Monday, January 30, 2012


By Cherie Priest

I didn't like this book.

I didn't hate it either, but there was something that unsettled me about it early on that i couldn't shake.

First off, there is much to love about this book that one wonders how I could dislike it. There are zombies and alternate history and steampunk and a cast of cool characters doing cool things like killing zombies and building overly elaborate gold-digging machines called Boneshaker. There are airships and gas masks and catastrophes of epic proportions. There's a bad guy who wears a mask and invents weird neo-Victorian gadgets and swears he is the father of the main character. There a woman in the book with two mechanical arms, for Pete's Sake! And I still didn't like it. I had a hard time understanding why I wasn't enjoying a book that I would, under almost any other circumstance, love. What gives?

At first, I thought it was historical inaccuracies. I have a tendency to berate novels that stray too far from actual history. But since this story was pure, unadulterated fantasy I was willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit. It did bother me some that the characters spoke in a late 20th century vernacular rather than the sort of language that would have been used in the 1880s (when the novel was set) but not so much that I wanted to throw the book away. There were zombies after all.

Then I thought it had to do with the fact that this was fantasy. It is a well-known fact that I hate fantasy. Actually, I should really rephrase that slightly inaccurate statement. It's not that I hate the fantasy genre as a whole but rather the sort of fantasy that is set in Middle Earth-y type locals with mystical unicorns and dragons and elves hiding in enchanted groves and loads of mages (I am beating a dead horse with this rant... I apologize). Fantasy of the modern variety is a touch more acceptable to me, especially if it is science fiction (which is, I admit, a kind of fantasy). Steampunk isn't strictly science fiction but it steals from the same collection plate. That sort of familiarity is enough to allow for some forgiveness along the way. Besides, it has zombies.

And it certainly wasn't the story, which rips along at breakneck speed. Who needs complex characters and pace changes when you've got so much Blight-induced rotten flesh within the walled city of Seattle circa 1879 to annihilate. I would have thought the American government would have stepped in, but since Washington Territory is still awaiting the end of the 18-year long Civil War in order to appeal for official statehood, citizens in the Pacific Northwest have to live their lives in a perpetual battle for their lives. And it's not like the Canadians or the Alaskan Russians are going to help, are they? Like I said... the pace is relentless.

The bad guy was a tad predictable, I must admit. He is a James Bond style villain that likes to explain his methodology in painful detail rather than simply disposing of his foes when he has the chance, but in the rand scheme of the novel, he only plays a minor role. Hardly worth mention really, but I wanted another example of something that didn't bother me before I jump into what actually did bother me...

The real problem with this novel is that I truly wished that the author, Cherie Priest, had written it as a screenplay instead.

(How's that for a backhanded compliment?)

This story seemed so much more like a film than a novel. I could actually imagine the way in which a good director might set the tone and mood for specific scenes throughout the novel. By the end, I was actually thinking about specific camera angles and lighting and possible artists to compose a score (is Trent Reznor committed to anything right now?). I have no doubt in my mind that Boneshaker would make a boatload of money among horror, steampunk and zombie film aficionados, but as a book it didn't work for me. It is a particular thing I dislike about a lot of modern novels. Far too many of them (this one included) follow the rough formula of Hollywood movies, including the big smash-em-up explosions and chases that have become the staple third act in literally every single movie to come out over the past decade. I blame John Grisham and Michael Crichton for this, but I'm sure one could trace the origins of this particular curse on literature farther back than that.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: I wish writers would stop actively trying to achieve cross-over success in the more lucrative film and television genres. If a novelist really wants to make those big bucks, go write movies and television. It's not career cancer, you know. Lots of writers do it. Hell, Michael Crichton did it. There's no rule that says a writer has to stick to one oeuvre. Nobody says that. But cross-over success is so rarely successful in terms of artistic integrity. One of the renditions is bound to fail ("The book was so much better than the movie!"). So why does everyone try to milk so much from so little? Why does everything have to come out in two (or often all three) mediums? why can't novels be novels, films be films and television be television. Everything must be adapted from the original novel by... or inspired by the film... or some other such nonsense.

I know... I know... I'm a curmudgeon who doesn't understand the industry (industries). Too bad. I'm here to complain, and complain is what I'm going to do, so sit back and watch me do it...

