Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not the French minister of culture? Here's a book for you..

     When I conceived "Every goddamn day," I created a page called "Books on the nightstand." The idea was to share what I've been reading. But the task of shoveling words into the gaping maw of the blog's main section became such that I let the feature fall by the wayside. Nobody complained. 
     I'm nearly finished reading a particular book, however, described below, that I wanted to share, simply because I like it so much. And as I wrote my review, in a wonderful piece of serendipity, news from France came that their minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, admitted "I read very little" beyond news stories and government memos, and that she hadn't read a book in two years.
     Mon Dieu!
Fleur Pellerin
     The uproar could be imagined—there were calls for her resignation, the kerfuffle worse because a French writer, Patrick Modiano, recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. France's minister of culture not only hasn't read any of the Nobel laureate's books; she couldn't name one.
     This doesn't put her outside of the mainstream of humanity, of course. A quarter of Americans haven't read a book in the past year, polls showed. Then again, it isn't their job to promote culture, which supposedly still includes books, which still hold a special place in our view of what being cultured means. Even though culture also embraces, oh, video games, the controversy wouldn't be the same had Pellerin said she doesn't play "Angry Birds."
     There are a few ways we could go with this. Yes, at least France HAS a minister of culture, which is more than the United States could say, though I would argue that culture is the thing that the government should keep its meat hooks away from, and while authority can occasionally produce something of artistic merit, you pretty much have to go back to the 1930s and the WPA to find it. The vast bulk of government influence on creativity is pretty much limited to deadening, chilling and propagandizing. 
     But I'd like to end by pointing out that books should not be something you are shamed into reading, but a joy, something you dive into enthusiastically. You visit a world and stay there for a while. No ministerial memo can do that. Reading the book below, I savored Keith Richards' voice, the way he (or, most likely, his ghost writer) wrote. I liked hanging out with him so much, I wanted to put a bug into the ear of anyone who might enjoy it too. That's how culture works, one person sharing something that feels significant with another. I was going to quietly post this on my "Books on the nightstand" section, but worried I hadn't updated it in so long, people had gotten out of the habit of checking, and nobody would notice it. So I thought to flog it here the first day, and guide people there for updates every ... two weeks. Unlike France's minister of culture, I'm always reading two or three books at a time, and it's a tribute to Keith Richards that I let the others I'm working on sit while I focused on him exclusively. 
     Fleur Pellerin, gotta love her. Tall, slim, soignee, very French. My new favorite person.   I didn't imagine a helping hand from the French, to underscore the importance of reading. Still, your heart goes out to her, though it seems inevitable now. Of course the minister would be so busy promoting culture that she forgot to partake in it. She's not alone there. Many people who work at the newspaper don't seem to actually read it. We should embrace this episode for the teaching moment it is. The minister of culture, in France of all places, who doesn't read books. It would be trite in the fiction she shuns, too obvious in a Christopher Buckley novel. A gift really. Not the Statue of Liberty, true, but something of value nevertheless. We should be grateful for Fleur Pellerin, for teaching us all how not to be.

Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox (Little, Brown: 2010)

