May Reading Challenge Update

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of May’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one free as a review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


5 down, 28 to go!


In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson
Helen Simpson’s Four Bare Legs in a Bed was the book I begged friends visiting England to bring back for me. At the time, it was unavailable in the United States, but I’d just finished Getting a Life and had to have more.

Whether her protagonists are young lovers, eager to explore and abuse the workings of their hearts, newly marrieds, a young lawyer required to attend a whisky-soaked corporate dinner dedicated to quoting copious stanzas of Scottish poet Robert Burns, or parents helping kids navigate the treachery of divorce and homework, Simpson puts us squarely in their heads and reveals the subtle pitches of their emotions.

In her latest collection of 13 stories, the characters’ unease is frequently underscored by global warming, whether as political viewpoint or the cause of environmental devastation. The subject makes an appearance in the title story, “Ahead of the Pack” and “Geography Boy,” but especially in the chilling, post-apocalyptic “Diary of an Interesting Year,” which first appeared in The New Yorker.

In “In-flight Entertainment,” Simpson enacts a marvelous scene where two businessmen pick over the bones of the global warming debate, making idle conversation as they shuttle over the Atlantic, while a fellow first-class passenger succumbs to heart failure:

“There was a flurry across the aisle and Alan craned his neck to make out the doctor arming himself with some sort of wire machine. Whump, it went; whump, whump. Pause. Alan saw the old man’s hands fly up in the air and come down again.
‘What’s that?’ he asked the air stewardess with a jerk of his head. Her eyes were suspiciously watery despite her professional smile. She shook her head and moved away.
‘That’ll be the defibrillator,’ said Jeremy.
Alan realized she had failed to take his pudding order and wondered if he could call her back.”

Meanwhile, in “Geography Boy,” a young woman in love still doesn’t believe her boyfriend’s protest group will have any impact on global warming. Her apathy almost brings their relationship to an end.

“He lifted her again and whirled her in his arms until they were both dizzy. Breathing hard, exhilarated, they leaned into a mutual embrace, this time for balance as much as anything. Then they stood in the fathomless dark and stared saucer-eyed beyond the stratosphere into the night, as troupes of boisterous planets wheeled across the blackness all around them.”

There is whimsy here, as well. In “The Festival of the Immortals,” two old school friends run into each other at an authors’ fair featuring Jane Austen, “Rabbie” Burns (again!), Alexander Pope, and the Bronte sisters, along with a reluctant Shakespeare: “He’s supposed to be arriving by helicopter at four this afternoon, but it’s always touch-and-go with him…it’s impossible to pin him down.”

The collection ends with the lyrical “Charm for a Friend with a Lamp,” a beautiful meditation on helping a friend with a terminal illness:

“We’ll have a party there this Midsummer’s eve, up by the tomato plants and ranks of romaine lettuce, just the two of us. Let’s write it on our calendars now. I can’t spare you. You’re indispensible! We’ll have a party and pledge your health by moonlight on the one night of the year when plants consumed or planted have magical powers. There is a great deal of talk about the benefits of mistletoe extract and so on, but I’m not convinced. You can spend a lot of time and energy chasing magic potions, when you might be better occupied weaving your own spells over the future.”

Helen Simpson is that rare writer, dedicated to the difficult art of the short story, creating very real, funny, poignant and full lives in the space of a few pages. If you don’t know her work, this is the perfect place to start and discover why the Financial Times calls her “the best short story writer now working in English.”

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewizc
How do you write an objective biography of an artist you’ve idolized and befriended while still mourning his untimely death?

If you’re author and journalist Chris Salewicz and the friend is Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash and The Mescaleros, who died at 50, you turn over the microphone to the extraordinarily jam-packed band of friends, fellow musicians, film directors, actors, managers, music industry people, and family members, including Strummer’s Scottish clan.

Salewicz does a neat trick here. He captures the diverse observations of a man many found both inspiring and exasperating. You don’t achieve harmony when you blend all those voices, but you do reveal a genuine life, with all its achievements and disappointments, loves and larks.

“Joe was the personification of Carl Jung’s view that all great truths must end in paradox,” Salewicz writes.

That paradox, between flashes of brilliance and all too mundane lives, is what makes artists so fascinating. If they weren’t human, we probably wouldn’t be paying attention in the first place.

Friends knew Joe Strummer under many pseudonyms: Woody the Hippie, the Merry Prankster, the Pied Piper of Punk, and, through long, Armagideon Times of doubt and depression, Chief Thundercloud.

