Monday, August 30, 2010

Here Comes Your Man by Derek Gentry

Here Comes Your Man
by Derek Gentry

If the blurb on your cover is going to invoke The Hornby — Nick Hornby, that is — you better be damn sure your book is up to the task. One cannot simply mention indie music they like and throw in a protagonist who unmaliciously screws up his relationships, then hope for the best. And at the very least, one must invite pre-publishing readers that won’t kiss your ass in effort to spare your feelings. Here Comes Your Man is not a bad book, but what it needs more than anything is an editor.

Beginning just before the new millennium, we find Garrett the burnt-out IT consultant who has spent three years traveling for work. He hasn’t dated anyone in quite some time, but he continually harbors fantasies of meeting that special gal in the airport. On his flight home to Seattle, he meets a woman who, while not available, inspires him to take a more active role in his love life. Problem is, he’s terrible at it. Take your most overeager puppy, give him an inferiority complex, and then give him an opportunity to yammer about it at length — Here comes your man, indeed. His blinding optimism mixed with desperation makes him believe that any woman who is momentarily nice to him might be the one with whom he should spend the rest of his life. Through a handful of new relationships, he begins to figure out what he finds important and what it means to truly be in synch with another person.

See, here’s the trouble with reviewing books (or insert your creative field here) in this modern world: If one has previously conversed or knows the creator in any way, one might feel like an asshole to criticize, however constructively, the work in question. Twitter and Goodreads make it easy to talk to other writers, and I won this book through a Goodreads giveaway from Gentry himself. He’d read this site before, and once again, the internet felt much smaller. I always want to enjoy what I read — I wouldn’t start something I didn’t think I would like at least in some small way — but I feel a certain responsibility when it comes to the person behind the books. Since I write, nothing annoys me more than intellectual wankfests where the critic wants to show how much better they are than their review material. I think it does a disservice to both the writer and the readers, and as such, I try to keep my reviews honest. That said, I hope any author who might stumble upon a review I’ve written will not take it personally. Sometimes, it’s not a problem with the book; it’s the time in which I read it.

This time, however, it’s the book. I feel like a jerk, but it’s true. While I remained interested in Garrett’s story, curious to know if he’d ever get it together, I found a lot of distractions along the way. The manuscript has typos, extraneous information about minor characters (their height, for instance — I don’t need to know the exact height of everyone unless it’s pertinent to the story), and overuse of certain words (“Well,” “Actually,” etc.). Some of the dialogue explained too much — characters gave away their back story at once, and the back story did not always relate to what was happening.

I could overlook some of that, were it not for the characters’ tones being so similar to one another. Garrett’s inner voice read more like a story one tells an acquaintance (even saying “you” to the reader a couple of times, but not enough to break the fourth wall as a style choice). He glosses over his situation and tries to be clever rather than getting to truth of the matter. In conversation, he is worse. That could just be chalked up to his neuroses, except that the other characters sound like him. If there wasn’t a “he said” or “she said” after some runs of conversation, I often had to go back and figure out who said what.

Insight into why Garrett has come to this point in his life does not come until the last eighty pages or so, which is too late for a 342 page book. There is a scene in a hospital where he allows the moment to hit him and he no longer tries to be clever, competent or strong. It’s the most honest, heartbreaking chapter, and I wished that the whole book could have sprung from this place in his past. He spends 200 pages ignoring why he can’t bear to be alone, and because of that the story loses its effectiveness.

Also good are the periodic moments of natural humor. He tells of an evening out in San Francisco with his co-worker, Kevin, in which they meet two transvestites locked out of their car. With two elaborate battles with a coat hanger, followed by dinner with the women, the evening becomes surreal, fun and one of his most satisfying moments traveling.

With more editing, Here Comes Your Man could be an entertaining tale about one man’s romantic and professional journey. As it stands, it’ll do well enough to pass the time in airports, listening to The Pixies.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day
by David Nicholls

My, my, what do we have here? A story set in the UK, primarily during the 90s? Ruminations on what defines fame and success? Loneliness and friendship and humour? (Yes, that’s humour with a ‘u.’) If I didn’t know any better, I’d think David Nicholls surveyed my brain and wrote a book accordingly.

