Welcome to LitPop: A Book Club for Music Lovers!

LitPop was launched in October 2011 and is welcoming new members every week.  So far we have explored Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, Just Kids by Patti Smith, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Life by Keith Richards and You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem. We look forward to exploring many more books about music with fellow music-lovers and welcome readers’ suggestions for future titles.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Contributed by Litpop bookclub member, Clare McMahon – many thanks Clare!

This month’s book was the Hanif Kureishi’s highly acclaimed The Buddha of Suburbia.

It spans a time from the early seventies to early eighties, from south London suburbia, the city of London and New York. The main character is Karim Amir; the book revolves around his relationships with his guru wannabe Indian father, English mother, friendships and love interests.

Even though the book covers ten or so years of Karim’s life the group did feel the story flowed without you realising this amount of time has passed.  It could be thought that you would then call this book a story but there were mixed thoughts on this as the years didn’t really have much of a plot.  Possibly the tale of Karim’s rise and fall as an actor seems to be a focus but not as a storyline and not as one we really cared about. So could the portrayal of the relationships he felt he had with the other characters possibly be the focus?  The problem with this though is Karim’s character had no voice, no character input.  We heard what he felt about others but you never really felt you knew him and that he was quite one dimensional.  That said you could feel you liked him at times.  His humour came through with the taunting of others at times though this would come across as uncomfortable as it would be at the expense of the people around him who he cared for.  We concluded that he could have been suffering from depression but this was never referred to so perhaps he himself did not realise this.

As said the tale begins in the early seventies following Karim’s last years of school.  He lives with his parents in suburbia where a night’s entertainment for him his going with his father to people’s houses to talk eastern philosophy and meditating with the suburban middle class. We see Karim then move with his father and his best friend’s mother to central London after he leaves Karim’s mother for her. The happenings during this time reflect London life with the art and music scene where we move to the mid-seventies and the emergence of the punk scene.  This is where we see the complicated relationship with his best friend Charlie who emerges to be type of celebrity of the times.  Charlie is the main figure of the music involvement  of the book.  He emerges as a punk hero through to his change to a wannabe David Bowie, the portrayal of the gigs of the time are very well written.

Through these years we see the advancement in the other characters’ lives but not really Karim’s.  He never seems to want to succeed, and the group agreed that the book was about improvement. In addition to Charlie’s life his mother becomes her own person after her divorce, his brother has a successful career, and his other best friend Jamila also becomes her own woman after an arranged marriage that she breaks away from.  The era shows life in a realistic way with the prejudices that still governed the seventies.   Racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism are all covered but as much as we agreed upon their inclusion there were too many issues involved.  Most characters seem to suffer a lot of them at some point which made you sympathise with them but just too many to focus upon. For instance Jamilla suffers inequality at every turn, she is of Asian descent, her parents own a corner shop, she has an arranged marriage, she has an unhappy marriage, she has affairs, male and female, she joins a commune and the fact she is female  – a whole book could just be for her.  It was commented that the book could have been lots of small stories.

Further to the point of humour in the book it was thought it was not as such comical but entertaining with the portrayal of suburbia and the character Changez, Jamilla’s husband, he is portrayed as the village idiot, always to be made fun of.  To conclude the book was well liked by the group, I was felt that it had a good turn of phrase and a realistic portrayal of the times.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)

[This month’s blog is courtesy of Howard Becke, a long-standing and hugely well-informed Litpop regular]
If this was a record review then I feel safe in saying that this book would be in the “Prog Rock” section. It is large and long, and would be a triple album with full gate-fold sleeves. Regular time changes, sudden lurches in unexpected directions, a tendency towards time slippage and Sci-Fi and passages that are best described as meandering all prove this point. Based on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth it is a re-imagining of the Birth and development of Rock-and-Roll but re-homed to India. Subtle changes to the facts surrounding the major players and historical events fail to cover up the gaping hole that is left without slavery and the birth of the Blues that underpins the real version. This seems to be unimportant to Rushdie who shoehorns in as many references to his source material as possible. An in-depth exploration of mass celebrity that crosses continents and in fact Death. Much of it is based on an amalgam of Presley/Lennon. We all enjoyed the book although we felt it was in need of significant editing. However as we all were pleased by different sections we realised how difficult this would be. Rushdie is keen to show off his intellect and learning at all opportunities. The reader is elated then deflated depending on how many of the references to music/religion/the myth/culture and probably food you pick up. This does become tiresome. Not a man to be cornered in the kitchen at a party. The body guards must have received counselling.  All members of the group felt encouraged to read more by the Author although nobody said when they were going to start.
Did I mention the album art would be by Roger Dean?
Howard Becke

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Roddy Doyle Oh, Play That Thing (2005).

