Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Club: Paper Towns by John Green

In this feature I construct a fake soundtrack (or, I suppose, a real soundtrack) to a book I have recently read. I read very slowly. Songs chosen are either songs that felt like they were intertwined with the text or merely songs I was listening to at the time that I forced meaning into. But in this case, it's mostly the former.

I'll admit, the reason I'm a Nerdfighter is because I found out that one of the inscriptions in Paper Towns was one of my absolute favorite lines from my absolute favorite Mountain Goats albums. “People say friends don't destroy one another/ What do they know about friends?” For years I've carried that line from “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” around with me like a badge. A bad for bad relationships and dead friendships and the reasons therein. That line was my truth, and for it to pop up in a book was too coincidental to ignore. Wikipedia linked me to Amazon, Amazon led me to Google-searching John Green, which led to Vlogbrothers, which led to the only web-entity I strictly follow. Webcomics and blogs tend to get forgotten, but Vlogbrothers is this little light of good in the world that has helped me become less of an asshole and has set to restoring a power of positive thinking inside my cynical and burnt out brain.

I have been waiting for Paper Towns to show up at Half Price Books for a solid six months, maybe more. Ever since I read that it mentioned the Mountain Goats, one of my top 3 favorite bands (position varies, but always within the top 3). Looking For Alaska showed up first, and it wasn't even in the Young Adult section. I found it on a fluke, took it home, read it, and it opened my eyes to the wide and fascinating world of Young Adult Fiction. It wasn't a book I would have thought to read when I was actually of-age (see: 15-18) but I feel like I appreciate it more now that I'm a more grown-ass man/boy (see: 25). I liked it more than I like The Catcher in the Rye now, which for all intents and purposes was the book that taught me to read. My guts have this longing for a great bildungsroman, and Looking for Alaska was of the brutal variety. The hard growing up variety. The dealing with shit you shouldn't have to deal with when you're a teenager, and I loved how honest it was. And how, despite the fact that it's for teenagers I was able to take so much from it that moved me and continues to move me.

An Abundance of Katherines came next, snagged from the Westport store on a jaunt to Kansas City. I read half of it and stopped because of a number of reasons. Mostly it just wasn't as deep as Looking for Alaska. It was fun, there was a goofy best friend (who I mostly couldn't stand) and Colin just never grabbed me. And then I put the book down for three months. When I picked it up again and finished it, I learned to like it more. The last 30 pages I kind of loved it and it hit me in the same place as Alaska. I even learned to love Hassan and the stupid shit he would say that I thought a teenager would never say but then, as it wore on, realized that maybe kids DO talk like this. Who knows!

And then Paper Towns, which happened in the earlier part of this week. At first I thought it was An Abundance of Katherines Part II, since it has the same characters. Overly analytical protagonist boy with a goofy best friend and a crush on some painfully too cool girl that he'll never have a chance with. Well, sort of the same. I mostly just hated the way Ben talked and thought “No one calls girls honeybunnies, not even if they're 18.” But as soon as Margo drags Quentin along on her midnight revenge mission, I was hooked, and in the end I felt like Paper Towns was even more excellent than Looking for Alaska. Or they're equal, I can't decide, but the adventure of it from camping out in abandoned minimalls in subdivisions that were never built to all the Walt Whitman stuff and having characters who sing along to the Mountain Goats on their way to class with the windows down to show everyone what great taste they have. It was all so spot on. I'll never be a literary critic, because I don't know how to criticize books like this. Books that, when I'm finished, I clutch to my chest like I'm saying some emotional goodbye. “I'm sorry I cracked your spine,” I say. I don't know how to criticize that, other than the nitpicky stuff which was made up for by things like Radar's parents having the worlds largest collection of Black Santas or the way Green turns the stereotypical preppies from other books into real characters with their own problems and wants and wishes and fears and all that stuff they should have but never seem to get in books.

