Monday, February 21, 2011

She Got The Beat

Although not a big reader of non-fiction, I do like my biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.  I enjoy reading about the lives of politicians, actors, authors, and musical artists, particularly if they are ones who have shaped me in some way.

As a young boy, I was a huge fan of a catchy pop single called "Mad About You," by a singer named Belinda Carlisle.  At one point, it was my favorite song, and I remember buying the single and playing it on my stereo while looking at the picture of Belinda on the cover photo.  Kids don't do that anymore, do they?  Not in the era of digital songs and instant gratification.  The next year, Belinda came out with another hit song, "Heaven Is A Place On Earth," and again, I was a big fan.  Little did I know at the time that she had already had a successful career as lead singer of the pioneering band The Go-Go's, but I soon figured that out.

It was with great interest that I sat down to read Belinda's recent memoir, entitled Lips Unsealed in homage to the Go-Go's hit "Our Lips Are Sealed."  A clever title for the book, as she would at long last be unsealing her lips to reveal the inside story behind her life and career.

You might not think that Belinda Carlisle's memoir would be a riveting read, unless you are a huge music buff and interested in the formation of one of the first all-female bands to write and play their own songs.  A casual fan of Belinda's might debate reading this book, feeling that it couldn't possibly be as interesting as the recent Pat Benatar autobiography, or that her story couldn't be as scandalous as that of Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson, Madonna, or other 80s superstars (wow, I can't wait until Stevie Nicks writes an autobiography).  Trust me, though, this is a quick and interesting read, and quite well-written (that can sometimes be a problem with memoirs, because a talented actor or singer does not necessarily have to be a talented writer).  And Belinda Carlisle was a true punk, a real rock rebel, who partied as hard and outrageously as any of her male counterparts.

For me, the main selling point of this book are the stories about the Go-Go's: how they formed, the writing process of their bestselling first album, Beauty And The Beat, and Belinda's thoughts on the success of that effort, which was the first album by a female band who wrote and played their own songs to hit Number One on the Billboard album chart.  And I got all that from this book.  Belinda goes into considerable detail about the night the band formed (basically, three girls were sitting on a curb in Venice, CA and decided to start a band), their initial rehearsals and first concert dates, and the wave of excitement surrounding the success of their songs "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got The Beat."

The book follows her through all of the Go-Go's' albums, their eventual breakup, her successful solo career, the fizzling out of said solo career, the various Go-Go's' reunions, right up to 2009 and her stint on the reality television program Dancing With The Stars.  Along the way, we learn of her heated affair with the late Michael Hutchence, lead singer of INXS; her jealousy over Madonna's thinness in the "Papa Don't Preach Video"; her excitement upon meeting Elton John; and a night of non-stop partying that the Go-Go's, then in their mid-40s, did with the young men of Green Day.  In other words, there are lots of famous people and musical moments for rock history buffs.

However, the main theme throughout Lips Unsealed is of Belinda's incredible lack of self-worth, which started at a young age and resulted in horrible food issues and a devastating cocaine addiction.  Her problems might not seem worse than those of any other rock star, but the way she details them is striking: she never blames anyone other than herself, and she calmly relates the manner in which, time and time again, she refused the help she needed and continued to jeapordize not only her own health, but her marriage, and her son's well-being as well.  Her ability to take ownership for her mistakes is refreshing, and she comes across largely sympathetic, even if you roll your eyes by the twentieth time she refuses to go to rehab and takes up on another cocaine binge.

Her issues with food were almost as crippling as her drug addiction; in fact, they may have caused her to turn to drugs.  It's a touching story, beginning with the kids who cruelly called her Belimpa as a child, but she never comes across as begging for sympathy.  In fact, I was throughly impressed with her tone throughout the memoir, simply giving her life story, certainly adding commentary but never embellishing that much.  Straightforward, that's how I would describe her style.

Eventually, Belinda Carlisle was able to admit that she needed help, and she quit drugs and drinking for good.  When I finally reached that point in her story, I felt genuinely happy for her.  There were many touching moments throughout Lips Unsealed, including the moment when her teenage son comes out to her; and several passages involving her husband Morgan, who has to be one of the most patient men on Planet Earth.  And it was extremely inspiring to read the story of their marriage and his undying love for her.  They have been married for more than twenty-three years, and that is a lot more than you can say for most Hollywood couples, including those with a lot less problems than these two had.  Kudos to Morgan Mason, for his upstanding character and true devotion to his wife.

