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Biography of a Rock Star: Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin

We’re all getting older, even rock stars. (Hey, it beats the alternative; see, for example, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman.) And, as we all do, rock stars like to look back on their lives and what makes a licvr9781439191835_9781439191835_lgfe. So it’s only natural that the aging stars of a 60-year-old musical genre would want to share their thoughts about their seven or eight decades of life.

Recent years have produced some good biographies and autobiographies, such as Keith Richards’s Life, Anthony Kiedis’s Scar Tissue, Eric Clapton’s Clapton: The Autobiography, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. This year seems like the year to celebrate rock stars, though. I’ve read reviews of quite a few memoirs and biographies that are now on my reading list: Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear, Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, and R. J. Smith’s biography of James Brown, The One. These are just some I’ve heard about or artists I like. I’m sure you could name many others. But all of these had to take a backseat to the one rock-star biography I had to read: Peter Ames Carlin’s lovely book called, simply, Bruce.

You see, I’m a Bruce fan, a Tramp, a nut about all things Springsteen. Even my standard username comes from the lyrics of one of his earlier songs. I’ve got a whole shelf in my bookcase reserved for books about or by Bruce, including the first and most well-known of the biographies, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run and Glory Days. Some other Bruce fans know a lot more of his story than I do, but it’s pretty hard to get the jump on me when it comes to Bruce info or news. Just ask my husband or my friend Chris.

Peter Carlin, though, found a way to offer even big, know-it-all fans like me an interesting story or two about Bruce. I found the Bruce Springsteen in his biography to be engaging, funny, articulate, driven, intense, awkward, musically brilliant, big-hearted, and mixed-up; but I already know he’s all those things. Carlin also showed me a Bruce who’s annoying, obsessed, selfish, confused, depressed, closed-off, and, finally, in the end, relaxed—all of which make him human as well. And, of course, that’s his greatest quality for us Tramps, that he’s “just like us.” (Even though he isn’t, really.)

Carlin does something else that I found particularly worthy in a biographer: he writes well. His sentences are well-constructed, paragraphs flow with a natural rhythm not often found in popular music writing (the pretentious mess that is rock music criticism just infuriates me), and his informal style matches his subject’s without overstepping the bounds of intelligent writing. I found the book to be (mostly) well edited, too, which is always a plus for me. (Gratuitous plug for my other blog goes here.)

No doubt Carlin owes Bruce’s manager, Jon Landau, a debt of gratitude, for Landau—who contacted Carlin when he heard about his book in draft—opened the doors to many more interviews with Bruce’s family and band than Carlin might have otherwise wrangled. It’s likely that the stories from the family helped shape the reader’s sense of Bruce by explaining where he came from and what he was up against in the family’s history of depression and struggle for the American dream. And the way Bruce cavalierly dismissed members of the E Street Band around the Tunnel of Love sessions and the end of that tour wasn’t exactly magnanimous, as we hear a good deal of honest and still a little bitter reminiscences from Garry Tallent, Clarence Clemons, and Max Weinberg.

Last, Carlin must be a Tramp, too, because he sure does a great job of understanding and explaining the songs. After all, that’s half of what we fans love to do: talk about what the songs mean and how they relate to our own lives. Carlin gave me a new perspective on several of Bruce’s songs, and for that alone I’d recommend the book to any Bruce fan.

For those of you who are more casual fans or just like to read about rock stars’ lives, you’ll find something to like and something to ponder in Carlin’s Bruce. Let me know if you become a Tramp; I’ve got a few more books you might like.


The Swerve

I always thought I received an above-average education from my rural Pennsylvania high school and from the state college just a few miles away. After all, many people I met after college didn’t seem to know much or care about literature, music, art, language, or history, not to the extent that I did. Yet, as I made my way in the world, I learned that I was sorely deficient in one area: classical antiquitySwerve_TipIn_FINAL.indd. I had no clue whether Virgil was Greek or Roman; whether Aristophanes wrote in the same century as Sophocles or Euripides, much less what they wrote; who sent the big wooden horse into Troy; why Rome was a republic but all the leaders seemed to be emperors; what Plato said that was different from Socrates; and I hadn’t even heard of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, or Lucretius.

I picked up some info along the way, and, being increasingly curious about what I didn’t know, I began to learn a little here and there. Then my daughter went off to Reed College, where every freshman is required to learn about the Greeks in the fall semester and the Romans in the spring semester. Like many Reed parents, I was envious of what she’d learn, so I began doing a little reading on my own: The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid, Herodotus’ Histories. I even read a condensed version of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (he wrote six big volumes), which helped me understand how Rome was a republic and an empire. All very fine, except I had no one to put any of these classics into context for me.

Until now.

In his wonderful, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt helpfully describes much of the world I’d never learned about: the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, Epicurean philosophy, Stoicism, the development of early Christianity, paganism, papal courts, medieval religious orders, and more. For that alone, I’d rate this book high on my list.

