Misc

Reader’s Journal: Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by NightAt the age of 82, Sheldon Horowitz has been transplanted from Manhattan to Oslo, Norway. Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea brings Sheldon to Oslo to live with her and her husband Lars after the death of her grandmother, Mabel. Rhea believes, as did the late Mabel, that Sheldon is suffering from dementia that started when his son Saul (Rhea’s father) was killed in Vietnam in in 1975 and has slowly continued to worsen over the years. Sheldon insists, for example, that he was a Marine sniper during the Korean War, rather than the file clerk they believed him to be, and he continues to see the enemy everywhere—around corners, behind trees. He thinks they are always watching, waiting to get revenge.

But the truth is more complicated than that. And that sentence, in fact, could sum up this entirely wonderful, perfectly paced thriller, Norwegian by Night. Sheldon is hapless and guilty. He believes he owes American his allegiance for helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis. As a young Jewish American, he was too young to join the war against the Nazis, so instead he volunteered during the Korean War, joining the Marines. When Saul joins the Navy and heads off to Vietnam, Sheldon is proud of his patriotism, but when Saul returns from his first tour of duty physically unharmed but mentally distressed and wanting to talk about the horrors he experienced, Sheldon tells him to set it behind him and move on with his life. Saul signs on for a second tour and is killed shortly after returning to Vietnam, and Sheldon believes he is responsible for his own son’s death.

But the truth is more complicated than that. One afternoon when Rhea and Lars are out of the apartment and Sheldon is home alone, he hears a violent altercation between a man and a woman in an upstairs apartment. The argument escalates, and he hears the woman leave the apartment. Peering out the peephole in the front door, he sees the woman stop. In his mind, he faces a test: will he refuse entry for someone who has nowhere else to go? Will he sit silently behind the door the way so many Europeans did when they knew their Jewish neighbors and friends needed a place to hide? Sheldon’s actions will send him on a tour of Norway with a small boy in tow.

But the truth is more complicated than that. The man, Enver, who was involved in the altercation is the boy’s father. He’s a refugee from Kosovo, where he fought bravely and brutally against the Serbs for independence. With the war ended and the Kosovo freed, he wants to take his son and return to his home. He’ll stop at nothing. As he pursues Sheldon and the boy, Enver is pursued by Sigrid, a Police Chief Inspector for her district in Oslo.

But the truth is…Okay, I’ll stop doing that. But. The truth is this story is humorous and sweet, melancholy and tragic, fast-paced and thrilling. Derek B. Miller masterfully navigates this third-person narrative told from alternating points of view, presenting at one time a novel that’s both personal and political. The weight of history—family history, national history, religious history—weighs on every character, informs every action. The pride and loneliness of people who are forced to wander, the way they carry their stories and the stories of the people they love, are at the center of this beautiful novel. I long to tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Miller has done such a terrific job at revealing details that move the story forward at just the right moments that to know too much could spoil the pleasure in turning the page. I had a tough time putting it down, and I hope that you will, too.

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A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!

 

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Yoga

Bear with me. This is a long one.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about yoga since a few people expressed interest in it when I wrote this post…last year. Oops. People may not be so interested now, but maybe? What if I promise this post contains no yoga selfies? I swear. Not that kind of post. I also promise not to take myself too seriously and refer to myself as a yogi. (I do own two Manduka mats, so obviously I am practically an expert…) You’re welcome.

Honestly, for a long time I was not interested in yoga. About 15 years ago I went to a few classes, but they were a sort of gentle stretching thing. Nothing wrong with that kind of yoga (I went with a friend who was still recovering from surgery resulting from breast cancer), but at the time I didn’t know of any other option besides Bikram, where you hold the same sequence of 26 static postures over several hours in a room heated somewhere between 95 and 108 degrees. I grew up in that kind of heat, so you might think I have a high tolerance for it. No. That kind of heat makes me feel claustrophobic, and I’m perfectly okay with being too mentally weak to shore myself up and deal with it.

