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Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: rock your books off

Bassist gets bookish: The Sugarcubes' Bragi Ólafsson

Bragi ÓlafssonIcelandOpen LetterThe Pets


Guest blogger Michael Shaub reviews the novel "The Pets" by Bragi Ólafsson.

With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a "Library of Water" there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)

It could also be called a rock lover's paradise -- it's home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and -- because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade -- Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)

With that in mind, it's not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician. Granted, that's not a long list to begin with. If you don't count Jimmy Buffett's mystery novels -- and you really, really shouldn't -- you're left with a pretty sparse hand. (But one with some high cards -- Joey Goebel's "The Anomalies" and Frank Portman's "King Dork,"  both excellent novels by American punks.)

So enter Bragi Ólafsson, former bassist for the Sugarcubes, the legendary post-New Wave band that made Björk a star. After the band broke up, Bragi turned to literature, writing poetry and fiction, and translating Paul Auster's "The Glass City" into Íslenska. The indispensable Rochester publisher Open Letter released Bragi’s first novel rendered into English, "The Pets," translated beautifully by Janice Balfour, in October of last year.

"The Pets" is not about rock, at least not overtly. The novel follows two Icelanders who have recently returned from abroad: Emil Halldorsson, who's been vacationing in London after winning the lottery, and Havard Knutsson, Emil's former roommate, who's been on a more involuntary vacation in a mental hospital in Sweden. Emil is a mostly nice guy, although he's a mostly nice guy who seriously wants to cheat on his girlfriend with a stranger whom he first lusted after 15 years ago. Havard is a mostly unreconstructed psychopath.

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David Sedaris and his ladies of song

David SedarisKCRW

Author David Sedaris lent his oh-so-recognizable radio voice to KCRW in Santa Monica for its Guest DJ Project. It broadcast Wednesday as part of Jason Bentley's morning show and now is available for download and streaming from the station's website.

So what does the self-deprecating humorist like to listen to? Classy ladies, heavy on the jazz. "I was never a big rock guy," he says on the show. Sedaris' playlist: Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, Betty Carter and Aretha Franklin.

"I always have to put myself in it, I always have to pretend, that, like, 'Until You Come Back to Me,' that's mesinging," Sedaris explains. "It's not Aretha Franklin. That's me. I don't look like her, I still look myself, I just have that voice, right? And my boyfriend left me, and then I'm singing this song and he sits in the audience, and he hears me and he says, 'God, how can I ever have left him?' ... I'm always imagining my place in the song."

The podcast is short -- less than 15 minutes -- mixing conversation with pieces of the songs. Perhaps the clips are mandated by downloading regulations. Or maybe the whole thing is designed as a tease; afterward, I both wanted to go out and hear some Abbey Lincoln and pick up the latest David Sedaris book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

Young adult books that rock: a beginner's list

musicrock novelyoung adult


A rock and roll soundtrack gets teenagers through their ups, their downs and their angsts. It may evolve from classic rock to grunge to emo to pop to punk and beyond, but it's a lasting, rebellious fixture. So it should come as no surprise that novels for young adults are as steeped in rock 'n' roll as teenagers themselves.

Cecil Castellucci, author of five books including the rock novel "Beige," picks eight novels with characters whose lives are changed by (turn that down!) music. In alpha order:

1. "Audrey, Wait!" by Robin Benway

When Audrey breaks up with her musician boyfriend, he ends up writing a song about her that becomes an instant hit.  Suddenly Audrey is notorious and everyone has an opinion about her.  But do they want to know the real story behind the song?

2. "Born to Rock" by Gordon Korman

Leo is a straight-laced honor student and Young Republican. Everything goes topsy turvy when he finds out that the guy he thought was his dad, isn't; his real father is the lead singer for Purge, the most famous punk band ever. Leo gets a summer job working as a roadie and gets to know his dad, and learns something about himself (and punk) along the way.