But Greenblatt isn’t my classics professor (would that he were!), and he’s telling a specific story. That story involves the search for lost ancient books by intellectuals in the early Renaissance period, particularly one Poggio Bracciolini, a papal clerk who found Lucretius’ lost masterpiece, “On the Nature of Things” (De rerum natura). It seems that Lucretius was an ardent follower of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who espoused a life in pursuit of pleasure, believing that the gods didn’t care about us mortals and therefore didn’t offer us life after death. Lucretius gave that idea its own immortality in what many believe (including Greenblatt) is an exquisite poem that astonishes us moderns with its foresight and insight. (More on that in a minute.)

Unfortunately, time and nature do their thing, and Lucretius’ poem, although owned by many in ancient Rome, is lost to history. Greenblatt helps us understand how that could have happened, as he relates the story of Rome’s demise, particularly its cultural relics, at the hands of the newly powerful Christians. (It seems the pagan Romans had oppressed the early Christians for so long that, when Christianity became popular and Rome’s emperors began following the new religion, the tables were turned.) Rome’s pagan gods were chased underground and so was its culture, including books and philosophy. Monks and scribes had copied many of the Roman books, of course, but the messages in them were dangerous now, so they were gathered and hoarded, locked away into monasteries where they couldn’t be read or discussed.

Until some well-placed Roman and papal intellectuals in the 14th and 15th centuries began hunting for them, finding them, and sharing their discoveries with each other. At first, they’re cautious in sharing the dangerous texts, but then the ideas in them bubble over into what was quickly becoming the Renaissance, and all bets were off. Once returned to intellectual discussion, the poem’s ideas about atomism—the belief that everything in the universe is made of tiny particles in constant motion, that “swerve”; about evolution over intelligent design (prefiguring Darwin); about heliocentrism (prefiguring Copernicus); and about the nonexistence of an afterlife took hold cautiously but steadily gained status with intellectuals and, says Greenblatt, presaged what we think of as the modern world. (Note: My list is hardly inclusive of what Greenblatt itemized, and he says his is hardly inclusive of Lucretius. Talk about mind-blowing!)

At the end of the book Greenblatt outlines the astonishing effect on humanity of Lucretius’ poem by tracing its influence through a short cultural history of science, literature, philosophy, and religion, citing works by and ideas from Niccolo Machiavelli, Erasmus, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson.

There’s so much more to learn from this book, and probably so much more that you could take from it that I missed. It’s definitely one to put on your list and savor. My only regret at its conclusion is that I had finished probably the best book I’ll read in 2013, and everything else will pale in comparison.

Bring Up the Bodies

I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a couple years ago and loved it—what with its intimate view of Henry VIII and Tudor England through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes. Mantel’s achievement was to transform a historical figure mostly denigrated over time into a caring, generous, intelligent man whose actions were all of a piece. That is, he served Henry and only Henry, and if his (Cromwell’s) enemies could be served their just desserts simultaneously, all the better. Wolf Hall deservedly won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, the UK’s top honor for its homegrown fiction.9780805090031

So it was with a great deal of excitement and anticipation that I read about Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s second novel in the Cromwell series. The reviews (New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, an especially good one) heightened my anticipation, and then I read that Mantel won the Man Booker Prize with this sequel as well. You couldn’t ask for better odds of an excellent fiction read than this, right?

So why am I not as thrilled after finishing Bring Up the Bodies? I honestly don’t know. Cromwell’s character remains fascinating and sympathetic. He’s hard as nails but generous to his friends and family, sparing but precise in his conversation, unerringly calculating in interactions with powerful people. He mourns his dead wife and children, worries about his sons and wards, cares about his king’s emotional and family life, and even admires his enemies’ skill in avoiding incrimination.

Mantel continues the unique point of view for Cromwell; that is, the reader feels that it’s a first-person perspective, yet it’s told in the third person. The action begins with innocuous action or conversations that become significant as the story builds to the climax of Anne Boleyn’s disgrace and death (with four of her lovers). So Mantel retains the tone and pacing of the first novel, and I certainly enjoyed both. Yet somehow I felt underwhelmed by the book.

Perhaps it was my fault. Almost two-thirds of the book I read over the course of several weeks, a little at a time. Only in the last 100 pages did I put aside other duties (you know how it is when a book finally grabs you and you can’t put it down!) to immerse myself in the story. Perhaps it was my distaste for a television series I’d been watching somewhat simultaneous to the novel: The Tudors, originally aired on Showtime and full of bodice-ripping sex and Jonathan Rhys-Davies glowering in the unfortunately miscast protagonist, Henry VIII. Watching this series’ take on the same history and characters, I just couldn’t get the series out of my head while reading Mantel. My bad.

