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Category: rock your books off

School of the rock 'n' roll novel

Lewis & ClarkPauls Toutonghirock 'n' roll novel


Who would teach a college class in the rock 'n' roll novel? Pauls Toutonghi, born in Seattle in 1976 to Egyptian and Latvian parents, author of the novel "Red Weather" (Random House, 2006) and an English professor at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. He talked to us about his class -- and why it ended up in the basement -- which he taught for the first time this spring.

What was the general arc of the class -- did you have a question or thesis about rock 'n' roll novels?

The class was really a quest in pursuit of an answer to that very question: Is there some kind of thread that unites these books?

What books did your students read?

We started with Tom Perrotta's "The Wishbones," then we read Frank Portman's "King Dork." Then Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," then "Meat Is Murder" by Joe Pernice -- this book is interesting because it's one of the few books of fiction in the 33 1/3 series. And it touches on one of my favorite albums of all time: The Smiths' "Meat Is Murder" [above, the Smiths frontman Morrissey performs at SXSW 2006].  Then "The Gangster of Love" by Jessica Hagedorn, "Graced Land" by Laura Kalpakian, "The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe and then, finally, "The Exes" by Pagan Kennedy. Which was great!

We also read excerpts from Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street" and watched "High Fidelity." How did we survive? I'm not quite sure.

What did your students think of the books?

As is the case with a lot of literary study, it ended up depending on the lens through which we looked at the novels.

So if we read Dick Hebdige's "Subculture: The Meaning of Style," then we ended up thinking a lot about the ways that a dominant culture (the media marketplace, say) harnesses and exploits a smaller subculture. We ended up seeing that -- in nearly all of these books -- the exploitation of artistic expression took center stage.

But if we read, say, Lyotard's "The Postmodern Condition," then we ended up looking at something like the indie-rock movement and emphasizing the way that it was "characterised by an abundance of micronarratives." And so on. . . . Greil Marcus made everything seem historical. . . . Or if we read Kant's "Critique of Judgment," we then talked about the ways that early rock bands, like the Stooges, for example, combined anxiety and pleasure, and turned it into the sublime. Especially for their fans, who were, in large part, hypnotized by the transgressive nature of their music. We listened to "Now I Want to . . . Be Your Dog" many times over the speakers in the classroom.

The sound system was really, really awesome. We had a technology-enabled, auditorium-sized, basement classroom -- so we could generate some noise. It was a little wild. Intellectual, but a little wild.

In what way was the class wild? Was it something more than playing music loudly?

The answer, plus why students might take a rock 'n' roll novel class and an in-class playlist, after the jump.

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Patti Smith just reread 'Pinocchio'

Dream of LifePatti Smith


"That's the mark of a great book," Patti Smith told me Saturday in West Hollywood, "that you want to read it again and again." She'd just finished rereading "Pinocchio"; she said she revisits it and "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland" about once a year.  But those are just the perennials; she also reads new books, like "Of Walking in Ice: Munich - Paris 23 November - 14 December 1974" by Werner Herzog and Roberto BolaƱo's "The Skating Rink," both of which she purchased at Book Soup that day.

A short time earlier, she had signed copies of "Dream of Life" for fans with author Steven Sebring. The book is taken from Sebring's documentary of the same name, which won the cinematography award at Sundance and will broadcast on PBS's P.O.V. in December. Sebring and Smith were in town to talk to the Television Critics Association, and Smith also appeared before a sold-out crowd Saturday evening at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Smith, who started out as a poet, remains an iconoclastic rock star. "I really don't like being photographed," she told the paparazzi who crowded in with big cameras and a barrage of flashes. "Come on, fellas." She seemed tense, a little testy, keeping her sunglasses on and head mostly bent. She was there to sign books is all.

But once they'd gone, she slowly warmed, and cheerfully signed everything from old posters to new CDs. She signed an iPod and, on a T-shirt a fan was wearing, wrote: "The people have the power -- Patti Smith" in black felt-tip. When a father asked her to pose for a picture with his young daughter, Smith brushed her hair out of her face, put her arm around the little girl and smiled.

Being Patti Smith means hearing things like this over and over: "You saved my life when I was 15 years old. I don't know how I would have gotten through high school without you." And saying, again and again, "Thank you. That's so nice of you to say."

A young woman had her sign a few things, saying one wasn't for her, it was for her shy, quiet boyfriend. "Tell your shy, quiet boyfriend to come over here," Smith laughed. "I specialize in shy, quiet boyfriends."

At one point, a man with a strangely collapsed face handed her a note, which a bookstore staff member read aloud. The man's name was Paul; he had cancer of the tongue and couldn't speak. His note repeated much of what she'd heard for the past hour. "Nice to see you. Thank you," Smith said with a pause. "Take care of yourself."

One man handed her something she wasn't expecting. "This is my house," she said, looking at a handful of snapshots. They were Patti Smith's family's personal photos, obtained somehow by someone long ago, given to this fan in 1976. He'd held on to them ever since. And on Saturday he returned them to her. "They're hers," he said. "I thought she should have them."

It seems almost like something out of "Peter Pan," getting back that stack of long-missing, likely forgotten photographs, lost images from a childhood suddenly returned.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Patti Smith, center, with Steve Sebring, left, signing at Book Soup. Credit: paperhaus via Flickr

August: Rock your books off

Rock Your Books Off


We love books, and we love music. And we're not the only ones: Authors Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, J. Robert Lennon and more have all played in real bands. Very literary novelists cook up fictional rock stars, such as Ben Greenman, whose "Please Step Back" came out this year, and Don Delillo, who gave us Bucky Wunderlick in 1973's "Great Jones Street." And there are real-life rockers who become writers, like Frank Portman, who went from fronting The Mr. T Experience to penning the young adult novel "King Dork." It goes right round, baby, right round like a record, baby, right round round round.*

And then there's how the business functions: Like the music industry, the publishing industry is facing a digital revolution for which it was largely unprepared -- not that a few didn't see it coming. 

All August, we'll be jumping right into the middle of the slamming intersection between books and music like 19-year-olds pumped on Red Bull. Will we get sweaty? Probably. Will we get bruised? Most likely. Will we bleed like the time I went to a protest and got slammed in the face by my own camera when the Red Hot Chili Peppers started playing? Let's hope if we do, it isn't quite so embarrassing.

Like PoMo Month, this exploration of books and music will not be the only thing happening on Jacket Copy. We'll continue to post on book news and other fun stuff. But keep an eye out for our Rock Your Books Off month posts, and add your voice to the coming cacophony.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

* Lyric from the Dead or Alive song "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)"

Photo credit: Nancy Pastor / For The Times


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