Is this where globalization takes us? Along with food, fashion and technology, are we seeing the graying of art and culture? Is writing as an art becoming the chain store strip that exists in every city, town, village and hamlet across North America? Bland alternatives that appeal to a wide demographic without actually satisfying any one customer in particular? I'm probably not making much sense outside my own mind, but the gist of is it that a novelist should sit down to write a novel, and only a novel. Do not write with the intention of selling the film rights or the television rights. It affects the telling of the story and in the end, although it may sell to a wider audience, it will ultimately leave most of them feeling like they just ate a Wendy's hamburger even though they ordered the filet mignon.

Sorry Ms. Priest. I know I'm being hard on you. This book doesn't deserve this sort of criticism (it really doesn't) and It's probably not fair. But I couldn't stop reading your book as a movie and that's not right, either. I could not get the non-existent film out of my mind once while reading and therefore I feel obliged to tell the truth about what this book evoked in me: Boneshaker should have been a movie in the first place, and you should have written it. I loved the premise. I loved the plot. I loved so much about this movie... I mean book. I just wish it was in the right medium.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dog Blood

Dog Blood
By David Moody

True to my new year's resolution, I have finally read the second book in one of the series I have started over the past three years. Believe me, I'm feeling pretty emboldened right about now. So much so that I also installed a towel rack in the bathroom and walked the dogs. I'm getting shit done today! Don't even try and slow me down!


So, anyway, yeah....

Dog Blood is the second book in the Hater series by David Moody. I read the first book, Hater, last year and enjoyed the hell out of it. I think Moody's approach to the widening modern zombie canon is both refreshing and innovative in that he broadens the scope enough to see out the entire arc of the zombie apocalypse by making his zombies rational, thinking killers rather than the classic brain-eating drone. The result is a novel that is so relentless, so uncompromising that I actually finished it in one sitting... a rare feat. For a longer and more in depth take on the first book in Moody's neo-zombie trilogy go check out my blog post on Hater.

Dog Blood wasn't quit so relentless. It couldn't possibly be. Whereas Hater chronicles the first days of the war between the Haters and the Unchanged, Dog Blood takes us into the endless war of attrition that has settled over the planet. That sense of panic that Moody portrayed so well in the first book is replaced by an all-pervasive fear. A remorseless fear of what may (or may not) be coming. The first half of the novel is a bit slow (plodding at times). Characters drift in and out of the narrative as they interact with Danny, the main character (and Hater) who, by nature, has very little affinity for anyone or anything aside from killing and finding his five-year old daughter. But the slower bits at the front end lull the reader into the false sense of security that everything is going to even out. Right before Moody blows everything out of the water once again.

Once things pick up about two thirds of the way through the novel, Dog Blood is every bit and graphic and gory as Hater, often more so. Moody has a wonderfully sick and twisted mind, especially when it comes to his portrayal of children. There are some scenes in this novel that will spawn nightmares for me over the next few weeks and most of them will involved kids. Yikes!

I would have liked to see some more inventing murder scenes. I mean, if you are committed to writing such a graphic novel, It would be cool to see Moody get imaginative the ways Danny and Ellie kill people. Alas, it's a small complaint. with or without novel kill scenes, the smell of rotten viscera practically emanates from the last pages of the book. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

The reason for the onset of the Hate, as it is called, is still not explained, but that's okay. Given that the entire book is a chronicle of the utter chaos unleashed on humanity one doesn't expect to get clinical answers as to why. The characters don't know (and at this point will never know) and so the readers are left i the dark as well. As it should be with zombie stories. In a true catastrophe nobody would have time to find the answers. Nobody would even bother asking. It's simple all action, all the time.

While I usually demand interesting characters, with zombie literature I don't, mainly because character studies and zombies don't mix. Zombies don't have character and they spend their time killing the people that do, so best not get attached to any particular character. In Dog Blood the characters are as two-dimensional as they need to be given that the world is a place where life means less than a truck full of dead rats. Who's got time for character study when you know they'll be dead in a paragraph or two anyway.