When I started running in 2009, I found a bunch of running bloggers to follow. Almost all of them used yoga as recovery. (I still follow one, Peanut Butter Runner, who teaches yoga—although not Ashtanga—and now owns a yoga studio. She’s been through a lot, and I find her posts inspiring.) My interest was piqued, but aside from trying a few Yoga Download videos, I stuck to my weights and running routine. Eventually I got lazier and lazier…I stopped the weights, and then the running, and in 2015 when I wanted to get back shape I went to a trainer who suggested I supplement my workouts with yoga. The gym I go to offers lots of yoga classes, so many I wasn’t sure where to start, so I picked a class listed on the schedule as “Yoga Basics” that was at a good time for my schedule.

I came out of that first class completely impressed and totally hooked. It was like going for a run, if going for a run meant moving yourself around on a mat and breathing deeply for an hour. I went back the following week and the week after that. I was so lost in class most of the time that it took me a while to realize we were basically doing the same postures over and over again, with a few variations toward the end of class. And then one day my instructor sat up at the front and said the style of yoga we were doing was called Ashtanga, and it was founded by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He explained the deep breathing with sound that he asked us to do during the class. He explained why the room should never be heated (so you build your own inner heat, which helps you to heal).

Overall, Ashtanga is much more than a series of postures. If you’re interested in the history and background, you can read more about it here. You may be familiar with the term power yoga; Ashtanga was the basis for that, but they aren’t the same thing. I’m not really here to give you a lesson on Ashtanga, but here are the bare-bones basics: In Ashtanga, there are six series (or levels). You begin with Primary Series (duh), which is called Yoga Therapy or Yoga Chikitsa (how cute is that?) and is intended to help your body heal itself internally. The Second, or Intermediate, Series is called Nadi Shodhana, or the nerve-cleansing series. After that, students move into more deeply complicated postures in the next four Advanced Series, or the Strength Series (this refers to both mental and physical strength). Forget about Advanced Series for now. It’s amazing, but it looks like some serious Cirque du Soleil action. I’m not trying to scare you.

Back to Primary Series. It’s a 90-minute series, and it follows the same sequence every time. We hold each pose for five breaths. Between postures (asanas), you do a vinyasa (chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog); in the seated part of the series, you do a vinyasa between each side. There are also transitions in and out of asanas and into vinyasa. This creates the flow and ensures you keep the heart rate at a certain level. You breathe deeply through your nose, making a sort of Darth Vader sound, and on each pose you focus your gaze on a specific point (called a drishti). You practice in relative silence, with only the instructor’s voice and the sound of breathing to fill the room. (If you’re curious, you can watch the first half of Primary Series here. This is where beginners generally start.)

I tried a few Vinyasa Flow classes, just to compare. Generally in these classes, the room is heated, and the instructor tells you what comes next in the flow. It’s never the same twice, and sometimes the instructor just…uh, lets you do you. These classes also tend to have music, either all through or at various points in class. At least, that’s how it happened in the classes I took. I felt too hot and mostly lost. I had no idea what to do when the teacher said, “Do what you feel is right for your body,” and everyone started doing completely different things. I didn’t like that there seemed to be no order, and I found the music distracting (by contrast, I love music when I run).

I prefer Ashtanga. I like the silence. I like knowing the sequence. Each posture builds on the last one, preparing you for what’s next (and also for what’s to come in Second Series). You might think doing the same thing over and over is boring or easy. I assure you, it isn’t. Tuning into what you’re doing and releasing attention on everything else is not easy, but that’s the reason for doing the postures in the same order each time and focusing the gaze on a specific point. Primary series starts with Sun Salutations and then moves through a series of standing postures that include forward folds and balancing postures. After that you move into a seated series that contains a lot of forward folds and binds. Yes, it helps to be flexible, but so much of what it also requires is strength. Or at least, it requires you to work on developing these things equally. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere that says we aren’t supposed to favor one pose over all the others, but my favorite is utthita hasta padangushtasana:

Some days my balance is awesome and other days I teeter right over. If I ever went back to a Vinyasa Flow class and was told to do my own thing, I’d probably just stand around holding my toe until the instructor told me to stop.

Truth: a very flexible person could walk into class and probably do almost every posture. Some, like garbha pindasana, where you thread our hands through your legs in lotus and then rock and then balance on your hands in kukkutasana (that’s what Sharath Jois is doing on the cover of that book in the picture, by the way), may take even a very flexible person some practice, especially if he or she is weak. But even the most flexible people tend to struggle with the flow and the transitions, and they find it hard to concentrate and keep up, and most importantly, many of them struggle with the strength required…and a lot of the time, they don’t come back. What’s interesting is who shows up week after week: men and women of all ages, of all sizes, some of us not very flexible or graceful, but we all continue to come to class and put in the work. 