Yet, for all my failings as a reader, I still enjoyed the read. Cromwell, as Mantel envisions him, is a fascinating character. She also manages to make Anne Boleyn conniving, controlling, irredeemable yet intelligent and a worthy adversary for Cromwell—at the same time that she encourages us to root for Henry’s love for Jane Seymour, a pale and timid woman whose piety attracts the monarch when he’s attempting to establish himself as head of the British church and therefore conscientious of his religiosity. That helps him to cast off Boleyn and prefer the pious Jane.

I’m eager for the third installment of Mantel’s Cromwell series. I think I’ll read it in one sitting, just to ensure I don’t get sidetracked by other influences.

Hollywood Shack Job Does a Bad Job

A number of years ago I heard about Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius (satellite radio) and pestered the hubby to subscribe so we could listen. Absolutely worth the cost of the subscription! It’s my favorite radio station (with apologies to my second-favorite, the local college station) and it’s where I discover lots of new (and old) music. Little Steven’s daily commentaries are a hoot but also provide a good deal of fascinating info on everything from rock and roll to medieval history to Martin Scorsese.

So it was with a great deal of excitement that I opened the pages of the book I got for Christmas, Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music in Film and on Your Screen. Mike heard Steven rave about the book on his program, saying one chapter was “worth the price of admission.” The author, Harvey Kubernik, is a production consultant (whatever that is) on the Underground Garage, but even knowing the probable bias from Little Steven didn’t deter Mike. So he bought it for me, and my brief glance on Christmas Day showed chapters on Kim Fowley and Andrew Loog Oldham. Sounds fun, right?

Wrong. Kubernik’s approach to sharing his love of music in film is misguided, poorly executed, and downright obfuscating. Each chapter is an interview with an individual who has some kind of role in getting music on film: musician, songwriter, producer, filmmaker, director, music or film critic, screenwriter, documentarian, or music supervisor. Many of these people seem fascinating and have some interesting things to say, but the interview approach just doesn’t work for all of them. Kubernik does nothing to clarify any inarticulate commentary, and his interview skills remind me of the kind you’d find in Teen Beat magazine—”What’s your favorite soundtrack?” Really?

The book’s title provides a clue to Kubernik’s writing style, which is hardly one I’d expect from the author of an academic press. The Urban Dictionary says a shack job is “any couple that cohabit without benefit of marriage,” usually meaning a mistress. So he’s using an old hippie term for the relationship between music and film? Does he really think music and film will never be married? If so, there’s absolutely nothing in these pages to indicate that. Instead, he wanders across time, formats, perspectives, and roles to enthuse about music in film without bothering to educate his readers on how to appreciate a good marriage between the two.

And pardon me for complaining about something I know a lot about, but the editor of this book should be shot. I’m appalled that a university press (University of New Mexico Press in this case) would publish something this bad. Each chapter presents a kind of bio at the beginning, followed by the Q&A with Kubernik. But every single chapter also includes a bio at the end of the chapter, which invariably includes almost identical information from the beginning. There’s no reason for both, and a good editor would have insisted on combining them. In addition, the structure of the book is poor and, even if the interview presentation were kept, a restructuring and reordering would have greatly enhanced reader comprehension. And the many typos and ungrammatical errors are just inexcusable.

If you want to learn about music in the movies, find some other book to read because this one won’t help you a bit.

Catching-Up Roundup

Contrary to the evidence of my blogging (or absence therefrom) since midyear in 2012, I continued to read several books before the year was out. And because reading has always been so much more rewarding to me than writing, I of course found time to read but not to write.

Now that the freezer and cupboards are stuffed and the wintry weather precludes other pressing activities, I’m back here to attend to this poor neglected blog. It seems I’ve read quite a few books since I last wrote, but I’d never do them justice after so many weeks since reading them. Therefore a catching-up, single post to tell you about them in short spurts.

Giotto’s Hand

A number of years ago I read a fun detective story by Iain Pears, called The Instance of the Fingerpost, and determined to read more by him. Last year I read a somewhat complex story of his called The Dream of Scipio, and this year I thoroughly enjoyed Giotto’s Hand. The latter is much less intense than the other two, being a great mystery for beach and other summer reading. It seems it’s one in a series, by which I suppose the characters recur in other novels. This one is a delightful mystery about art theft, with interesting characters and charming dialogue. [Like]

Case Histories

Really, it’s quite astonishing how serendipitous life can be! I enjoy mysteries occasionally, but don’t really read them very often. Yet right after finishing the Pears book, I picked up Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, thinking it was a “woman’s novel.” Turns out it was another mystery, this time a Jackson Brodie mystery (that’s the main character’s name). Although this one includes darker deeds to unravel than art theft, it was nevertheless just as enjoyable (and quick!) a read as the previous. This one concerns a group of sisters who have been haunted by the long-ago disappearance of their youngest sibling. There’s much sadness over loss of a loved one, yet most of the characters we care about find happy endings in the last chapter. Another good read for the beach or summer. [Like]