In fact, life is so cheap in Moody's world that the entire trilogy thus far feels like a prequel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. McCarthy never explains how the world in his novel because such a bleak, unforgiving landscape of torment and death, but one doesn't have to look further than Moody for a possibility (I know, I know... there's no way that The Road involved zombies in any sort of incarnation, and comparing the two books feels kind of funny, but the mood definitely exists). There is a real feeling of impending desolation and hopelessness in the series and I can't imagine Moody is setting us up for a happy ending and I'd be disappointed if he somehow provided one. One can almost see the end of the trilogy: Danny desperately walking along the road toward the ocean with his little girl. The parallels are creepy.

While not quite as good as the Hater, Dog Blood is the necessary sequel and does exactly what is needed to bridge the gap between the the onset of the neo-zombie apocalypse and its conclusion. Some questions have been answered but not nearly enough to satisfy the reader and there's enough gore pack in there to make George Romero uneasy and Moody finishes Dog Blood in absolutely spectacular fashion (one wonders if he takes lessons from Steig Larsson). Like the weight of the pulsing zombie horde, it will be virtually impossible to hold off reading the third book for very long.

Since I'm already motivated, I'm gonna go board up the windows, and start the final novel. This dude needs some closure.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell

I have been involved in an ongoing debate with a friend of mine that typically starts thusly:

Friend: "Where is the modern-day William Faulkner?"

Me: "There is no modern-day William Faulkner because William Faulkner is dead and cannot publish books anymore."

It's a fatuous reply, I know. I inevitably concede that I understand what he's talking about. He's lamenting the fact that there are no modern classics. No "high literature" that compares to the work of Joyce, Fitzgerald or Faulkner (or any other such literary luminary from the pre-war era).

I always hate this argument. It has no historical perspective or context. I instantly imagine two pretentious blowhards sitting around a salon drinking gin and tonics in 1923 lamenting the fact that there is no literature that can compare to Dickens or Hardy or the Bronte sisters. Then I imagine two dusty windbags sitting around the Preston Club drinking cognac in 1864 lamenting... well, you get the picture. We put a premium on our past and never admit that culture being produced at the moment could possibly be better than what came before.

I have always trundled out names such as Rushdie, Eugenides, Murakami, de Bernieres and Russo, among others but I wait through the dithering and excuse making to play my trump card:

"What about Cloud Atlas."


What about Cloud Atlas? Both of us have read and raved over David Mitchell's stellar 2004 novel. It is one of those rare books that has everything. You could fill pages and pages of blog space detailing why Cloud Atlas is one of, if not the best, novel written in the last ten years. But if I were to try and boil it down to a single point I would argue that Mitchell's narrative construction is a thing of sublime beauty. Absolutely nobody (that I have read) juggles and weaves narratives with as deft a hand as Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas.

The trouble is, neither of us had ever read anything else by David Mitchell. I was aware that he was twice nominated for the Booker Prize (how Cloud Atlas didn't win the Booker Prize I will never understand) so our case sample for Mitchell was too small to include him in the list of truly great contemporary writers. Cloud Atlas had put him on the radar, but it would take another novel to confirm our suspicions. We'd just have to wait and see.

(Remember that we live in a small town in deepest, darkest Asia and neither of us can simply walk to the local bookshop and buy a copy of any of Mitchell's work. We simply have to wait until they find there way into out spheres).

So, when The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet landed in my hands a few weeks back, I was excited. While this novel is not quite as good as Cloud Atlas, I can say, categorically, that it confirms David Mitchell's inclusion in our little ex-pat in Asia modern literary canon.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautifully articulated piece of historical fiction set on the island of Dejima during the time of Dutch trade concessions in Japan. The novel does a wonderful job of expressing the continual friction between European colonial trade empires and the isolationist reticence of the Japanese shogunate. The story surrounds the real events of the British bombardment of Nagasaki in 1801 and the ritual suicide of the Nagasaki magistrate. The fictionalized narrative Mitchell fleshes around this historical skeleton is nothing short of astounding. Ripe with detail, the story centers on a Dutch clerk named, oddly enough, Daniel de Zoet and his awkward love for a Japanese woman he can never, ever hope to have.