He was born John, like that other outspoken bandleader, whose life his so frequently mirrored. Both Lennon and Strummer knew tragedy from a young age (Strummer’s older brother, David, committed suicide when Joe was 16). Both were poor students and wound up in art college. Both found salvation in rock ‘n’ roll and formed and disbanded a number of groups before finding the right mix. (The Clash, like the Beatles, didn’t gel till they found their drummer.) Strummer, as with Lennon, was never afraid to attack the issues of the day through lyrics and the media. Both had tumultuous relationships with women until their second marriages. Each struggled through his own Wilderness Years after breaking up beloved bands and suffering the wrath of fans. Thankfully for music history, they found their voices again, producing inspired music before exiting the stage. They both died in December, far too young and left enduring legacies. (Strummerville: The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music)

Whether you were a fan of punk or not, by any stretch of the imagination, Joe Strummer had an extraordinary life. He traveled throughout the Mideast, Africa and Mexico at a young age, the son of a diplomat. He was involved in social, political and musical movements of his time, starting with the squatters protests in 1970s England, out of which grew pub rock and his early band, the 101ers. He was the leading spokesman of punk rock. When he found that limiting, he pushed the Clash into the Rock Against Racism movement and was an early proponent of world music.

Late ‘70s Britain was an era of speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS. Politics dictated what certain bands recorded, said to the media, who their friends were (many of Strummer’s squatter-hippie friends didn’t hear from him for a decade after he embraced punk rock), how they dressed and combed their hair.

“I’d like to think the Clash were revolutionaries,” Strummer once joked with an interviewer, “but we loved a bit of posing as well. ‘Where’s the hair gel? We can’t start the revolution till someone finds the hair gel!’ We were revolutionaries on behalf of punk rock.”

Nevertheless, the Clash were one of the very few bands ever to stand up for fans. They let in kids who couldn’t afford concert tickets through the backdoors of venues and allowed them to crash on their hotel room floors at night. They fought a crippling battle with their record company (forcing them into more Draconian terms) in order to release the double-album “London Calling” and triple set “Sandinista!” at the one-disc price. They refused to play Japan until the audience was allowed to stand up and dance. And, when their eight-night appearance at Bonds nightclub in New York was over-sold, they played an additional 10 shows to honor the tickets fans had purchased.

The Clash played a different set list every concert because they wanted each one to be a unique experience for fans. And, anyone who saw the Clash live (I saw them four times, plus once as Clash Mark II, after Mick Jones exited the group) will attest, they gave 110 percent onstage, Strummer pouring his heart out, night after grueling night.

Salewicz does an excellent job of recreating the scene that fuelled, ruled and finally imploded the Clash just as they were reaching a larger audience.

As with Lennon – and John Lydon – family, friends, bandmates and critics found Strummer’s brutal honesty funny, refreshing and painful. But, it was impossible for the man himself to live up to.

Was it difficult being the wise man of punk and politics?, Salewicz asked Strummer after the Clash split: “Yes, it was,” Strummer replied. “Drove me nuts sometimes.”

With any artist’s biography, it all comes back to the art. Salewicz has the details and discographies down pat thanks to three years of interviews and research. He’s a fair critic of Strummer’s less inspired work and fills in gaps in the life of a man who needed to get off the radar in order to renew his artistry.

It was fascinating to learn that anti-hippie Joe found his way back to old friends and a more peaceful life via rave culture and the campfires of Glastonbury, an annual U.K. music festival. The gathering of the tribes around the campfire – musicians, artists, extended family, friends and fans – became a ritual for Strummer, one that his foundation continues to this day.

For those of us who were long-time fans, it was devastating to learn that the man who gave it all, heart and soul, to his fans, and who once said, “My heart is when I’m onstage,” lost his life to a congenital condition he wasn’t aware of. “A main artery that should have run around his heart went through it instead. He could have died suddenly at any point during his fifty years,” Salewicz observes.

There have been plenty of books about the Clash. What’s lovely about Salewicz’s story is that it shares that wonderful sense of symmetry Strummer’s life had – like Lennon, he was able to find love, happiness, peace and renewed musical brilliance in the last few years of his life.

(The Pop Matters website features excerpts from Redemption Song.)

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
I thought this novel might be off to a good start when I spotted a line from the Clash’s “Garageland” as one of its epigraphs. Like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Dana Spiotta’s most recent work is being called a “rock ‘n’ roll novel” (by none other than Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth).

While it features a character, Nik, with a brief career in a critically acclaimed band, the book mainly is about Nik’s sister, Denise, and how the two of them shape the stories of their lives into narratives. Nik, no longer with the band, has conjured an almost-fictional career for himself, producing album after album of his own music, following the sounds in his head, rather than contemporary taste, designing the covers (each one a piece of a larger collage), and even writing the reviews and a purported history, called The Chronicles. Denise, meanwhile, is stuck in mundane reality, trying to help Nik meet rent and stay healthy and occasionally correcting the story in The Chronicles.