When We Were Orphans

images-2If you haven’t read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, you must correct this oversight post haste! This guy is an amazingly good writer—his prose, his characters, his stories, his imagination are all mesmerizing. I read Never Let Me Go a few years ago and determined that I would read more of his stuff. So my next book was When We Were Orphans, a great story about a young British boy who grew up in Shanghai in the early 20th century. The story veers back and forth between his childhood (as he tells it) and his attempts (as an adult) to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance in Shanghai. The story is a page-turner, and the first-person perspective in this case is essential to the characterization of Banks (the boy’s name). This novel was one of my favorites of the year. [Love]

Forever 50 and Other Negotiations

My sister gave me a charming volume of poems, Forever 50 and Other Negotiations by Judith Viorst, for my birthday this year. I read it in about half an hour, but I did so enjoy it. The humor you may recognize (Viorst is the author of that classic children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), but the sentiments are perfect for those of us whose age is closer to the cost of a tank of gas than a cup of coffee. [Like]

Brunelleschi’s Dome

imagesAfter reading a slew of novels, I’m usually in the mood for a good history or unexpected nonfiction of some kind. So I turned to Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture in the fall. What a treat this book was! My knowledge of architecture of any kind is pretty much nil, yet I found fascinating King’s account of how Florence’s wool guild (it’s complicated) commissioned Brunelleschi to complete the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral by designing and building the dome that covers it. It seems he invented several new devises and apparatuses to hurdle the immense problems of weight and transportation of the materials available in 15-century Italy. And, this being a story of Renaissance Italy, there’s all kinds of intrigue and nastiness among Brunelleschi’s peers to keep your interest. [Love]

The Hobbit

If you’re reading my blog, it’s highly likely that you know about J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Suffice to say I was determined to reread it before the movie came out. And being a Tolkien geek of a rather high level, I had to see the movie on the day of its release, December 14. So I put down The Pickwick Papers (see below) about a third of the way in, and lost myself in this beloved story for what I think was the ninth time. By the way, the book is better, but go see the movie anyway. [Love]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

-2About a year ago my dad recommended Stieg Larsson’s books to me, which may seem somewhat odd for a retired English professor to do. But this is the guy who taught me (yeah, I took his classes in college) about the value of genre literature (whatever that means), particularly via Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler. So knowing I was just a few pages away from finishing my book and facing a four-hour flight, I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the plane. Thank goodness Stieg Larsson isn’t Dan Brown! The last time I succumbed to friends’ exhortations to read a crime thriller kind of book receiving major hype and popularity, I found myself laughing out loud at the inane and pathetically lame writing of Angels and Demons (I refuse to link you to a site for buying the book because it’s that awful). This one is dark and nasty, yet the writing is up to the task of the novel, which is, after all, plenty enough to keep the pages turning and the characters doing. Speaking of the characters, I found them much more intriguing than I thought I would, especially Lisbeth Salander. And, speaking again of movie adaptations, I found the one with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara quite good. Mara totally deserved an Academy Award nomination for that role. [Like]

The Pickwick Papers

-1 About four years ago I decided I should read more Dickens than I had at that point; after all, I enjoyed every one I’d read (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities). I set myself a goal to read one new Dickens novel each year, and with the possible exception of the rather maudlin Old Curiosity Shop, every new one has been great fun. This morning I finished The Pickwick Papers, and can categorically say that it is the most delightful and light-hearted of all of them. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller are two of the most wonderful characters and great fun in all ways. And of course there’s Mr. Winkle, Mr. Weller senior, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Wardle, Mr. Tupman, and many other memorable personages whose exploits take up this long novel. The story starts rather slow (glad the intro by Richard Russo warned me!), but keep with it to share the fun of Sam’s commentary, Pickwick’s absurd situations, and Dickens’s delight in all kinds of humanity. [Love]

Sargent’s Daughters

Earlier this year I traveled to Boston and insisted on a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts. After stumbling on my first in-person view of a John Singer Sargent painting (Portrait of Dorothy at the Dallas Art Museum) a few years previously, I was determined to see my favorite Sargent, the one that started my love of his work. You see, my sister had made her own visit to the MFA, way back in the 1980s, and sent me a poster that reminded her of me and our other sisters. You’ve probably guessed that it’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

I’ve had the poster from JaneE (now framed) hanging in my home or office for 30 years, and the sight of it never fails to remind me of the bond I have with my sisters. So seeing the original, in person, I warned my companions in Boston, would probably make me cry. And it did. The painting is what made me a lifelong Sargent fan, although I didn’t know a whole lot about him, and it’s an excellent example of why his work endures.

On our way out of the museum, we stopped at the store, and I found a small book about the painting, which I had to purchase. That book—Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirshler—is the subject of this commentary.

