours her deepest emotions into her singing, and one who merely pretends it. Or music that is born out of genuine angst and frustration, a desire to change the world, and music that adopts a rebellious attitude for marketing reasons.
But perhaps that’s my own . . . delusion. I have spent my working life believing fervently in that distinction, fighting to preserve it in my own work, and being offended by music calculated only to the lowest common denominator of commercial appeal — I would like to believe it makes a difference. But perhaps it has to be recognized that, not to be glib, it only makes a difference if it makes a difference.
In any case, to any music lover who would like to better understand “your brain on music,” Daniel Levitin imparts some difficult scientific principles with clarity and occasional humor. This Is Your Brain on Music is a worthwhile, stimulating read.
Metal Swarm (The Saga of Seven Suns - Book 6) — Kevin J. Anderson
Consider it duly noted that Kevin Anderson is a good friend of mine, but that would not be enough to earn a glowing review from Bubba’s Book Club.
Being Bubba’s friend doesn’t hurt either, of course, though it can be hard for Bubba not to be envious (the first deadly sin — I know) of a writer like Kevin, who is so prolific, so fulfilled, and so accomplished.
For this reader, a science fiction epic is a pleasant indulgence once a year or so, often saved for vacation-time. For that reason, each volume of The Saga of Seven Suns that Kevin has sent me has been set aside until such a time when I can surrender to the “spell,” and be drawn into Kevin’s fully-imagined worlds and richly-woven plots.
The stories are, quite literally, character driven, because the brief, action-packed chapters jump from one character’s circumstances to another’s. The humans and aliens are part of a believable cosmos, and cosmogeny, and the characters’ destinies are driven by their natures, base or noble, and their beliefs, whether programmed or faith-based.
A couple of holiday afternoons spent reading a novel like Metal Swarm makes for a satisfying and thought-provoking immersion in the depths of a rich imagination. As John Steinbeck pointed out, “The best stories are true, whether they happened or not,” and that principle applies just as much to the wildest reaches of imagination — the best such tales remain true to life, with a kind of faithfulness to character and destiny. It is the best kind of magic.
If, like me, you have already read the science fiction classics, and just want an occasional “flight of fancy” in your reading diet (and one that is likely to be a “future” classic, so to speak), Kevin Anderson is the man.
* * *
One way in which Bubba’s Book Club is like a real book club is that many of these titles have been suggested by other people, friends and strangers alike, and sometimes they were gifts. So thank you to those contributors.
Also, it occurred to me that I might “assign” some future titles for the Book Club, for any interested readers who would like to “read ahead.”
I confess that the main reason for such a lame idea is that there are a couple of books I really want to recommend to others as soon as possible, but don’t have time to do the author justice right now.
I refer to two linked novels by Newfoundland author Wayne Johnston, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and The Custodian of Paradise.
A few years back I was asked to contribute to a year-end newspaper article on “my favorite book of the year.” If I had been asked last year, I would have named these two.
Enough said. Check them out. (Of the library, or better yet, buy them. Support the poor, deserving author.)