Truth: Ashtanga is not supposed to be competitive. In fact, the most traditional style is Mysore, after the place in India where Pattabhi Jois lived and where his son Sharath Jois lives now and runs the school his father founded, where all Ashtanga teachers go to get authorized/certified to teach. There are only 80 certified teachers in the world, and maybe three times that are authorized. In Mysore style, you practice alone, moving through the full series. You are supposed to focus on your mat, yourself, your breathing, your drishti. But doing Ashtanga in the real world, at a gym, it feels competitive. Let’s face it: it’s a yoga class at a gym, and many people are at the gym because they want to look a certain way. It can be very difficult not to compare yourself to other people in the class. People believe they should not sit at the front until they reach a certain level. (I sit at the front, but in a far corner, because I like not being able to see anyone else.) It can be tough when you see someone getting into a bind like marichyasana D after a few months, when you know that posture is still probably a year or more away for you. It can feel disheartening when it feels like the instructor gives the most attention to a very specific clique of people (and easy to forget there are 40-50 people in class, so it’s probably not personal).

But for me, the transformation has been amazing. I started practicing four or five times a week in February 2016. When I say “transformation,” I don’t mean how I look. As far as flexibility goes, I’m somewhere in the middle. As strength goes, on the weaker side of middle. I naturally have a lot of anxiety. In the classes I take, I am firmly in the middle of the pack. My forward folds are awesome, but I struggle with anything that requires open shoulders, and I cannot do a headstand very well on my own. In fact, I was just about to get there last summer when I fell out of one and broke my three little toes (oh, that makes it sound like I have three feet; three little toes on my right foot). A couple of remarkable things happened: one was that I fell and immediately went to class and practiced, not realizing the severity of my injury. I promise you if that had happened the year before and I hadn’t even really been injured, I probably wouldn’t have even gone to class, instead declaring I needed to take it easy. The second thing was that I was back on my mat two months to the day after my injury, and I swear my foot healed faster because of it. And I also attempted the headstand. For me, this is a huge mental transition. Before, I would have given up. I’m not a very disciplined person. I’ll almost always choose what’s comfortable.

Don’t think I don’t cry. And sometimes I consider quitting. Running never made me cry. (I probably will start running again; it’s the only thing I love as much.) Lifting weights didn’t either. But there have been times I’ve been so frustrated during class, when a posture that was easy the week before is suddenly gone, or when I fall over (happens all the time), or when I feel like I don’t belong because I’m not young or thin or flexible enough. But those days are far and few between (except for the falling over part), and they also mean I am showing up and facing those things every time. The truth is, I am somewhat less anxious. I am more confident, not in how I look but how I feel. I’ve been in much better shape in the past and I’m a little overweight, but every time class brings me something new, I feel strong and capable, and I carry that out into the world with me. That’s the thing that keeps me going back, more than anything. A few weeks ago I had one of those days where nothing was right in class, and I felt foolish, like I should just give up. But I told myself, my practice is my practice. Whatever it is today is all it is. What I did yesterday doesn’t matter, and what’s to come is irrelevant. And I went back to class the next day, and did a 15-breath-count headstand. (No joke…and then haven’t done it since!) My practice is my practice. And there you have it.

Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

Top Ten Tuesday: Best New-to-Me Authors in 2016

I feel terrible that I have been so bad at talking about what I am reading on the blog, because this really has been a terrific year in reading. I’ve been thinking about my favorite reads of the year, and many of them are by debut authors or authors whose works I hadn’t read before. Today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) topic, favorite new-to-me authors, gives me a chance to highlight some of the works that may (or may not) make my final 2016 top ten list, but that I loved and would highly recommend anyway.

The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder. Nominated for a National Book Award, this novel comprised of a series of vignettes of a group of 22 men who meet every year to reenact a famous football play is both funny and melancholy.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson. This story of a North Korean orphan who goes to work (putting it mildly) for the state was completely haunting. Deservedly, it won the Pulitzer in 2013.

The Girls, Emma Cline. Every year there’s a much hyped debut release that splits audience opinions right down the middle. This novel, centered around a plot based on a series of killings similar to the Manson murders and the girls involved, worked for me on many levels. I think Cline will be a writer to watch.