True to its subtitle, the book provides much information about the life of the painting, plus digressions about the Boits themselves and a little biographical info about Sargent (I wanted more on him, but I’ll have to consult a good biography of him and not his painting, I guess). Expecting that I’d devour the book, I found it a bit plodding instead, taking close to two full weeks to read just 220 pages. Hirshler explores the Boits’ family history and lineage to illustrate their late 19th-century wealth and lifestyle; the privileged lives that the Boit girls had as children, traveling often between Newport, Rhode Island, and Paris; and the lives they completed as unmarried women. Because so few diaries or journals from the family exist today, Hirshler often imagines their lives and activities through other people of that time and class. These digressions, although necessary to lend credence to the author’s assertions, often struck me as just too much detail (e.g., the kind and make of the doll the youngest daughter holds in the painting). The writing style is somewhat stiff and academic, yet I found myself caught up in the Boit family and their griefs and triumphs.

Some of the most interesting reading about the painting comes when Hirshler describes its reception when Sargent first showed it, in later exhibitions during his lifetime, and its treatment by art historians since then. I was unaware of its cultural influence (on the modest side), and I appreciated Hirshler’s confident analysis of Sargent’s influences and aim for the work. (Frankly, there’s too much going on in the painting for me to provide here, since I’m reviewing her book and not the painting. Check out what Wikipedia has to say if you’re interested; it’s pretty much along the lines that Hirshler provided, although much shorter.)

For my own part, I’ve entertained many ideas about my sisters in parallel with the girls in the painting. The eldest is obscured, unseen, and my oldest sister has lived most of her adult life far away from the rest of us. A younger girl stands in the back, dark corner in a kind of solidarity with the eldest, yet she looks directly at the viewer with an open and candid face (that’s me, forever bound to JaneE, come hell or high water, but eager to please and engage the rest of the family). The blond stands apart from the others, with no props or expression to understand her unknown thoughts, much as I think of our (blond) sister Judy, who died at the age of 18 in what at least one of us thinks was suicide. And then there’s the youngest, still a baby and forever remembered that way, which is how we have so often (and unkindly) treated our younger sister. That personal view isn’t the only one I’ve entertained, as I sometimes see myself as the blond standing apart, or even as the obscured girl leaning against the vase. These projections of the girls’ portrait onto my own family aren’t unusual, apparently. Hirshler says the fascination with the girls is a huge part of the appeal of Sargent’s work.

We left the MFA shop with a Daughters of Edward Darley Boit magnet, two postcards, and this book. But I didn’t find a replacement for the poster from JaneE. It’s a bit faded and those long-ago thumbtack holes (before I could afford a frame) are still visible, yet I proudly display it in my new office (at home) and will probably keep it nearby the rest of my life.

This Wheel’s on Fire

A couple weeks ago I finished a really wonderful rock and roll biography, this one by Levon Helm of the Band; it’s called This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band.

In the past 10 years, I’ve grown to love Levon in his solo career and been reminded of how much I always loved the Band from my youth. I’ve attended some concerts of his and been to a Midnight Ramble. And the only other performer I know who takes such obviously unbridled joy in performing is Bruce Springsteen. Levon’s dazzling smile while playing never failed to make me grin like a goofball, and the affection and love he showed to his bandmates (especially daughter Amy) warmed my heart.

In the late 1990s he learned that he had throat cancer, lost his voice for a while, but battled back and eventually put out three Grammy-winning albums and toured with the Levon Helm Band. That’s when I saw him with my daughter (a Band fanatic of the highest order).

All of that happened after he wrote this book, however, and makes a wonderful coda to his career and life. This Wheel’s on Fire tells the story of a young man who found himself in an amazing time and place in the history of rock and roll.

Levon isn’t his real name, of course. It’s Mark Lavon Helm. He was born and raised in Arkansas, across the Mississippi from Memphis. His hometown and county produced some big hitters (besides him): Conway Twitty and Sonny Boy Williamson. He saw lots of shows by the early pioneers of rock and roll, and of course his family’s love of music and the musical melting pot that was the South (country, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass, and New Orleans rhythms).

Levon tells his story in the straight-shooting, straight-talking voice that you’d expect from him. His simple approach to life, country upbringing, and Southern perspective help him deliver his tale with wisdom, humor, and real passion that are hard to deny.

Each day I read a little more, I found the experience to be particularly bittersweet, as I began the book less than a week before he died, just one day before the family’s announcement that he was in his final battle with throat cancer.

If you’re a Robbie Robertson fan, you may want to pass on reading Levon’s story (although he was quite fair and decorous when describing the falling-out the two old friends had, eventually leading to the break-up of the Band). For all you other music lovers, find a copy of this book and read it (it’s not too long and reads really quickly and easily). You’ll be glad you did.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Okay, confession time: I know better than to leave my readers hanging for two months! When I worked on the web team, we used to complain about bloggers who let weeks go by between posts, yet here I am ignoring you all. My apologies.