One Day is an excellent book — one filled with as many funny moments as there are heart-crushing. Centered around the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, it spans twenty years of their friendship, but only on one day — Each chapter occurs on July 15th, St Swithin’s Day. They first meet in 1988, right after university graduation and can’t shake the feeling that the other should be an important part of their life. They spend the whole night talking:

‘I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,’ she said. ‘You know, actually change something.’

‘What, like “change the world,” you mean?’

‘Not the entire world. Just the little bit around you.’

Emma is more immediately in love with Dexter, but shy and unsure of herself, she keeps her feelings (mostly) to herself. Living in London, she at first works in a horrible Mexican restaurant and tries to write, but mostly she wonders why she went through all this schooling only to be at this unhappy point in her life.

Dexter spends some years traveling, trying to figure out what he’d like to do with his life. His family finds his lack of direction frustrating, and he coasts through, waiting for some sort of inspiration to hit him. All the while, he is thinking of Emma. The two write letters to each other, which become more personal and comfortable over time.

You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of Confidence. Either that or a scented candle.

Almost by accident, Dexter gets into television presenting, working for a late night show that’s seems to be a cross between Entertainment Tonight and MTV News. Gaining a moderate level of fame, so comes with it the Britpop 90s levels of excess. Meanwhile, Emma works to become an English and drama teacher. They both flounder through romantic relationships, but regularly spend time with one another, going to dinner and on holiday. At times, their friendship is strained, but at no point do they quit thinking about each other.

And he knows he’s being churlish, but it would help to see Emma in the audience. He’s a better person when she’s around, and isn’t that what friends are for, to raise you up and keep you at your best? Emma’s his talisman, his lucky charm, and now she won’t be there and his mother won’t be there, and he will wonder why he’s doing it all.

Though it may seem from my description that this is just 400 pages of longing glances and “Oh, won’t they just get together already?” type reading, it really isn’t. To accurately summarize the book, I’m afraid I’d give too much away. That’s trouble with really enjoying a book, I suppose — I start to lack, what I feel, is the adequate vocabulary to describe it, apart from “Oh, just read it already.” Like any great book, the turns in plot come as a surprise, but then in retrospect, also feel inevitable. It’s the sort of story where I once again bothered my husband by reading whole pages aloud, and then would later hug him and only say, “God, it’s just... it just rips out your chest, but in a good way.”

Just as realistic as the loneliness is the humour. Sly, self-deprecating and riffing on previous conversations, it’s full of all the good stuff a hopeless Anglophile like me loves. Emma’s writing jokes are also funny:

She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationary.

Nick Hornby (one of my all-time favorites) found One Day to be “big, absorbing, smart, fantastically readable.” In those five words, he tells you all you need to know. I could pick out more of my favorite quotes and try to analyze my enjoyment, but that will ruin the magic. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.


Full disclosure: I won this book via giveaway on twitter, following @VintageAnchor. Otherwise, I am not affiliated with the publishing company. It is one of the few things that I’ve ever won, so how perfect that it was something I immensely enjoyed.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Liner Notes #2: Rock n Roll Pilgrimage

Liner Notes is my ongoing music column with Electric City Creative. Each month, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this site. In Issue #2, I talked about Great Falls' need to draw in out-of-town bands, and also to cultivate a more robust live scene in general.

Five Live Version of Songs I Love

While I certainly could point to examples of live songs that were performed here in Great Falls, apart from the very last video I will share, the internet is going to be a little less than forthcoming. The majority of my live music memories from this city are from local bands that no longer exist, or happened in the age before ubiquitous cameraphones/easy video. Though believe me, if I could share that basement show I saw with Slackjaw, I would.

