Posts Tagged ‘Nicholson Baker’

We’ve just returned from a week in Utah, where Special D and I visited Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and various roadside attractions.

The hiking in Capitol Reef is beyond belief. In this hot, arid, wind-sculpted, high-altitude wonderland I felt that I had invaded an ancient Egyptian city. The silent domes and cliffs and hieroglyphs suggest unimaginable chasms of time.

CR 3

Bryce Canyon, which was new to me, is filled with spooky stone towers called hoodoos. (This makes me think of comic-relief characters in old novels who were constantly fending off the heebie-jeebies, the jim-jams, and the dipsy-doodles.) Some of the hoodoos look like the terra cotta soldiers buried with Chinese emperors; some look like Hindu gods. If I were a little less awed, I’d say they all look like candle drippings on a Chianti bottle.

Bryce 3a

The canyonlands were well-stocked with Brits and Germans in rented RVs, followed by the French, the Japanese, and the Australians. Are Australians always happy, or are they just happy to be anywhere but Australia? Are all Germans over 30 depressed, or do their faces just naturally do that?

Kudos to the state of Utah. Of all the states I’ve traveled in, Utah has the most highway signs that haven’t been aerated by gun slobs.

Chow time
We found something good to eat almost everywhere we went. The last time I hiked in Capitol Reef was about 25 years ago, and back then the best you could hope for for dinner was barbecued iguana. Plus you had to run it down yourself.

Capitol Reef Inn & Café was just up the road from our cabin in Torrey. Ooh-la-la! If this restaurant were in downtown Portland, it would be so popular that no one would go there anymore.

At the Burr Trail Grill, the tattooed staff not only serves up a first-class burger, they also produce the best apple pie I have ever eaten, and that includes my wife’s, and it’s safe for me to say this because she said it first. We took some pie back to our cabin for breakfast. Later that morning I did a solo hike with no more fuel than that pie. Sure, on this hike I was lost for about an hour, but was I hungry and lacking in energy? Heck no!

On our way into Utah, we stopped at a town called Payson, and not because Footloose was filmed there. We didn’t know that. All we knew was that we wanted lunch. We found a terrific Mexican place: Mi Rancherito. Good town to walk around in, but it was Sunday and we couldn’t get into the Peteetneet Museum and Cultural Arts Center, a Victorian extravaganza named for a Ute Indian chief.

On our way out of Utah, we stopped in tiny Snowville. At Mollie’s Café, where the staff is friendly even though the building looks as if it wants to fall down and take a rest already, we split a superb cinnamon roll.

In Idaho we stopped for a late dinner in the desolation of downtown Mountain Home. Frankie’s Burgers was empty on a Saturday night and I can’t understand why, because I don’t know where in Idaho you’re going to get a better burger.

In Baker City, Oregon, we breakfasted in the 19th-century splendor of the Geiser Grand Hotel, and then, in the only non-food shout-out in this section, we spent a pleasant hour at Betty’s Books. I have never seen an independent book store with so many new books from traditional publishers and so many small-press regional histories and indie press fiction and memoir. They even had used books:

Betty's Books b

I’m home. Next week we return to Prince and my usual hailstorm of unlikely opinions.

Song of the Day and Bonus Song of the Day
“Bring It to Jerome,” on Bo Diddley (1957)
We stayed one night in a hotel in Jerome, Idaho, which whacked this song into my head. Bo Diddley didn’t write “Bring It to Jerome” because he stayed in the Comfort Inn and he liked the scented soap. He wrote it for his maracas player, Jerome Green.

In 1959, Bo and Jerome collaborated on “Say Man,” which is three minutes of them trash-talking each other and slinging bad jokes while the guitar and piano play. (“Where you from?” “South America.” “What part?” “South Texas.”) “Say Man” was Bo Diddley’s only trip to the Top 20. That ain’t right.