[This month’s Litpop Blog was written by Louise Powell, an English Studies student at Teesside University and our Litpop Student Researcher]

There was the sense, among this month’s Litpoppers, that Oh, Play That Thing was Roddy Doyle’s attempt to write an epic American novel. Although broad in scale, spanning twenty-two years and dealing with such themes as Irish migration to America, the Jazz Age, and the Great Depression, most readers felt that it fell short of the mark. As they were diving straight in to the second part of a trilogy, some suggested that an acquaintance with the first part would have helped, but it was the implausibility of aspects of the plot that drew the most criticism from readers. How likely was it, for instance, that the main character Henry Smart would break into the very house in which his wife was working? Why was it that he failed to find that wife when he became separated from her for a second time, yet managed to bump into someone who wished to do him harm in practically every part of America that he ventured to?

Yet there was also plenty to praise. The way in which the Great Depression infiltrated gradually into the final part of the novel was widely admired, as was how effectively the fragmentary nature of that section suggested the speed with which those years passed. More than once, this was described as ‘cinematic’ – an apt term, since most readers remarked that different elements of Oh, Play That Thing brought certain films to mind. The opening section of the novel, with its powerful, vengeful New York gangsters, drew comparisons to The Godfather trilogy, whilst the focus on the 1920s reminded some readers of Baz Luhrmann’s recent filmic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why, it was asked in turn, should that era be in vogue once more?

After the initial responses, Doyle’s use of a real, historical figure in Louis Armstrong prompted a lot of discussion surrounding the blurred line between fact and fiction. Some felt that Doyle’s decision to make the Louis of the novel join Henry in burgling houses crossed that line, and were uncomfortable with it. Others considered it in creative terms, and argued that an implied Louis Armstrong, or a differently named jazz musician who followed the same path as him, would have produced a more plausible, engaging read. Others still expressed the wish to know exactly what was fact, and what fiction.

Although this latter sentiment could never, of course, be fully realised, the closing comments surrounding the novel suggested that it tapped into a fascination with early twentieth-century America. Many Litpoppers expressed a keenness to read – or revisit – novels which were concerned with the New York of that era, like John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It seemed that Doyle did not only encourage readers to make associations between Oh, Play That Thing and films or books that they were already aware of, but inspired them to discover new ones.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (2011)

On balance, Steve Earle’s novel proved to be as big a hit with Litpoppers as it had with the likes of Patti Smith.  Our characteristically well-informed participants speculated how Earle had transformed the often grim realities of his own life into material for the book, and how the choice of Hank Williams spoke as much about the roots of Earle’s music as of his writing. 

Part of the power (and essence) of good fiction is the way it generates multiple perspectives on the same phenomena, and this novel had this quality: where Doc Ebersole saw the ghost of ‘Hank’, Graciela saw a spirit to be dealt with, and others saw nothing.  Subjectivity complicated reality, and moral judgements about it.  We could all be, as Hank Williams sang, ‘lonesome’: cut off, separate, alone in a crowd.  Yet Earle cleverly painted this isolation on a bigger scale.  If ‘Hank’ was part of Doc’s subconscious, or his guilt, then ‘Hank’ was also a smartly deployed ‘ghost in the machine’ of the American psyche.  Whether we believed this or not, and though they won’t have heard the same things, we were told that everyone listened to Hank, rich, disenfranchised, white, Hispanic, gentrified, down-and-out.  Even when people didn’t want to hear him – as Doc didn’t – he crept out of jukeboxes to haunt the air.

