Friday, August 24, 2012

More Baths, Less Talking by Nick Hornby

I've been a devoted fan of Nick Hornby's work for quite a long time.  I remember opening a new bookstore and a friend lending me an early finished copy of High Fidelity and was immediately taken with his prose and his characters.  I knew Rob and Barry and Dick.  They were me and my friends and the dudes from the record store where I shopped and the bookstore where I worked. I, too, made passive/aggressive, not-nearly-so-subtle-as-I-thought-I-was mix tapes for girls I liked.  Hornby nailed it and lad lit was born!  (Cue sunbeams and trumpet fanfare and dropping testicles.) This begat About A Boy, as touching a novel as I'd read and still one of my faves.

Fortunately, Hornby had too much talent to stay too long in the lad lit ghetto and he produced How To Be Good and A Long Way Down and the lovely Juliet, Naked, as well as forays into non-fiction and YA books and screenplays.  Oddly, I didn't follow him into magazine writing because I thought the mag for which he writes, The Believer, all too hipper-than-thou for a dork like me.  With More Baths, Less Talking, I may have to change my thinking.

Sub-titled Notes From the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle With Football, Family and Time Itself, Hornby does what I do with this blog: he writes about what he reads, with plenty of digressions about wife and kids, his outside interests, and his fame, along with gibes and japes at Believer editors and subscribers and a ton of hilarious self-deprecating remarks, albeit far more successfully and entertainingly than do I because he's a celebrated and talented author and I, well, I'm neither celebrated nor particularly talented nor am I an author but more of a lazy schlub with a badly-maintained blog and far too much unqualified opinion.  Go Steelers!  Hurray for Mrs. Next!

That said, Hornby is witty and insightful, his asides are clever and biting, and his reading choices are inspired.  A slim volume at a mere 135 pages, More Baths, Less Talking provided me with lots to consider, plenty to laugh about, and a desire to make this very blog as entertaining as his magazine pieces.  If only I can find the time and acquire the talent.

Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

"Here is what I know:

My name is Budo.
I have been alive for five years.
Five years is a very long time for someone like me to be alive.
Max gave me my name.
Max is the only human person who can see me.
Max's parents call me an imaginary friend.
I love Max's teacher, Mrs. Gosk.
I do not like Max's other teacher, Mrs. Patterson.
I am not imaginary."

So begins Memoirs Of An Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks' beguiling third novel and it's one hell of a set-up.  What the set-up doesn't mention is that Max appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. He is highly functioning but lacks social skills and is unable to break with routine causing him to get "stuck" as Budo most aptly puts it.  

Though quite different in tone, Memoirs has much of the same charm as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and not simply because of the malady both children suffer.  The authors know how to keep the serious aspects light enough while moving an imaginative story forward.  

Budo loves Max and is his (almost) constant companion but he has learned that, as imaginary friends go, he's a bit different.  Because Budo is as Max "has imagined him" and because Max is a bright boy, aspects of Budo's life are more developed than many of the other imaginary friends Budo has encountered, most of whom sleep when their friends sleep and are practically forgotten when the human friend is off at school.  Budo doesn't need to sleep and often wanders off to explore the outside world at night.  He regards two convenience store employees who work the graveyard shift as his friends even though they can't see him.  He has become pals with another imaginary friend, a girl named Graham, as well as other "imaginaries" (my quotation marks, not the authors') who are nothing more than popsicle sticks or a blob on a wall.  Budo understands their limitations.

Aside from his devotion to Max, Budo is keenly aware and deathly afraid of his inevitable fate--when his human friend will no longer need an imaginary friend.  Budo sees this happen repeatedly and it causes him considerable existential angst so he endeavors to make himself essential to Max in order to live forever.  Heady stuff for an imaginary friend, don't you think?  This is where Dicks shines and the book succeeds.  Throughout the book, I was touched by Budo's obvious love for his friend and his own self-awareness.  Dicks can be wildly funny one moment and achingly tender the next. 

Less successful, though still quite compelling, is the story of Max's disappearance and kidnapping which propels the bulk of the book.  Though I found this arc just a bit too tidy, it wasn't enough to cause me not to enjoy the novel a great deal.  While Max is tucked away in a basement room that looks exactly like his own by a teacher gone rogue, Budo is able to see how Max's absence tears at his parents, his teacher, Mrs. Gosk, and causes him to question his own existence.  Even though Max seems content with his routine, is Budo's desire to save Max merely self-preservation or is it the right thing to do? 

This book just came out this week.  Please go to your nearest indie bookseller or library and treat yourself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Of Anniversaries, Longshots, and Frank Deford

Before I give Mr. Deford's new memoir, Over Time, the once-over, I would like to wish myself a happy anniversary as it was six years ago this week that this blog was hatched.  It has grown some, the look has changed a bit but it is still essentially the same: my thoughts on what I read, like it or lump it.  I remain plagued by my procrastinating, something I still can't explain since I'm always much happier once I have written (perhaps a therapist would be of help here) and, of course, my longwindedness and inability to punctuate correctly.   Still, my belief in the book and my admiration for those who write them, publish them, and read them has never wavered.  If you've spent any time here on this site, read a book because of what I've written, avoided one because of same, or just guffawed a bit, I appreciate it immensely.  There are lots of places to go for book info featuring writers far more accomplished than your ol' pal, Reed Next.  That said, I do hope you'll stay with me.  Eventually, I might even get it write right.