And hats off to Belinda Carlisle, for her role as lead singer in one of the most important bands in rock history, and for writing a genuinely good rock and roll memoir.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Power of Solar

Ian McEwan is one of those authors who became a bona fide favorite of mine based on just two novels, the epic Atonement and the beautifully rendered On Chesil Beach.  The former is one of my all time favorite books, and more than five years after reading it, I still cringe at what humans can do to those they love.  The latter is a book so understated yet emotionally poignant that its ending will stay with me forever.  I have yet to read any of McEwan's well-regarded earlier works, nor have I tackled the Booker-winning Amsterdam or the much praised Saturday.  All in good time.

Solar, his latest novel, got good reviews, but was generally considered less outstanding than his other works.  I got the feeling, reading the reviews, that literary critics thought they had to give it high marks because it's new McEwan, but that they thought he might be resting on his laurels.  A music critic once said, in reviewing Madonna's American Life album, that if you stack it up next to her Ray Of Light, it falls flat ... but then quickly added, "to be fair, most pop albums do."  Thus is the hallowed status of Ray Of Light.  One could similarly write of Solar ... "Stack it up next to 'Atonement' and it falls flat ... but to be fair, most modern novels do."  However, why should an artist who has created a masterpiece (or more than one) have to endure the shadow of his masterpiece forever, suffering through every subsequent novel being compared to an all time great?

So I vowed to take Solar on its own terms, and not compare it to either Atonement or On Chesil Beach, and guess what?  It's a damn good book, with some exquisite writing, great characterization, and touches of laugh-out-loud humor.  I was never bored, and that's saying something, because physics plays a large role in this book, and let's just say that was the class that saw my Honor Roll train go screeching off its tracks during my junior year of high school.

Solar has a decent, identifiable plot (a couple of them, actually), but largely, it's a character study.  The character is Michael Beard, a pompous, arrogant Nobel winner who has been coasting on his reputation for several decades, and sort of falling through the cracks as younger, more forward-thinking physicists are coming up through the ranks (there is an interesting tangent on the nature of scientists who think in terms of saving the world, vs. those who are more single-minded [selfish?] in their focus).  Beard spends his time giving lectures, serving on committees, basically selling his name to help universities and various scientific projects rake in grant money.  Along the way, he has managed to divorce four women, and as the novel opens, his fifth marriage is about to implode.  The way in which it does so is quite fun to watch, in spite of some tragic consequences.  There is a lot of dark comedy at play in Solar, and McEwan presents it brilliantly.

One criticisim I read of the book is that its three distinct sections, which each occur a few years apart, do not hold together well.  I disagree.  I felt that they all served to show how stagnant Beard is, how he doesn't really change or try to better himself in spite of the horrible things he's done, and the lessons he should have learned.  Some readers will be pleased by the comeuppance Beard gets in the final act.  I can't say that I really hated his character.  It's often hard for me to loathe a character who is the centerpiece of a novel, if the author does his or her job correctly.  I mean, we are basically going on a journey with Michael Beard, and seeing his reactions, thoughts, and dreams as they are rendered by McEwan ... which ultimately creates a portrait of a flawed, but not evil, man.

At the end of the day, the real pleasure for me in reading Solar was McEwan's gift as a wordsmith.  I can't think of another contemporary novelist who sends me to the dictionary (well, Google) with as much frequency as this guy, but it's worth it for the words I learn, and the perfect way in which he employs them.  And his writing is just so damn good, as evidenced by this sentence:

"She did not tease or taunt or flirt with him - that at least would have been communication of a sort - but steadily perfected the bright indifference with which she intended to obliterate him."

Ah, he is such a fine writer.  I got a lot out of Solar: moments of laughter, engagement with the plot, a few new words to add to my vocabulary, some insight into solar power and physics, but mostly, an even greater appreciation for a man who ranks among our greatest contemporary novelists.  I look forward to many more nights lost between the pages with Ian McEwan.

Friday, February 11, 2011

That Damnable Glass Ceiling?

