Music, Books, and Death

Reno LogoI Shot a Man in Reno is: a quote from the Johnny Cash song Folsom Prison Blues; a A History of Death… in Popular Song; a blog by Graeme Thomson, author of said book.

Graeme and I have a few things in common; that’s one of the reasons I use his first, rather than his last, name. It’s obvious that he and I share an interest in songs about death, since he decided I write a book on the subject and I decided to read it. We’re both white, dads, not too far apart in age (although I suspect I’m slightly older and closer to death), and British (although I haven’t lived in Britain for decades now). Given that, it’s not surprising that we are both huge fans of Richard Thompson.

I found myself thinking of the book as an album. It has 12 tracks (Introduction, Chapters 1-10, Epilogue). By the time I got to the end of Side 1 (i.e., the intro and ch. 1-5) I was thinking that it should be possible to buy tracks individually, since some are a lot better than others. The strongest track, Teenage Wildlife, starts with a 14-year-old Graeme listening to The Cure, then travels through teenage time to visit Shakespeare, emo, and many points along the way to present a coherent and well-illustrated account of teenage response to music, and music’s messages to teens.

But Teenage Wildlife (ch. 2) is preceded by two tracks (intro and ch. 1) rather too general to make much of an impact. They must have seemed necessary to some combination of Graeme, his editors, and his publishers, and some of the material probably does belong up front, but they get things off to a slow start.

The first side also includes the track I found to be the album’s weakest, the one about the 1960s (ch. 4). It must have been hard to come up with a fresh account of the previous century’s most over-analyzed decade; I don’t think that Graeme succeeded. Lest it seem that there was no way that this chapter was going to please this particular reader, I’ll point out that my favorite non-fiction music book is about the 1960s.

Side 2 worked much better for me. It includes the Gansta Rap track (ch. 7). This for me was the freshest, if not the best, on the album, partly because of my ignorance of the genre. It’s not exactly Graeme’s area of specialization either, and he leans fairly heavily on his interviews with Ice T (who currently plays a cop on TV).

But the heart of side 2 is the sequence of three tracks (8-10) that follows the rap. The first deals with the way singer/songwriters respond to the death of loved ones. The second starts with a list of songs often played at funerals, and goes on to discuss the more general role that music plays in mourning. The third is about how musicians regard their own impending deaths, and how this affects their music.

The last track (epilogue) is a list of 40 death cuts. Graeme took the time to come up with a thoughtful and well-annotated list. I disagree with it, but that is of course part of the point of such a list.

I disagree in particular with Graeme’s choice of Richard Thompson track. He goes for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” and so would many other RT fans. He went with a different RT song when he put together a book-related playlist for Largehearted Boy; that shows how difficult the decision is.

I go with yet another RT song: “When I Get to the Border.” It’s a song I prefer, and it’s from my favorite album. It’s the opening track, and it opens my playlist inspired by Graeme’s book. It’s also my favorite example of RT as a musician both contemporary and traditional (listen to the interplay between electric guitar and “archaic” instruments in the coda/fadeout).

RT plays on most of the tracks of Graeme’s album: that is, he’s quoted in most of the chapters. (Am I now beating the “book as album” metaphor into the ground?) Other extensively-featured musicians include Ice T (as already mentioned), Neil Finn, and Bob Dylan (although I don’t think that Graeme has talked directly with the latter).

Graeme varies his own tone rather deftly. For example, he gives credit where it’s due, and finds it frequently due to RT and a few others. He acknowledges the occasional greatness of Paul McCartney. He is also good on musicians who aren’t any good, such as Marilyn Manson: “simply the media’s most willingly complicit hate figure… He relishes this… because the alternative is to be judged on his music and then he would really be in trouble.”

That’s more than I meant to write. Now it’s all over bar the rating (4 stars out of a possible 5) on Goodreads, and… oh yes, my Reno-inspired playlist. I was going to embed the playlist in this post, as I’ve done with other Lala playlists in other posts, but for technical reasons, I won’t do so here.