To tell this tale, Spiotta plays with point of view. We start, rather dully, with Denise and Nik’s unhappy family back in the ‘70s, in third person. The novel gets going when it switches to an apparent first person present. But, the rug gets pulled out when we discover, toward the end (and now back in third person), that Denise has been writing all this first person detail to figure out Nik, who has disappeared after years of ill health and depression.

Late in the story, Denise’s daughter attempts to become a third participant in this point-of-view mish-mash, hoping to film a documentary about Nik. Luckily, this thread is dropped before it adds to the narrative confusion.

There are awkward constructions, as well. For example, a man brushes past Denise on a crowded New York City street, and he evokes her father, who hasn’t been an important part of this story since the opening chapter, in large part because he died when she and Nik were very young: “I felt the memory of my father on my body, the way you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun. He did not feel – and so was not – entirely lost to me.”

Three problems with these lines: 1) Denise consistently tells us throughout the story that she has no memories of her father. 2) The first sentence is about memory and not at all about anything darker that might be going on between Denise and her father, but it’s so poorly constructed that it has to be read at least twice for the reader to be sure of what’s going on. 3) The clause set off by dashes in the second sentence makes the reader lose the meaning again. “He did not feel” because he’s dead? “And so was not” alive? Oh, the reader realizes, when she arrives at the end, Spiotta really means to have Denise say, “I felt like my father was not entirely lost to me.”

The narrative grinds to a halt for five brief chapters about various topics in the news that Denise fixates on, as well as another sidebar that takes Denise to a devout New York community, somewhat like the Amish, called Stone Arabia, where a woman’s daughter has been abducted and is presumed murdered. Presumably, despite the entirely different circumstances, Spiotta sees some relation between the mother’s loss and Denise’s, but the scene of Denise, coming all the way from California to accost the mother in an effort to learn something is just plain embarrassing and unrealistic.

This many distractions for the reader are too much for a short novel (235 pages in hardcover) to withstand. There are any number of enticing chords that could have been struck and orchestrated into a melodic whole. Sadly, we’re left with an incoherent cacophony. This one hardly rates a 4, and you can’t dance to it.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Vida is one of the promising pack of young women writers, like Nicole Krauss, who’ve avoided the clever-cleverness of their husbands’ prose (Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer) and forged new ground. This is her second novel and fourth book, and it takes the reader above the Arctic Circle on a daughter’s journey to discover her true origins.

Along the way, we learn how Clarissa’s mother abandoned the family and returned to the wilderness of northern Finland, where she’d lived in her 20s and which was the setting for a pivotal, devastating experience in Olivia’s life. The plot is tied up with the history of the Sami, the indigenous people of this region, who still herd reindeer across the vast tundra.

Northern Lights is a compact tale. It finishes after 226 pages of tightly drawn scenes. Every sentence is Subject-Verb-Object. Every sentence is terse. “I unbuckled my belt. My head pulsed.” The brain grows a bit cranky, wanting to bust out of this construction and learn more about this alien landscape and the fascinating people who have managed to survive almost impossible conditions for generations.

This is the entirety of Chapter 10, when Clarissa deserts her boyfriend to journey across Finland and Finmark:

“I left our apartment at six a.m., passing Pankaj sleeping on the couch, his right foot extended on the coffee table. No one knew I was going anywhere. Disappearing is nothing. I learned this from my mother.”

These kinds of statements are meant to seem like they reveal character, but really they don’t. Disappearing means nothing because the author chooses to tell us nothing. It’s a fear too many callow writers have – the idea that revealing emotions is somehow too sentimental, too corny, too much the hallmark of genres like romance – that Literature should be more reserved. It made me yearn for the fearlessness of a John Updike, whose sentences are like an electric jolt to the head and heart. His perfectly captured moments (“…spangled his insides with fear”) tell you more about a father’s emotions than some authors accomplish with a chapter’s worth of words.

Perhaps trusting yourself with emotions comes as writers age. Vida already is a master plot-maker, and I can see her going to those deeper places, even as the novel progresses:

“…and on some nights in bed, in that moment before sleep erased the day, I would picture the way the sky in Lapland looked the morning I left, how the train had sped south beneath a sky that was brighter than it had been in weeks. It had pulsed with reds and oranges, as though hiding a beating heart.”

Lines like that make me look forward to hearing more from this writer.

The B2B Social Media Book: Become a Marketing Superstar by Generating Leads with Blogging, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, E-Mail, and More by Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. You can read my review, “B2B Social Media Marketing Is All about the Benjamins, Not Buzz,” on the Social Media Club website.

Writing that inspired me:

“Ignore Alien Orders”
~ sticker on Joe Strummer’s guitar