In the first few hours after this article appeared online in The New Republic, one of my friends posted it to my Facebook page, and two others sent me text messages telling me about it.  All three knew I would have strong opinions about these "shocking" statistics, and it seems fitting that I should address those opinions in my blog.

First, I should say that these statistics are no more shocking to me than the fact that there is a literary glass ceiling at all.  Obviously there is one, and it doesn't take an article in the venerable New Republic to teach me what I've known for years.  Back in 1998, when the Modern Library released its controversial list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, featuring just nine books by female authors, the reality of a glass ceiling sank in pretty fast.  I don't think anyone is suggesting that a list needs to be divided equally between the genders, but nine books by women in a century that boasted Margaret Atwood, Harper Lee, Dorris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Flannery O'Connor, and Virginia Woolf?  Come on, Modern Library, get real.

There are certainly those who will find these statistics surprising, upsetting, unjust.  There are others who will be indifferent.  And, finally, there are those who will claim it doesn't matter, like Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who is quoted in the above-mentioned article as saying he "refused to make a fetish" of having an equal number of male and female literary contributors to his publication.  His comment puts things in perspective and gets to the heart of the issue for me:

Literature should be judged on its inherent qualities, review space should be devoted to the most important books, and lists of "the best" should be based on books' merits, not gender, race, or what not of the authors.  However, we need to ask ourselves, as this article does, who is making these decisions as to quality, importance, merit, etc.  And, more importantly, what defines quality, importance, and merit for our present day society.  I believe the problem of gender bias is in some ways a modern phenomenon.  Disagree?  That's fine, but please remember that the 19th Century British Novel did not discriminate against women.  In fact, it was a pretty even playing field as far as gender neutrality (equality?) goes, with Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, and the poets Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning taking pride of place alongside Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope.  And this is not just in retrospect.  Although Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights was not a hit at the time, Charlotte's novels were very successful, George Eliot sold well and was critically acclaimed, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning was even more popular than her husband Robert in their heyday.

So if 19th century Britain could produce an equal playing field, just what the heck is wrong with us in the 21st Century?  Whenever a list of "the greatest whatever's of all time" comes out, whether in literature or music, you'll find that women are underrepresented.  So we must ask ourselves, is this because we actually feel that men have produced more works of quality?  Or is it that the people making these decisions, and these lists, are primarily men?  I have to say no to both of these questions.  I just can't accept that anyone who reads seriously, or listens to music passionately, could legitimately claim that men consistently produce better work.  I'm sure as heck not saying that everything needs to be 50-50, but nine novels out of 100 is appalling.

Let's look at another list: in 2005, Time Magazine picked the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.  Their list was considerably better than the Modern Library's, with 20 novels by women and 80 by men.  Still, though, something seems amiss.  As for the people making the decisions, well, the above-mentioned article shows us that the majority of book reviewers are male, but I'm not willing to let women off the hook completely.  When Rolling Stone magazine chose the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003, their list was heavily skewed toward male singers and male-fronted bands, but the panel of judges included a significant number of women, ranging from singers like Shirley Manson of Garbage (a renowned feminist) to journalists like Elysa Gardner. 

These issues are weighty, and they cannot be condensed to soundbites.  However, they are obviously problematic to many people, otherwise articles like this one in the New Republic would not be written, and prizes like the Orange Prize (given to the best full length English-language novel written by a woman in any given year) would not have been created.  Some cry foul at the existence of the Orange Prize, claiming that if women want to be judged equally, on their own merits, then an award devoted only to female authors is unjust.  However, it's a double edged sword: until female authors are treated equally, given the same amount of review space, nominated for prizes with the same frequency as their male counterparts, then why shouldn't an award exist to honor the wonderful books that are falling by the wayside?

I have noticed a certain discrimination myself, as a lifelong avid reader, one that manifests itself in a few different ways.  For example, when asked to list some of my favorite authors, I might reply, off the top of my head : "Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, John Irving, Toni Morrison, and Ian McEwen."  I have, in fact, rattled off this very list before, and gotten the response (more than once): "Wow, you read a lot of female authors."  Well, no.  I just provided a cursory list of favorites that includes four females and three males.  Somehow, though, this is interpreted as reading "a lot of female authors."  Same situation arises when people look at my vast CD collection.  "Wow, Shane, you like a lot of female singers."  Yes, I sure do.  And a lot of male singers, too.  Why is it that people feel the need to mention the number of females as some sort of oddity?  Is it because I'm a man?  Certainly, if someone said they read John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, Patricia Cornwell, and Robert Crais, the response would not be "Wow, you read a lot of male authors."  Come on, people, you know I'm right about this one.