Anyway, long story short, I really liked this book. I was very moved by it and it made me want to write young adult fiction. I actually wrote a novel when I was 17 and 18, over the course of a summer, the best summer ever. I'd wake up every morning at 10 sharp, go to Einstein Brothers and read and write, then ride my bike around the trail on Indian Creek, then go to Pizza Street for two hours and write and eat pizza and then maybe go work at AMC or watch movies in my bedroom. It was a great summer, and the manuscript is terrible but I now feel like there's something worth salvaging. Songs kept popping up while I was reading this. Mostly Mountain Goats songs, since that was the sort of prepackaged soundtrack, but ones I didn't expect. And other songs that fit in with various turns of phrase or scenes or characters. It's easier, though, when a book provides a soundtrack for you. A really great one at that.

Guided by Voices - “Paper Girl”

There's a part towards the end of the book, when, spoiler alert, Quentin is talking to Margo in the field in the paper town and she talks about being this paper girl and it's the part in the book that made the book work for me and made me love it. It's when Margo becomes a real person rather than a mythical creature. I love this song because it works just as well from both Quentin's image of Margo and Margo's image of herself. It's such a perfect companion piece to Paper Towns. Now that I think of it, Guided by Voices were referenced in the text! Totally forgot about that. Margo has GBV in her record collection, so maybe she had a copy of Self Inflicted Aerial Nostaligia tucked away in the Gs, gathering dust and value.

The Mountain Goats – “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”

“People say friends don't destroy one another/ What do they know about friends?” as I mentioned, is my favorite line off of Tallahassee (favorites 2-5 are all probably from “No Children” or “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”). I think it captures what John Darnielle is best at, which is saying things plainly but giving them this amazing, insightful depth with the way he says them. I can see where John Green gets it. There's no point in explaining what that line means, because you KNOW what it means, and if you are a normal person who has interacted with other people, you probably have a specific example of what that line means to you.

The Mountain Goats - “See America Right”

For the third act. Five teenagers in a minivan blitzing north to New York from Orlando in 21 hours. It's insanity, and this is the song you listen to when you're burning a trail to some destination and don't even have time to stop. Something in Peter Hughes bass line that just drives you straight down into oblivion. Wait, that's a line from “Game Shows Touch Our Lives.” Shit. Also, holy shit is JD dressed as Batman in this video I THINK SO.

The Mountain Goats - “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton”

The lead-off track from one of my ultimate road trip records: All Hail West Texas. This is the song I imagine Ben, Radar, and Q singing along to at that one part where they sing along to the mountain goats. It's THEE Mountain Goats song to sing along to. Well, that seems to be the general consensus, at least, from the times I've seen them play this at the end of sets and everyone screaming along with so much love for their fellow man, especially at the “HAIL SATAN!” part. It's just such a fun song to sing.

The Lemonheads - “Bit Part”

This is going on because I love the Lemonheads, and when thinking of songs that fit with the book I defaulted to the Lemonheads because they're the last band I really, truly fell in love with that I'd never known I would fall in love with. “Bit Part” is the sweetest song on “It's a Shame About Ray,” which is by turns funny and sad and moody and all the things that make it a masterpiece, but “Bit Part” always kind of made my heart a little fuzzy. It's not like the guy in the song pleading for a bit part in girl's life gets girl or anything like that, but it's the purity of his intent.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - “Walt Whitman's Niece”

Referenced in the book, where Q says Billy Bragg has a more pleasant voice than Woody Guthrie, whom he finds unlistenable. It's a sweet and honest admission. The song feels rowdier than most of the book feels, but it seems to fit really well in the adventure sequence in the beginning, and the line, “And it takes a night and a girl/ And a book of this kind/ A long long time to find its way back” is you know, just exactly it. Right there, in song form. A perfect fit to the soundtrack.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Club: Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

In this feature I compile a soundtrack to a book I've just finished reading. The songs fit tone, characters, specific references, and any general things that may have popped up here or there. Or they might have just been playing in the background, who knows!