In true Mitchell style (I assume), the story takes strange turn after strange turn, oscillating between a story of colonial power in Asia to a Japanese tale of honor and revenge (at one point it even edges disturbingly close to science fiction). This is what I love about Mitchell. At no point in this novel was I not firmly within his grasp. He manipulates the story so well that by extension he is manipulating the reader. I marveled at the way Mitchell could shift the story ever so subtly (just a literary inch) so as to alter the entire mood and direction of the narrative from one direction to another.

As in other great novels, there are moments in this book that I will carry with me until the day I die. And for me that's the mark of a truly excellent book. A novel that conjures up vivid images years after you read it. But if there is one critique I would make concerning this novel is that it is often too detailed, sometimes unnecessarily so. While such lapses into minutiae never affected the pace of the narrative there were several moments when I questioned the appearance of a sentence or two that made no difference to the story and seemed to simply pile on the detail. But if you are singling out specific sentences as the biggest flaws in a novel, you have crossed over into the realm of nit-pickery.

If anyone out there besides my friend and I we wondering if David Mitchell is for real (and by now I can't imagine there are many out there pondering this point... we may be the last), he is. My apologies if it sounds like I am lionizing Mitchell here, but I simply can't help it. If you have not read anything by David Mitchell I urge you to do so at your earliest possible convenience. You are missing out on something truly special.

Is he William Faulkner?

Mercifully, no.

He's David Mitchell, and that's just as good.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
By Lips and Robb Reiner

Late edit: I just finished watching the film and I am completely wrong in my assessment here. Anvil is nothing like Spinal Tap and the film is much, MUCH better than the book (sorry Robb and Lips). Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a truly amazing story and the film is a must watch. For everyone. Everywhere. Period. (Lars Ulrich is still an insufferable ass, though)

Anyone (like me) who was a fan of heavy metal in the early 80s will remember the band Anvil. They were a heavier than heavy outfit from Toronto that seemed to burst onto the scene with an instantly classic album called Metal On Metal and then, seemingly, melted back into the ether from which they had emerged. Their album was mildly successful but their sound was wildly influential. Other bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax would cite Anvil as a major influence and those four bands would go onto superstardom while Anvil went.... nowhere.

But Anvil never broke up. The founding members, Lips and Robb Reiner (not to be confused with Rob "One B" Reiner, director of This is Spinal Tap) endured a fall from grace so humiliating that by the mid-90s they would be touring North America in a rented van, playing to audiences as small as a single person in tiny clubs where they would make enough for gas money to get to their next gig hundreds of miles away. Having made a pact to stick it out through thick and thin Lips and Robb continued to record albums (thirteen in all over the course of their career from 1978 to the present) and tour both in North America and Europe.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the premise of the movie This is Spinal Tap, you'd be absolutely correct, and the similarities are astounding. So much so that I was beside myself that This Is Spinal Tap is only mentioned once in the entire book (although references to the volume going to 11 are rife). Lips and Robb reminded me so much of Nigel Tufnel and David St.Hubbins from Spinal Tap I often heard them with those snooty British accents while reading. I don't mean to sound condescending or dismissive. On the contrary, I think that Nigel and David are two of the most wonderfully crafted characters in film and you can't help root for them throughout the This Is Spinal Tap. I found the same endearing qualities in Lips and Robb Reiner. I so badly wanted them to make it, even when they were acting like complete rock n' roll tools.

Many people say that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica more aptly recreate the inanity and pomposity of Spinal Tap in their rockumentary Some Kind of Monster. But while the similarities in pretentiousness, arrogance and cluelessness between Metallica and Spinal Tap are identical, Metallica lack the endearing qualities and viewers are very hard pressed to root for (or even like) either James or Lars by the end of that film. Especially Lars.

The story of Anvil is the quintessential story of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how far away they seem to be, which is far more akin to the premise of Spinal Tap than the overblown nonesense Metallica whines about in their rockumentary. Sympathy and empathy have a way of making or breaking a film about losers (and I use this word in the most loveable way).

The book is written (not ghost written, mind you... written) by Lips and Robb and while this deters from the stories in one way (the dialogue is almost unreadable) it makes up with in brutal, heart-wrenching honesty. It ranges from the absurdly moronic (the very serious introspection Lips goes through when a promoter tells him to stop using a dildo as a slide on his guitar... "...but it was fun and it was always done with integrity. And sometimes I would jack it off...") to tear-jerkingly touching (the last 40 pages of the book, really). Obviously, their literary range is limited. Their reaction to encountering any sort of fame from meeting Ozzy to recording with Chris Tsangarides was: "Like.... wow!" This book won't be winning any Pulitzers, but that's okay.