3. "Fat Kid Rules the World" by K.L. Going

Troy is a fat kid who doesn't have any friends, just can't take it anymore and decides to end it all. But high school music legend Curt McCrae steps in and saves him, and everything changes. Curt sees something in Troy that no one else sees; even though Troy can’t drum, Curt thinks that Troy should be the drummer for his new band Rage/Tectonic. It’s a funny thing how when someone starts seeing something special in you, you start seeing yourself in a different way, too. 

4. "Heavy Metal and You" by Christopher Krovatin

Sam loves heavy metal music. He’s smarty-pants enough to attend an exclusive, all-boy prep school in New York City, and he loves to hang out with his friends and smoke up, cut class and drink. But when Sam starts to date straightedge Melissa, he tries to change himself for her. Nothing stays the same forever, though; thank goodness music is always there to get you through.

5. "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Stephanie Kuehnert

Emily is punk rock. She was born punk rock. Her mother split when she was little to follow a band, and her dad gave up music to raise her on his own. Now she has her own band that’s hitting it big. But everything is messy, and things rise high and swing low. And Emily’s looking for the song that’s going to bring all back together, with love.

6. "King Dork" by Frank Portman

When Tom Henderson (a.k.a. King Dork) discovers a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" that belonged to his dead father, his whole world changes. Clues and conspiracies seem to be leading to answer the puzzle of his father’s death while helping to figure out the secret to attracting hot girls. Being in a band definitely helps, but that’s not as simple as it seems.

7. "Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist" by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

When Norah borrows Nick to be her boyfriend for five minutes at a rock show, it sets off an all-night adventure in New York City. They chase down the venue of the secret show of their favorite band and discover they have a lot more in common than Nick’s awesome music mixes. (This was a book before it became a movie.)

8. "Rock Star Superstar" by Blake Nelson

Pete’s life is all about music. He practically sleeps with his bass. And he vows to never be a sellout.  When he meets the Carlisle brothers, with no talent but lots of charm, he joins up as their bass player.  Suddenly The Tiny Masters of Today is poised for superstardom and Pete wonders what he'll have to compromise for a chance at success. 

-- Cecil Castellucci

Images: Simon & Schuster, left, and Penguin Group, center and right

43 years of skepticism: Christgau on Cohen

Leonard CohenRobert Christgau


Robert Christgau is a legendary rock critic -- on his website, he calls himself the Dean of American Rock Critics -- and as he's been writing about music a long, long time, he's got the kind of experience and knowledge to bring to a review of the performance CD/DVD sets by 75 year-old Leonard Cohen.

But sometimes history can work against you. Christgau's column for the Barnes & Noble review begins:

As someone who admired poet Leonard Cohen's second and last novel "Beautiful Losers" in 1966, before Cohen was a recording artist or I was a music critic, I followed Cohen's musical career with admiration from the beginning. But the admiration was always cut with skepticism -- a skepticism that the focus and reach and three-hour duration of his February 19 comeback concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theater blew away.

If I read that right, Christgau has followed Cohen's career with admiration/skepticism since 1966.That's 43 years.

Is it that Cohen has suddenly changed? Perhaps -- Cohen has a constantly-evolving persona, and Christgau outlines his recent evolution from well-heeled troubadour to surprisingly broke monk to hardworking road performer.

But maybe it's because as a critic, Christgau has begun to want something different from Cohen. Later in his piece, he explains:

Rock and roll has produced a surprising bounty of old men with something to say. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Randy Newman -- rather than credibly courting eternal youth a la Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, these seniors explore the aging process with an edge that's been rare in pop music, where nostalgia is such a staple. Cohen fits this paradigm, with two significant differences. The first is that he's rock and roll only by association. He's really a Gallic chansonnier, in it for the lyrics rather than the liberating musical intensity even Dylan has made a vocation. The second is that he was always old -- older than Elvis and also more sophisticated, the kind of artist you'd look up to at 24 only to find yourself surprisingly, alarmingly entering his age group four decades later.

