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The Bookshelf Diaries (an occasional series): Macan, Walker, Townshend, Chabon

The Bookshelf Diaries (an occasional series): Macan, Walker, Townshend, Chabon

“If you want to write, the first thing you need to do is read.” In the current lull before the next big push on the new book (which is fated to have a labor lasting many months), here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture by Edward Macan is a surprisingly—at times aggravatingly—academic tome about that great hoary beast, progressive rock. Skirting the stupor-inducing sections about music theory and harmonic structure, as well as some of Macan’s more esoteric digressions, I thankfully emerged with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for a genre I’ve enjoyed since I was 12 years old, even when it often felt hopelessly uncool to do so. Not for the casual fan, but for the devotee (or the author in the throes of research), the horribly-titled Rocking the Classics is an intriguing explication of the genre’s conventions and their larger cultural significance.

The only fiction in my recent diet was—thank you, Amazon, for the excellent recommendation—Karen Thompson Walker’s superb The Age Of Miracles, a beautifully rendered novel that manages to bridge genres (coming-of-age / end-of-the-world) with prose that is both luminous and deceptively spare. Eleven-year-old Julia makes a piercingly, but never unbelievably, perceptive narrator of the series of traumas large and small that befalls herself and her family after the rotation of the earth inexplicably begins to slow. By describing events entirely from Julia’s perspective, Walker turns a sci-fi trope on its head, making it into a deeply touching and personal tale of one flawed and very human family’s efforts to carry on as the world around them begins, quite literally, to wind down.

At this writing I’m about a third of the way through Pete Townshend’s autobiography Who I Am and soaking in the pungent atmosphere of sweat and cognac and “auto-destruction.” (The latter being Pete’s high-falutin’ term for smashing his guitars, a showpiece of Who concerts that he triggers entirely by accident, swinging his guitar up high one night in a club with a low ceiling.)  Putting aside my own affection for The Who—and particularly Who’s Next, one of the my favorite albums of all time—it’s fascinating to hear the tension still in Townshend’s voice as he describes being a basically shy, awkward introvert thrust first into the role of bandleader (by virtue of his prolific songwriting) and then musical visionary. Constantly pulled in different directions, one minute he’s concluding he needs to write more hit singles to support his young family, the next he’s plowing through every considerable obstacle in his path to invent the rock opera with Tommy. Not a particularly likable narrator—he excuses his own serial infidelities with a casual “I was a young rock star after all,” and anything bad that happens always seems to be mostly someone else’s fault—he is at least a frank and indisputably talented one.

As for Michael Chabon, after a challenging voyage through Telegraph Avenue, I’m back to non-fiction with Michael’s superb collection of essays on writing Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. While I’m a bit sad that Chabon believes he needs to put this much effort into justifying his passion for so-called genre fiction, not to mention pop culture in general, it’s wonderful to hear a writer as gifted as he is attacking the subject with complete enthusiasm and sinking three-pointer after three-pointer against the highbrow opposition. You tell ’em, Mikey.

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