Here, then, are five live songs that capture the magic of the moment:

1. "Whatever" by Noel Gallagher (Royal Albert Hall 2010)

I could have used just about any song from Noel Gallagher's 2007 and 2010 Teenage Cancer Trust sets. (He also does an excellent cover of The Smiths' "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" in 2007.) With strings and a full-on choir, this version of "Whatever" is just massively beautiful. I hope they release the audio for purchase, especially since TCT is such a great cause. Noel's face at the end of this video just kills me. Coming fresh from Oasis' breakup, it's quite bittersweet.

2. "River" by Travis (Joni Mitchell cover, Storytellers 2001)

I've mention this cover before (also in reference to Robert Downey Jr.'s version), and no offence to Joni, but I almost like this version the best. Maybe I like it sung in a lower register because it makes it easier for me to sing along, but in whatever the form, this is an excellent song.

3. "Tonight" by Elton John (Live in Sydney 1986)

Okay, I think what we've deduced here is that I really like it when strings and choirs are added to songs. I can't help it; For all my rock n roll leanings, I'm a sucker for big symphonic productions. Back when I attended Kathy's Dance Studio, we always wanted to choreograph something to the opening instrumental part, but we never quite got around to it.

4. "The Banjo Song" by Seasick Steve (Live on Later... with Jools Holland)

Really, you should do yourself a favor and look up all of Seasick Steve's performances on Jools Holland. 3-string guitars, homemade-looking guitars, banjos, box as percussion... He's bluesy perfection.

5. "High Enough" by Styx (covering Damn Yankees, Great Falls Aug. 3, 2010)

I took this video when I saw Styx this year at the fair. I've always held a bit of a soft spot for this song, and an up-until-now latent soft spot for Tommy Shaw, so this was great to hear. I only have a mediocre Sony pro-sumer camera that's several years old, so apologies for the strange autofocus. The audio turned out quite nice though, I thought.

There's also video of "Come Sail Away" and "Renegade," should you be interested.

(Also, fighting grocery store robots in a video entitled "Suck it, Bruckheimer!" You're welcome.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Readings by Sven Birkerts

by Sven Birkerts

I’m not going to lie — throughout high school and college, I glazed over whenever we entered the Literary Criticism portion of the curriculum. And yes, I mean those full-fledged capital letters, the heavy-lifting sort of analysis for which concept-mad intellectuals stroke their chins. Thoughtful ruminations on the meaning of syllable choice and debating the merits of post-modernism? Well, everyone’s gotta have a passion, but to paraphrase a line from my own interests — It ain’t mine, babe.

So why then did I choose to read a weighty collection of essays that are primarily Literary Criticism? Perhaps I thought that, now in the practice of writing book reviews, I could gain some evaluation mojo, that maybe I could move beyond just talking about myself and throwing in a few plot points.

Pause here for a self-aware cough.

What I think caught my attention was Readings being described as a discussion of specific authors, but also “contemporary nostalgia” and “the future of the creative spirit.” Being the dino I am, I thought I’d find something that appealed to my own sense of truth and chronic history-musing. In some ways, I did, but Birkerts’ writing is not easy bedtime reading.

Divided into three sections, the essays are not arranged chronologically (though they date between 1986 and 1998), but with a theme. With titles like “The Millennial Warp” and “The Idea of the Internet,” the first section deals primarily with ‘the way things were’ versus all the rapid changes that came to our daily lives ten, fifteen years ago. It is subject matter that bleeds into the second section as well. While I’m sure these essays were valid and insightful in their time, as is the case with any technology commentary, now they feel a bit quaint.

I’m referring to the wholesale alteration — or deformation — of consciousness individual and collective by the media: television, radio, print and photojournalism, So thoroughly (and insidiously) has the metastasis taken place, so utterly saturated are we by the various emanations, that it is impossible to step to one side to see it for what it is. At best, we can try to realize the momentousness of the change.

Utterly saturated, eh? This essay was published in 1986, pre-Internet as we know it, and at the moment progress seemed to triple in speed. Quite frequently, I found myself thinking, “Oh, just you wait, buddy. Just you wait.”