I hated this book at first. I was all "PFF, fantasy novels are for fucking nerds!" and then by page like, 600 two and a half weeks after starting the book, I was like "OH MY GOD THIS IS SO FUCKING AWESOME." At Yello Sub today, the woman who brought my sandwich asked what I was reading and showed her the cover and she said "Oh, a fantasy novel" and I was not ashamed. It was strange. Anyway, I don't think I'd recommend this to anyone. It's a time sink, a big one. Worth reading, but only for the awesome plot and the way more amazing than I would have expected characters. The prose makes me want to jump out of a window, a little bit, but it's a small price to pay for excellent swords and shit entertainment. The song stylings of Spencer Krug fit this book for me like a glove. Don't know why, they just do. Actually, I DO know why. It's because his last album as Sunset Rubdown was called Dragonslayer and there are references to dragons and dragonslaying in this book. THERE. Well, mostly it's because he sings with this sense of granduer that fits with the epic scope of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, well, what I've read so far. So much tragedy and triumph, often overlapping. And then there's a couple of Destroyer songs at the end because, you know, Canada may as well be the northlands in my head.

Sunset Rubdown - “Dragon's Lair”

“Because to say the war is over is to say you are a widow/ You're not a widow yet.” Line after line of this song popped in and out of and through my head as I was reading A Game of Thrones. It captures all the grandeur, all the pomp and circumstance and shit that populates this book. “If you are sharpening your scissors, then I am sharpening my scissors/ And I'm sharpening my sword.” It just clicked. And then, you know, the references to dragons and dragonslayers, but that's not the given. The given is that this song is all about destruction. Destruction of people, destruction of ideas, destructions of mythologies. The kind of complex destructions that take place in this novel. And like the novel, in my head this song is about champions and saviors and heroes and villains and monsters and nasty men, and the two influence each other if only because they recall a similar gut feeling that gets tied to moral ambiguity. This is what was running through my head for the last few hundred pages and it really helped with the style of the prose, which I still felt was too “fantasyesque” for me to really get into (see: All the references to “glistening manhood,” “fingers in her sex,” etc). But really, most of my gripes with the prose are that for a story this good, it deserves the kind of writing that fucks you up. So I imagined it as this song as a coping mechanism and it seemed to work. Also, this music video fucking rules.

Sunset Rubdown - “Silver Moons”

Dragonslayer is a winter album. Though I only tend to listen to it in the winter, it's really the only time it feels right. It's bleak and beautiful, cold with this little fire in the center of it brought on by recording everything live in the studio. This song fit the first couple hundred pages of A Game of Thrones remarkably well for me. “Maybe these days are over, over now,” Spencer Krug sings. “Gone are the days bonfires make me think of you/ Looks like the prophecy came true.” It rings of myth and legend, the whole album does, from this the remarkable opener to the epic conclusion in “Dragon's Lair.” This is my song for the Starks, in their desolate but serene home at Winterfell before the shit hit the fan.

Sunset Rubdown - “The Mending of the Gown”

I always imagine this song as a stage play that goes horribly wrong and culminates with the curtain falling from the rafters and burying the cast alive. I see this song through the eyes of Jamie and Cersei Lannister, circa their little incestuous relationship being found out and the consequences that come with covering up, notably the whole taking over the throne and executing enemies to said throne bit.

Sunset Rubdown - “Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days”

“You're the one who ran in the wild a virgin to a name;
You're the one who lived off a forsaken land.
I'm the one who sat at your capture
And let the snow fall on this whispering rapture
You're the one who's kissing your captor's hands.”

“Your highness is holding your chains.”

For Sansa.

Wolf Parade - “Kissing the Beehive”

“As if you didn't know that it would sting/ Kissing the beehive/ And fucking up your finger from pushing on the ring.”

Wolf Parade - “Dinner Bells”

“There will be no more winter/ There will be no more spring and/ There will be no more dinner bells
left for you to ring”

Destroyer - “Bay of Pigs”

“I was born in the North, but my father's from the South.
Love is a political beast with jaws for a mouth. I don't care!”

Mostly just that line, but I listened to Destroyer's latest LP Kaputt throughout my reading of A Game of Thrones so maybe I fit the subject matter around the song. Lots of cryptic lines that meshed really well with all the intrigue.

“You were on the side of good/ I was inside of the sea's guts/ A crumbling beauty trapped in a river of ice/ A crumbling beauty trapped in Paradise/ Oh yes, it was Paradise!”

It's a cold, northern song on an album of bizarre disco-tinged sex jams all laced with jazz flute and 80s sax and I love it.

Destroyer - "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night's Ape)"

Because, you know, epic fancy-languaged drama works.