An Equal Music — Vikram Seth

This book was given to me by my friend Doane Perry, drummer with Jethro Tull. He felt it was the only novel he knew that captured what it is really like to be a musician. The main characters are classical musicians, mainly playing chamber music, but Doane was right — Vikram Seth seems to have done an immense amount of research into the subject, from a technical point of view as well as the all-too-rare descriptions of the human experience of playing music for a living, with passion, and yet amid the real-life dynamics of bandmates and everyday concerns.

From the opening pages until the ending, I was totally spellbound by this book, the kind of reading delight that is over too fast. It is a love story with just enough tragedy and heartbreak, but a remarkable amount of music history, and skilfully painted backgrounds of London, Vienna, and Venice.


Blinding Light Paul Theroux

Coincidentally, this is another novel by an author I first came to know through his travel books. In Vikram Seth’s case, From Heaven Lake, about traveling in western China and Tibet, and in Theroux’s case — well, too many to list. I’ll just say that he is the closest writer I can think of to my own “ideal,” both as writer and traveler, and it almost seems as though he is underrated because of his prolificness, and the consistent quality of his books, both non-fiction and fiction.

Of his novels, he is best known for The Mosquito Coast, but I also admired Millroy the Magician and O-Zone, among others — all as widely different in theme and genre as could be imagined, from social satire to magic-realistcomedy to futuristic “speculative fiction.” Then there are his experimental blendings of fact and fiction, My Secret History and My Other Life.

Blinding Light is different once again, the tale of a blocked writer who travels to Ecuador on a “drug tour,” and finds more than he ever imagined. Drinking a foul brown tea brewed from a rare and mysterious plant gives him supernatural insight, and also makes him very high. However, it has one side effect: it makes him temporarily blind.

Justin terms of writing skill, Theroux delivers a tour-de-force masterpiece, though again, one that might easily be underrated. Perhaps the two most difficult experiences to capture in literary prose are making love and taking drugs, and he describes these two universes repeatedly, in ever-changing lyrical flights, staying just this side of psychedelia and pornography, while graphically describing his character’s extremes of experience in both “fields.”

So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star — Jacob Slichter

I read a review of this book somewhere, and it made me curious: a memoir by a drummer about his experiences in the music business, subtitled “How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives, and Other True Tales From a Drummer’s Life.”

Like the old joke about what you call fifty lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, “a good start.”

I happened to see the book at the same Malibu bookstore (Diesel) where I saw Paul Theroux speak about Blinding Light (I like all these connections), and bought a copy.

It is great.

Slichter’s story is funny, it is sad, and it is true. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that his experience as a drummer and songwriter during the meteoric rise and fall of a fairly successful band (Semisonic, best known for their temporarily-ubiquitous hit, “Closing Time”) shows me that the path to success has not become any easier for new bands in the past 30 years.

In fact, his whole cast of characters, from company presidents to local reps to radio station programmers to other musicians, was completely recognizable to me — only the names have changed.

Unfortunately, Jacob Slichter’s band didn’t survive the stupidity, ineptitude, and short-sightedness of it all, but if his book helps one young musician avoid some of those pitfalls, they did not die in vain.

This might also be a good place to reprint a little article I wrote for the Toronto Globe and Mail last Christmas, recounting my favorite books of last year.

NEIL PEART — Favorite book of 2004

Among many favorites this year, from John Barth’s Ten Nights and a Night to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, I would have to choose The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik (Free Press, 2004), a non-fiction tale of epic sweep and depth about a competition among, of all people, birdwatchers. In the birding Olympics, their quest is to list the highest number of bird species ever seen in North America in one calendar year, and their obstacles are many, both human and natural, woven into a surprisingly compelling drama of obsession, competition, strategy, resourcefulness, and human nobility and fallibility. The competitors strain themselves, their resources, and their jobs and families to catch even a momentary glimpse of a feathered rarity, as they race around the continent from the Aleutian Islands to Dry Tortugas, to the Colorado Rockies, to a garbage dump in a Texas border town.
A few others I can’t resist recommending: Louis Riel, by Chester Brown, French Revolutions, by Tim Moore, The Inner Circle, by T. C. Boyle, and Middlemarch, by George Eliot.