Sunday, October 08, 2017

Dollar Diving

Searching out the hidden gems or just indulging in guilty pleasures at a bargain--those are the delights of shopping for books at The Dollar Store (or in my case the Dollar Tree.)

Guilty pleasures that the $ store indulges for me are "celebrity" memoirs.  But not celebrities actually--people whose work in film, theatre, music, TV I respect.  My first such purchase was actor John Lithgow's autobio Drama: An Actor's Education (Harper Perennial), which was interesting beyond the personal (that he had an affair with Liv Ullmann was a surprise.)  The "education" aspect applies his own experiences to the attempt to get the kind of work that leads to a fulfilling creative career.  He's clear that his affable and pliable personality helped and occasionally hurt him, that luck as well as determination, work and talent played a significant part.  Not a new combination but unique in each case, and the way it all happens is its own story, and we love stories.

Plus for me his book revealed that we have a friend in common (David Ansen, his Harvard roommate, who I knew as a film reviewer in Boston) and, in its opening pages, he put me onto a book I've since acquired and am enjoying, a 1939 anthology of short stories edited by Somerset Maugham, Teller Of Tales.

Next was Billy Crystal's autobio Still Foolin' Em (Holt)  I could have done with fewer aging jokes, but once it became about his amazing life, pretty absorbing.  His ties to his early life and family informed every step of his career, and he made some astonishing friendships (Muhammad Ali for one) that lasted.  He lived in this particular strata of powerful people, but within it, they were (in his telling) kind to each other, or at least to him. That was intriguing.

Most recently I've read Play On, the memoir by Fleetwood Mac co-founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood with journalist Anthony Bozza (Little, Brown.) Fleetwood's book is well-organized and told in a consistent voice. It deals with his personal relationships as well as musical accomplishments.  Accounts of both benefit from interviews with others, and in the case of his first ex-wife, her own memoir (Jenny Boyd, sister of Patti Boyd, who met George Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night, married him, and left him for Eric Clapton. The pop world of that era was decidedly inbred.)  The book also is by a 65 year old man who was still performing when it was published in 2014, and so benefits from maturity while it makes an effort to communicate the feeling of the time.

We know these artists from their works, and especially in the case of music, our memories adhere to moments in our own lives, often fraught with emotion.  Fleetwood Mac represented something particular to me in the 1970s, which had nothing to do with the band itself, only with their music when and how I received it.

But I've got at least a dollar's worth of curiosity about their reality.  I knew a little about the complicated personal relationships within the band  from occasional press accounts and a bit of personal experience (I stayed with a friend in Santa Monica who was also occasionally hosting secret liaisons of Stevie Nicks with the Beach Boy's Dennis Wilson; so Stevie and I apparently shared a bathroom.)  But as this book demonstrates, I really had no idea.

Similarly I was on the fringes of the rock music culture in the 70s but wasn't aware of the apotheosis of excess represented by Fleetwood Mac on the road at the height of its fame.  Mick Fleetwood emerges as basically good-hearted and trying to make sense of it all, but let's say he wasn't a fast learner.  What's amazing to contemplate is that all this emotional chaos and all this excess went into creating what I hear as possibly the cleanest, most efficient and yet emotional sound any pop music of the period produced.  Clearly the songs expressed emotions from these relationships, but how did all that excess lead to such economical music? Was it all really necessary?  That's the question it leaves with me, unanswerable.

Then there are the hidden gems--the discoveries, or the books by authors you know and admire.  I've read a half dozen of Jonathan Lethem's books of fiction, including Chronic City, a novel I especially liked.  So as soon as I saw it, I grabbed Lucky Alan and Other Stories (Doubleday 2015.)

You wouldn't call Lethem a realistic and naturalistic writer, but sometimes he comes close.  The title story and the first in the collection, "Lucky Alan" reminded me of the askew realism of Chronic City.  The subject of the collection's last and longest story ("Pending Vegan"), a young father with his family at Sea World, is something the young John Updike would have written about, although with different effect.

But other stories are more tilted towards the transparently surreal.  Some are riffs on newer forms, like the graphic novel ("Their Back Pages") or the blog: "The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear" is told in the blog form, with the most recent (the end) at the top, or the beginning. "Procedure in Plain Air," on the other hand, seems to be in the style of Kafka, including something like his length.

As a reading experience, the stylistic changes are a bit jarring, but then it's a story collection.  One or two seem like exercises but most have qualities of old fashioned stories, including sudden revelations at the end.

It occurred to me after finishing this volume that, though I took out a few of Lethem's books from the library, his books that I acquired were the result of accident, in the sense that I did not seek them out, order them, etc.  That's worked out pretty well so far and it seems a good procedure for me in the future.

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