Bo Diddley is an important step forward for rock ’n’ roll. But like most stuff from the ’50s, it sounds dated, and a lot of it sounds the same. Chuck Berry has the same problem. But “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” and “Who Do You Love?” are all on Bo Diddley. Give it a listen.

Book of the Day and Bonus Books of the Day
Nicholson Baker, U and I: A True Story (1991)
This is the story of Nick Baker’s friendship with John Updike…which he made up. Lots of children have imaginary friends, but how many adults write 179-page books about one? Baker’s impossibly convuluted sentences gallop on for days, including one startling specimen about Updike being “so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder” which began on page 43 and collapsed, all passion spent, on page 45. Possibly the weirdest book on my lifetime reading list, not counting Baker’s other books that I’ve read, musings by various French existentialists and Irish nihilists that I was forced to march through in college, and the Bible.

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker (2006), and
The Rejection Collection: The Cream of the Crap (2007)
Cartoons rejected by The New Yorker. Any questions? Vol. 1 is funnier than vol. 2. Each chapter begins with an artist responding to the editor’s ridiculous questionnaire. Paul Noth, who led off vol. 2, has two of the best answers. Where do his ideas come from: “From a magical place called Boredom.” What would be a terrible pizza topping: “Mike Wallace.”


[Note: You’ll find the extended party remix of this post at The Nervous Breakdown. -Yours truly, RDMS]

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but I’d like to have a few words with you today about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”

I could stop right there and send you all home early, but 1971 was also the year that I learned how to drive. This knowledge was of considerable help to me in dealing with females of my species. But the point I am at last coming around to is this: In 1971, in my summer school English class, my favorite teacher suggested a way to read more books: Keep a list.

Roland had been keeping his own list of the books he’d read since the 1940s, and I’d like to think that the teacher who started Roland down this path had a list that stretched back to the 1920s, and that there was a teacher before him and one before him and so on and thenceforth until we’re back watching Gutenberg knock out his first bible.

Just when you thought no one could have this much fun
This year my list of all the books I’ve read celebrates its 40th anniversary, which will be duly recognized here at the Bureau with cake and ice cream. This milestone seems like the appropriate time to review some highlights from my reading history and see if we can learn what makes fiction worth staying up for till 2am. Fortunately, in the perpetual battle to decide who are the all-time greats in the heady world of novel-writing we have two useful yardsticks to work with:
1)      Music
2)      Sex

Applying these measures to my list uncovers questions that have long stumped the experts, so don’t expect any answers here. For example, why was it that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chronicled the Jazz Age, never chronicled jazz? How did John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, Appointment in Samara) sneak all that illicit sex past the censors of his era? Why do Franz Kafka’s characters invariably play the accordion?

How many writers are on my list, you ask?
I’m not about to answer this question. I don’t know the answer to this question. I was planning on another 40 years of reading before I added it all up. (And if you think I’ve gone over the top with this particular hobby, I refer you to the gentleman behind What I Have Read Since 1974.)

Rest assured I am not about to embark on a survey of the entire list, primarily because I’d have to explain my early infatuation with Andre Norton. For the purpose of this review I am restricting myself to the writers I loved so much that I’ve read more books by them than anyone else.

The results of my studies surprised me, as music and sex in literature appear to be mutually exclusive, unlike in real life, where it’s been my observation that music often makes sex appear. In literature the one seems to drive out the other, except in those sorry cases where they both evaporate. An incisive examination of the five writers at the head of the class will show you what I mean.

My most read writer of all time: C.S. Forester
C. S. Forester was the creator of Captain Horatio Hornblower, The African Queen, and various other historical novels where something explodes, usually after being struck by a cannon ball. Capt. Hornblower could navigate a sloop through a monsoon with nothing more than a circus tent nailed to a broomstick and everyone on half rations and a spoonful of rum, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of music. He was tone deaf. Tone deafness is a terrible affliction that makes every song sound like Boney M’s “Rasputin.” This condition was not shared by Hornblower’s crew, who enjoyed a rousing hornpipe on their way into battle, just as I do on my way into a meeting.