The other thing I've noticed, somewhat disturbingly, is that people (both men and women) feel perfectly comfortable saying "I don't read female authors."  I have heard this three times in the past year, from two men and one woman.  As an avid reader, I cannot even conceive of ruling out an entire gender and denying myself a wealth of good reads, but to each their own.

I guess the reason this article in The New Republic bothers me so much is that part of me wants literature to be the place where true equality really does exist, where writers of both genders, all races, different religious beliefs, social classes, and sexual orientations change lives through the power of the written word.

This blog has been all over the map, and I have a lot more that I could say.  However, it's a complicated issue and one that reflects certain biases and issues that exist in society at large.  Since I'm feeling tired, I will let someone else speak.  This is a quote from a review of Sue Miller's The Lake Shore Limited, written by a male reviewer, that appeared in The Washington Post when the book came out last year.  It summarizes so much of what I feel, and it warms my heart that this man is writing reviews read by thousands of people:

"There are several contenders (Anita Shreve, Gail Godwin), but Sue Miller might be the best poster child for the poison condescension bestowed by the term "women's literature." She didn't publish her first novel, "The Good Mother" (1986), until she was in her 40s, but since then she's been prolific and popular (another mark against her), writing about families and marriages, infidelity and divorce -- what we call "literary fiction" when men write about those things. Last year, a grudging review of "The Senator's Wife" in That Other East Coast Newspaper claimed that Miller's novels "feature soap-opera plots," a mischaracterization broad enough to apply to any story that doesn't involve space travel or machine guns."

Hats off to you, Mr. Ron Carlson.  May you continue to review great books for many years to come!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

And Then There Were None

I was familiar with the name Agatha Christie from an early age.  My Mom used to read her books voraciously and has probably read all of them at this point, some more than once.  I remember her checking out books with titles like Hallowe'en Party and The Mirror Crack'd from the Whitman Memorial Library, while I stocked up on The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

I didn't read my first Agatha Christie novel until the age of 22.  I started with The Pale Horse, one of relatively few titles in her oeuvre that does not feature Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.  I liked the book a lot and soon after found myself engrossed in Murder On The Orient Express, which I knew to be one of her more famous titles.  This one had a shocking, clever ending, and I could definitely see what all the fuss was about.  There are some things that are just so good they will never go out of style: I Love Lucy, Beatles songs, The Wizard Of Oz, and Agatha Christie books among them.  You learn of them from an early age and grow up with an acute awareness of them.  It may take you years to investigate for yourself (I didn't watch an I Love Lucy rerun until I was 23), but when you do, you silently acknowledge that, yes, you understand what the fuss is about.

I was a mystery fan from a young age, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed Agatha Christie.  I went on to read several more of her titles over the next five years: The Mysterious Affair At Styles, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, Third Girl, and Why Didn't They Ask Evans?  I kept putting off Miss Marple, much as I have put off reading Anne Tyler's Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, because I wanted to prolong the joy I just knew I would get from her.  Yes, I'm a geek.

Last week, I finally read And Then There Were None, which I bought in paperback last June (just goes to show how far behind my pile of "to be read books" I can get).  This is generally considered, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, to be Christie's finest novel, and it also holds the distinction of being the bestselling mystery novel in the history of the world.  It's hard to review a mystery, because you don't want to give away anytthing.  And this book, much like the movie The Sixth Sense, will surely never have the same impact after your first time reading it.  Most are familiar with the premise, as it has been copied and paid homage to multiple times in the decades since And Then There Were None was originally published: ten strangers are lured to an island, each of them holding a dark secret, and one by one they are offed in various fashions (some more gruesome than others).  So who is the killer among them?  You'll have to see for yourself.