Not to say that Cohen was in his 60s when Christgau was 24 (his age in the aforementioned critical year of 1966). But it seems that, four decades later, Christgau has caught up to Cohen, who really isn't that much older than him at all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Leonard Cohen performs in Italy, Aug. 3. Credit: Andrea Merola / EPA

Daniel Handler on cerebral bliss versus dancing around in your underwear

Daniel Handlerthe Believer

Daniel Handler, author of three novels and the Lemony Snicket series, selected the songs on the CD in the July/August Believer magazine, its annual music issue. The songs -- by Sam Phillips, Lloyd Cole, Lisa Germano, David Sylvian and others -- are mostly a mix of folk-ish and indie-ish rock with a dark sensibility; they share "respect for the songwriting tradition," Handler explains, and "general awesomeness." He answered Jacket Copy's questions about music and books via e-mail.

Jacket Copy: How did you go about picking the songs for the Believer music CD?

Daniel Handler: There was a long list, a wide net, a dispiriting sequence of dead-ends, a storm cloud of increasing desperation, and then redemption and beauty and glory.

JC: Did you know anything about the articles that would be appearing in the issue, or was the CD a project of its own?

DH: The Believer likes to keep its contributors in cubicles of ignorance and oblivion, as part of some experimental angle. I had no idea what would be in the magazine.

JC: Did you write the song blurbs that appear in the magazine? Where there are Q&As, did you talk to the musicians?

DH: I had the privilege of talking to Mr. Robinson, Ms. Phillips and Mr. Campbell (about Mr. Cole).  The other interviews were conducted by other Believer staffers, so I have no reason to doubt their contents.

JC: Why aren’t there any accordions?

DH: As an accordionist, I didn't want to be accused of having a conflict of interest with any track I chose.

What music and books are good for ... after the jump.

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The sorry state of music criticism

ChunkletHenry Owingsmusic criticismThe Rock Bible


Henry Owings understands rock music. Working from his home base in Atlanta, Owings, 40, has mastered rock’s get-your-hands-dirty aspects: booking gigs, managing tours, running a record label, selling limited-edition albums and silk-screened posters, managing a website, doing graphic design and performing pretty much any task that's not as glamorous as actually playing an instrument. He's the Renaissance Man lurking in the shadows of the underground rock Renaissance. Which is why few people are more qualified to pen the recent "The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans and Bands," a snarktastic set of hundreds of music-related "commandments," all bound in scripture-esque fake leather. (Sample: "Few singers are allowed to drape scarves on microphone stands. You are not one of them.")

Owings is best known for his zine Chunklet, a 17-year operation that infamously vacillates between enthusiastic and cruel, well-regarded as an the unflinching, cynical eye of the underground. The particularly infamous "Biggest A-holes in Rock" issue included an anonymously industry-sourced list of publicists, bands and record labels that don't exactly endear themselves to the idea of "community." The just-released issue No. 20 is subtitled "The Last Magazine Ever Printed" and features cranky musings on the impending death of music writing, including the Online Music Journalist Application Form ("When a band calls for an interview, are your first words, 'I got it, Mom. Hang up'?") and a very funny Music Mag Mix 'N' Match quiz.

Owings was interviewed for Jacket Copy by Christopher R. Weingarten, whose speech at the #140conf (available on YouTube) proved how invested he is in the end of rock criticism; Weingarten was hoping an outspoken industry vet could provide some insight on the sorry state we're in, and the sorrier one we're getting ourselves into.

Jacket Copy: What is your least favorite thing about music journalism in print in 2009?

Henry Owings: My least favorite thing is that there's just less of it. When presented with quality writing that costs money versus questionable writing that’s free, like most things, the masses go the path of least resistance. I have to watch what I say so I don't come off sounding like "grandpa grumpy pants," but even though I get a fair amount of information from the Net, I still find it to be a lesser counterpart to print.

JC: What is your least favorite thing about music journalism on the Internet in 2009?

HO: I feel this is a loaded question because no matter what I say, I'm going to sound like a grouch. I think the fact that some kid can start an online presence out of his parents' basement in Arkansas is undoubtedly incredible. To have a blog with worldwide impact out of your computer for pennies is a hell of a lot better than hustling together ad revenue to print a magazine. Although with that power also comes a myriad of concerns worth addressing, but I'll just address what I consider to be the biggest one. ... That's after the jump.