Instead, the book reads like a how-to manual on how to fail in the music industry. You can see that even years later both Lips and Robb agonize over the precise moment in which fame passes them by. Whether it was the time that Lipps insisted to their new record company that he wanted his drums shipped to Japan despite having not recorded a single album for the company or whether it was their brief and disasterous flirtation with Poison-esque glam metal. It would be comedy gold if it weren't so tragic. Reading about their descent from heavy metal stardom to fighting promoters for their $300 performance fee and taking second jobs as delivery boys for sushi restaurants in Toronto was gut-wrenching. Thank god this book had a happy ending. I don't think I could have handled a real-life Hard Core Logo.

I do think this story is better suited to film and I am aware that there is a movie (it is profiled extensively in the book). The Sacha Gervasi film is the reason for the sudden resurgence in interest for the hardest working band in heavy metal. The film received all sorts of accolades at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and you've probably heard of it. Michael Moore called it one of the best documentaries in years.

If you are a fan of Anvil or simply early 80s heavy metal you have probably seen the movie or at least heard about it. If you haven't read this companion to the film, I urge you to do so. There is something extraordinarily personal about the way Lips and Robb tell their story. I haven't seen the film yet but I'm going to imagine I will enjoy it more than the book. This isn't to say I disliked the book. I enjoyed it, for the most part. I admire and respect the fact that these guys took the time to sit down and pen their version of their career but the book lacked precision and coherence in places. It lacked the elements that a professional writer could have cleaned up. There's a reason these guys are Heavy Metal legends and not literary giants. A few points in this book, their writing style became insanely grating. Like... wow!

But the fact that these guys stuck it out through some of the most humiliating experiences a band can endure, stayed positive and watched their dreams of stardom come true 25 years later than expected; The fact that they never gave up even when faced with pressure from friends and family to grow up and get real jobs is so admirable and inspiring, you can't help but love these guys and the book.

Anvil rocks!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


By Tina Fey

Normally you would catch me reading the autobiography of anyone still actively engaged in the profession they are known for. While I am really partial to the work of Jack White, I figure he's got far too much work still to be done to read any sort of memoir no matter how interesting his life has been so far. It's a work in progress. I'd much rather read about a person who is angling toward the end of their career as opposed to perched right in the middle. I would feel like they were feeling out the possibility of a sequel should the first half (or quarter, or, in the case of Justin Beiber... fiftieth) of their life proves interesting enough to be profitable.

But here I am, reading and now writing about Bossypants by Tina Fey, a woman at the top of her profession (comedy writing) and by all intents and purposes, someone who will remain a major player in film and television for a few decades yet (unless of course she is labelled batshit crazy when her looks go and descends into the depth of obscurity along with Tawny Kitaen and Ben from Growing Pains). One might argue, given her career trajectory thus far, that her best work is yet to come.

So what gives?

A couple of things, really.

First was an NPR interview with Tina Fey that I inadvertently listened to twice last year while running (I always listen to the metronomic voice of Terry Gross while running. She helps me maintain my pace. I accidentally loaded the same interview onto my MP3 player twice in one week. Oh well). At that point, Tina Fey was a person on the very periphery of my cultural radar. I was aware that she had done Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and was currently the star of 30 Rock (still one of my all-time favorite shows) and that she was best known for her terrifyingly awesome impression of Sarah Palin during the 2008 American presidential election. I didn't know she was primarily a writer and had written during some of the best years in SNL history (1999-2005) and only stumbled in front of the camera on a whim. I had no idea that she was the head writer and producer of 30 Rock. But what I really didn't know was how insanely funny she seems to be, literally all the time. The interview had me laughing 7 km into a 10 km run. Anyone who has ever done any running before knows that nothing is funny at 7 km.

So I listened to the interview twice and proceeded to forget about it until a few weeks ago. It was at that point in the year when many critics were foisting their year-end best-of lists on the internet world I noticed that Bossypants seemed to end up on a significant number of them. I obviously don't read simply because of what critics write, but seeing the title and recalling the interview were enough for me to plug in the Kindle and download the sucker. I guess Chuck D would say I was believing the hype. We all have our weaknesses, Mr. D.

Mercifully, Bossypants is not your typical autobiography, which makes it totally readable for anyone isn't really into reading quickie books aimed at capitalizing on instant fame. I gather that Tina Fey is too good of a writer to simply sit down and chronicle her life from inauspicious small town Pennsylvania schoolgirl to big time Sarah Palin impersonator. She's taken the opportunity to actually write something worth reading, even it is only for the laughs (which a lot of it is). But it's not what she writes that makes this book fun to read it's what she doesn't write that makes it good.

First, she doesn't descend into bullshit celebrity gossip. I admit, this was my biggest worry. I finish everything that I read, but I think I would have broken that rule if Fey had begun taking about what an ass so-and-so was and how much so-and-so drinks and how many mountains of cocaine Charlie Sheen snorts before doing his SNL monologue. When any celebrity is mentioned in the book (and it's surprisingly few) it's always in relation to a very particular episode. There is no name-dropping (except Alex Baldwin).

There is no sentimentality. Far too many autobiographies slip into the saccharine habit of mythologizing fathers, mothers, mentors, gurus, substance abuse counsellors, hard-boiled carnies of a different era, 18th century chimney sweepers. Fey's writing style has been honed by years of improv work, sketch comedy and the rapid fire style of 30 Rock. Much of her humor is self-deprecating (my favorite kind of humor) and there is zero back-handed boasting (my least favorite kind of boasting).

It is poignant when it needs to be, but it's never preachy. Tina Fey is a woman working in what has traditionally been considered a man's industry (comedy). In what has to be the most interesting part of the book, Fey talks about the way the industry works (especially Second City in Chicago and SNL in New York) and how difficult it can be to convince the old boys that there is another, entirely forgotten stream of comedy writing that can only be tapped through the female experience (or something like that. This isn't a social science book).

What's left is an extraordinarily funny book about growing up in a typical American family in a typical American town with typical American anecdotes about typical American neuroses. The book is literally stuffed with hilarious stories, quips, one-liners and asides. And while the entire bit chronicling her fifteen minutes of massive fame due to her Sarah Palin impression is coffee-out-the-nose-in-the-middle-of-a-crowded-restaurant funny, the centerpiece of the book (in my opinion, anyway) is The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter.

I know what you are thinking. You're thinking: "Wait! You said there wasn't any sentimentality! What gives?" Well, I think it's best I quote Tina Fey and let her demonstrate what I mean. Here is the first few lines from the prayer. You'll see what I mean and then you'll probably ask me to borrow the book:

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.
May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it's the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not the Beauty.
When the Crystal Meth is offered,
May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half
And stick with Beer.

And that's how Bossypants rolls.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth

Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth
Edited by Peter Wild

There is a scene from Woody Allen's 1997 film Deconstructing Harry where an out-of-focus Robin Williams visits his doctor because he is... well... out-of-focus. Nothing metaphorical. his body is literally fuzzy. The doctor assures him there is nothing physically wrong with him but he makes his family nauseous and loses his work as a film actor and in classic Woody Allen (and Kurt Vonnegut) style, the idea is never resolved. It's not a long segment, only three or four minutes in the film, but it's one of those quirky scenes that sticks with you forever.

It's odd because when I think about Sonic Youth, I often think about that scene. Sonic Youth is the sort of band that remains eternally peripheral no matter how hard you try to focus on them. To me, they are the sort of band that fills the miniscule gaps in pop music without ever falling into a particular category. Born of the punk rock/new wave scene in New York City in the early eighties, they were never a punk or a new wave band, and although they are often called the grandfathers of the grunge/alternative scene on the 1990s, they don't fallen easily into either of those categories either. As you can see, just like the scene in Woody Allen's movie, Sonic Youth is unresolved.

I was an ambitious music listener when I was younger. I was listening to Johnny Cash in kindergarten, Motley Crue as a 7 year-old, Metallica at the age of 12 (before Enter Sandman, mind you) and I still bought my first Sonic Youth album far, far too early. I bought Daydream Nation in the wake of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam fiasco of 1992 expecting to get a variation on a theme. What I got was nothing like I had ever heard before. It was nihilistic and dangerous and painful and off-putting and all sorts of things a 14 year old isn't really ready to handle. Well, at least not me. It was like a Nora Jones fan picking up mid-career Tom Waits and expecting them to make that leap. I was simply baffled. Sonic Youth is opaque.