      It might sounds strange to compare Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to Lyndon B. Johnson, but let me make my case.
     Before the fact, I wouldn't have thought to touch a book like this. I was never a particular Stones fan, with Mick Jagger doing his rooster act, and Keith Richards stoically playing away. I recognize the power and pure rock-and-roll quality of the songs. Still, I don't love the Stones.
     But my wife does. She really likes them—we've gone to concerts on her behalf—and I got her the book as a birthday present when it came out.
     She raved about it, which still wouldn't have been enough.
     But Sara Bader, my co-author put a quote from Richards' in our new book, a literary companion to recovery, a subject Keith Richards knows something about. Writing the endnotes, I of course looked at the book, read around the quote.
     And that was it. I was hooked.
     It reminded me—and I know this sounds like a wild comparison—of nothing so much as Robert Caro's Path to Power. Like most people, I didn't give a rat's ass about Lyndon Johson. But Path to Power is the sort of book that you open the cover with a "Hmm, what's this?" and then next thing you know you're standing in front of the bookstore, waiting for the next volume to be published. When I talk about it, I feel like a drunkard recounting his sad story in front of a Salvation Army band. Someone handed it to me. It looked interesting. I thought I would give it a try...
    Life is like that. Richards just has such a wonderful, compelling voice (I assume his coauthor Fox had a role here) that he could be writing about literally anything and you just want to hear him talk more. About his mom and dad, Burt and Doris. About his pets—a cat named Toaster, wonderfully.
     The odd thing is, the parts you think will be most interesting—tours, fame, wealth, groupies—are the least interesting parts of Life. He makes groupies seem like concerned neighbors who bring you by some soup, check up on your welfare and, sometimes, if you're not too stoned, sleep with you.
     It's his worldview, his mentality, his love of blues (and, I'm proud to say, Chicago). Indeed, I only learned three incredible things about Keith: that he was a proud member of the Boy Scouts. That he once moved into a suburban Australian woman's house for a week and cared for her baby while she was at work and, most of all, that he sometimes goes camping out West in a Winnebago.
     Picturing Keith Richards in that Winnebago in Oklahoma will make whatever low-budget cheeseball vacation I take next far easier to bear.
     He is also very candid about his famed drug addiction. "Most junkies become idiots," he writes.
     The book is worth reading for its keelhauling of Mick Jagger alone. It's masterful. Up to now, I would have thought the most gorgeously skewered character in all of literature was Serr Bruno, Dante's old teacher, whom he hoists out of his pool of bubbling lead, or whatever, in Inferno, just long enough for the poor guy to babble why he's in Hell—a sodomite, apparently—then Dante drops him back in, all the while cooing with such sympathy you forget that Dante is the one who created the Hell and put his old friend in it.
     Keith is so complimentary of Mick, so careful to give him credit, and strains never to tar him as the self-absorbed asshat he so obviously is. In fact, for the first few hundred pages, Richards gives Jagger various slightly amazed little nods and compliments, all the while setting up when his full infamy will be laid out later in all its operatic glory.  It's majestic, and really the plot line of the book. Mick Jagger is the White Whale we've been waiting to crest the surface, spouting vanity like plume. Just the fact that Keith gives big half-page blocks of testimony to everyone from his kids, his wife, even Tom Waits (who tosses off a delightful phrase, the "deficit of wonder.") But never Mick, the assumption being either he was too arrogant and self-absorbed to offer commentary on another person, even his old pal, or that he's a constitutional liar and nothing he would say could have any value, or both. 
     Celebrity biographies are typically about finding fame, the moment when the Big Break happens. But that's sort of a given here. Richards has been famous so long—50 years—that it's a condition of nature, like breathing.  His glory is, Richards never seems to care. No knighthood for him, but another delightful put-down when Mick goes crawling for his, in front of Prince Charles, mind you, not even the queen. 
     If I had to pinpoint a flaw, he does go on a bit about open chord tuning—perhaps musicians appreciate that, but I sure didn't.  I'm on page 532 now, almost at the end, and I just don't want the thing to be over, though when it is, I'm going to do something heretofore unimagined: download some Keith Richards songs. If listening to them is half enjoyable as reading about how they were recorded, then they'll be enjoyable indeed.


  1. You are so right Neil, wonderful read, funny and self-aware. Another rock-related read that surpassed expectations: "We Were Kids" by Patti Smith. Books on my nightstand: just finished "Chasing Cezanne" by Peter Mayle: had me dreaming in French!

  2. For history buffs, I would suggest Doris Kearns book the Bully Pulpit. It is about the relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft and the golden age of Journalism.I did not know much about Taft other than he was a president and a supreme court justice. Not so much a discovery but after reading this, there are things that have not changed a lot in over 100 years when it comes to politics and life in this country.

  3. I second the recommendation for "We Were Kids," story of a couple in their time; just finished Jonathan Eig's "Birth of the Pill," a subject I might not otherwise have been interested but Eig knows how to write a "page-turner."

  4. Replies
    1. Who? Fleur Pellerin? Patti Smith? Doris Kearns? Keith Richards?

  5. More book reviews! With the demise of book sections we need them more than ever.

    Third the recommendation on Patti Smith's (though I thought the title is "Just Kids" - taken from an incident in the book - if not then we're talking about different things).

    When Keith Richards toured behind is really good solo records, he played one of his old stones songs "Connection" (I think from Between the Buttons) - worth a listen too.

    1. I'm going to try. It's a matter of finding the time.

  6. Being somewhat unclear what France's minister of culture does after Google searching, I could be off base here, but _don't_ we have the equivalent of this position in the US? Wouldn't the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities be analogous? We have _two_ ministers of culture! (Take that, France!) Or maybe we fail because those folks aren't true cabinet members?

    I like your take on the Keith Richards book, and the recent poet/poetry posts -- thank you for your work.

    1. Oh, and musicians _do_ appreciate the open-chord tuning bits, both the description and his wonder at the discovery and what opened up for him.

  7. Delightful new word you gave us today: soigne. But shouldn't it be soignee for her? Looked it up of course, but "Je ne parle pas Francais." Or something like that.


  8. I appreciate a good book recommendation from a trusted source, merci. With Chicago's cold, damp grip starting its advance on us, it's the perfect time to curl up with it.

  9. I enjoyed "Life" as well... with the unexpected bonus of reading it with Keith's voice providing the narration in my head.


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