Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

My latest finished novel tackles a topic that has always been near and dear to my heart.


I've tended to gravitate towards books that revolve around music, and I've made it an unofficial quest to pick up as many as I can find. Back in high school, Blake Nelson's Rock Star, Superstar started my fascination with music in novel form, and it's stayed with me to this day with books such as Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, which I just completed last month.

For these reasons, I was eager to dig into Ben Greenman's Please Step Back.

How I Discovered It: Purely accidental. The flashy color of the spine grabbed my attention on a random shelf at a bookstore in Wrigleyville and, after flipping through a few pages and reading the back cover, it went straight into my purchase pile. Those kinds of unexpected finds are often the best.

How Long It Took To Read: About two weeks.

Overview: Greenman's Please Step Back follows the travels of soul/funk/rock star Rock Foxx (real name Robert Franklin) and his (fictional) band, The Foxxes. Set in the psychedelic, booming, and drug-infused music world of The Sixties, the novel offers a view of the ebbs and flows of a world-famous rock icon. As the Foxxes begin to hit it big, Foxx eventually courts his eventual wife, Betty, after she ambles backstage after a show one night. The novel very much reads like an album, and the idea that "every record has two sides" is represented in the shifting (and distancing) accounts from Foxx and Betty's respective perspectives throughout much of the narrative. Being a rock star isn't nearly as easy or as glamorous as it seems, and, when you get right down to it, Rock Foxx serves as the epitome of this very idea.

Review: I had high hopes for Please Step Back, and it shot up my reading list like a cannon as I thought more and more about it. I guess part of the reason for that is the fact that I'm currently in the (slow) process of writing a music-centric book, and I want to soak up as much material on the subject as possible. In all honesty, however, I don't feel that I gained much after reading this novel.

The story itself was as tight as a Ramones song. The narrative flowed well, for the most part; I never had to read and reread sentences to make them stick in my brain. Trouble is, I didn't have that burning desire to pick the book up night in and night out. It often went untouched for days at a time, kind of that middling book that isn't much of a page-turner, but one that I enjoyed just enough to want to finish.

Ultimately, I think the reason for my semi-apathetic view of Please Step Back was the fact that I didn't feel attached to any of the characters. The up-and-coming Rock Foxx was a pleasure to read (the first fifty pages are this novel's best), but I became more and more disenchanted with him as it wen't on. I flat-out didn't care by the time I trudged to the third section (of four total) of the novel. The back-and-forth structure between Rock Foxx and Betty in the second part was enjoyable (Betty's nostalgic passages were moving and well-written), but I'm not so sure a predictable in-love, out-of-love romance was what this novel needed. On top of that, the novel lacked a stable supporting cast.  Some members of the Foxxes are only given a few sentences in the novel all together, and most of the other people around Rock Foxx felt like forced caricatures. The sex-crazed drummer, the guitar player who wants the pretty lead singer, the hip record executive. Even the best characters in the world of fiction need a bit of support.

In the end, Please Step Back hits its stride when it focuses on the music. Almost all of the artists, albums, and songs mentioned are real. Greenman's vast expansive musical tastes become apparent while flipping through the first few pages. As it stands, I think the novel shines when it blends the perspectives of musical fiction and reality. Foxx idolizes Ray Charles and engages in a running competition with James Brown. The Foxxes repeatedly hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps my favorite scene of the novel was when Rock meets Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while opening for the Stones. Fictional words given to real rock stars in a fictional novel still somehow feel real, and those select scenes rang true more than virtually anything else in this book.

Flipping to the last page of a novel is usually a cause for celebration, a moment of joy and a time for reflection. I felt little of that by the time I finished this novel. I was proud of myself for finishing it, but the expected end-of-book emotion bank was nearly vacant. Please Step Back is a relatively easy read, and one privy to spurts of greatness. Overall, however, it doesn't lend itself to that deep, indescribable attachment readers feel to the books they love.

Grade: C+

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A day at Lit Fest

This past weekend marked the gathering of Chicago's annual Lit Fest.

My dad and I had originally intended on attending on Sunday, but we ended up pushing our plans up to Saturday because of the possibility of grim weather (which did, in fact, arrive this morning despite Chicago's schizophrenic forecasts). All in all, I'm glad we made Saturday the day, because you couldn't have asked for a more pleasant afternoon for book browsing.