I’ll just link to the playlist at Lala, announce my intention of extending it beyond the initial three tracks, and state what I regard as the main omission. Loudon Wainwright’s The Last Man On Earth is a response to the death of his mother, and a great album. I’m surprised that Graeme didn’t mention it. I’m a little upset that I can’t find my CD. And it’s an omission from the playlist, because Lala doesn’t offer it. I’d probably have gone with “I’m Not Gonna Cry.”

The Ask and the Answer, and Other Goodreads

The Ask and the Answer is the second book of Patrick Ness‘s Chaos Walking trilogy. The first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, impressed me.

The distinctive feature of the Chaos Walking world is telepathy, with the interesting twist that women don’t broadcast. Crucial to the second book is the further twist that some men don’t broadcast either. One such is the evil and manipulative President Prentiss.

That word manipulative is particularly important, because it brings me to the main way in which Ask didn’t work as well for me as did Knife. The main characters Todd and Viola are manipulated by Prentiss and by his arch-enemy, Mistress Coyle. That would be fine, had the author’s manipulation of these and other characters not seemed intrusive.

That said, I found Ask engrossing, and Ness does move the pieces into place for a cliffhanger even more dramatic than the one on which Knife ended. So I’m looking forward to Monsters of Men, the third book, which is due out next year.

I gave Ask a four-star rating, while I gave Knife the maximum five. I refer to ratings at Goodreads. I’ve just resumed activity there thanks to prompting from uberbibliophile Nicholas Whyte.

Bookstores and the Graveyard

Clay Shirky posted today an interesting ramble around the plight of local bookstores. Here’s his most telling point.

The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its hosting community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings… value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.

Combined with the most familiar point about bookstores – that Amazon is in many ways a superior transactional warehouse – this frames the all-too-familiar problem for bookstores. It also sees Clay on his way to suggesting ways of monetizing the actual value created by bookstores.

In other bookish news, I actually went into my local bookstore and bought a couple of books. One of them was Ivy & Bean Break the Fossil Record (Ivy & Bean, Book 3). We bought the first Ivy and Bean book for Maddie on the recommendation of one of the store owners. She’s loving the series. Max also got a book, and likes to play in the kids’ area of the store. So good for Village Books.

Yes I did just link to Amazon in the middle of a paragraph praising a local bookstore. I also paid with an Amazon credit card. Perhaps I’m not the best champion of local bookstores.

Neil Gaiman is certainly a better champion than me, as you can see from his account of judging the Graveyard Book Halloween Party Contest. Perhaps bookstores need more parties.

Middle East: Two Perspectives

I just finished Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell’s story of a schoolteacher who visits Egypt in 1921. Agnes meets T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and others trying to define the states and borders of the Middle East after the Great War.

This isn’t a review, but it is a recommendation. Maria Doria Russell‘s prose is, as always, a pleasure to read. My main reservation about Dreamers is that I was enjoying her writing, rather than Agnes’, and the book is written in the first person.

So one perspective on the Middle East is that of Agnes/Maria. It might be more accurately called a collection of perspectives, since Lawrence and others offer Agnes their differing perspectives.

The second perspective is an Imperial History of the Middle East, in the form of a map. The map (which I found via reddit) changes over a minute and a half to reflect five thousand years of empires.

You don’t need to tell me that there are more than two perspectives on the Middle East, but most other comments would be welcome.

The Free Bestseller

The bestseller in question is Free: The Future of a Radical Price. It’s by Chris Anderson, whose earlier book, The Long Tail, I posted about a couple of years ago.

Chris recently posted that Free made the New York Times bestseller list (number 12 on the nonfiction charts, to be specific). That of course means that there have been rather a lot of copies of the book exchanged for money. People seem willing to pay money in order to read about things being available at a price of zero.

There are ways of obtaining Free itself for free, within limitations of time and space.

The ebook and web book will be free for a limited time and limited to certain geographic regions as determined by each national publisher; the unabridged audiobook will be available free forever, available in all regions.