I have reasons for the delay, of course. Some are just excuses, I guess, but one good reason for the delay is that the book I read and want to share with you was twelve hundred pages! That’s the equivalent of three midsize novels, you know, so it took me some time to read the thing. Then I went on a two-week road trip (and saw lots of funny signs). And it’s gardening season, so there’s tons to do. And I took on an editing project. But enough excuses. Let’s talk about a real classic novel that’s loads of fun to read!

If you crave rainy days for the chance to snuggle in bed with a book, or if you’ve ever openeThe Count of Monte Cristod a book at the library and found yourself immersed in the story after one paragraph, or if you’re on a kick to read the classics (like me), The Count of Monte Cristo is the book you want to pick up next.

This classic French novel by Alexandre Dumas has it all: adventure, romance, betrayal, murder mystery, history, homosexuality, the meaning of life, Eastern exoticism, drug abuse—except no whales. Almost everyone knows the outlines of the story—a young man is wrongfully accused and imprisoned and escapes with the help of an older prisoner who gives him great wealth, which he uses to exact his revenge on his betrayers—but that’s so minimal an idea of the story that you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading it. Don’t assume you know the story based on the Richard Chamberlain miniseries from the ’70s or the Guy Pearce movie from 2002 or any of the many other plays, movies, and operas based on the book.

Rather than provide a synopsis of the plot (you can find that in all kinds of places, including most of the links above), I’ll share a little of the elements promised above.


Daring prison escape, delicately timed rescues, a duel at dawn, runaway horse carriage, a chase after a suspected murderer, a hunt for hidden treasure—shall I go on?—escape from the gendarmes, the return of a banished emperor, a dash to save a ruined and suicidal merchant, an attack on the pasha’s harem. I’ll stop for now, but you get the picture.


At the start of the novel, our hero is set to marry the love of his life, Mercedes. But her cousin is jealous and broods about the impending nuptials. Much later, a young officer risks life and limb for his love, whom he secretly visits on a ladder overlooking her garden wall. An independent and strong-willed young woman cross-dresses and escapes the stifling society her family forces on her in order to live and love her friend in Italy. And an aristocratic young man looking for love in Rome chases a pretty young woman with violets during a carnival.


The novel’s first betrayal comes when our hero is falsely accused as a Bonapartist by his fiance’s cousin and the junior office on his ship; his father’s friend is privy to the betrayal but does not stop it. A wealthy banker is betrayed by his wife, who has an affair (and a child) with the chief prosecutor. Another aristocrat is betrayed by his second wife, who poisons several people in his family in order to assure her son’s inheritance. A dyed-in-the-wool Bonapartist is betrayed by his son, who becomes a Royalist.

Murder Mystery

An aristocratic family is besieged by many deaths in just a few short weeks, and the doctor suspects poison and a murderer. A cheeky young man from an orphanage weasels his way into high society but his black-mailing colleague from prison is found stabbed to death. There’s also a hanging in Rome and a gang of thieves who threaten murder of one or two key characters and demand ransoms.


The historical background is key to the novel, and I must say I was delighted to finally understand some of the Napoleonic period, as well as the period of his exile. Because the novel travels to Italy and the Levant as well, I found the historical context essential.


Eugénie and Louise’s relationship is surely one of the first lesbian relationships widely accepted by the general reading public since Sappho.

The Meaning of Life

As his vengeance takes hold and heads for completion, our hero begins to question himself. He sees the residual effect his complicated plans have on the innocent and shows his noble nature during a long conversation with Max, who is willing to die for the loss of Valentine.

Eastern Exoticism

A young French aristocrat goes hunting one day and happens upon a hidden den of Eastern treasures. The parallel to Aladdin is all too keen, and the imagery is rife with the 19th century’s (warped) ideas of the Orient. The orphaned daughter of Ali Pasha shares her culture with our hero and his friends, as two young society men are fascinated by her Eastern music and boudoir.

Drug Abuse

Our hero learns poisons and drugs while traveling in the East, and he shares a dollop of hashish with a young friend of his. The description of their hallucinations is a worthy precursor to Conan Doyle and Hunter Thompson (I just made that last one up: I’ve never read Hunter Thompson).

Of Gadgets and Bubbles

I’ve not posted for a bit because I wanted to collect my thoughts about the last two books I read. They tackle similar topics but in different ways, and I think you’ll enjoy hearing about them together. The first one is You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, which I had discovered in a wonderful book review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books about a year ago. (Sue Halpern included it in a review in NYRB later in the year as well.)

You Are Not a Gadget

Knowing absolutely nothing about Lanier but being immensely eager to keep up with technology news (now that I’m self-employed and can’t rely on an institutional employer to pay for conferences and workshops), I began reading the book almost as soon as I’d received the package from Amazon (within six months is fast for me!). It’s You Are Not a Gadgeta short, quick read, but I knew within five pages that I was going to love this one. Lanier is brilliant, occasionally funny, introspective, philosophical, widely knowledgeable, and personable. And he cares about what he loves—technology—and wants us to care as well.