This was my second Lit Fest experience, though I classify it as my first real one. I was in attendance last year, but, admittedly, I'm not sure I was fully immersed in literature yet at that point. I didn't even buy a book, which seems like a sin at something as large and as substantial as Lit Fest. (I did, however, come away with a fantastic Marx Brothers Horse Feathers movie poster, so it wasn't a total loss.)

This time, I made darn certain that I came away with some books.

I find it unbelievably odd that I haven't yet read George Orwell's Animal Farm.

It seems to me that every English program in the history of high schools has assigned this book at one point or another. Every high school, that is, except mine, apparently. Orwell's 1984 was part of the curriculum from my 20th Century Fiction class last semester, and, since I enjoyed the dystopian novel so much, I made a mental note to myself to get going on Animal Farm. I found this nifty little pocketbook copy in a dusty box for a mere two dollars.

It seems almost counterintuitive to say, but the so-called "classics" often seem to be the cheapest books out there.

Some books are just in the right place at the right time.

Last week, I finally watched Penelope Spheeris's infamous Decline of Western Civilization film after years of it sitting on my "must watch" list. The movie depicts a unflinchingly first-hand glimpse into the early '80s west-coast hardcore scene, with a focus on Black Flag, The Germs, and X. (The arguably superior sequel of DOWC, which I also viewed last week, is centered around the late '80s heavy metal movement.)

As fate would have it, a copy of Thorn Kief Hillsberry's What We Do Is Secret (which takes its name from the title of the first and only Germs album) stared back at me from a bookshelf on Saturday. The novel, as far as I can tell, is set around a group of young L.A. punks in the time directly following the suicide of Germs singer Darby Crash (who, coincidentally, died on the same night John Lennon was assassinated).

Admittedly, I'm more a fan of early '70s punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc.), and, save for a small handful of bands/songs, I've never been big on hardcore. Even so, the west-coast scene itself absolutely fascinates me.

I'm hoping it translates well into novel form.

This was one of those unplanned, last-minute pickups that collectors of any sort know all too well.

My dad and I were actually leaving for the day when I spotted several copies of Kevin Kaduk's Wrigleyworld sitting on a passing bookshelf. I picked it up, flipped through a few pages, and knew I had to leave with it.

Baseball is a huge part of my life, and the Cubs are by far my favorite team in all of sports. Purchasing this was basically a reflex. Wrigley Field, in many ways, lends itself to books because so many of the fans, for better or worse, read like characters in a fictional novel. Heck, the stadium itself is probably the main character.

I found Lonnie Wheeler's Bleachers: A Summer in Wrigley Field in a thrift store bin for a buck a couple months ago, and I'm sure Wrigleyworld will make for a nice accompanying read.

A good chunk of the books I've read (or are planning to read) are due to rave reviews from my dad.

You can add John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces to that list. My dad says it's one of the best books he's ever flipped through, which meant that it instantly catapulted to the top of my "want to read" list.

This is one of those novels that I'd heard rumblings about, but never really investigated. Turns out Toole committed suicide eleven years before the work was even published, and ACOD likely wouldn't have been published at all had Toole's mother not found a manuscript of the novel lying in the bowels of her house.

There's a certain amount of risk in a lot of the books I buy, knowing full well that they might not turn out to be as good as I'd expected. But, on the other side of the coin, some books have that kind of understated certainty to them, ones that I'll know I'll like before I even start them.

A Confederacy of Dunces has that certain kind of certain feel.

On a larger level, Lit Fest makes it very clear to me that books are still alive and well in today's society. Saturday's gathering was almost too crowded, in fact, as I seemed to be bumping into innocent bystanders with every step I took.

As somewhat of a cynic by trade, I sometimes think that actual books themselves are on their way out with people my age, the nervous, early-to-mid twenties, just-about-to-graduate college students. Nope. I couldn't be more wrong. Books are alive and well, people.

If you don't believe me, do yourself a favor and attend Lit Fest this time next year.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: The Floating Opera by John Barth

I've never had much of an aptitude for writing review of any kind, but I'm going to try and give it a shot with this blog.