Whereas the unabridged audiobook is free, the abridged audiobook isn’t. Audible.com presents a “time is money” argument for the abridged audiobook being worth $7.49: it gives you the good stuff in half the time (3 hours rather than 6).

This may arouse the suspicion that the full Free is padded. My experience has been that business books often are. On the other hand, I found The Long Tail to be a book with a book’s worth of book.

So I’m going to read Free. The questions are: when? in what form? at what price? In a sense, I started reading Free over a year ago. I also started writing about it: one of the more successful posts on this blog applies Chris’ framework about free to WordPress.com.

I expect that Free will come out in paperback some time next year, with a new chapter or afterword. At that point, I’ll probably buy the paperback, just as I bought The Long Tail paperback.

Hardback publication is seen as perhaps the major event in a book’s lifecycle. In terms of my reading of Free, it’s the halfway point in a process that spans more than two years. No, that’s not because I’m a slow reader. It’s because the two most interesting publication dates are that of the Wired article (in 2008) and of the paperback book (in 2010?).

In case it isn’t already obvious, I find the Free project interesting in many ways, including its subject matter and publication process. And I like those old-fashioned things that tend to cost money: books.

Avoiding Infinite Reproach

There are many books I should have read, but haven’t. Among them is Infinite Jest. I recently found Infinite Summer, a project based on the challenge: “Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd.”

IJ is currently in my Amazon shopping cart, but I’m inclined to remove it. I’m more inclined to do so after reading an NPR blog post about The Shelf Of Constant Reproach: “that shelf filled with books you meant to read or, more likely, fully intend to read some day.” I suspect that many people have IJ on their reproach shelf, and I don’t think I’ll join them just yet.

So, on with The Little Book which is a lot longer than its title, but rather shorter than IJ.

Sex, Books, and Movies

Describe Your Sex Life With A Movie Title is a currently popular topic on Reddit (and, I believe, elsewhere). Among the comments I’ve upvoted are:

  • Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.
  • Alone in the Dark.
  • 28 Weeks Later. For us, it was more than 30 weeks later, but not as near to 40 as we were expecting. But things worked out well for our early baby, as I hope that they did for the 28-week baby.

There was an earlier topic, Describe Your Sex Life With A Book Title. My comment there referred to Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I strongly recommend the novel.

There is a movie, which I recommend less heartily. It is sometimes referred to by the same title as the book, and sometimes as Never Give an Inch. As someone remarked on Reddit, once you start thinking about these topics, almost anything seems to fit. Perhaps I should rephrase that. Or perhaps I should just top typing now…

SF Bookstore Within a Mile?

Sci-fi bookstore to invade Centre Street (West Roxbury), proclaims our local bulletin. I saw the headline on the free paper while shopping at Roche Bros this morning, and got caught up via Universal Hub. I’d previously had drive-by glimpses of interesting-looking signs at the retail location.

My thoughts are that:

  • It’ll be tough going for Seek Books. It’ll need to be a destination for folks from as far away as… Dedham, maybe even Jamaica Plain.
  • My hopes for the new store somehow rose when I learned that the owner is a retiring addiction therapist.

Kindle the Second

Amazon’s Kindle 2 will be released on Feb 24. I’d like a Kindle, but not at $350+. That’s similar to my reaction to the first Kindle, but it’s moved up from “It’s clunky, but I’d kind of like one” to “I’d really like one.”

The Boston Globe emphasized the Stephen King connection: he’s written a novella for, and featuring, the Kindle. It also covered the reservations expressed by Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. The Wall Street Journal reported other objections from the same source.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Niniane posted a valentine to the Kindle 2. And at GigaOm, Kevin surmised that Amazon’s ebook business will be dating hardware other than the Kindle, based on the announcement that the new “Whispersync” technology will sync with “a range of mobile devices in the future.”

Back here, I’m wondering how what sort of price a gently used Kindle 1 will go for as Kindle fans upgrade. I’m also wondering when the Kindle 3 will arrive, what features it will have, and what the price of gently used Kindle 2s will be at that time.