Yes, while some felt there were some schematic moves in the book, others were surprised at the paths the narrative took.  All agreed that Earle had crafted a work that spoke to or of the U.S.’s deepest fears and faultlines: drugs, abortion, porous borders (between countries, classes, the rational and ‘irrational’), political assassination.  Was this aggregation of hot late-night, bar-room topics more than the sum of its parts?  How did it compare to Earle’s short stories, or, indeed, an album of songs that might conceivably have touched on these topics?  And was Earle (or indeed Graciela) offering a way out?  The lives and manumissions achieved by those women who had the good fortune to receive Graciela’s miraculous attentions were redemptive, but no structural change seemed on the cards: there’d still be punters, there’d still be people needing a hit of dope to get them through their days and nights.  But even in provoking such questions and by raising the spectre that people’s own ‘actions and choices’ determined their fate as much as they conditions and contexts, Earle sought to tackle big themes in an accessible, resonant way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Oliver Sacks Musicophilia

A few months ago the Litpop Book Club read Nick Coleman’s book The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss – a music journalist’s memoir about the impact of hearing loss on his passion for music. So we were intrigued to see Nick’s story reappear in a postscript to the revised edition of Oliver Sacks collection of essays Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007). The British born but New York based neurologist is perhaps best known for his unforgettably titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – one of a series of collections of case histories which explore the extraordinary variety of human perception. In this collection Sacks turns his attention to music and we were fascinated by the wide range of topics which the essays explore, captured in some memorable titles – from “Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes” to “In Living Stereo: Why We have Two Ears”. The collection opens dramatically with an account of a man literally struck by lightening – and who develops an all-consuming, and entirely unprecedented, passion for music. If this man is granted an extraordinary gift by this ‘bolt from the blue’ others are devastated by sudden loses or distortions, much like the one recounted by Coleman. These stories raised some interesting, and sometimes discomforting, questions for a book club for music lovers – our musical tastes are such a cherished part of who we feel we are, but this book reminded us of how dependent our experience of music is on the delicate workings of the ear and the complex wiring of the brain. But we felt this book served an important purpose by raising awareness of the diverse forms that human hearing can take – and by placing the experience of what, in medical contexts, might be called ‘symptoms’ within the spectrum of everyday life. It was interesting to read this book in the context of the many different life histories – both fictional and autobiographical – which the book club has explored. Some readers felt that as ‘stories’ these case histories sometimes fell short – lacking as they did the beginning, middle and end of a conventional narrative. But others found something strangely reassuring about these fragments of life – taken together they all told a similar story: the enduring story of the human capacity to adapt to change.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (2012)

Is this the ultimate, definitive ‘litpop’ novel? Judging by the overwhelmingly positive responses from this week’s bookclubbers, perhaps so. Yes, it is big; yes, the second scene (set in a nostalgia trade-fair) was a curveball that made your head spin with lots of new names and characters; and yes, the novel made no concessions to anyone unfamiliar with the intricacies of life in contemporary Oakland, U.S.A. But we agreed this was a deliberately big big book, meaning big and complex enough in ambition, design, scope and heart to make those apparent drawbacks great strengths. Chabon’s plots, characterisation and images (a blimp floating free like a whale) nodded to Melville, Dickens, and Joyce. Just as Joyce reckoned you’d be able to reconstruct Dublin from the details in Ulysses, so the little fractured, hybrid part of the world rendered here was dense with reality effects. Yet the book’s and its characters’ main energies came not from other books, but music and film, of a broad and catholic nature, from sci-fi to blaxploitation, funk to easy listening. Music saturated many characters’ lives, and the narrative voice: Archy Stalling’s long-lost son, Titus is described as the ‘45’ to Archy’s ‘LP’. Such motifs, and the story spun with them, was enriched by the contrapuntal presence of strong female figures like the Berkeley Birth Partners, Aviva and Gwen. Chabon, we thought, was conscious of the ironies or pitfalls of a white guy writing about African-American cultures, using those cultures’ idioms: just as Julius Jaffe policed his own racism, so people in the book squirmed at the lawyer Moby’s attempts to speak like a hip black guy. And if the cussing about and discussing of seemingly mindless minutiae (what is a ‘Toronado’ car?) seemed cribbed from Tarantino, then it fitted that Julius and Titus should meet at a film class on that very director. The ending became more ambiguous as we considered it more closely. Was it the best thing for the community that Dogpile records didn’t open up? Was Nat Jaffe really engaging with ‘real-life’, as his wife Aviva wanted, by entering the world of virtual selling? Was Archy substituting one kind of ‘home’, in Brokeland records, for the failed dream of being an estate agent? Why was it the African-American characters seemed to have to adjust more to survive? It is nearly 20 years since Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, another novel about the love of music nurtured by men-children in a record store. Chabon has found a way to expand those materials to something really special. Who could fail to love a novel where the humour and dialogue were so eminently quotable, where a bird’s flight unites all the characters (as during the bravura 11-page, one-sentence centrepiece), or featuring a pre-presidential Obama, who is as cool and kind as you’d hope he really is?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dana Spiotta Stone Arabia