Consider the unintended humor, just three pages later:

Andy Warhol’s pronouncement — that everyone, in the future, will be famous for fifteen minutes — is more prophetic than nonsensical. The fame won’t be doled out because of merit, however; it will be because the celebrity machine will soon have used up its celebrities and will start looking elsewhere: at you, at me. Start combing your hair!

I’m getting carried away now by apocalyptic fantasy, sure.

Nearly 25 years later, I don’t know what’s a more depressing apocalyptic sign — Tila Tequila or the random talking heads they prop up on cable news.

Still, even accounting for the time at which this was written, I’m not quite sure I fully buy into Birkerts’ Chicken Little fear for culture. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bafflingly popular vacuities, but present media has its gems too. Just look to the onslaught of online literary, fashion and art magazines, look at television shows like The Wire and Mad Men. If I were to confine examples to the 80s and 90s, we would still have Creation Records, Twin Peaks and that soon-to-be revered David Foster Wallace. Tell me there’s a lot of noise out there, and I’ll agree with you, but don’t tell me it’s impossible to seek out what you enjoy. You are not a unique flower whose environment has perished forever — there are always creative people who feel the same way and are creating nonetheless.

I began to understand Birkerts more when he started speaking my language — that is, of the transcendental power of music. Reflecting upon his feelings while listening to R.L. Burnside, he expresses his amazement that the songs, which are so much within the history of blues, take him back to his own past:

This is life lived up to the limit of the skin and no further — the life of the heart, of wanting, getting, and mainly losing — and it is very much, for me, about back then. Odd that a small cassette can call up so many different kinds of memories and that it can so reliably stand for something.

The author and I operate on different creative planes. I don’t find it odd that music can be so transporting and so important in the larger sense of the world. I’m forever trying to articulate that feeling, but no, it’s not odd. Mysteriously impressive, I’d reckon.

Birkerts, rather, is forever trying to articulate the greater meaning of literature. He is a concept and choice sort of guy. He wants to know the intention of the work in question, and he wants to analyze its significance. It’s much less about character, and that’s where he loses me. I don’t care about Keats making use of the letter T in order to convey “the hard opacity of the actual trees.” I’d rather read about Keats himself, his life. I’d rather read about people. Nature-centric work has never done much for me, but that doesn’t speak of its quality. It’s a matter of personal taste.

However, when moving on to the altered state that is reading, I begin to understand again. Birkerts spends part of the second section talking about the act itself. He investigates what happens to us when we succumb to a book, and the attention literature requires. I never really felt the immersion he describes while reading his book, but I know it well:

The words make a voice, and the voice begins to sound in our auditory imaginations, and as we enter the book, we move from hearing the voice to listening to it. And to listen is to surrender self-thoughts, impinging awareness, and judgements; to listen is to admit a stance, a vantage, a world other than our own. Of course we do not succeed entirely.

Only when I was not reading before bed, when I was able to slow and have some quiet, did I succeed even marginally. I don’t believe this was Birkerts’ fault — I just wasn’t in the right mood for intellectual high intensity. Nick Hornby’s often made the argument that when reading books we aren’t fully enjoying, we shouldn’t feel the need to slog through because they are supposedly good for us. I thought a lot about the stack of books I plan to read next, about how I felt obligated to give this book a fair shake because it was sent to me as a review copy. I thought about how it shouldn’t kill me to read things I ignored in school, and then I thought about how far behind I am in the Cannonball Read Challenge.

On the back cover blurbs, Jonathan Franzen says, “Birkerts on reading fiction is like M.F.K. Fisher on eating or Norman Maclean on fly casting. He makes you want to go do it.”

I agree, but I guiltily admit I finished this book with the thought, “Oh, glad that’s done.” (Also, I wasn’t a big fan of A River Runs Through It or “The Trouble With Tripe,” so maybe that should’ve been my first clue this would be a wearisome read.)

Before I’m accused of being lazy or flippant, I must say that I enjoyed the third section of the book the most. In it, Birkerts discusses specific works like The Great Gatsby and gets into the biographies of Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop. He talks about what their writing meant to him personally, not just what they meant in the grand scheme of literature. That I can appreciate more, even when he starts describing stanzas as “loamy.”

