November 29, 2006
This year, when friends have asked for new music recommendations, the first artist I mention has been Casey Dienel. Ever since hearing "Doctor Monroe" in January, I have been hooked on the singer-songwriter's clever, tightly-written songs. In fact, while preparing for my 2006 favorite albums list, I discovered I had played Dienel's debut album, Wind-up Canary, more often than any other during the year.
I confess that my tastes in books have always teetered on the girlish side. That’s an admission of pride on my part, because the books I came to know so intimately as a kid were like friends to me. Until I was ten or so, my family moved around every couple of years from state to state before finally settling in Massachusetts. Probably, as a result, I grew up with a bit of Anne Shirley in me—which is to say, I was a ‘girl with her nose in the books,’ and usually those girls grow up reading painstakingly-detailed social intrigue novels, elaborately imagined fantasy tales chock-full of velvet thrones, gruesome flying reptiles breathing fire or vast, medieval gilded kingdoms. When on the grammar school playground in line for the monkey bars, relentlessly teased for being four-eyed, knobby-kneed dishwater blond, I was always one to take solace in my books back at home. I was one of those kids who got sent to the principal for reading underneath her desk during social studies. I was, in every sense of the word, a total nerd. A dodge ball target. A Bookworm. I was an idealistic escapist even then, but what a rich escape world it was! In particular, I prescribed to the provinces of C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Dodie Smith, Frank L. Baum, and Jane Austen. Later on, in high school, while brooding my way through puberty, I met Herman Hesse. I’ve always gravitated towards descriptive, rich, and intricate books. The sort of stories that take time to digest. I love to re-read books, too. I wore my copy of the Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe down to the binding. It came in a complete box set of the Chronicles of Narnia, my very first box set ever, and I still remember that new-book smell that lasted through the first chapters. Those books were so gratifying to me because the time I invested in them, in turn, nurtured my own imagination. I spent hours re-enacting the crowning of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve in Cair Paravel. On rainy days, my sister and I erected the Land of Oz in our family room with quilts and pillows. I cast myself as Jack Pumpkinhead, and my sister would play Ozma, dressed in a regal white bed sheet with a green string of yarn tied around the crown of her head. To this day, no matter where I live, usually my books outnumber all of my possessions (vinyl, shoes, cooking utensils). They line my walls, clutter my piano, and if they end up seeming rather lackluster after I’m done with them, find themselves fated to be doorstops. I guess, like a shopaholic or record fanatic, the justification goes: “You never know when you might need them.” Since I spend the majority of my days now with music, writing, or travel, reading is a good way to sever all of that noise with some peace and quiet. Usually my mornings go like this: coffee, and then a newspaper or chapter from whatever I’m reading in bed. I know it sounds pretty pedestrian, but it’s become the best way for me to segue into several hours of sound. Here are a few of the things I’ve been really enamored with lately, and perhaps they’ll spark your imagination, too:
Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey
I don’t know her personally, but I think that Harvey was also once “that girl with her nose in the books.” This is a collection of poems that I love to read and reread, and to be fair, they’re more like puzzles than poems. Good writing, in my humble opinion, should engage all of your senses. It should be tactile, visual, audible, and all of that. If it’s good, you feel searing heat, smell falling snow, hear the scratching of violins, or taste gunmetal on your tongue. Harvey’s poems, to me, are true sensory poems. While some post-modern poetry seem to be emotionally detached from the subjects and fussy with experimentalism, Harvey’s modern line constructions and the scattered, almost paranoid voices that flit through these poems buzz with life and personality. They’re never emotionally disembodied, and you can tell she is someone who genuinely loves language. Even the subject matter that would normally come off as heavy seems jittery and excited in her hands. They’re also ridiculously musical, to my mind. I even have a set of instrumental pieces I’ve been trying to working on for awhile involving her “introduction” poems from this book, though who knows when it will ever be finished. Go here to read one of my favorite poems. http://www.pw.org/mag/pageone_harvey.htm
The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain
This is one of Twain’s later works, I think the second to last piece of published writing he wrote. I grew up reading stuff like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but had never progressed to his later, meatier, more unsettling books. The stranger in the title is a boy named Satan who appears one day to entertain the wishes of three boys from the monastery. This one is a quick and easy read, a novella that my friend passed on to me. But despite its brevity, it deals with so many wonderful questions: who is God? What does it mean to be Evil? Is God indifferent? The joy in the questions is really how deconstructed and unresolved the answers to them are, I think. It’s the responsibility a good storyteller to straddle several disparate perspectives at once; to amend something we would traditionally divide into “right” or “wrong” beyond simplistic categorization. I love when writers are brave enough to approach the duplicity in the things we have been taught are pure or terrible, and for a lot of writers, it’s the kind of challenge surmountable only after a long life of observance. Twain’s voice is less jovial in this book, but his trademark sense of wickedly wry humor crops up throughout as he ridicules organized religion, monarchies, and their blind followers.
The Flounder by Gunther Grass
I’m not yet finished with this book, but I’ll be sad when it’s done. I really like Grass’ style—it’s all over the place, spanning cultures in Mesopotamia to modern day Germany, and centers around the folk tale of the Flounder. Every couple of centuries, a fisherman catches the flounder that reveals to him the secrets of a patriarchal civilization. First he whispers to him the power of fire and hunting, then metallurgy, and eventually introduces him to violence, war and cultural progress. The Flounder instigates the start of history, as we know it. As a result, the prehistoric matriarchal societies undergo a gradual dissolution where men begin to exert their power, resulting in empires and kingdoms. What is the merit of an empire if it is corrupted? Is progress important at the risk of innocent lives? What is the merit of a culture that never develops? Were the women in the matriarchal societies aware of their power over the men? Grass isn’t someone who glosses over the fine print or shies away from the hard stuff—he is a master of complexity comprised of the minutiae, and his words are wonderfully decadent. The book is a thick and giant stew of myth, legend, factual history, fantasy, humor, violence, re-incarnation, farce, human pathos, midwifery, manipulation, gastronomy—all of that is thrown together with decadent language and awesome folklore.