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Readings and rock, together at the Guggenheim

Colson WhiteheadGuggenheimIt Came From BrooklynThe Walkmen

On Friday night, writer Colson Whitehead ("Sag Harbor") will read selections by Walt Whitman at the Guggenheim in New York as part of its 50th anniversary. But this is not your standard literary reading. He'll be sharing the stage -- er, rotunda -- with the rock band the Walkmen and a youth marching band, with steppers. It's part of a new series, It Came From Brooklyn, in which musicians and writers perform together for a night of rowdier-than-usual museum fun. Co-organizer Sam Brumbaugh, a novelist and filmmaker, has put musicians and rock bands together but sees them as different animals: for example, musicians can get away with a "suggestive ambivalence" in their lyrics that writers can't. He answered our questions about books, music and Brooklyn via e-mail.

Jacket Copy: What compelled you to put rock bands and writers on the same bill?

Sam Brumbaugh:
People in NY don't really dance at rock shows, they just stand and stare. It's not too different from a reading, where you are sitting and staring. Also, more and more, readings drawing crowds seem to be endangered events. Bands are selling less but drawing better. So, you know, get one in for the writers. The rotunda is a good size crowd for a writer, but sort of a tricky arena. You have to rise to the occasion a bit. It's a grand room. But you are reading other people's work, which takes some of the heat off.

JC: The Walkmen and the Brooklyn Steppers Marching Band are among Friday's performers. How will you balance the energy of 120 performing students and a rock band with the writers reading alone on stage?

SB: Colson will be fine. He's reading Whitman. Which isn't so tough between bands because Whitman on the page is very musical, you know, reads like hymns. Also, the Steppers are doing a pared down thing, 25 marchers -- or whatever the word is. The Walkmen are doing some songs with an eight-piece horn section, which will nicely echo the Steppers. We did try to get some of the Steppers to play with the Walkmen, but they couldn't. They have a curfew.

JC: How do you see literature and music informing each other?

SB: I don't. Not really with rock music. The fans overlap some and so do cover concepts. Some lyrics, sung, sound good enough. But drop out the music and, usually, no, nothing near a C.K. Williams level. Anyway, to me, most lyrics shouldn't make too much direct sense. Writers have to, but musicians can get by with a kind of suggestive ambivalence. A lot of the lyrics I thought were so good when I was young are so dissectable now. And then things usually go really bad when they are consciously literary. I mean, the guys in Emerson Lake and Palmer wrote Spencerian sonnets. What does that tell you? Nothing, really.

I've never really read a a good novel by a rock 'n' roll musician. Did you ever try to read "Tarantula"? Or Nick Cave's books? And then most writers in bands are in terrible bands (with the exception maybe of Chuck Kinder).

I've never read, in a novel, an effective portrait of a successful rock 'n' roller. The weakest part of [DeLillo's] "Great Jones Street" was the actual rocker-related stuff. I was very aware of that doing "Restoration Ruin," the novel I just finished. One of the main characters put out one record in 1973 and then just disappeared. There are dozens of those guys from the early '70s on Electra/Asylum alone. Coiled blond hair and grim smiles. And most of those records are just terrible and a few of them are pretty good. Just tackling a singer-songwriter who did a pretty good record in 1973 and then disappeared was tricky enough. When writers go for the big tent rock 'n' roll atmosphere, it never seems to work out. I mean, if DeLillo screwed it up, it can't be too easy.

That said, David Gates had great scenes in his novel, "Preston Falls," about hip dads getting together for Saturday night jam sessions, doing lines off amps, drinking beer, staying up playing "Brown Sugar" in the basement till 1 a.m. I've hit 40 and have kids, so that was informative.

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Vibe magazine is heading back to screens, then stands

Vibe magazine


Vibe magazine, which folded at the end of June, is being resuscitated by a group of investors, according to an Aug. 12 report by the Wall Street Journal. Although details of the deal are sketchy, AdAge reports that former Vibe Group publisher Leonard Burnett Jr. seems to be in the mix.