Rock and pop memoirs have been a recurring staple of the LitPop Book Club reading list – from Patti Smith and Bob Dylan to Nile Rodgers and Pauline Black, we have enjoyed some fascinating insights into musical lives and times. What’s more, we have been impressed by how creative some of these authors have been in telling their life stories – Ray Davies was perhaps the most adventurous in his “unauthorised autobiography,” in which he appeared as a character in his own fiction. So we were intrigued to find that Dana Spiotta’s 2012 novel centres on the ‘chronicles’ of a cult musician. This exhaustive record of the career of an enigmatic songwriter would be the stuff of dreams for any dedicated fan – but the catch is that Nik Worth has not had a career . . . Every entry in the chronicles – from album reviews (both good and bad) to rare bootleg recordings – has been composed by Nik himself. He has even prepared his own obituary. Readers were captivated by this clever conceit, which prompted much discussion about the nature of reality and illusion. The narrative is told through the perspective of his devoted and long-suffering sister, Denise – who first appears as a character in Nik’s childhood comic. We speculated about the nature of this co-dependent sibling relationship – who was the most needy, the brother who relies on his gainfully employed sister’s bank balance, or the sister whose vocation as her brother’s unofficial PA is placed in jeopardy by his disappearance at the end of the novel? Our relationship to memory was also a recurring theme – while Nik carefully catalogues every detail of his life, his sister ritually empties her home of any trace of the past in an annual New Year’s Day clearout. “The internet will be her memory” muses Denise of her film-maker daughter, who blogs about her ambition to capture the life of her “folk art genius” uncle on film. And a home-baked David Bowie birthday cake provides one of the most poignant moments in the book – when Denise’s mother overcomes her failing memory to recall a culinary triumph in the face of teenage scepticism. Spiotta’s brilliant novel takes its place in what seems to be an emerging genre of ‘high concept’ LitPop, alongside Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. And who could fail to love a novel which includes album liner notes penned by a fictitious “Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative and Unloved Music.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pauline Black, Black by Design

Pauline Black’s painfully and beautifully candid memoir did more than provide this month’s bookclub with understandings of one young woman’s growth into a fiercely independent figure, respected and influential in the world of music and beyond; it also fleshed out for bookclubbers many of the stark contradictions of the cultures in which she – and they – grew up, and from which Black felt so often alienated. Black emerged as someone who embodied, survived on, and at times exploited the myriad faultlines in British postwar culture. Capable of self-fashioning and refashioning, and marketing herself before the music industry presumed to do it for her, Black was not only culturally mixed, but also, in her early stage presence, defiantly androgynous, as the book’s evocative photos proved. As such, Black by Design offered many stories in one, with surprises along the way: perhaps the biggest was saved until the end, when Black investigated her birth mother and father (it would spoil the surprise to reveal what happens in her quest!).

We wondered why members of a community that more or less explicitly espoused racist views would want to adopt a mixed-race child, and then terrify that child with the haunting presence of ‘Janet Sparks’, a black girl gone-bad. Yet we were struck by how Black’s adopted family could have resisted the urge to ‘white flight’ (and not emigrate to Australia) because they knew they could not leave Pauline behind (and she wouldn’t be allowed in). We discussed what it was that attracted sieg-heiling idiots to gigs, fronted by Black, where the music and the bands of the 2-Tone stable celebrated cultural integration, and promoted the dignity of all marginalised minorities. We were moved by the idea that Black’s introduction to Black history was in a white middle-class friend’s house, listening to Langston Hughes’ ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, and by how Black then subsequently educated herself about that history in Romford Town Library. Black didn’t grow up with the music that made her famous. But, like some of our other memoirists, she made new homes for herself amongst amenable people (not least her solid, steadfast husband Terry, who was, like Black, adopted), and so she found ways to channel her anger and passion, and others’. Reading Black’s book, like listening to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, revives the heavy dread and resistance of the late 70s and early 80s, states which lived on in the 90s, when Black was mistaken for a toilet attendant in Selfridges because of how she looked. So Black by Design made us ask: despite so much progress, has enough been done to change the conditions that make righteous anger necessary?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nile Rodgers, Le Freak

