What I’ve Been Reading – December 2008

Books Acquired:

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #29 – Dave Eggers (editor)

Alphabet Juice – Roy Blount, Jr.

Obama – David Mendell

Books Read:

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #29 – Dave Eggers (editor)

Paul’s Boutique – Dan LeRoy

Doolittle – Ben Sisario

Murmur – J. Niimi (not finished)

Well, Christmas has come and passed, and our New Year’s trip rode by quietly, at least in terms of Black Marks on Wood Pulp coverage, so I suppose it’s about time I tackled those books I read last month.

Our book collection grew thanks to a healthy helping of Christmas cheer. Kerrie’s parents added a biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune’s David Mendell, who covered Obama from the beginning of his first Senate campaign. The book runs from that point until his announcement that he was running for President, and comes highly recommended.

On the other side of the family, my mother brought me Roy Blount, Jr.’s Alphabet Juice, which I have begun reading and absolutely love. More next month.

Of course, as I do quarterly, I received (and read) the newest edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – Issue 29 this time around. I’m sure I’ve exhausted my word count on this series, so I won’t go into it aside to say that it was as good as always, though there were no stories that made me sit up and say “OMG THAT WAS AMAZING” like Stephen King’s story from Issue 26 or Dan Chaon’s “The Bees” from The Better of McSweeney’s.

There were disturbing stories (Laura Hendrix’s “A Record of Our Debts” hit me hard enough to wish I hadn’t read it) and cute stories (Blaze Ginsberg’s “My Crush on Hillary Duff”) but nothing that stuck with me.

(Yeah, I just said it. “Cute.” As in, “oh, that’s cute, why don’t you stop back when you’ve started writing like a big kid.”

Ugh. I hate it when people call my stuff “cute.”)

This stuff was all secondary, though. The bulk of my month, in terms of both reading and writing, was devoted to my very first book proposal, a 3,000 plea to allow me the freedom of writing about something I probably was ill-equipped to write about yet feel completely convinced that I can do regardless. (Though I’ll never get approval with sentences like that.)

The subject is Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, a fun collection of books written by very fancy musicians or music expert, all focused on one classic album. The catalyst was an open call for proposals. The brewing idea was my plan to write a collection of short stories based on the 16 songs on Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese. The revelation: why not combine the two?

I’ve kept this quiet from you, dear blog reader. I didn’t mention this beforehand for a few reasons; mainly that I’ve tried as hard as I can to stop writing about writing. Or blogging about blogging. Or going too meta on your ass in every sense of the word. It’s hard, though – I love writing about myself. I really enjoy it. I like talking about myself too, in case you’re ever in a room with me and don’t have anything to say.

So I sort of hid the proposal, though I tweeted about a billion or so times – enough that what was supposed to be a subtle plea for assistance turned into a handful of great examples. (Thanks, Deane!) I kept the proposal in my head. I held back on writing it. I wanted it to be good, done a bit at a time, developed and rewritten until it was perfect; not a frantic race to the finish like most of my projects end up becoming.

To prepare, I purchased four 33 1/3 books, thinking that buy the time I was finished with the fourth I’d be fully prepared to begin. The books are short – they took only a day or two to read – and would give me a little insight on what the crew at Continuum was looking for.

I breezed through Dan LeRoy’s Paul’s Boutique, enjoying the chance to get a behind-the-scenes look into a classic album. A classic album that almost wasn’t, I learned; it was a hit with those who wrote about music, but commercially panned because it wasn’t License to Ill. In other words, it was critically revered, but no “Paul Revere.”


Ben Sisario’s Doolittle struck a similar chord. Instead of a straight forward history, Sisario went driving with Pixies front man Frank “Black Francis” Black, a rambling remembrance of one of indie rock’s most famous groups and albums. I didn’t see behind the curtain as much as into the living room of a “dysfunctionally brilliant” family.

After finishing one of the books, I’d find myself obsessed for days with the namesake album. I listened to Paul’s Boutique more this month than I had my entire life, and Doolittle finally broke out of the “one song wonder” pile and into a full rotation.

I got ready for more of the same with R.E.M.’s Murmur.

Alas, something had to give. My attention wasn’t what it should have been, maybe. Or perhaps I had soaked in all of the research I could handle and needed a break. Whatever it was, I never finished Murmur. I will (after all, I only have 25 pages left). But I didn’t.

J. Niimi’s Murmur wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t written for me. It was written for a music geek who thought too long and too deep about his album of choice. Paul’s Boutique and Doolittle didn’t try to make the albums more than they were in real life – they just honored them, told the story and let the reader understand the thought process behind it. Murmur, on the other hand, from the first pages, took its album topic to another level, placing it high above everything else, as the savior of alternative rock. It outlined every detail of the recording to a level that only the most seasoned audio geeks would understand, and waxed poetic about the often incomprehensible lyrics.

Murmur’s not a bad album. But I don’t think I like it that much. Which made this book hard to swallow and, unfortunately, boring.

Though when I think about it, I may have learned more from Murmur than I did the others. I understand the power of knowing my audience. It might so happen that the Murmur audience is into that stuff, that I got caught with the wrong author and the wrong album. Murmur isn’t the same as Automatic for the People – the two albums come from nearly completely different bands. I shouldn’t have expected something that connected with me, because Murmur as an album doesn’t connect with me.

If I’m lucky enough to have my proposal approved – lucky enough, that is, to write a 30,000 word book on Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese for a modest advance and little to no royalties, a project done for the sake of doing it, for the idea of having a book published with my own ISBN number – I’ll hopefully capture the right mood. My audience is Ween fans and those with a passing interest in goofy, yet brilliant albums. I can’t take the subject too seriously because, let’s face it, that’s not who I’m writing for.

In school, we all learn how not to write. In doing so, we’re really learning how to write for a select audience – teaching professionals, those who are defined by rules and structure. It’s not until later that we realize that we can write for other people. That every audience deserves a different voice.

For some of us, it takes a lot longer.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 8th, 2009