Of course this isn’t a bad book, and I’m sure there are plenty of people (MFA students, in particular), who would love to chin-stroke through it. I don’t fault anyone for getting off on brain-over-heart material, but it’s just not for me.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book after I requested it (among two others). I thank them for devoting a marketing write-off to my small blog, and I will continue to be fair regarding my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

The Adderall Diaries
by Stephen Elliott

At any given moment in our work, no matter how mundane the task, our personal lives will almost always affect the outcome. Sleep, sex, substance (or lack of substance) dictate how we operate, and within those daily complications, we find The Adderall Diaries. Chest deep into an addiction to the title pill, Stephen Elliott struggles to write and struggles to maintain a fulfilling relationship.

His focus changes when the computer programmer Hans Reiser stands trial for the murder of his estranged wife, Nina. Nina once had an affair with Hans’ best friend, Sean Sturgeon, who has just confessed to eight undocumented murders. Stephen knows of Sean through San Francisco’s S&M scene, though they’ve never met. Are the trial and the confessions related? he wonders. With something new to strive toward, he contacts Sean and begins sitting in on the Reiser court proceedings.

If Sean committed eight murders it’s a huge story, I think. Here is a man willing to wait years to get revenge on the people who stole his childhood. I think of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, two of my favorite books, both set around spectacular murders and written by novelists. I know people who have know Sean for more than a decade. I have the inside track. And there’s something else about the case; Nina Reiser’s body was never found.

Even more interesting, however, are Stephen’s reflections on his past, both romantic and familial. He’s written at length about running away from home, about his crazy and abusive father, and about his need for nurturing women who also inflict pain. Often, he thinks of his ex-girlfriend Lisette, whom he once almost married in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Being with her and living in San Francisco, for a moment, make him feel at ease. The way he sets a scene with her and other people he encounters, I find quite stunning:

I had been sleeping naked on the inside of the spoon. She was so beautiful and she looked at me the way a mother looks at a child and I loved that. I put my clothes on and bicycled home across the city. The landscape of closing bars and well-lit taquerias seemed bright, surreal, and full of smoke.

He’s forever trying to figure out how he came to this point in his life, and his recognition of his long-term depression will feel true — maybe too true — to anyone who has ever experienced it. Despite all the connections he’s made and any success he’s encountered, it’s always there:

My friends think I’m a happy person. And in a way I am. But I’ve been sad a lot too. When I’m sad, I don’t want anyone to know. I try to hide it, even from myself. [...] It’s only recently that I’m realizing I’ve been depressed all my life. I run from it like a fire. I could stand under a thousand spotlights, publish a million books, and it wouldn’t change a thing.

During the trial, Hans Reiser’s erratic behavior and grand declarations remind Stephen of his own father, who was forever reinventing his history. Often, he will leave comments on his Amazon pages and call up reporters, claiming that his son has it all wrong, that only he knows the truth. I’ve seen him post as ‘The Gladiator’ on The Rumpus (the website founded by Stephen Elliott in 2009), and all his screws are certainly loose.

I tell him I keep screen shots of all of them so I won’t think I’m going crazy when they disappear. I wish every action was recorded and we could have a little Google bar to search ourselves, find out what we said last time and in response to what.

In the end, The Adderall Diaries poses as many questions as it answers. It’s the sort of book that takes a few days to really sink in — I enjoyed it while reading, but it took some time for the weight of it all to hit me. That may not be the case for every reader, but it’s a fascinating book that makes me eager to read his other work. When it comes down to it, that’s why anyone writes, isn’t it? We all want to be heard.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book after I requested it (among two others). I thank them for devoting a marketing write-off to my small blog, and I will continue to be fair regarding my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on Pajiba itself on September 9, 2010.

Friday, August 6, 2010

ECC Preview

I saw Styx this past Monday. I'll talk about it a little bit in the upcoming issue of Electric City Creative.

Until then:

Tommy Shaw