This book was generous and non-judgemental in spirit, and featured a dizzying roll-call of creative figures. Suitably, then, Nile Rodgers’ inclusive biography-cum-cultural history was prefaced by a dedication to his ‘biological, spiritual, and musical family’. This references one of Sister Sledge’s biggest (Chic-produced) songs, and Rodgers’ own post-9/11 charitable foundation. And for this month’s bookclubbers, Rodgers’ experience and understanding of what family meant was fundamental to reading the stories he tells in the book. We discussed how surviving a background like Rodgers’ might make someone adaptable, sociable, and strong; perfect characteristics for a musician and producer. Had Rodgers both compensated for and built on life with his biological family – separated across America, strained by drugs and racism – to re-create other families around him as his life and career progressed? We noticed he’d certainly endured some complex progressions: from highschool dropout to Black Panther, from guitarist to band-leader to producer, from working with live-recording analogue technology to making digital sounds, from zero to hero. There was some debate about the extent of Rodgers’ humility as he related the staggering success he enjoyed despite or because of these changes. But perhaps as a young black man making his way on his own talents, he had every right to remind the world of the contributions he had made within and beyond music. Likewise, if a success was due to someone else’s good idea or intervention, we reckoned Rodgers said so. He happily recounted how his partner Bernard ‘Nard’ Edwards simplified his own over-complicated compositions (letting them lead with the chorus), and taught him to play the ‘chucking’ style that underpinned so much of Chic’s work and influence. Even Litpoppers who were not the most avid fans of disco appreciated some of the insights the book offered about such technical details, and the measures necessary for black artists to attain longevity. Combining Roxy Music’s visuals and poise with the organised facelessness of KISS, the Chic Organisation could play the (implicitly racist) games of the record industry, with stylish aplomb. But Le Freak showed Rodgers did not think of himself as a disco act. He wasn’t being in denial, or in disgust at disco. Rather as an ex-Black Panther, ex-hippie, ex-addict, genre-blurring musician, he’d been both barred from Studio 54 and exiled from an industry that spat him out when the world learned ‘disco sucks’. A perennial outsider (who was an insider on his own terms), with musical roots in rock and jazz and everything in between, we concluded he was graced with all the sympathy and insight such positions afford.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ray Davies X-Ray: The Unauthorised Autobiography (Nov 2012)

Bob Dylan’s 2004 Chronicles is seen by many as a landmark in rock and pop autobiography – and when we read it in April we were confounded and delighted in turn by this rule-breaking memoir. But turning to Ray Davies’s X-Ray: An Unauthorised Autobiography – published a good decade earlier – we all felt that the Kinks front man had done his bit to tear up the rock bio rule book. We were intrigued by Davies idiosyncratic solution to the challenge of turning a life into a book – transforming himself into a character in his own narrative, quizzed by a fictional journalist. But we quickly found we were entering a hall of mirrors . . . Was the irascible “R.D” an unsparing self-portrait or a parody of his own music press image? Was the young journalist himself just another version of Davies? And what was the ‘Corporation’ which R.D repeatedly denounces in true if slightly paranoid anti-establishment style – society? the state? the music industry? Much like Dylan’s Chronicles, it became clear that any desire to hear the ‘true story’ behind the famous songs – who was Lola? – was destined to be disappointed. But, as with Dylan, what emerged was perhaps a more interesting story – one about the mysteries of the creative process and the impossibility of reducing it to an easy explanation. Having read a number of 1960s rock and pop legend autobiographies over the last months, we began to detect certain recurring motifs – the shadow of the Second World War, the formative art school education, the ill-advised record deals, the trials and tribulations of fame, the carnival of the rock entourage on tour . . . To this list Davies adds a still topical motif in many rock family trees – the sibling love and rivalry that can cement or destroy a band’s identity. Indeed, Dave Davies provided a compelling foil to his older brother Ray, often threatening to upstage him with his colourful escapades. It is an unusual autobiography which depicts its own author’s death and with Davies prematurely dispatched and all but forgotten at the end of this wry fantasy, the book passes no comment on the enormous impact that the Kinks sound, words and look has had on contemporary British pop culture. But filling in these gaps was perhaps one of the pleasures of reading and discussing this highly original memoir.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment