Category Archives: Things You Should Be Reading

Post #86: Kindling Quarterly

kindling-quarterly-issue1-preview-1As a father of two young boys (4 1/2 year old Felix and 2 1/2 year old Leo) I pay a lot more attention than I used to to how fathers are portrayed in our culture. And, for the most part, at least from where I’m sitting, the portrayals suck and are a pantheon of one note men who don’t know how to behave and who are basically grown up children masquerading as men who think that farting is high humor and scoff at vacuums and toilet brushes. These are your Tim from Home Improvement kind of guys. These are the guys in Old School and The 50 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up and on the sitcom Guys with Kids. Guys whose naiveté and reliance on masculine puffery/buffoonery and female intuition is supposed to be cute. On occasion, you see far more nuanced and life like fathers, but most that I bump into fit the mold described above. Men who need women to remind them about really complex and hard to figure out stuff like, you know, cleaning windows and making a roast chicken, morality and table manners. Not that all stereotypes are unfounded and unfunny. Some ring true some of the time. There’s pervasive truths about gender that do truly seem to trump interpretation. But I work hard to deliberately smear and ignore gender lines in my own home. And I like cleaning and cooking. I pay actual attention to my children and care a great deal about how they see me. I want to define manhood and fatherhood on my own terms. I don’t want my sons to feel burdened by gender-centric expectations and images the culture feeds them about what boys and men are supposed to be like, especially when the bulk of those portrayals are so embarrassing and limited. And straight. And white.

Enter Kindling Quarterly, a new magazine published by a pair of fathers, David Michael Perez and August Heffner, who seem fed up with the same thing that I am. The newly launched magazine is an exploration of fatherhood and features articles, photos, fashion, recipes, and a host of other content. Full disclosure here that I haven’t read the magazine yet and am not purporting here to review its content. But I heard about it and was intrigued enough to do a little digging. Have a look at the website and read a little about it. It sure sounds cool and looks nice, even if the photo spreads and design are a little hipster looking for my taste. In fact, the whole thing looks like it might be taking itself a little too seriously. But maybe that’s what’s needed. In the “About” section of Kindling Quarterly’s website, they state, “men who are active caregivers are not a novelty and we do not depict them as such” and that’s a sentiment that rings awfully true in these ears. I’m going to pick up the first issue soon and let you know if it justifies it’s hefty $12 price tag.

Until then, The New York Times City Room Blog wrote a pretty decent feature on the magazine. Read it here.

Post #81: Pride and…?

prideandprejudice2This week marks the bi-centennial (that’s 200 years to you and me, Russ) of the publication of Jane Austen’s celebrated masterwork Pride and Prejudice. P & P is an acknowledged classic, beloved by generation after generation of readers enraptured by Austen’s memorable portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s complicated but ultimately triumphant romance.

I guess.

I’ve never read it. It’s up there with a host of other classics I’ve somehow managed to avoid. It’s a long and distinguished list, I assure you.

But in P & P‘s case, I aim to amend my omission. After all, two hundred years is an awfully long time for a book to be kicking around the culture and it must still be popular for damn good reasons. Like most people, I’m often up half the night wondering…what’s so great about P & P? What makes it worthy of all the attention and acclaim? Is it the love story? The satirical portrayal of Victorian gender roles and social schema? The audacious beauty of Austen’s prose? The sexy girls on the cover? So, on behalf of everyone who’s ever meant to read the novel but hasn’t found or taken the time, I’m going to read it and write about my experience.

Stay tuned.

(Care to join me?)

Post #78: New Acquisitions

I need more books in my house like I need a hole in the head, but somehow or another I found my way to the bookstore yesterday and picked up a couple new acquisitions. There’s just nothing like a new book, is there? The smell. The crisp, unbroken spine. The promise of what’s inside that you haven’t yet discovered. The buzz never fails.

And, yet, my house is full of books I haven’t read. There’s dozens. And I’m not talking clunker hand-me-downs or boxes of thrift store throw aways. I’m talking about never read, bookstore fresh books that I bought and never picked up because I bought other new books before I could read them. Which brings me back to the hole in the head.

French philosopher Jacques Lacan wrote about Objet Petit a (object little a, for those non-francophiles), which he described as the object of unattainable desire. It’s like this. It is not the objects you acquire, or the thing itself, whatever it may be (new tits, a car, leather gloves, earrings, paperbacks, lamps etc), it is the desire to acquire that we over and over again trick ourselves into believing will be satisfied and quieted by said acquisitions. Except it isn’t. We’ve all felt this desire and we will all feel it again. Every time I buy new books I am compelled not just by the desire to read and to experience stories I’ve not yet experienced–it’s not just an adventurer’s buoyant gusto at work–but also a small but persistent voice inside my brain (let’s call him The Idiot) that tells me I’ll be happier if I get stuff that I don’t already possess. The name works because it’s idiotic behavior. Picture me. Or picture you. You stand there, whatever it is you don’t need tucked under your arm, or in a basket, staring around the store, beating yourself up for spending money you don’t have on stuff you don’t need. You put the things back. You pick them back up. You walk over there. You come back. You scan the wall. You put the things back. You pick them back up. And do so until you either buy them or leave empty handed and say to yourself, “I should have just bought them.” Either way, the feeling persists. Soon after the purchase, be it days, or even hours, the desire is back and must again be quelled. The Idiot is not easily satiated or mollified. He is an Idiot of massive appetite with a great big fork and knife. And my Idiot is most often hungry for pages with writing on them.

Anyway, so I bought a couple of new books, okay? And, so sue me, they were both hardcovers. And aside form that Lacan interlude, and some lingering guilt, I’m genuinely excited about them.

every-love-storyI’ve already started Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max. It’s sad and kind of wonderful so far. Even if there’s something porn like and oddly voyeuristic in reading about a person who you know was mentally ill and committed suicide. Still, who doesn’t like porn? But I’m fascinated by Wallace and his life and work and though I’ve put it off, I was going to work my way around to this one eventually.

 

9780812993806_custom-f9472c743ae546a0b19bf6a1c8ce3a89971d1a83-s6-c10And  now waiting in the wings is George Saunder’s new story collection Tenth of December. I love Saunders. Have you read him? If not, do yourself a big one and get on it. His collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone is a personal favorite and I’m looking forward to reading more of his fiction. If I haven’t gotten bogged down in a pile of new books by the time I remember I even bought it, I’ll let you know how it is.

 

 

Post #71: My Ideal Bookshelf

Of her website and small business, My Ideal Bookshelf, painter Jane Mount says “I paint portraits of people through the spines of their favorite books: the ones that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” It’s a very cool concept that started (and still functions) as a commission based on-line project wherein Mount solicits commissions in the form of book lists (and pictures of your favorite versions) and for a (somewhat reasonable) fee will portraitize you or your loved one through the spines of your favorite books. The endeavor has been so popular that Mount, along with writer/editor Thessaly La Force (who writes small narratives for each book list based on interviews with the contributors), is about to publish a book length version of My Ideal Bookshelf which highlights the book lists of an insanely cool list of contributors ranging from David Chang to Dave Eggers, from Tony Hawk to Chuck Klosterman. I friggin love this idea–am half thinking of shelling out the three hundred bucks it would cost for a basic Mount commission–and of course, it gets my mind churning about my own Ideal Bookshelf. If I had to pare it down to the spines of a few old favorites, what would they be?

What would yours be? Please share.

 

Here’s a rough crack at titles I’d include. It’s fickle and blowing in the wind, of course, but this is pretty close. Forgive the length of this list. I tried for a top ten, I really did. Had to settle for twenty and even that was painful.

In no particular order.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace–Completely re-invented the English language for me, as well as broadened, and clarified, the full possibilities of what non-fiction could be.

 

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov–This book sent me reeling. Embarrassed me. Thrilled me. Made me want to write. What a horrible, beautiful work of art. Its stylistic achievements have to be some of the finest in all of world literature.

 

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger–A book not so much for teens, but for adults who remember being a teen, and I’m fine with that. I fell in love with this book when I started teaching it and I continue to do annual battle with a fresh batch of 11th graders who think it’s basically a book length excuse to whine.

Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon–With the exception of the overly long Sabbath scene, one of the most hilarious, joyful, and memorable books ever written. Its characters have become old friends of mine. Pure reading bliss.

 

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, by Langston Hughes–Lovely, lovely Langston. His poetry pulses with palpable, unapologetic emotion. It’s musical. It’s elegiac. It’s of a time and place, yet somehow timeless. I’m convinced we’ll be reading Hughes on Mars.

 

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald–Contains the most beautiful sentences ever written. Sentences so ravishing that you often forget what the hell is happening, sometimes you even stop caring. I had to read Gatsby five or six times just to keep myself from getting too distracted by the beauty.

The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss–Fell for this book reading it over and over again to my son Felix. I later started using it in lessons on Allegory with my high school students. A sad, beautiful, and almost too true book. I ache each time I read it.

 

A Catskill Eagle, by Robert B. Parker–Parker, for me, was the grand wizard of the hard boiled detective. I grew up devouring Spenser books and his use of dialogue is on par with the all time greats. In my view, a way under appreciated stylist.

 

Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, by Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigeland–A great, and largely unknown, on the road book that follows Marsalis and his great septet around the country in the late nineties. A portrait of a working jazz band, told by both Marsalis and Vigeland in tandem narratives. What it’s like to live jazz.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–The greatest 2/3 of a novel ever written by an American. But the ending? Jeez. I read this in high school like everyone else. It was then assigned no less than three times in college. Now I teach it and re-read it every year and it changes every time. Growing more potent, more flawed, more urgent with each fresh pass.

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein–A book I grew up reading. I used to think it was about one thing and, like a lot of books you go back to throughout your life, it turned out to be about something else. It broke my heart and I loved it. It’s a shared favorite of my wife’s as well, and a copy of it was the first present she ever bought me. Sigh.

The Green Mile, by Stephen King–The culmination of all King’s gifts rolled into one perfect, magical package. If you only know the film version, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Forgive him the obvious Jesus allegory; he does it on purpose. If you’ve ever wondered why the world adores King so much, look no further.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison–One of the greatest of all American novels and a long time personal favorite. I discovered this book while minoring in Afro-American literature in college. It lifted my brain out of my body, rearranged the parts, and put it back in. I’ve  read it more times than just about any book I own.

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose–I stumbled upon this book by accident and it totally blew my mind. It’s my favorite book about writing. I’ve bought three separate copies and lovingly annotated each. It urged me to slow down while I read, reminded me that everything I need to know about writing is right there in the books and writers I love.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien–An absolutely mind-blowing reading experience. Illustrates more clealry than any other book why we tell stories. Made me rethink what books could and should be.

 

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway–I studied abroad in Paris in college, right around the same time I was becoming obsessed with Hemingway. This book found me right when I needed it to. Unforgettable reflections written towards the end of Papa’s life, published posthumously.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker–Such an elegant and powerful book, told in a bold epistolary style that, as a writer, I’m in awe of. It contains some of the fiercest and most fully realized female characters ever set to paper. Celie, Shug, Sofia. My my.

 

Sailing Around the Room Alone, by Billy Collins–A few years ago, Billy Collins’s poetry really turned a light on for me. I can’t quite explain it, but I can’t get enough of his work. Funny. Sad. Insightful. Compulsively readable (now when’s the last time you heard poetry described like that?)

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster–Weird, beautiful, creepy. This book starts wonderfully and kind of devolves into chaos and nothingness, but it’s a thrilling ride unlike anything you’ve ever read. A nice Auster primer, too, and if you read it, I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

 

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri–Another book I discovered for the purpose of teaching it and have slowly fallen in love with and consider an indispensable work.  It’s an American story, about an immigrant family from India. What’s more American than that? Lahiri is a treasure.

Post #57: Stocking Up

Excited to have grabbed some new books from Phoenix Books in Burlington yesterday.  I went in to buy one and ended up brining home three.  Oh well.  It’s hard to feel bad about money spent on books.  I’ll let you know how they are.

 

I’ve long wanted to read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.  It’s been lauded and recommended by a number of trusted friends.  It was time to give it a go.

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is a book I’ve been meaning to read ever since it won the Pulitzer last year.  Plus, it’s got a chapter that’s a Power Point presentation.

 

 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt was the real surprise here.  I was scanning the shelves at random looking for something choice and liked the sound of this one about a pair of brother hit men in the old west.  The real kicker for me was the Los Angeles Times quote on the cover which says “If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt’s bloody, darkly funny western.”  Doesn’t that sound awesome?  I know, I know.  You shouldn’t judge a book by its…but I loved that quote.  And look at those guys.

Post #54: The Path to Publication, Part 2

THE GREAT FREELANCE EDITOR ROUND-UP (guest post by author Ron Dionne)

So I had accepted the offer from Delabarre Publishing to publish my novel SAD JINGO as an ebook, and had withdrawn it from consideration at Akashic Books.

I had chosen the Wild West that book publishing had suddenly become, over the gentler precincts of traditional publishing.

Did that mean I just handed over the manuscript to Delabarre for formatting and slapping on a “cover” and posting to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore an hour later?

It could have. We’ve all seen it done. I, for one, often cringe at the results.

No, my publisher and I decided that we did not want to rush a sloppy product out there. Yes, we’d almost sold the book (back when I was operating fully under the traditional publishing model, with an agent, and a well-regarded editor at a big publishing house on the hook), but that did not mean it wouldn’t take some work after the sale, if that sale had occurred.  (See my previous guest post for details on how the book almost sold, once upon a time, to HarperCollins.)

One of the drawbacks of taking the bracing, inspiring plunge with an entrepreneurial new publisher operating on a shoestring budget is that you can’t pay editors with shoestrings. Delabarre had no paid editors on staff. It was up to me, if I wanted to sleep nights, to hire professional editing done.

It sort of is, in a comfortable armchair way, like setting out into the frontier in search of that one quirky gunslinger that has just the right skills to catch the bad guy who’s made your life a shambles.  In this case, I needed a wily master of plot, pacing, and taste to help me sort out which of the two versions of my book was better, which revisions were improvements and which were not.  I needed someone to help me find the best Jingo there could be. And, as it turns out, to save me from myself.

How do you find such a person? Unfortunately, you can’t put on dusty boots and a cool-looking duster and saddle up a quirky horse for a ride through gorgeous back country that would look great shot with the Libatique lens and Blanko Freedom film in the Hipstamatic app on your iPhone.  No, you need to research developmental editors, freelance editors, and book doctors, most likely on the internet. You have to talk to as many people as you can, and listen hard. Some folks you like and want to agree with. Others you’re not too crazy about but you respect their opinion and you have to guard against dismissing any wisdom they might impart because, say, they voted for the other guy in the last election.

You kind of have to drive blind, and trust your horse sense.

I talked to folks I knew who had published. I studied web pages. I queried folks with fancy web sites. I queried folks who did not seem to be all that on-line at all, ironically enough since I was embarking on an ebook-only (for starters) adventure.

And that bit about horse sense? Hey, I’m the writer who had a serviceably good book almost sold to an editor so beloved by the industry they named an award after him when he passed. I’m the writer who, despite that pinnacle of near-achievement, decided I needed to revise the thing and make major changes to it. “Update” it.  Horse sense? Not my forté.

But it was all I had to rely on.

Eventually, I narrowed down my choices of prospective plot wranglers — I mean freelance editors, to two.  I sent the book to both.

One was an eminent West Coast editor with an impressive web site and lots of videos on Youtube of presentations he had given at writers’ conferences. I sent him my revised, updated version. He told me my book had potential but wasn’t ready for submitting to publishers yet because it had some plot issues and, “you must admit, lacks a satisfying denouement.”

I consulted the ghost of Mr. Ashmead and imagined a friendly scowl. Not really. I don’t truck with ghosts, but I thought about it. And I thought about sometimes folks needing to hear what they didn’t want to hear, that strong, evil-tasting medicine can sometimes be just what you need.

The other editor had actually worked with Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins, the editor to whom my now publisher had almost sold the book in the 1990s. I found her through Publishers Marketplace, where a testimonial quote from Mr. Ashmead on her member page caught my eye.  I sent her my original version, and explained I was unable to judge the merits of the revisions in my updated version.

When she and I talked, it became clear right away that the book needed a comparative read of the two versions. The elephant in the room was the fact that I’d revised a finished work finished long enough ago that the writer I was then was a significantly different person that the writer I am now.

How to decide? One editor said the book had merit but needed significant change. The other said the book had merit but she wanted to see how I had changed it and take the measure of those changes with the original spirit of the book in mind.

The first had more novels under his belt, as displayed on his web page. The second had more nonfiction listed among her credentials, but she also had the Ashmead connection.

I went with the second editor, Alice Rosengard. And I am not sorry. She read the original carefully. She took her time, spotting some things that needed fixing. Then she read the revised version, noting a few improvements but more importantly some changes that marred the original intent of the book, and detracted from the strengths that almost got it published in the first place.

I am convinced she helped me make the book the best that it could be. For me, the editing of it was validation. Validation by a stranger with whom I developed a rapport based solely on the content of a piece of writing I sent her. That means a lot to me.

I realize this is inside shop-talk before reality hits. Now it’s up to readers to decide if they like the book. And me to promote it. More on that later.

Post #51: The Collagist

A couple of excellent writers I know, Alan Stewart Carl and Lyz Wyckoff, have short stories up this month at The Collagist.  They’re short, digestible nuggets of fabulous fiction for you to feed your brain with.  Enjoy.

I met both Alan and Liz at last summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  How I wish I was headed back to the mountain this summer.

Post #49: Sad Jingo

Good news.  My friend Ron Dionne’s novel Sad Jingo is finally available as an ebook from Delabarre publishing.  Ron and I met at the NY Pitch and Shop a few years ago and since I first heard the premise for Sad Jingo, I’ve been dying to get my hands on it.  The wait is over and I’m loving the book so far.  It’s edgy and dark and full of suspense.  You can buy yourself a copy and read more about the book here. Sad Jingo took a rather circuitous and somewhat nontraditional route to publication and in the coming weeks, I’m hoping to get Ron to join us for some guest posts about his experiences in publishing and how he eventually brought his novel to readers.  So be on the lookout.  For now, treat yourself to a new book!

Post #48: Review Static

The question up for debate today is:

Can you read or hear strong opinions (positive or negative) about a piece of art without your own judgments and ideas being warped and affected?  A corollary question is: does the volume and passion of said opinions have a relationship to said (potential) affect?  A corollary to that one is, are we more prone to react to criticism or praise?  But you can ignore that last one because it pretty much answers itself.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  It started with Billy Joel.   It started with Ron Rosenbaum’s Slate article in which he essentially takes a massive dump all over Billy Joel’s music and employs some serious intellectual bullying to convince his readers he’s correct.  Read the article and come back, but if you don’t have time, simply imagine any criticism that could ever be levied against Billy Joel (overrated, lite rock schlock, insubstantial fluff), then turn it up to 11.  Rosenbaum was so adamant that I, a life long Billy Joel fan, began to wonder whether I’d been wrong about the Piano Man my whole life.  It shouldn’t matter what Rosenbaum thinks, of course.  He’s just one opinion.  Why should he even enter in to the conversation against decades of liking?  But he sounds smart enough, and he writes for Slate, and he writes with the kind of spite that you can’t help but sit up and listen to, even though you kind of know he’s an idiot.  His intention is clear: to convince you Billy Joel sucks.  For those who already hate Billy Joel (he refers to him simply in the sexually overt moniker “BJ” as if everyone calls him that) he wants to affirm and explain to you your hatred so that you can clarify exactly what you mean when talking to your friends at the next Radiohead concert.  If you like Joel, he wants you to doubt your own allegiance, to shout you into submission so that you’ll eventually say, “Okay, okay, you’re right, he sucks, I’m sorry!”

It shouldn’t matter.

The problem, of course, is that it does matter.  Someone shouts in our ear and, if we’re thoughtful and impressionable (as most of us are), it affects us.  I did feel just a little bit of doubt about Billy Joel after reading.  I wondered: does he actually suck?  I always thought he was a pretty good singer and a hell of a songwriter.  And I’ve spent more than a few hours in the man’s musical company, much of it singing along in a very loud and horrible way.  In the end, this doubt derived from Rosembaum didn’t go anywhere.  It died on the vine.  That night I cued up “Easy Money” and white-man-overbit my way back to the mid-level allegiance I’ve always felt for Billy Joel.

This brings me to Chard Harbach’s blockbuster debut literary novel The Art of Fielding.  Without a doubt, Fielding has been the IT literary novel of the year.  Darling of critics and readers and book groups and the subject of a very very long Vanity Fair piece that detailed its slow ten year grind from MFA project to $650,000 bidding war and author advance.  Like with any piece of art that becomes really really popular, a critic was there to tell these many readers they were wrong.  In this case, it was B.R. Myers’s article in The Atlantic a couple of months ago entitled “A Swing and a Miss” that heatedly and expansively debunks the literary merits of Harbach’s debut and reveals it to be a soft and unimpressive book and the beneficiary of the cultural boon that accompanies the IT literary novel of the year.