News of Vibe's closure, announced suddenly in June, was met with surprise, sighs and regret. Surprise because, with more than 16 years of publishing behind it, Vibe seemed a pretty solid bet. Sighs because a 40% dropoff in ad revenue this year -- industry-wide drops averaged a "mere" 28% -- showed it could teeter pretty quickly. And regret because Vibe gave special attention to African American artists, one of the earliest major music magazines to do so.

"As former Editorial intern at Vibe/Vibe Vixen Magazine," Deja Gilmore wrote in Jacket Copy's comments, "I truly am saddened by the sudden downfall of the magazine. Vibe Magazine has been such a staple in music culture that its hard to see it go. Danyel Smith is an amazing EIC and I know that the staff there, which are of a very diverse variety, worked hard on every issue."

The new owners have confirmed that Vibe.com will return in the next few weeks; Tuesday night, the site  displayed a purple-and-gold banner declaring, "Vibe Under New Management: Updates Coming Soon." Plans are to bring a print Vibe back around the end of the year, and then produce it quarterly in 2010.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Vibe

RELATED: June 30, 2009: Vibe Magazine shuts doors, sends Gawker a goodbye note

When musicians get the comics itch (and vice-versa)

Archer PrewittBryan Lee O'MalleyGerard WayMy Chemical RomancePeter CareyRon RegeZak Sally

Alan Moore, the writer whose comics work includes "Watchmen" and "From Hell," is collaborating with avant hip-hop artist Doseone (Subtle, Themselves) and Andrew Broder (Fog) on music to accompany his upcoming graphic novel "Unearthing." This is far from Moore’s first foray into music: He has collaborated with Tim Perkins and David J from Bauhaus.

Looking back to R. Crumb's album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company, it's clear that comic art and music have a long, interweaving relationship. Now musicians/artists/writers pull double-duty, making music and graphic novels in tandem. The artists below work in both disciplines.

Percy Carey’s "Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm" (DC Comics, 2008), a collaboration with artist Ronald Wimberly, is a memoir of Carey’s decades-long involvement with hip-hop, acting and the illegal activities that landed him in prison. It has the feel of an illustrated monologue, and is presented as a cautionary tale: Carey emphasizes his own wrong turns, specifically his inability to choose music over the allure of maintaining a small drug empire. And while Carey’s storytelling is at times intentionally oblique, admitting that certain topics are off-limits to this particular narrative, it’s also an example of why the archetypal redemption story retains plenty of power.

Gerard (My Chemical Romance) Way's series "The Umbrella Academy" (begun in 2007) boasts the surrealism of Grant Morrison’s "Doom Patrol," (he notes this is an essential read) and the emotional heft of Chris Claremont’s "X-Men."  It’s not surprising that the vocalist for My Chemical Romance has a sense for the grandiose and a morbid sense of humor. Interior artist Gabriel Bá ably handles the absurdity, angst, and heroics on display in Way’s scripts, while James Jean, the cover artist, also provided illustrations for My Chemical Romance’s "The Black Parade." Publisher Dark Horse recently announced that Way and co-writer Shaun Simon would be teaming with artist Becky Cloonan for a new series, "Killjoys," debuting in 2010.

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Thomas Pynchon's playlist

Inherent ViceplaylistThomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice" went on sale last week, and while he's not doing the publicity promo some authors might -- no "Today Show" appearances, no interview on "Fresh Air" -- the reclusive author has given Amazon a playlist for his latest novel.

The book's protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, hears a lot of surf music as he cruises through 1970 Southern California. So don't be surprised that three of his 43 picks are by the Beach Boys (above, in 1963, performing at the Hollywood Bowl).

The list is presented straightforwardly, with links to songs that can be bought on the site, as MP3s or in full-length CDs. Some of the entries don't have any links, which would make sense for long-lost surf bands. Or if they didn't exist at all, except in Pynchon's books. Like the band Beer: Doc Sportello's nephew Scott Oof plays in it; later he appears in "Vineland." And then there's a hypothetical track by Doc himself: "Skyful of Hearts."

Some have speculated that Pynchon's voice has made an appearance to promote the new book. Not in song, but as the narrator of a promo video for the book -- it's after the jump. Maybe it is Pynchon, but to me it sounds more like Tommy Chong.

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