I enjoy reading about music, but I still feel cheated to discover that this weekend’s New York Times Book Review has a “music theme”. Regardless of whether I’m interested in a particular theme or not, the very idea of a themed Book Review will always strike me (and, I think, other readers too) as a classic example of a category mistake. When I wake up on a Saturday morning to sink into my Book Review with my mug of hot coffee, the only theme I want to find is “books”. I think “books” is a perfectly good theme for the New York Times Book Review, and I wish they’d stick to it more often.
The actual articles in this week’s publication are, as the neglected great folksinger Richie Havens might say, a mixed bag. Should I start with the good and then move on to the bad, or should I take it in reverse order this week? Let’s go from bad to good. The cover article on The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s study of 20th century classical music, should be much better than it is. Critic Geoff Dyer wastes the opening paragraph blathering about his own lack of qualifications to review this book, and then repeats the same annoying self-deprecations within the “Up Front” editor’s notes, where he declares “I am the opposite of an expert”. I’m convinced: bring in a different critic, please, and put this guy out of his misery.
More bad: Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Beatle-wife and Clapton-wife Pattie Boyd’s Wonderful Tonight harasses the reader for wanting “a chord-by-chord analysis of the genius of Clapton, or another book of obsessive Beatles minutiae, preferably written by an overeducated white man — you know, someone who who actually understands the music.” I’ve got Geoff Dyer over here whining that he can’t write his review, and now I’ve got Stephanie Zacharek over here accusing me of oppressing women by wanting to read hers. Goddammit, is anybody going to get to work reviewing their book?
The very next page, amusingly, offers — wait for it — another book of obsessive Beatles minutiae written by an overeducated white man, namely Jonathan Gould, whose Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America receives a shrug of appreciation from overeducated white man critic Bruce Handy, who first points out (as Ed Champion already pointed out) that there are way too many Beatles books out there already. For those who are interested, by the way, the funniest Beatles book ever written is the long-forgotten Paperback Writer, a completely mangled-up history of the band (Monty Python’s Rutles would later attempt the same feat with less impressive results) by Mark Shipper, who ended this 1977 fantasia with a horrible Beatles reunion concert in which they are forced to share a bill with Peter Frampton and the Sex Pistols.
Okay, on to the good: Stephen King reads Eric Clapton’s new autobiography entirely through the lens of addiction recovery, which apparently looms much larger than I had realized in the life of this stone-faced guitarist. I am not a big fan of Clapton the musician — as far as I can tell he has built his entire career on the replication of B. B. King’s silver-edged soloing style, and the best thing he ever did was to recruit superior musician Duane Allman to play guitar on his only great album, Layla — but King’s article makes me much more sympathetic to the human being behind the smooth solos. I can’t imagine why the usually celebrity-obsessed Book Review editors didn’t put Stephen King on this week’s cover instead of Geoff Dyer, since in this case it would have been the right choice.
Gregory Cowles does a fine job with Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and his Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer. Cowles is clearly very knowledgeable about the strain of late-hippie-era country-rock that Gram Parsons exemplifies, and uses this knowledge here to fine effect. Jeff Giles is very funny in weighing Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, which he notes is derived from a blog:
Some of the skimpier chapters are driven by generic anecdotes attesting to Manhattan’s verve. “Two Tales of Urban Moxie,” which runs to a page and a half, concerns an old lady who flips a trucker the bird and an old man who cusses out a biker. Possibly this stuff sang online, though I doubt it.
Anthony Gottlieb makes Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain sound appealing, Dave Itzkoff does fine with his “Music Chronicle” capsule reviews, and Pankaj Mishra manages to find a welcome literary reference point for his review of Ben Ratliff’s book on John Coltrane, who apparently poet Philip Larkin despised.
On to fiction: it’s no fault of critic Susann Cokal that my feelings towards prolific postmodernist Michael Chabon, author of the new Gentleman of the Road, are verging from mild disinterest to active dislike. I’m still in the middle of Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, and Jennifer Egan’s warmly enthusiastic review only increases my appreciation for what I’m finding within.
This week’s Book Review ends with a surprisingly deft attack by the usually disappointing humorist Joe Queenan on Henry “The Pencil” Petroski’s new book on toothpicks and how they have changed the world. Wisely, Queenan lays off the corny jokes and lays on the corrective:
The toothpick is slightly more interesting than the staple, the washer and the index card, somewhat less fascinating than the screw or the bolt, but infinitely less exciting than the hydrogen bomb, the semiconductor chip or the microbe.
I had to check online to make sure this dumb book even existed; it turns out it does, published by Knopf no less.