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews. I was all about solid family stories this year, and this one, about a writer trying to keep her sister from ending her life, was as solid, funny, and heartbreaking as they come.

The Fortunes, Peter Ho Davies. Focused on four different periods in American history, Ho tells the story of four Chinese Americans and their families, highlighting the immigrant experience. I happened to be reading this one (which was also nominated for the National Book Award, incidentally) during the election, and it made me sad and afraid all over again.

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller. A chilling story of a girl abducted by her father, who tells her the world has ended and carries her away into the woods.

Crow Lake, Mary Lawson. This quiet novel about a group of siblings who lose their parents and try to keep the family together really surprised me. The narrator is unreliable in a completely unexpected, almost refreshing way, and what I expected to be a dark and depressing story is actually rather touching and funny.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. I’m a sucker for almost any story about WASPs in New York (sorry, not sorry), but this one is particularly well told. Katey Kontent is a first-generation American who hails from Brooklyn and gets swept up by high-society friends. Part F. Scott Fitzgerald, part Dominick Dunne, this one was difficult to put down.

Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. This novel tells the story of a family with a daughter believed to be possessed by the devil who agree to have everything filmed by a reality television crew. The pop-culture references and the sharp style are both big hooks. Even people who don’t typically read horror would enjoy this.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Each member of The Plumb family (WASP: check; New York: check) expects to get a piece of “The Nest,” the family trust fund left behind by their eccentric father. But one sibling has an accident that requires all the money from The Nest to bail him out. This is the story of what happens when all the money’s gone.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll CoverThe minute I read about Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, I knew I had to read it. Not only am I a lifelong music fan, but especially as a teen I was enthralled with rock journalists. (I had no idea, of course, that by the mid-1980s, when my aspirations were hot, that Rolling Stone was basically considered to have already seen its better days.) Robinson became a rock journalist almost by accident during a time in the early 1970s when that term could only be applied (and not altogether seriously) to a small handful of people. She eventually ended up writing for music publications including CREEM and NME (New Musical Express), and today is an editor at Vanity Fair. Her husband Richard Robinson (they are still married) was a radio DJ who also wrote several music columns. When he grew tired of writing one of those columns, Robinson took over. It was a casual decision that led to a fascinating career.

Although the book does follow a structure in terms of subject matter, Robinson’s writing style is sometimes conversational to the point of rambling. She’s fond of non-sequiturs:

When [The Rolling Stones were] in Los Angeles for a week in July for several shows at the L.A. Forum, Lorna Luft followed Bianca [Jagger] around the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Finally Bianca said, “I find it strange that all we ever talk about is me.” Annie [Liebovitz] said that Mick and Bianca seemed “madly in love,” adding, “That’s one of the best marriages I know,” and it might have been. Mick told me, “From what I’ve seen, your articles aren’t bitchy enough. Aren’t you going to put in my remarks about Robert Plant?”

The first few chapters are the most disjointed, but after that she settles in and you begin to realize what an opportunity it is to read about even the smallest bit of who and what she knows about the world of music. By no means does the book include stories about every band, every act, or every interview. Instead, she has arranged ten chapters around some of the most influential performers of the last 45 years. And of course, as a companion, I’ve provided playlists (with a link to the full one at the end) based on songs and bands mentioned in the book.

Chapter 1: The Rolling Stones

Robinson went on tour with The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1975 to promote their album Exile on Main Street. It’s strange to think that in 1975 the Stones were already considered “old” for rock and roll stars. She seems to respect Mick Jagger, whom she basically refers to as a chameleon adapting himself to each audience, but she clearly prefers Keith Richards. She tours with them several more times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Robinson really sets up with this chapter how the music business was beginning to change, spending huge amounts of money on tours to keep the bands happy. It serves as an interesting juxtaposition, too, to some of the bands she discusses in the later chapters.

Chapter 2: Led Zeppelin

Robinson seems overall much more fond of Led Zeppelin than she does of the Stones. Led Zeppelin was much less of a business than the Stones, more of the typical rock band wrecking hotel rooms, collecting women, and causing a general ruckus (primarily due to John Bonham). As she points out, Mick and Keith were slick city boys, whereas Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and the rest were all basically farm boys who made it big in rock and roll.