I was terribly happy to see The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce's delightful debut, made the longlist for the Man Booker prize.  Likely a longshot but you never know with awards and with the Britons.  Mrs. Next is enjoying the book very much though Mrs. Next reads quite slowly so if I promised to lend you my copy, perhaps you may wish to hold yourself over with another book or purchase it yourself.  Her schoolmarming is about to begin for the year and that might mean she won't finish Harold until the holiday break in December.

Now, as for Frank Deford, let me just say this book was a joy.  I have long been a fan of his writing and his NPR commentaries.  His tenure has spanned a couple of generations of sportswriters and he has watched as sports became less about sport and more about big business. 

One of the things I have always admired about Deford is his honesty.  He knows college football is a shameless racket, that Americans will never embrace soccer as does the rest of the world, that pro tennis is dead.  He'll tell you so in an elegant but straightforward manner, two things lacking in both sports and sportswriting these days.  

Best of all, Deford is a gunslinger.  His vocabulary, his style, his turns of phrase always make me smile and appreciate how easy he makes it look and how hard it must be to write.  Even better, if you like his NPR commentaries, you will read this book and be able to hear his voice, that cadence, and that wink.  

To that end, I give you a graph from chapter two as a tiny taste of what I'm talking about:

"I have always believed that, ideally, your memoirs should be filled with anecdotes about other, more attractive people so that you might improve on the necessarily duller parts of the narrative, i.e., yourself.  David Niven, for example, wrote memoir after memoir, because he knew all the stylish folk in the world, and wherever they were together, in the Hamptons or Gstaad or on yachts in the Mediterranean, they all had big names and they absolutely adored lunches, so they ate and drank long, languid midday repasts and threw off priceless bons mots, one after the other, for Mr. Niven to dress up his own memoirs with.  Alas, although it was not my life's intention at the time when I chanced to become a sportswriter, I have thereafter mostly remained a sportswriter; and I'm afraid athletes don't traffic in bons mots, whether or not I am in their presence with a notepad."

Mmmm.  Scrumptious. Dooooo go on.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Of Frog Hospitals, Cocktail Waitresses and the Ramones

A number of things to mention:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce has made the Man Booker Prize long list.  This will help it acquire the readership I think it deserves and my hopes are high it will make the short list, to be announced in September.  Mrs. Next is reading it now and is enjoying Harold's exploits immensely.  Go buy a copy.

Recently re-read Ramones: An American Band by Jim Bessman, which I'm happy to see is still in print since it came out in 1993 and thus published well before the deaths of Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny.  Bessman provides a capable chronicle of the band though Peter Guralnick he ain't.  Then again, they weren't the type of band or men who needed a bio that went into the detail that Guralnick did.  He writes in a simple, straightforward manner much like the music of the Ramones.  Best of all, reading it made me re-visit my records.  1-2-3-4!! indeed.

I'm currently reading Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore and I'm perplexed much in the same way I am about Paul Harding's Tinkers: why aren't these books lighting me up?  Both contain captivating stories and sparkling prose but they seem to lack drive.  Perhaps this is by design but I keep waiting for both to really grab me and with only 40 pages left in Moore's book, I'm left wanting.  (I haven't even finished Tinkers and I started that two months ago.)  Will their respective endings be what I'm after or are my expectations wrong?  I'll find out soon enough.

Went to a re-sale shop yesterday where I always find good books on the cheap.  Though pickings were a bit slim, I walked out with an old but intriguing short story collection from 1951, Love In the Time of Cholera, which I'm ashamed to say I've never read, a copy of Russo's brilliant Empire Falls, which I intend to give to a new, young friend, and Illusions by Richard Bach.  Many will poo-poo the Bach book but I'm a fervent fan and re-read it most every summer.  Since I often lend it out or give it away, I found myself without a copy recently so luck was on my side.  Donald Shimoda is a remarkable character and even though Bach is dismissed as mawkish, I just love this story.  Poo-poo all you wish.  Illusions is to me a pleasure for which I feel no guilt.

Once again, I've been the recipient of much book love, this time from my homie, 'Chele, who sent a care package from Random House, et. al.  which contains: 
  • Buddy: How A Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGory,  
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead about which I'm hearing good buzz, 
  • Robin Shulman's Eat the City, which looks absolutely fascinating,  
  • The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, about which I know nothing so I'm trusting 'Chele, and
  • Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum.  The caveat here is that it was blurbed by the insufferable Chuck Klosterman who I think is so overrated, his popularity defies all logic, and by Rob Sheffield, whose rock writing credentials are solid but who grossly disappointed me with Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.  It should have been brilliant.  It wasn't.

Most exciting is The Cocktail Waitress, the "lost, final novel" by James M. Cain.  I'm attempting to keep my expectations low since, if it's so good, one wonders why it wasn't found sooner.  Still, if it's half as good as his classic noir tales, it might be a worthy though late addition to his small but influential body of work.