I put the album away for a couple of years until I inadvertently discovered Dirty in my first year of university. By then I was listening to a wider array of music and was susceptible to the more unsettling sounds of Thurston Moore's eccentric guitar work and Kim Gordon's flat, monotonously sexy vocals. Over the years I have grown to like Sonic Youth. Not love, mind you... but like. But it's a very strong like and Daydream Nation is now one of my favorite all-time albums. Sonic Youth is a mushroom on the brain.

When I saw them live in the late 90s, it was (and still is) one of the best shows I ever saw. The way they would tear a song apart like a predator slashing into its prey, both vicious and tender. Then, just when the song has been stripped down to nothing more than a wall of sheer feedback, distortion and noise to the point where you don't think you can stand it anymore, they slowly stitch the song back together like a musical Frankenstein. It was like waves of pleasure and pain, an oscillating cacophony of sound. It was, simply put, the first and only time I have experienced noise art. It was mesmerizing. Sonic Youth is idiosyncratic.

Try as I might, I could never really place them. Many bands defy categorization. That's the mark of any good band. But Sonic Youth defies the existence of categories or boundaries themselves. Just when you think you may have them all figured out, they come at you with something so outlandishly different you can only stand and marvel at the audacity of it all. Sonic Youth is not my favorite band. I doubt they are anyone's favorite band. It would be a difficult, moody relationship. High maintenance. Prone to vase-shattering arguments, long, painful silences and violent, knee-shuddering make-up sex. In a lot of ways, Sonic Youth is the musical equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

So I was excited to get my hands on Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth. A literary collection I hadn't even heard of until it fell in my hands. The premise of the collection is quite interesting. A series of writers were given a title of a Sonic Youth song and were asked to write a short story inspired by the song. Song titles include some of Sonic Youth's most accessible songs: Kissability, Kool Thing (Or How I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst) and Bull in the Heather as well as some of their more obscure titles. I hadn't heard of any of the writers in the book except for Katherine Dunn (which gives me the opportunity to plug her wonderfully weird novel Geek Love) but I will be seeking out a few in the near future.

Like Sonic Youth themselves, I wanted desperately to love this book unequivocally, but like my relationship with the band, this work is uneven and difficult. The good is really, really good. Catherine O'Flynn's interpretation of Snare, Girl is especially good in the way that she traps the reader along with a girl in the trunk of the car only to manipulate the reader through an emotional and psychological tug-of-war. Christopher Coake's variation of Unmade Bed captures the sharp reality of getting your ass kicked for absolutely no good reason and Brother James by Emily MaGuire is a smart, snarky and satirical look at the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of his brother.... um... James. These stories alone are worth the price of admission.

But like a mediocre Sonic Youth offering, the bad is really, really bad. Call me a literary troglodyte if you must, but I simply hate avant-garde fiction. While I understand what is represents from an Ornette Colman/Free Jazz sort of perspective, the idea of reading 15 pages of sentences that don't really add up to a coherent story seems like a waste of time. Listening to My Friend Goo, the song, is a far cry from reading it as a stream of consciousness mess (Sorry Shelley Jackson). I've read a bit of avant-garde fiction over the years and it has literary value, I'm sure. It's just not my thing and I found that it really disjointed the collection. Made it uneven and quirky. But I guess I should have expected this sort of dichotomy given that Sonic Youth has played the same game with me for over 20 years.

Regardless, fans of Sonic Youth are going to find something in this collection to enjoy. I did. I droves. As for everyone else? I'm not sure. If you go into this collection blind (as in having never heard Sonic Youth) I would suggest a primer. You could download all the tracks used in the book. That would be the logical introduction given that you are about to read the book. But I'd do what I did. Go get Daydream Nation. Sit at home... alone... in the dark, glass of wine in hand and take it in. Do this repeatedly over a few weeks. If that album hasn't seeped into the pores of your very being, then give this book a pass. Sonic Youth is not for everybody.