In time, I hope to talk about a variety of works I've read over the past couple years, but, for now, I thought I'd start with John Barth's The Floating Opera, a novel I completed this past weekend. Here goes nothing.

How I Discovered It: Barth's The End of the Road (as well as his short story, "Lost in the Funhouse") was one of the assigned works in the fantastic 20th Century Fiction course I took last semester. Because the two novels share common threads in terms of characters and subject matter, EOTR and The Floating Opera were paired together in the edition in stock at my school's bookstore. (Note to college students: Try to avoid buying books from your school's bookstore.)

In a curriculum filled with better-known "classics" such as Invisible Man and 1984, Barth's EOTR surprisingly took its place as one of the semester's more satisfying reads (and one of my overall favorites) from the fiction class. We completed the novel in February, and I've been itching to dig into The Floating Opera ever since. It sat near the top of my summer reading list, and I finally got around to it a couple weeks ago.

How Long It Took To Read: About ten days.

Overview: The Floating Opera, John Barth's first novel, is simultaneously narrated in two voices of the same man, one Todd Andrews. We meet Todd in 1954 as he rehashes the tale of the day he decided to commit suicide on either June 21st or 22nd in 1937 (he can't remember which). The novel tracks that fateful day in which he resolved to, as he puts it, "destroy himself." Todd is a lawyer, and, like the characters in EOTR, he is enmeshed in a love triangle (in 1937) with his college friend Harrison Mack and his wife, Jane. Along the way, we also meet Capt. Osborn Jones and Mr. Haecker, neighbors at the hotel where Todd lives.

The novel culminates by bringing many of its characters back together aboard the "floating opera," that is, a literal opera performance that takes place on a boat as it floats along the shore. Todd and Capt. Osborn are in attendance together as the particularly captivating final scene unwinds aboard the showboat.

Review: I've noticed that many of my favorite movies are those that take place within a single day. Think Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Dazed and Confused. Not long ago, before I knew anything about the plot of The Floating Opera, I wondered whether a book had ever been written in the same fashion. Coincidentally, along came John Barth and this wonderful novel just a short while later. Much of pop culture today revolves around not knowing the ending of a given work until, well...the end. What I found most fascinating about The Floating Opera is the fact that we, as readers, know the ending from Page 1. Todd tells the tale of the day in 1937 when he decided to kill himself, yet we know full well that he did not do so since he is recounting the story seventeen years later.

While other works may strongly suffer from such a SPOILER ALERT, The Floating Opera does not. Conversely, the fact that we know the ending serves as one of the overarching points of the novel. As Todd describes, the metaphor of the floating opera itself is a mirror to life. Those viewing the performance from the shore may catch certain pieces of the opera (including, perhaps, the ending), but miss others when the boat sails away, out of sight. The viewers are left to fill in the gaps, to create the full picture from what they have seen. Similarly, Todd does not map things out for the reader, presenting a variety of seemingly unrelated incidents from his life (including a painfully humorous scene in which he visits a brothel that employs a former lover of his) while leaving the reader to piece it together. You may miss a point here and there, but, according to Todd, that's fine. That's expected. It's virtually impossible to catch the entirety of anything, just as you'll never catch the full performance of the floating opera.

As a reader who is constantly afraid of "missing something" in a novel, The Floating Opera was a particularly refreshing read. While other novels may place muted emphasis on the color of a character's eyes, Todd (narrating in 1954) often forgets to describe his acquaintances all together, asking the reader something along the lines of "Have I described him yet? No? Well, he looks like this." Todd does not particularly seem to care about the craft or perfection of his writing...or much of anything, for that matter. The line between entertainment and annoyance with narcissistic characters in fiction is thin, but, both with this novel and EOTR, Barth manages to toe that line perfectly. There isn't much of a plot to The Floating Opera, yet it manages to remain a highly captivating read. The prose seems to meander and trail off in odd points at time (even for Todd). However, as Barth notes in the preface to the novel, it "remains the very first novel of a very young man," written in a three-month span when he was twenty-four years old.

It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that a 24-year-old could write something as splendid and complex as this novel. And, as a 23-year-old writer myself, I'd be lying if I didn't say The Floating Opera made me feel a little inferior.

Overall Grade: A-