Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reliance on past performance

Reading is a lot like listening to music, at least in my opinion. If you find an author that you like, reading other books by them usually brings enjoyment. There have been personal exceptions to this rule, of course. You might read one book by a particular author, and not be able to put it down. Another book, by the very same author, might be tolerable, but not the page turner you had been conditioned for.

Joyce Carol Oates is an example of the latter for me. I’ve found some of her books exhilarating. No doubt Oates is a fine author, but for me, her books have been hit or miss.

An example of an author that I once read everything I could find is Joseph Wambaugh. Wambaugh, who rose through the ranks of the LA Police Department, from patrolman to detective sergeant, over a 14 year law enforcement career, turned to writing, detailing the gritty realities of police work in his first novel, The New Centurions. Published in 1971, this book launched a prolific stretch of writing for the cop, turned writer.

I read Wambaugh shortly after leaving fundamentalist Xianity in the 80s. His books were the first that I’d read for pleasure since high school. I enjoyed his takes on police work, based upon his own experiences. The characters were believable, and Wambaugh was a good writer, so sticking with him brought a steady stream of enjoyable reading.

On the music side, certain bands and artists, are much like authors. Once you like one of their CD releases, chances are, you’ll enjoy their other output. Like certain writers, there will always be exceptions.

Mike Ness, of Social Distortion fame, and also, two solo discs, is an artist that I can listen to his entire catalogue, both with the band and solo, and not be disappointed. While my tastes have evolved somewhat from much of the indie post-punk that comprises a good deal of my music collection, Ness’ Social D stuff still stands the test of time.

Not long ago, I met with a colleague for lunch. After we discussed work, and details of possible collaboration, our conversation turned to music, baseball, writing, and spirituality. On the basis of that talk, he said he’d send me his favorite novel about baseball.

Curious as to what the book might be, about two weeks later, a package arrived in my work mail slot. Inside was The Brothers K, by David James Duncan.

I had never read, let alone heard, of Duncan. Sorry for me that I hadn’t.

I read most of The Brothers K, all 643 sprawling pages, during my long weekend at Shagg Pond.

My work friend was right about the book. Duncan is a wonderful writer, and the book captures the life, passion, and heartbreak of family like few other books I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.

Duncan creates characters that at times are a bit larger than life, but at the same time, very believable. The father, Hugh Chance, is a former minor league baseball phenom. A pitcher, on his way to the big time, before an accident in the hometown paper mill derails his plans, the book never becomes clich├ęd and the sudden turns and twists of the novel kept me engaged right up to the very last page turn. Even after 600 plus pages, I was disappointed the book was coming to an end. Duncan kept me wanting more, as he didn’t detail each and every event, or fall into the “lives lived happily after” trap of some.

On the strength of The Brothers K, I picked up River Teeth the other day, when I was perusing the shelves of fiction at the Lewiston Public Library.

I just started reading Duncan’s book of stories about rivers and idiot sheep, infused with the rich metaphor of “river teeth,” the memories of experiences we’ve all had, shaped by the river of time. Like The Brothers K, River Teeth is great reading, and Duncan seems to be a writer like Wambaugh (as well as Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, and others) whose catalog won’t disappoint.

Ending on a musical note, the band Nada Surf has become a band for me that brings aural pleasure. Overcoming the curse of MTV success early in their life as a band, with their hit, “Popular,” the Brooklyn-based band, after being dumped by major label Elektra, have moved beyond the constraints of “finding hits,” to producing some mighty fine work on tiny Barsuk Records.

About six months ago, after hearing a killer live performance on KEXP by the band, I picked up Let Go, their first post-Elektra musical foray. The disc stayed in my car’s CD player nearly nonstop for weeks. Recently, I decided to add The Weight Is a Gift, their 2005 release. The song "Always Love" is such a great piece of songwriting by the band, and captures the importance of choosing love (and possibly, kindness), over hate. While that song is the reason I nabbed the disc, the rest of the tunes are stellar, and there isn’t one bad track on the record. I also picked up their newest release, Lucky, which I’ve yet to listen to, I’m so enthralled with TWIAG.

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