28 July 2009

The Trouble with Biographies

I went to the library a couple weeks ago and saw a copy of Larry Tye's new biography Satchel sitting on the new book shelves. It being the middle of summer and the Mariners having not played themselves out of contention yet (those were the days), I decided a baseball book would be perfect. Now, I knew almost nothing about Satchel Paige coming into the book aside from the fact that he was an exceptionally good pitcher.

Now, 123 pages into the book, I'm wondering why I got it in the first place. I mean, it's certainly not a bad book, I just can't bring myself to be that invested in it. Tye does a fine job depicting the life of Paige (though there is some chronological jumping that infuriates me, more on that when I review the book), but it just isn't amazing. And it's made me remember that in general, I don't really like biographies. (That's a little bit weird for a music historian, right?)

Why not? They can have amazing subjects (who doesn't want to know more about Einstein? FDR? Frida Kahlo?) and can be written by fantastic authors. But even the most amazing lives often lack the narrative drive that makes great works of literature so amazing. We're all used to digesting the life of George Washington as a series of bullet-point facts. Unless a biography really elaborates on that, you might as well read the wiki article.

This shouldn't be construed as me saying "There are no good biographies!" Because there are, they're just very rare. I loved the David McCullough biography of John Adams because it showed the founding father in an intensely personal life. The use of his letters with Abigail made for some heart-rending moments, some truly literary moments.

And that's what I think it boils down to, biography lacks the emotional and narrative drive of great literature. Learning facts for bar trivia is great (in 1935 Satchel Paige went 29-2 with 321 strikeouts to only 16 walks... mind blowing), it doesn't make for the most compelling reading. How often do you sit down with your college text books for a nice afternoon? I guess I just have to remember this the next time a glossy cover of a biography yells at me from the shelves in the library.

24 July 2009

All the King's Men, review

Well hello there blog. Fancy meeting you here. I've recently started running, something I despise. Yet, i am forcing myself to do it three times a week. It's about time I started doing that with this blog, something I do not despise. So I figured I'd get back with a quick review of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

As I have blubbered before, the prose was gorgeous. I have only rarely come across such simply beautiful writing as this. But, the story should not be overshadowed. What sets out to ostensibly be the story of the politician Willie Talos becomes the story of his man Jack Burden. What a character Burden becomes. For the majority of the book, I thought he was the most despicable protagonist I had ever found myself reading about. Yet in the end, when we find that he tried to give the Judge a way out, I found myself feeling sympathetic for Jack. Finally, he was a character with whom I could empathize!

The assassination of Willie took me by surprise, but it retrospect, it shouldn't have. Talos was a man far too ambitious, one who seemed from the beginning doomed to fall back to the earth, brought down not by the sun but rather by his own hubris. Despite the hubris, however, Talos became something more than just a slime ball. Certainly, Talos embodied everything that is deplorable about politics: mud slinging, blackmail, cronyism, etc.

But he had ambitions for the greater good. Ambitions that were surprisingly relevant even today: better roads, better use of money in an economic depression, and free health care for all residents. He used his sleeze towards the greater good, but it was destined to come back for him. The paralyzing of his son was really the fatal blow to Talos, and the gunshots of Adam Stanton were merely Willie's death made real.

Warren's slow change of characters through the book made for excellent reading. Nothing seemed to be in stasis, and constantly evolving characters helps any book be good. I can safely recommend this book to anyone really. It strikes me, as cliched as this sounds, as the nearest I've ever come to the "great American novel." Is it the best American novel? Certainly not. But it encompasses so much of what has made the United States the nation that it is: backwater dealings of seemingly little import that shape the states and country as a whole.

08 July 2009

All the Kings Men, the first 100 Pages

So Warren is still writing some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. Take for instance this phrase from a meeting in which time moved inexorably:
...the clock in the corner, a big grandfather's clock, offered us the slow, small, individual pellets of time.
Yet in addition to the continued splendor of Warren's writing, we're getting plot development. I've yet to see the recently-made movie based on the book, but it's easy to understand how the inspiration came about. It's a classic story told from the present in the vein of Forrest Gump. The first chapter (72 pages) outlines the "now" of the story. Willie Talos, governor, is in the middle of a fight to nominate a senator. One of his long-time backers has switched sides, and Talos takes the narrator, Jack Burden, to convince the Judge to come back, or else. It's really the dirty side of politics. After the encounter, Jack says that eventually everything "The Boss" (Talos) wanted was accomplished. He found the dirt on the Judge, the only father-figure he ever had. But before we get to that (assuming we eventually do), he takes us back to the beginning of Talos' career.

