Thursday, September 8, 2011

Recently, Part One: Books & Music

It's that time again for me to tell you (whether you want me to or not) about the most recent books and music I've read and listened to, enjoyed or sorely loathed. A couple of books this year have really stood out (if you're a regular reader of this blog then you'll know I loved, loved, loved Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti) and some others that I'd hoped would stand out that, for various reasons, didn't (sorry, TV on the Radio and Quantum Thief*). I've talked about most of these in recent posts, so let's see what's new, shall we?

The Golden Age by Czech writer Michal Ajvaz is one of the books that you must read and then must read again. This is a once or twice a year read. There are very few books I can say have that kind of power. Middlesex is perhaps another, and Jesus' Son. Anyway, Golden Age is a nonlinear, plotless novel that is sort of about a mysterious island and this island's Book - both a fictitious and historical account of the island written by its residents, who make no distinction between an object and its representation. The prose is lyrical, visceral, yet also unadorned and grounded (credit here also goes to the translator Andrew Oakland). Many of the images have stuck with me after finishing the book - some so much that I still dream about the vicious fish in jelly.

Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 is another plotless story, though it is completely linear, it being a diary of every day for over year in Adrian Mole's life. It's also really funny. Though he considers himself a genius hampered by the constraints of society, Adrian is really a scared, under-confident teen with some pretty big hangups: his best friend is dating the girl he likes, he's got to take care of a crazy old man, his parents' marriage is falling apart and he is in the middle of it, and, worst of all, the BBC continues to reject his poetry! If that doesn't sound like you at that age then I don't know what planet you came from because that totally sounds like me at 13. You might think reading a diary entry from almost every day for something like 14 months would get monotonous, but it doesn't. Townsend's got enough humor and heartbreak to go around.

Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost is about as good as it gets. Classic deep-fried guitar solo? Gospel choir? Check. Crooning? Check. Pathetically mopey lyrics? Check. Organ? Check. All in one song? Check. Girls wear their influences on their sleeves - as many reviewers are like to say - and it's true: naysayers of the band will point to such and such part sounding just like this Beach Boys song or that T. Rex or whatever. The thing about Girls is that, though a lot of what they do is pastiche, they do it in an interesting and, damn it I will argue this to death, original way. Especially on their sophomore LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Here, styles and periods of music clash and clang about - not from song to song, as it did on their debut, Album - but in the course of a song itself. Opener, "Honey Bunny" is first a no-brainer surf rock song, but it's middle becomes tinged with country-western. That first bit up there with all the "checks" is the huge anthem "Vomit." The songs are longer, too, and jammier. It's not what you expected from these fellows but it's damned good and is a contender for the best record released this year.

Sometimes I just need a noirish-spy thriller type of book and either Elmore Leonard or John le Carre will fill that gap. I finished le Carre's The Mission Song not long ago and, though I expected a breezy read, le Carre delivered a thought-provoking novel of the deepest kind of misunderstanding. The story concerns Bruno Salvador, ("Salvo to his friends, and his enemies too"), "son of an Irish missionary and a Congolese woman," and interpreter of many Eastern Congolese languages, who gets caught up in some pretty serious shit between war-torn Congo and various outside sources making a play for the riches in the land there. Le Carre illuminates not only the problem of foreign governmental interference and its consequences but also of beauracratic greed in general.

After the bombast and "big-ness" of their debut, Cymbals Eat Guitars' follow-up, Lenses Alien, is still arguably as explosive, but to me, feels contained and perhaps a little too post-punkish for my tastes. There is at least one good song here, though: opener, "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)" is fantastic eight and a half minute opus. Everything else is fairly short and feels almost juvenile compared to the thick-walled monsters of Why There Are Mountains.

We'll finish up with more books and music this weekend in Recently, Part Two.

*Though I will say, as I peruse Hannu Rajaniemi's debut in preparation for a reread in late October the "messy narrative" I complain about in the book doesn't seem as "messy." I still maintain the characters are not as developed as they could have been, though.

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