Review 1638: Utopia Avenue

I always look forward to a new book by David Mitchell. So, I read Utopia Avenue almost as soon as it arrived at my house.

Dean Moss has had a bad day. First, he is robbed of his rent and the money to reclaim his pawned guitar almost as soon as he leaves the bank. Then, his landlady threatens to throw him out. When he asks for his pay a few days early, his boss fires him. He is out on the street wondering where to go when Levon Frankland introduces himself. Levon is a manager who has heard him perform. He wants to build a band from scratch and takes him to hear a guitarist and drummer perform at a nearby club. The two are the only good things in an act headed by a washed-up performer. They are Jasper de Zoet (Mitchell fans will know that last name) and Griff, a drummer.

Elf Halloway has a popular folk EP out, but the EP she recorded as a duo with her boyfriend Bruce has not done so well. Then Bruce dumps her, a fact she’s so ashamed of that she lies to her family about it. The three musicians invite her to join their group, which will have an eclectic sound.

This novel follows the band’s adventures as it attempts to gain enough recognition to cut an album. It reflects the love of music that is apparent from most of Mitchell’s novels and also features the reappearance of some of his recurring characters.

Utopia Avenue vividly evokes the heady days of the rock scene in mid-1960’s England and the United States. It features encounters with numerous pop culture figures such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Mama Cass, Brian Jones, and many others.

If I fault the novel at all, I feel it salts these famous characters in a little too freely. Also, there are a few too many scenes where friends or complete strangers say exactly the right thing to a troubled band member.

However, the novel has a gripping subplot involving an invader into one character’s consciousness and overall, I enjoyed it.

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Review 1637: A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

I have a few disclaimers before I begin my review of this book. First, punk, progressive, and grunge rock are not genres I’ve listened to, so I am profoundly ignorant of Maynard James Keenan’s work, which is perhaps a handicap for my review. Second, the author, Sarah Jensen, is a friend and ex-housemate, with whom I’ve been out of touch until recently. My belated discovery that she had written this biography piqued my interest in reading it.

Jensen follows Keenan from the time when he was a boy, leading a difficult life, to his present life as a musician, actor, comic performer, artist, winemaker, and writer. Yes, he truly seems to be a Renaissance man, continually working at something and giving his many projects detailed attention and effort.

Keenan’s young life was disrupted many times—by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s being incapacitated by stroke, his many households and schools. Although he is a seeker, his attitudes about formal religion are formed by his skepticism, even very early, about his fundamentalist upbringing and his anger at how members of her church told his mother she must have done something very wrong for God to have stricken her so.

Starting at high school, it seems, Keenan developed the philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well, and if you have talent, you should use it. He was a high school track star and gifted artist, whose dream was to go to art school. He accomplished that by enlisting in the army, where he so excelled that he was offered a place at West Point’s preparatory school. He attended that but with no intention of becoming an officer.

His path to such bands as Tool and A Perfect Circle was anything but direct, so much so that old friends weren’t even aware he was a musician. The tale of his progress through life is truly interesting.

The book is beautifully written, lyrical at times, and explores Keenan’s music, lyrics, and philosophy in detail. I felt a bit at sea in following the discussions of his music and his comic performances as part of Puscifer, as I explained before, despite having watched a few clips on YouTube.

If there was one thing that threw me off a bit it was the tone of the book, especially in discussions of Keenan’s performances, which felt more like, say, a Rolling Stone appreciation than a biography. That being said, I am more accustomed to literary and political biographies, which have more distance from their subjects than ones about living celebrities.

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Review 1472: Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones & The Six, about the rise and demise of a 70’s rock band, is written like the script for a documentary. I got the impression at first that it was trying to accomplish something like Jennifer Egan’s amazing A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the beginning of the novel, we see the separate starts of Daisy Jones and of the band that became The Six. Daisy, a neglected 14-year-old, begins as a rock and roll groupie, while the band works its way up through the usual dances and bars. When they are each beginning to get a little attention, a record executive thinks it would be a great idea if they record a song together. They are a hit. The only problem is that Daisy and the band’s lead singer, Billy Dunne, don’t seem to like each other.

This novel does a pretty good job of depicting the drug- and sex-fueled 70’s rock scene, but I felt it was about 100 pages too long. It also signals where it is going a little too early. The format has its problems. It makes the reader separate from the book even while amusingly showing how different people’s versions of the same event can be.

Taylor Jenkins Reid seems to have ambitions to write more than chick lit, but this novel is essentially chick lit.

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Day 581: Reread! A Visit from the Goon Squad

Cover for A Visit from the Goon SquadWhen I first read this quirky book last year, I said I wanted to reread it so that I could pay better attention to the minor characters in each story. I intended this because Egan’s clever technique to tie these stories together is to make a minor character in one story be the primary character in another.

So, this is my second review of this collection, which is really great. If you didn’t run right out and get it after my last review, I urge you to do so now. The stories are hip, aware, funny, and terrifically smart, centering around the music and public relations industries.

The stories in the first half of the book all touch on two characters—Benny Salazar, who is a music business executive when we first encounter him, and Lou, his mentor. The stories move backward and forward in time, so Benny is first at the height of his career but beginning to realize his taste is falling out of fashion. In a later story he is a teenager in a punk band called the Flaming Dildoes. He has several more appearances before making a comeback in his 60’s with a sensational concert starring his old friend Scotty from that first high school band.

Lou is at the height of his powers in one of the earlier stories, when he seduces one of the girls from the Dildoes, Jocelyn. Her friend Rhea watches their behavior in dismay. Later a dying old man, Lou is delighted to receive a visit from Rhea and Jocelyn, together again after years. But Jocelyn fights an urge to push him into the swimming pool as she considers her 30 years of wasted life as a drug addict, started on her way by Lou when she was 17.

The funniest stories skewer the public relations field. Dolly, once the premier public relations agent in New York (and the boss of Benny Salazar’s wife), has given up her career after a disastrous party she planned. Her brilliant idea to suspend translucent pans of colored oil from the ceiling near spotlights so that the oil would move as it heated was ruined when the plastic pans melted, sending hot oil down to burn all the celebrities. She sees an opportunity to revive her career in a job rehabilitating the reputation of a brutal third-world general. Even though this job almost ends in a murder, when her strategy actually works, she is contacted by a slew of dictators and assorted thugs wanting to hire her.

The has-been starlet Dolly used as the general’s “girlfriend” is the focus in her early career of a hilarious vituperative mock PR piece by the journalist who physically attacked her during an interview (Benny Salazar’s troubled brother-in-law). And finally, a short time in the future, Benny Salazar brings together his smash concert by appealing to the tastes of babies (“pointers,” as they are termed by the marketeers) and using the equivalent of likes on Facebook.

I understood a few things better on rereading the book. In an interview, Jennifer Egan said the stories were about pauses. One of them, a delightful Powerpoint presentation written by a preteen girl (the daughter of Benny Salazar’s ex-assistant Sasha, whose story is the first one in the book), talks about her little brother’s fascination with the pauses in rock music. In the book, we revisit the characters at different times in their lives, after pauses when we don’t see them. This approach leads us to consider the events of their life that we don’t see. Finally, there is the title, explained by the remark of a character. “Time is a goon.”