A bit of an iconoclast (even though he’s been a stalwart in digital technology since the 1980s), Lanier quickly explains his premise: the progress of digital communication, specifically via the Internet, has taken a turn that, if not adjusted, will diminish us as humans. How can that be, you ask? Lanier blames the development of Web 2.0 features, the very thing that (we’ve heard) freed us to express ourselves as citizens, as innovators, as individuals. The problem, he explains, is that, in our eager self-expression, we’ve settled for “lock in,” a point in design or programming at which the complexity is too much to sort out and the final product therefore includes an inherent flaw that cannot be changed. (Lanier’s great example is MIDI, the music program that is the standard for musicians and composers but hasn’t been able to express a glissando.)

The lock-in model of the Internet we’ve accepted is the one in which individual users ecstatically add content—reviews, maps, music, text, photos, videos—that may copy others’ creative efforts, that is, we’re obsessed with creating mashups instead of new work. As we continue to concoct our content by cobbing together other original material, we ignore existing rules about plagiarism and copyright and value (payment) for originality. That dismissal of the need to protect original work diminishes our society’s value of that work.

According to Lanier, the diminishment has begun in music already. He argues (very convincingly, for this reader) that popular music has not produced a new form since the start of the Web. Rap and hip-hop origins began before the Web had taken hold, and since then we’ve been recyling the same old retro: in rock, in country, in jazz, in pop. (This depresses me no end, and I would love to hear your arguments against Lanier’s assessment; add your comment below!)

Lanier’s book discusses much more about the Internet and his disappointment with how we’ve accepted lock in. (He also discusses his fellow technologists, one of whom is Ray Kurzweil, whose Singularity I find a bit stupid.) I found the book eye-opening and essential reading for anyone who’s interested in technology yet learned to be wary of it via 1984, Fahrenheit 451, AI, Terminator, and their ilk.

The Filter Bubble

Intrigued by Lanier’s ideas, I dove right in to The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser (a ChristmasThe Filter Bubble present from my sister, who trolls my Amazon wish list, bless her!). I knew who he was (the guy from, and, in fact, had read reviews of his book as well. Pariser doesn’t come to his subject with quite the pedigree that Lanier does, but he’s done his homework and presents his material in a most straightforward way, easily understood by anyone who surfs the Web once or twice a day.

Pariser’s premise (written close to a year ago now) is one the media has begun to chirp about, and for that I’m thankful. It’s this: Every time you use the Web now, you’re giving away information about yourself to individual companies and corporations, as well as advertisers, marketers, and database managers who can describe you better than some of your friends and family, maybe better than anyone but you. They gather this info from you, from the sites you visit (cookies track you from site to site), from the info you provide when you set up accounts and log in (to Facebook, to Google, to Yahoo!, to iTunes, to Pinterest, and the list goes on and on). You may think you’re getting a free service, but it’s not free. You get to use a social network or news site or win a prize, but you’re paying for it with your personal information.

The technology is quite sophisticated, so much so that what you see when you google “Bruce Springsteen” isn’t what I see when I google the same. That’s because (as so many of you know) I visit sites about and write about Bruce Springsteen a lot, and I buy a lot of things that are related to Springsteen. So Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, and a horde of other companies know that I will respond when presented with ads about Bruce merchandise, news, tickets, or music. It gets worse than that, though.

We’ve begun reading the kind of news stories that our friends read—because they share them on Facebook—and visiting and joining sites that our friends visit and join, all of which tells Google and all the other companies that they should place these stories and sites higher in our search results, pushing down others that we might have wanted to find but that didn’t fit the algorithm of our personal data. This phenomena is what Pariser calls the filter bubble, and it’s increasingly how your Web looks (because your Web isn’t quite the same as my Web).

Personalization of the Web isn’t a bad thing per se, but there’s a lot of power concentrated in the small number of companies who control our personal information. If I were searching for a car to buy, for instance, I wouldn’t want Google and Facebook to push ads for the Mini Cooper at me just because I’ve mentioned them in my e-mails or liked the Facebook page for the Mini. I want a car that suits me in more than just one way (I happen to love the way Minis look, but I’m not so sure I appreciate their handling). Or perhaps these agencies can match my household income with my affection for Minis, so they push ads for the Toyota Matrix at me instead. They’re taking choices and options away from me, minimizing the knowledge I could have, rather than increasing it.

Pariser’s book presents a darker picture for those of us who spend more time online in intellectual and more social pursuits, for example, in political conversations, in reading news that we think is important, in finding the kinds of ideas and knowledge that we don’t have but want to have.

The whole situation reminds me of what Mike has been complaining about for some years now, whenever we talk about cars (which is all the time because, well, you all know how he is!): Stop deciding how I should drive or assuming how I want to drive and let me drive the car myself!

Worried? Here’s What You Can Do.

A friend of mine started an online company that allows individual users to put their money where their mouths are, by providing some cold hard cash to sites they like. The company is called Kachingle, and it’s a great idea to combat the problems that Jaron Lanier describes.