With Forester’s musical credentials looking a bit thin you might hope instead for plenty of sex, but if you are I am withholding your rum. Hornblower and his girlfriend Lady Barbara are not my idea of a liaison dangereuse. The only sex scene I remember in the Forester books I’ve read appears in The African Queen, when Rosie and Mr. Allnut make love in a malarial swamp on a suicidal mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Only the most skilled writer can concoct an erotic scenario of such proportions.

While having sex, Rosie’s breasts grow bigger. I’d like to have a word with Forester about this.

2nd: Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no hiding it. Robert A. Heinlein’s books are a musical wasteland. I can confirm that there is a bad poet in “The Green Hills of Earth” who writes a syrupy little ballad called “The Green Hills of Earth” and then sings it. He is immediately killed by a blast of radiation from the Academy of American Poets.

However, when Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land he released his inner pornographer from the puritanical confinement of pulp fiction. From then on Heinlein’s books are fairly well swollen with sexual activity, and though most of it is only hinted at or happens off-stage or on the other side of the airlock I’m convinced that Bob blazed the trail for three other writers on my list: Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), Nicholson Baker (The Fermata), and Judy Blume (Forever).

3rd: Marge Piercy
Now we’re talking adult themes and situations. Marge Piercy wrote several novels set in the 1960s counterculture; the first three, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, Going Down Fast, and Small Changes, were written while the counterculture was happening. These books are packed with hungrily copulating hippies, but her characters are not motivated, captivated, or levitated by music. There is, however, a bad poet who writes a clichéd little ballad about New Jersey and then sings it. It lacks the punch of “The Green Hills of Earth.”

Piercy deserves applause and a government grant for her sex scenes, and Small Changes is so good on every page that it zaps me right back to Boston in 1973. But I must reluctantly mark her down for missing or ignoring the Summer of Love, the flowering of soul, Woodstock, Let It Be, Sticky Fingers, and the birth of funk and metal. (The absence of country rock works for me.)

4th: John Updike
I find it difficult to assess John Updike with the objectivity for which Run-DMSteve is famous, as Uppy is the only writer who ever died and left a hole in my heart. However, we can safely conclude that Mr. Updike is not shy about sex. The first Rabbit book (1960) prominently featured a sex act that’s so common today they have rooms set aside for it at airports but back then could’ve gotten him lynched in your more conservative precincts. If you’re looking for angst-ridden WASPs tangling in the wrong bedrooms, Updike’s the writer for you.

But while his style is musical, his characters are not. They rarely even turn on the radio, though I remember one story where the grownups at a suburban house party put The Beatles on the turntable and danced in their socks. This is charming but this is not a rave.

Rounding out the fabulous 5: Isaac Asimov
I started this list when I was a teenager so you can stop laughing right now. Hands up – how many of you couple the word “sex” with the word “Asimov”? Well that’s just disgusting. Yes I know who you are.

Asimov’s book of dirty limericks doesn’t count because I never read it. Let’s take a gander instead at the original Foundation trilogy. I loved those books just as much as the next teenage boy, but upon reflection I have to ask: Where did those trillions of babies come from? Zappos? And what did they listen to, besides the narrator?

We don’t read Asimov for music and sex, we read him for rockets and robots.

Mission: Impossible?
The harmonious blending of music and sex within the pages of one novel is an elusive goal but I’m here to tell you it can be done.  Exhibits A and B: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). My more astute readers are probably wondering why I’m only mentioning them here at the end. There is a reason for this and it’s a simple one: I haven’t read them. I have however seen the movies and I even took Special D to a dance where the band from The Commitments played (“Do ye drink then? If ye don’t yer no good!”). Once I’ve finally bagged these two I’ll be able to determine if they are two of the best books ever written, not counting anything by Andre Norton.

Loyal Run-DMSteve readers are welcome to chime in with their own lists of music-and-sex books. Here at the Bureau we could always use some reading suggestions for the next 40 years!