Chapter 3: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith, and CBGB

For what it’s worth, Robinson was friends with many of these people, but she was (and is) admittedly a tremendous gossip. As I read this chapter I sometimes felt that a better title for the book might have been Kill Your Idols. I could have done without some of the more personal and pointed things she has to say about some of these people, but she did a tremendous job of bringing CBGB to life. Essentially, for Robinson, CBGB was her neighborhood bar. When she wasn’t on tour with a big-name band, she was at CBGB hanging out with her husband and her friends, drinking beer, eating the frightening food cooked in the tiny kitchen, and watching the parade of major future musical influences. She gives Television and the New York Dolls (and David Johansen) some much needed, much deserved attention.

Chapter 4: John Lennon and Yoko Ono

I’m not a big Beatles fan. I like them, I own several of their albums, but I don’t revere them the way I do some other bands. This chapter focuses primarily on John Lennon after the Beatles. Robinson gained an audience with Lennon by first interviewing Yoko Ono. She talks about Yoko’s influence on John, and other influences as well. This chapter is tangentially about the other Beatles as well (especially George Harrison, whom she seems to like, and Paul McCartney, for whom she seems not to care much at all). She also talks about Phil Spector’s influence on Lennon and Harrison.

Chapter 5: Michael Jackson

This was probably my favorite chapter in the book, and I am not ashamed to say it made me cry. Robinson first interviewed Michael Jackson when he was a child, a part of the Jackson 5, being managed by Barry Gordy. She interviewed him again throughout his career, as he grew more wary of and finally completely estranged from much of his public. It’s an inside view that is not at all exploitative and reminded me again of what a tremendous talent was lost to the world.

Chapter 6: The Sex Pistols, The Clash

This chapter is primarily about The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but really also a general look at what was happening in London versus the New York CBGB scene. She toured with the Sex Pistols and was aware they were “of a moment,” but when she talks about The Clash, she basically gushes (I don’t blame her). She also talks briefly about the Buzzcocks, Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders, and Elvis Costello (in fact, she claims that she is the person responsible for getting Elvis Costello signed to CBS Records), among others.

Chapter 7: U2

As with the Beatles, I like U2 but I am not a huge fan. Robinson also seems to like U2 but is not a huge fan. In fact, this chapter reads like something of a case study. U2 is apparently always very aware of trying to push certain boundaries, to never let itself get comfortable, so much so that it’s a strategy that’s almost become schtick. Like the Stones, they are entertainers but they are also very aware that they are a business, a money-making entity with a high level of influence. Unlike the Stones, they are straight arrows who are also very aware (or at least, Bono is) of how they fit that business to a particular social model.

Chapter 8: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West

I must really give Robinson a great deal of credit for not resting on her music laurels and being a journalist who always laments “when music was real.” With everything she has seen and everyone she’s known, she’s certainly kept her eyes open. I like Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye (although the Kim Kardashian thing…well) as entertainers, but I admit I came away with a new view of and more respect for the three of them. Her overall point is: They are the punk rock legacy, if not in sound, then in attitude. And they also make great music.

Chapter 9: Lady Gaga

Robinson genuinely likes and respects Lady Gaga. She spent a day with Lady Gaga and her parents, in addition to conducting several other interviews. She finds Gaga curious, intelligent, artful, talented, friendly, and self-aware in the way of a performance artist, which is the way Gaga has come across in every interview I’ve seen with her. No surprises here, really, except perhaps how much Robinson dislikes Madonna. You’ll see no comparisons of Gaga to the Material Girl here.

Chapter 10: Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Chess Records, and Highway 61

As a native New Yorker, Robinson hated the American South. She had never been there and never saw any reason to go there (unless on tour with a band, being whisked in and out). Every image she had seen on the television and every story she had read in a newspaper or magazine convinced her that the South was full of racist, ignorant hicks. The problem: Robinson is a blues fan, ,and a rock and roll fan, and so many of the artists she admires the most were influenced by blues singers and songwriters coming out of the American South. In 1988, she paid someone to drive her down part of the legendary Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. With this, she intersperses the story of producing Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection of Howlin’ Wolf recordings.

 

And finally, here’s a link to my full There Goes Gravity Spotify playlist, all three-plus hours of it. Enjoy!