Eli Pariser set up a blog for his book, with some helpful info as well. The info page called “10 Ways to Pop Your Filter Bubble” lists some excellent ideas to keep your personal information more private.

As much as I loved Pariser’s book and Lanier’s book, I expect some of you might not want to read as much as I do. So consider learning more by checking out several articles about the topics these guys describe. Here’s a quick list to get you started:

Happy surfing!

What’s a Library?

Green Free Library in Wellsboro, PA

The Green Free Library in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, where I learned to love books and libraries.

My commentary thus far has been about books, but today I want to talk about several articles I’ve read recently, all of them about libraries. Everyone knows what a library is: a collection of books, right? Sometimes it’s a building that houses all those books, sometimes it’s a room that houses them, and nowadays, sometimes, it’s a virtual place that houses them.

You Are What You Read. Or Are You?

My favorite current literary critic, James Wood, wrote in the New Yorker last fall about packing up his father-in-law’s books after his death, and in the process he ruminates about what a library says about you and what libraries are good for. As he simultaneously describes the person and the library of his father-in-law, Wood seems to be reinforcing the age-old maxim that your library is a reflection of who you are as a person. His father was Algerian, an immigrant to France as well as (later) to America, well-traveled, multilingual; his library displayed a huge atlas on a lectern and included many volumes in many languages about faraway places.

Wood’s efforts to donate his father-in-law’s vast library seem doomed to failure. Institutions aren’t interested in personal libraries unless the books are rare or owned by famous writers or movers and shakers. Used book merchants can’t afford to buy them or can’t afford to store them, presumably because so few people purchase used books in this day and age. His father-in-law’s library contains many obscure books about Algeria, Egypt, and other areas of the Maghreb, Wood says, but many standard texts and popular novels are included, ones that all of us own (the Bible, the Iliad, etc.). Wood determines not to burden his children with such a task, because, he muses, “Isn’t a private library simply a universal legacy pretending to be an individual one?”

Many of us who love books would be astounded to hear Wood declare that he envies the writer whose box of prized books was inadvertently picked up by the garbage truck. He relishes the lightening of the things we collect—postcards, CDs, shirts, and books. Surely books are “ruins” as much as any other collection of items in our lives. In his last look at his father-in-law’s library, he concludes, “These thousands of volumes . . . incarnated the shape of his life, but not the facets of his character.”

The Difference with Digital

In November Robert Darnton wrote about the Digital Public Library of America in The New York Review of Books, comparing the effort to digitize and provide for free all books ever published with Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment metaphor of sharing ideas in the same way the light of candles can be shared: giving without diminishing the other. At any other time in my life, probably, I would wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a free, digital library of all books ever published. But having just finished Jaron Lanier‘s You Are Not a Gadget (review post to come), the idea gives me pause. Why must every book be represented? How current will the books be? How will writers earn their living when we demand—simply because the technology is possible—that they give us the fruits of their labors and minds?

In the “real” (as opposed to virtual) library, we can borrow a book for a certain period of time. That book was purchased from the publisher by our local library, with funds we donate or from fees. Because we have to appear in person to borrow, libraries have to be local, so an author could expect many libraries to purchase her book. Some of us like to own the book to read when we’re ready, to read slower than the library’s borrowing time permits, or to reread. So the author could be assured of purchases by book lovers, too. If everything is digital, libraries don’t have to be local to serve us all, and we can, presumably, read as slowly as we want and as repeatedly as we want. And we get it all for free. So where is the cost for the book? The downside for writers and publishers is that they won’t be able to earn income from writing and publishing.

Darnton explores several scenarios for managing a more just system of copyright and payment to authors, but I remain skeptical of our voracious appetite for free content online. As Lanier explains in his book, free online content is devaluing human thought and expression, and we have yet to show in any significant way that we can get beyond that problem in our digital world.

What’s Hiding on Your Kindle?

Several of my friends and relatives have fallen in love with their Kindle. And they tell me I would love it, too. My deep-seated nostalgia for books notwithstanding, I know how malleable I can be about new habits, and I understand the convenience and fun. Yet I resist the lure of the Kindle, and James Meek provides a biting commentary to keep my curiosity in check. In the London Review of Books (also in an issue from last November—can you tell how far behind I am in my reading?), he explains his dismay at discovering the ubiquity of other readers of e-books he’s purchased. If you use the highlighting feature, you can see how many other readers before you marked the same passage. It’s like reading a used book that someone else marked: not a deal breaker, but a bit annoying.

Meeks’s essay is a fun read, marked by silly puns (“a syncing feeling”) and self-conscious bookishness. But his assessment of our future libraries is grim (to me): “On the urban bookshelves of the crowded future world only the loved and the beautiful will survive.”

In my world, every book I own is beautiful and loved, so I’ll keep buying bookcases and carrying books—not gadgets—wherever I go.