Listening to music and seeing faces in its fire

31 Songs

31 Songs
by Nick Hornby

I love Nick Hornby. And this collection of his essays about music might be Hornby at his best. Because when it comes to music, Hornby is a true fan, but not the kind of fan who knows it all and lectures on the roots of all music; he’s a fan in that he loves what he loves with great enthusiasm, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As the title suggests, these essays centre around a list of 31 songs. Not necessarily Hornby’s favourite 31 songs, though they are for the most part among his favourites. Instead he has chosen songs that give him something to write about. So his selection of “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five gives us an essay about pop lyrics and whether it matters that most pop lyrics aren’t the stuff of great poetry (a subject of great interest to me; in fact I wrote my dissertation on it). I was happy to find, as a fan of Ben Folds, that Hornby’s decision on this matter doesn’t affect his belief that “Smoke” is “lyrically perfect”, and he adds a fascinating postscript:

“It’s possible that this sort of craft goes unnoticed because ‘Smoke’ is just a song, in the way that ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ weren’t just songs. The young men who wrote them were also, unwittingly or not, in the process of changing the world…Their songs have therefore become imbued with all sorts of magic that doesn’t properly belong to them, and we can’t see the songs as songs anymore.”

I found some essays better than others, just as some are more personal than others. There’s a very touching essay centred around “Puff the Magic Dragon” because Hornby’s autistic son responds positively to that song, which is a huge deal when you have a child so severely autistic that he only has three or four words at the age of ten.

Hornby does sometimes contradict himself. For instance, he accuses others of being unnecessarily bleak about the state of pop music today and then makes similar dismissive statements himself. His opening essay says that this is not about songs that are connected with a certain memory, and he’s actually pretty harsh about that as a reason for picking out a song, and yet at least two of the essays are exactly that. I don’t agree with all Hornby’s statements (it’s possibly a product of the time of his writing, but I don’t think the age of the Internet has narrowed musical styles, I think it has widened and democratised them wonderfully), and I don’t always share his taste, but then that’s not the point anyway.

“This book isn’t predicated on you and me sharing the ability to hear the same things; in other words, it isn’t music criticism. All I’m hoping here is that you have equivalents, that you spend a lot of time listening to music and seeing faces in its fire.”

As someone who does indeed listen to a lot of music and loves that moment of being transported by a good song, I really really enjoyed this book. I liked that it demands to be read while listening to music, ideally pop music, which is something I tend not to do, to avoid distraction. Even though Hornby is older than me and we don’t entirely share our music taste, I felt compelled to make a playlist from this book, not of the 31 songs themselves and not of every song mentioned at all (that would be a long playlist) but instead of every song he enthuses about. I used Spotify, so not all the songs were available, but I’m enjoying the results. If anyone’s interested in listening, the playlist is here. But even if you don’t like the look of the song selection (and there is a lot of Rod Stewart on there, I’ll grant you) I still highly recommend this book to any pop/rock music lover.

“‘Caravan’ isn’t a song about life or death, as far as I can tell: it’s a song about merry gypsies and campfires and turning up your radio and stuff. But in its long, vamped passage right before the climax, when the sax weaves gently in and out of the cute, witty, neo-chamber strings, while the piano sprinkles bluesy high notes over the top, Morrison’s band seems to isolate a moment somewhere between life and its aftermath, a big, baroque entrance hall of a place where you can stop and think about everything that has gone before.”

Published 2003 by Penguin. Published in the US as Songbook.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?

How to be Good
by Nick Hornby

I was feeling a bit ill and not quite up to stretching my brains around the Asimov novel I’m in the middle of reading, so I picked this off the TBR. Somehow that sounds as if I’m disparaging it. I’m not. I really like Hornby. And he is easier to read than Asimov, it turns out.

But how did I like this Hornby novel? Well, it was better than Slam, which is a good start, and generally pretty funny and intelligent, but I do have some bones to pick. And I can’t tell if I’m mostly annoyed with the storyline or with the way it’s told. Some of each, probably.

Kate is struggling with her marriage. It’s not so much that the sex has become mechanical, or that she has started an affair, or that her husband David is constantly in a heightened, bordering-on-caricature, state of anger…but something is clearly wrong and only apathy has prevented the inevitable divorce. Then, out of the blue, David visits a faith healer (largely to spite Kate, who is a GP) and suddenly he is changed beyond all recognition, his whole aim in life is to do and be good, and he’s damn well going to make the whole family join him.

A certain suspension of disbelief is required for this story that, frankly, I didn’t quite manage. Despite the faith healer, DJ GoodNews, being unappealing and having no religion and no oratory skill, he is successful at healing doubters and believers alike. David changes from comically angry and judgemental to painfully earnest do-gooder with difficulty having any other topic of conversation than, well, doing good:
“[David’s] relentless quest for the gag in everything used to drive me potty…some elaborate and usually nasty witticism would come darting out of his mouth…and I would either laugh, or, more often, walk out of the room, slamming the door on the way. But every now and again – say, five per cent of the time – something would hit me right on the end of my funny bone…So now I very rarely walk out of the room and slam the door; on the other hand, I never laugh. And I would have to say that as a consequence I am slightly worse off.”

Kate is, for the most part, pretty believable. As the narrator, it is her head we are inside and her perspective we see. She believes herself to be a good person because she is a doctor, and that the number of pus-filled sores she tends to each day outweighs minor aberrations such as having an affair. She is initially outraged that her husband’s mid-life crisis appears to require her and her children to give up some of their middle class creature comforts but she tries to support David and even begins to see the point of his efforts.

