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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Books: I read 'em

Some recent reading:

:: I was a bit disappointed in Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, by rock critic and Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield. It's a good book, to be sure, but it just felt a bit off to me. In the book, Sheffield uses mix tapes as a staging device for describing his life during the 1990s; each chapter opens with a facsimile of those fill-in labels that come with the box for blank tape cassettes, with the titles all filled in with the songs on that particular tape.

What disappointed me about this one? In truth, I'm not entirely sure. It could be that I found the book slightly unfocused; it's not totally about the music, and it's not totally about the relationship, either. Both aspects of the book seemed to get shorted, for me. But more troublesome was the general pall that hangs over the entire book, since Sheffield tells us right up front that his wife Renee died of a pulmonary embolism, one of those meaningless deaths where you're going about your daily grind when suddenly it all ends and you're gone before you can hit the floor like a burlap bag filled with gravel.

I'm not trying to make light of Sheffield's horrific experience or the difficulty of his grieving, and I genuinely suspect that my feelings about Love is a Mix Tape stem from the fact that it didn't turn out to be the kind of book I was expecting, and given personal factors, it didn't turn out to be the kind of book I needed when I picked it up. So don't take this as a non-recommendation, because it isn't.

:: I mentioned him a couple of weeks back, but I'll say more about him now: Nick Bantock. A month or so ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a hand-made gift that instantly put me in mind of Bantock's Griffin and Sabine trilogy, and it not only occurred to me that I hadn't read Griffin and Sabine in a number of years, but that I hadn't read the follow-up Morningstar trilogy at all.

And then, a day or two after that thought occurred to me, I was in Borders and found four of the six books between the two trilogies on the "Bargain Book" stacks, each for $2.99. So I picked them up and bought the rest on eBay, over a week or two gathering a total of two copies of each trilogy: one for myself, and one for my friend whose birthday is next month. (Don't tell her.)

I love this series, I really do, and I think it's now to join Lord of the Rings and the books of Guy Gavriel Kay on my "To re-read in its entirety every few years" list. (I wait several years between re-reads to keep things fresh: there are still details in LOTR that catch me by surprise each time out.)

Griffin and Sabine and Morningstar are epistolary works, with their stories told entirely in the texts of letters and postcards mailed back and forth between the main characters. In the first book, Griffin and Sabine, English artist Griffin Moss receives an enigmatic postcard from Sabine Strohem, who is herself an artist who designs postage stamps for the tiny Pacific island nation of the Sicmons. Strangely, Sabine starts right off by referring to changes Griffin has made to a work of his that he hasn't shown to anyone. Right off the bat, this story is by turns mystical and sensuous.

I've never read anything quite like it -- especially seeing as how Bantock is himself a maker of art books. Instead of just printing the text of the postcards and letters, Bantock lets us handle the physical artefacts themselves. To read the letters, you actually have to remove them from their envelopes, which are glued to the pages. It sounds like a gimmicky device, but I loved the tactile sense not unlike reading a collection of love letters found in a dusty attic. Bantock is wise enough to give almost no narrative comment other than what's in the letters and postcards themselves. At times this makes the story a bit hard to follow, but really, this is at it should be. The reader has to fill in the blanks by imagination, which is the way it would be when one reads a collection of old letters, anyhow.

I've checked out a bunch of other Bantock titles from the library, and will report on them in due course. (When I read them, of course.)

:: Finally, I'd been meaning to read Bill Mauldin's Up Front for some years, which I own as part of the Library of America's amazing Reporting World War II collection, and I finally did so. What an amazing, stunning book. Seriously, I can't recommend this highly enough, for anyone who wants to know what life was like for the infantrymen of World War II, or for anyone who admires good war writing, for that matter. I'd be very interested to hear just how life for the infantrymen in Iraq today compares with that Mauldin describes for those of World War II, over sixty years ago. There's not much more to say than that, other than that I'm glad to have finally gotten to this one.

1 comment:

Tal said...

You will LOVE the Morningstar Trilogy. Also, The Venetian's Wife is my favourite of Bantocks. Moreso than Griffin and Sabine actually. Enjoy!