I hadn’t read Fielding when I read Myers’s article, though I had been very aware of it, seeing its cover on the book store shelf many a time and hearing strong praise about it from a friend whose opinion I greatly respect and who has similar reading tastes to my own.  After reading Myers’s article, I couldn’t deny I had a similar kind of knee-jerk reaction (by the way, I may be deluded, but I’m telling myself over here that I’m admitting to a kind of reaction that many of us feel but may elect not to express) to Rosenbaum’s piece.  Granted, I’d been a lifelong Joel fan and not read a word of Fielding, but still, I wanted to read the book and now wondered whether I could go into it without judging it as overrated.  You could argue that I’d been swayed similarly by my friend’s positive approbation (see question 3 above, the one that answered itself), but I felt a stronger reaction to Myers than to my friend (and this is nothing against my friend, who was convincing).  For me, it became: How can I read Myers and the like and not let them hinder my individual experience with the piece of art being discussed?  Can I? Should I?  Do I read these things just for intellectual fodder or do I read to be informed and/or convinced?  Don’t I secretly want their opinion so I can later pawn it off as my own?  But who wants to read a book just so that they can hate it and then be like, yeah, I knew that was going to suck, Myers was so right!

The conundrum for me is that I enjoy reading.  Everything.  I read a lot of reviews (my friend, interestingly, does not because he doesn’t want them tainting his experience).  I can’t help it.  I’m just into knowing what people think and many times I’ve thought of buying a book or album and hustled over to Amazon to read reviews to see whether it’s any good or not.  And yeah, this practice has burned me more than a few times (if you didn’t know, people are much more likely to write positive reviews than negative).

By the way, I finally read The Art of Fielding a couple weeks ago and became so engrossed in it that I literarily felt physical pain at having to put the book down.    That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.  I got a headache because I couldn’t read it.  It completely owned me for three days.  It had been a long time since I’d felt that way.  So, I was able to ignore Myers for the duration of my joyful reading, and yet, upon finishing, there that fucker was, whispering in my ear: “it wasn’t as good as you thought it was, really, think about it, you idiot.  Just listen.  I’ll tell you.  I know.  I’m smart.  My opinion is more important than yours.  I’m in The Atlantic.”

And I’m thinking: SHUT UP!

And I’m thinking: TELL ME MORE!

I’m going to cue up “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” while I ponder this some more.

Post #45: The Greatest Book Series You Aren’t Reading (and maybe haven’t heard of)

I’d like to put in a major plug here for Bloomsbury Academic’s 331/3, a book series with a brilliantly simple premise.  Get the best music writers on the planet to write single volumes dedicated to single albums.  Each book, there are currently 86 and counting, the most recent of which is Jonathan Lethem’s book on The Talking Head’s “Fear of Music,” explores (loosely) the inner workings of an album’s creation.  From what I have read and can tell, each book is unique and adopts a slightly different point of view on its subject matter.  For instance, Carl Wilson’s book about Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” is much more a scholarly volume about the nature of “big” music and seeks to answer the question: why do so many people love or hate Celine Dion?  And might the haters (Wilson included) be wrong, or at least be missing something?  Dan Leroy’s book about the Beastie Boy’s “Paul’s Boutique” is more about the inner workings of the band and its contract disputes with Def Jam and the unique personal moment that led to the creation of the Beastie’s most unusual and sample heavy album.  John Niven’s book about The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” is not a scholarly volume at all, but instead a novella in which Niven writes the history of the album from the POV of a druggie who was friends with The Band and kicking around while they worked on “Big Pink.”

I’m not an authority on these books.  I’ve only read five of them, and while the overall consistent quality cannot here be attested to due to both the fluctuating approach and sheer volume of books produced, I’m still pretty comfortable praising the series as a whole and urging you to go out and get reading (Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion book is the best of them I’ve read).  We live in a world of niche markets and 331/3 is a great example of the benefits.  Plus they’re short and don’t overreach.  The few I’ve read I pounded through in a day or two and helped me to better understand and appreciate an album that I already loved or an album or artist I was curious about.