There are brilliantly quotable lines on almost every page but I think this gives a particularly good flavour:
“What is the difference between offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000?…do we have a moral right to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements? Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?…I wish David and GoodNews were interested in starting up an Internet company so that they could make millions of pounds to spend on Page Three girls and swimming pools and cocaine and designer suits. People would understand that. That wouldn’t upset the neighbours.”

The story of a failing marriage is told poignantly and well. It was achingly sad to read about Kate being happy to share a bed with David because they have learned to fit together, but at the same time growing to hate him. And the social issues that David and GoodNews touch on are real ones that people should care about and want to do something about.

But this is a gentle comedy, not a hard-hitting one, so of course it implies that Kate was right to not bother in the first place and David is made to look stupid for having tried. Which is a shame. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s easy to poke fun at middle-class left-leaning liberals. The tone of the book, for all its humour, is actually very bleak – there is no point, no hope. Which is depressing. And not true. There are good people out there who didn’t need a spiritual conversion to make them good and don’t make themselves ridiculous by doing good deeds. Guess I’m just an optimist.

As you can tell, the story does raise interesting questions about faith, “goodness”, charity and family, though it explores them from a fairly limited Christian perspective. There were some irritating non-sequiturs when Hornby switched between David being a hardnosed rational to a science-hating artist. And a GP who doesn’t know basic first aid and includes homeopathy in a list of “proper” treatments preferable to faith healing? Both equally terrifying though sadly the latter is at least believable.

So where does that leave me? I thoroughly enjoyed the read but it also frustrated me and continues to now as I mull it over. Is that a sign of good writing? Perhaps.

First published 2001 by Penguin Books.

The joy of reading

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby

This book looked and sounded like fun with a literary bent, which was exactly what I needed after a few non-absorbing reads in a row.

This is a compilation of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns that he wrote for the literary magazine Believer from 2003 to 2006. Hornby is funny and the magazine had a policy of positivity so the result is a real delight to read.

Hornby’s novels probably fall into the more readable end of literary fiction so it is perhaps no surprise that that is where his own reading tastes lie. He loves Dickens but has little patience for the vaguer, plotless end of literary fiction so to keep in line with the Believer‘s no-negativity clause he creates the mythical Polysyllabic Spree, the “twelve [or 100, or 64, depending on the column] rather eerie young men and women…all dressed in white robes and smiling maniacally” who he claims berate him for any bad reviews, which makes for some hilarity.

But most of the pleasure comes from Hornby’s frank discussions of how he chooses what he reads, how life intrudes on his reading, and sharing his great joy in reading what he wants to read. He despairs of literary snobbery, of those who look down on others for reading Dan Brown or Mills & Boon. He wisely and wittily describes his reads, mostly biographies, comedy and history. He is open about the sources of his books – his publisher, friends and family send him proof copies, but he is also an insatiable book buyer, frequenting book shops, new and used, whenever he can.

Believer is published by McSweeney’s, so a lot of the names involved are writers who are familiar to me – Vendela Vida, for instance – and, brilliantly, the internet tells me that Hornby’s column was recently reinstated. I might just have to become a subscriber!

First published by Viking 2006.

Boys will be boys

Slam
by Nick Hornby

I’ve read Nick Hornby books before and I’m reasonably certain that I liked them. So I was a bit disappointed to find that I was so, well, disappointed with this one.

The story is narrated by Sam, a teenage boy, which was the first thing that grated. Not that it was done badly. In fact it was probably the realism of the narrative voiced that made it so irritating. This is not a smart or interesting kid. It’s a slightly dumb, largely boring, typical teenage boy. I don’t usually mind disliking a main character but I think I still need to be interested in them. This kid skateboards, talks to his Tony Hawk poster, is a little clueless about girls but still somehow pulls the first pretty girl he tells us about, rarely sees the couple of friends he names and doesn’t have a lot to say about school, except that he likes art and is apparently good enough to stand a chance of going to art college. So he’s either dull or not very well fleshed out. I suspect it’s mostly the former but a little bit of the latter too.

I know that sounds harsh. And maybe if you’re a young guy you’ll totally relate to Sam. But even if I don’t relate to a character I usually feel that I have learned something by being in their shoes for the length of a book. I didn’t learn anything here. I mean, who couldn’t figure out for themselves that teen pregnancy is hard?

Yup, that’s the subject matter. It’s hinted at for a while before it’s said outright but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say it here. And I suspect this is a realistic portrayal in many respects, but it doesn’t get into many of the issues surrounding the subject, really. Mostly it’s a boy whining about how shit it is that he got his girlfriend pregnant even though they used a condom. And if it had been written differently I might have sympathised, but I really didn’t. The writing was easygoing enough that I read on but the entire book was predictable and the end was irritatingly nicey nice.

But the worst bit was the time travel. Yes, you read that right. Possibly in a bid to make the book actually interesting, Hornby has his main character travel into the future randomly, without warning. The first time it happens, you can maybe write it off as a dream, or rather a nightmare of the “oh my god I have an exam and I haven’t revised at all and I may have forgotten how to write my name” variety. But no, we’re supposed to accept that this actually happens, with no explanation or scientificness of any nature. It’s just weird and out of place and made me dislike a book I was already dubious about.

First published 2007 by Penguin.