Each time I read an Agatha Christie book, I am truly awed by the sheer genius of her mind.  I am thankful that I have so many of her books still awaiting.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Bonds We Forge As Readers

For an avid reader, few things are more satisfying than making an "author connection" with another avid reader.  It's sort of thrilling, albeit in a geeky, reader sort of way, when you mention a favorite author to someone, and his or her face lights up.  There's a look she gets in her eyes, a smile spreading fast on his face, and just like that, you've gone and done it: you've made an author connection!

Seriously, though, it's really cool when you discover that someone is as enthused about an author as you are.  Luckily, I am able to make these sorts of connections every day, due to the nature of my job.  Recommending books is something I have to do, day in and day out, and I love it.  And it's also exciting when a library member turns me on to a book or author that I'm not overly familiar with.

Today, as the little storm that was supposed to be a prelude to the blizzard (but ended up being a sizable event unto itself) swirled its white magic around Winthrop, I made an awesome author connection.  I was sitting at the circulation desk when a woman walked in the door and headed to the new non-fiction bookcase.  She is quite friendly, as most people in Winthrop are, and what I would call a semi-regular at the library.  "I need a good book," she said, with just a hint of desperation.  I put on what I like to call my Non-Fiction face, which is something I have to put on for our non-fiction readers.  It's a face I make when I journey inside myself and pray that I'll be able to recommend something even half as successfully as I would if they were asking for fiction titles.  Yes, I admit it, I am one of those fiction lovers who vows every year to expand my non-fiction horizons.

Now, of course I am a professional, and years of working in bookstores and libraries have given me a lot to work with when it comes to non-fiction.  And I am admittedly well-read when it comes to music and literary criticism, and sort of well-rounded in biography.  Anyway, I was going to suggest The Island Of Lost Maps, but at the last minute, something caused me to inquire "do you prefer non-fiction?" to which she responded, "Only when it reads like fiction."  This gave me pause, and I as I thought about my next move, she said, "I wouldn't mind reading a novel tomorrow during the storm."  Well, with that I was up and across the floor, putting on my Fiction Face (which is animated, enthusiastic, and excited), saying "Well, I can recommend lots of those! Who are your favorite authors?"

And this is where the author connection took place.  "I like Richard Russo," she responded, "Amy Tan.  Sue Miller."  Trying to maintain my professional demeanor, I practically shouted at the top of my lungs, "I love Sue Miller; she is one of my favorite authors EVER!"

"Oh, I have read everything by her," she replied, smiling the smile that people smile when they are making an author connection.

"Did you read The Lake-Shore Limited?" I shouted.  Not really, but I was animated.

"No," she said, "I don't think I have!"

"It just came out last year," I replied, almost jumping up and down, suddenly unconcerned with the blizzard that is about to dump another foot-plus of snow on my state.

"I didn't know she had a new one!" she responded, almost shouting herself.

"Yes!" I exclaimed.  "It was my book of the year for 2010," and I practically sprinted into the stacks to retrieve the novel, which I brought to her and handed over like a treasured Christmas present.

"Well, I guess I have found my book," she said, hardly able to contain her enthusiasm.

As she dug out her library card and I prepared to check-out the novel, I decided to take the risk that avid readers often take after making a successful author connection: the risk of suggesting a second author, holding our breath as we wait to see whether this new bond is going to grow stronger or simply rest at this happy plateau.  Now, those who know me might think that I asked her if she liked Anne Tyler, but oh no: I took this one step further and formed the sentence: "Do you like Jane Hamilton?"  "I love Jane Hamilton," she said, and I kid you not, I just about teared up.  Before I could say anything, she continued: "I had two copies of The Short History Of A Prince for the longest time, but I finally gave one to my friend."

Silence for half a second as I collected myself.

WHAT I SAID: "That is so awesome.  She is another one of my favorite authors EVER!"

WHAT I THOUGHT: "Oh my God, you are so cool and easily one of the greatest people I have ever met in my life, and I am so, so glad that I am working today and not at lunch, because that would have been tragic."

So, needless to say, I had a great day at work.  Honestly, though, that is the sort of thing that has happened to me many times throughout my years working in bookstores and libraries.  Author connections are moments that I treasure.  They are what remind me that I am lucky to have a job that I love, and that when I feel like a geek for being a tried and true book addict, I need only remember the kindred spirits out there, clutching Sue Miller books as they head into the snowy day, to drive home and read.  I sure hope she likes the book!