But the most intriguing part of it all is how Jack manages to make both himself and The Boss into imminently loathsome characters. Generally, one does not come across such odious protagonists, and yet ten pages into the second chapter and I've forgotten (or at least pushed to the back of my mind) the reprehensible actions of the two in chapter one.

What I am still trying to figure out is whether these characters are easy to forgive because back-stabbing is such an ingrained part of American politics, or if it's because of the way that Warren writes. Nevertheless, the story is becoming fascinating, and the writing remains superb. I'll keep updating as I keep reading. If you've read the book, let me hear your say in the comments!

06 July 2009

Newsweek makes a Top 100 List

Back from a long and indulgent weekend. I didn't read too much as my girlfriend got a new gaming system for her birthday. Alas, c'est la wii.

Anyhow, as a dip back into the blogging pool, I thought I'd point out Newsweek's Top 100 book list. It is a compilation of lists, or as they describe it, "It's a list of lists — a meta-list." I haven't read as many in the Top 20 as I should have, but judging from what I know of them (perception of those I haven't, and first-hand knowledge of those I have) it's pretty hard to argue with this. I'm considering tackling this list, rather than the behemoth that is 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. My problem with the latter is that there are just a huge number of books there that don't interest me at all. And while reading 20 or so books that don't immediately interest me to get a well-rounded knowledge based on a reasonable list of books (Newsweek) doesn't bother me, reading a few hundred does.

I'll see if I can't make a nice little usable spreadsheet for the Newsweek list for those that want to download it. There is something about a "mere" 100 books that seems undaunting enough to be accomplished. Though the inclusion of War and Peace and Ulysses in the top 10 is worrisome.

Look for my own top 10 list sometime in the next week. It won't be a "greatest ever," but rather it will be my favorites. I've just gotta give it some thought. And in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the Newsweek list?

02 July 2009

Vitriolic, arsenical green

I'm only 8 pages into it, but I need to recommend that everyone go read the first 4 or 5 pages of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Those few pages contain some of the most beautiful writing I've ever come across. Brace yourself for some coarse language (racial epithets), but the one example that really stood out was in the first paragraph. The context: talking about being hypnotized by the road and then driving off it:
Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky.
Warren was the United States' first Poet Laureate, so it's no surprise that he can write with such vivid imagery. But it still caught me off guard. I've read some good books lately, but nothing that grabs the imagination and the mental ear quite like this. You can write a good story, and you can write well. I can't judge the story yet, but Warren already has the writing well part solidified in the first page.

It really reminds you that writing is an art, and at times it can be just as arresting as gazing upon Church's Niagra at the Corcoran, or hearing the slow movement of Debussy's string quartet. Hopefully I'll come across more of this as I write the blog, but it seems fitting that I should come across such a fine example of the way in which writing can be the most vivid of arts just as I begin to collect in writing my thoughts on writing.

I will keep updating as I keep reading. And certainly there will be some discussion of The Three Musketeers soon.

01 July 2009

A hearty welcome

Welcome to Metro Marginalia, the attempt of a 20-something grad student in music history to read outside his field. I've recently moved into a new apartment, sans TV, and have reacquainted myself with my love of reading. It's amazing how much more reading I can get done when I'm not watching SportsCenter.

"Blah blah, self important grad student. But what will you be writing about?" you ask. Well, I'm not entirely sure. I assume I'll put some discussion of the books I am currently reading or have recently read. I'll have talk of book news that strikes me as interesting (disclosure: I am not a publishing news junkie, so it'll just be stuff I happen to catch). I'll write about some of my all-time favorites.

And on that note, let me put it out there so you can feel free to argue with me right away. My all-time favorite book is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I can't remember ever laughing so hard at a book that moved me so much. It was shocking at the time, and it remains so to this day. Maybe that's one thing I'll do: a re-reading of Catch-22, with commentary!

Alright, I'll wrap it up. Expect a post about The Three Musketeers soon. I just finished it last week, and I freaking loved it. I hope you'll join me in the comments for some good discussion. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy.