Books I Read on Tour: A Grownup Book Report

BOOKREPORT1

After we came back from a six-month long, very exhaustive DIY tour, I kept meaning to post a blog update. Time passed and I didn’t write it, or post it. It seemed impossible to summarize the experiences we had in those six long months across America and back, playing hundreds of shows, in some kind of small anecdotes. I couldn’t find the words to write about the experience in a way that really captured what we’d seen and what we’d been through.

The thing about being on tour every day is that it means you spend the equivalent amount of time that you’d spend at work just sitting in the van. It gets hard to stay active and to stay effective in that kind of environment, and it definitely takes creativity. I started teaching myself Italian, I wrote a lot of poetry, and I read a LOT of books. So I thought I’d do what all good nerd do – write a book report!

THE LIST

If you are like me, you have no concept of the amount of time it takes to actually do something. I loaded myself down with WAY more books than I could actually find the time to read. Here’s what I did manage to get to! I read so many books that I’m going to break this book report into a two parter;

My Inventions – Nikola Tesla
The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
Carry The One – Carol Anshaw
The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams (actually a play)
New Lives For Old – Margaret Mead
The Wizard of Oz: the First Five Novels – L. Frank Baum (actually an anthology of 5 books)
Blye – Manic Quixotic & Blyku Pop
The Disorganized Mind – Coaching your ADHD Brain to Take Control of your Time, Tasks & Talents – Nancy A. Ratey
Duino Elegies – Rainer Maria Rilke
Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne
Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne

There you have it; this list is made up of two found/donated books, one biography, one book of poetry, one play, two anthologies (although I only read half the Jules Verne one), various fiction books, an anthropological study and a self-help book. On to the book report!

My Inventions – Nikola Tesla

We have a cultural hard-on for Nikola Tesla right now that isn’t hard to understand (no pun intended). In the age of nerd-dom, Nikola Tesla is the ultimate figurehead. He was eccentric, a loner, a genius, a brilliant inventor, and generally unappreciated in his lifetime. I already knew all of these things when I delved into his writing but told through his own words, I learned a few additional things about Mr. Tesla. For one, he was at once humble and ridiculously egotistical. He mentions that some of his ideas or work formed the framework of another scientist’s Nobel Peace Prize but didn’t seem to mind. On the same note, he seems at times almost vainly dismissive of others because of his superior intellect, of which he is keenly aware. There were times while reading his book that I felt like Nikola Tesla is that weird guy at the party who talks way too much about himself in a pompous fashion but has no idea that he’s being a bore; then again, maybe this is just the natural way a person who lived a fairly solitary life talks. He speaks with disdain of those who taint their bodies with addiction to coffee, alcohol and the like, and pats himself on the back for the rigorous discipline with which he leads his own life. A man with no vices doesn’t have a lot to talk about with the common folk, and this seemed to be the case for Nikola Tesla. It was fascinating to read about his personal history as well as get a glimpse into the inner workings of that aforementioned brilliant mind.

My particularly favourite part was when he discussed the concept of world peace; his strategy to achieve world peace was that he thought he’d invent a kind of blimp with long electric cables that could be lowered to about a hundred feet or so above the ground, which would electrify everything underneath it. Theoretically this blimp could be flown over cities, killing everyone and everything in it as the blimp flew overhead with the cables cooking everything they touched. Tesla figured that it didn’t matter which country invented or embraced this technology first; whoever did would unequivocally be powerful enough to bend all other nations to its will – and voila! world peace!

Seriously, I’m not kidding. His solution was that whoever has the most force should just control the world, and under a one-world governance, peace would be inevitable.

Overall, a challenging but interesting read. I’m glad I took the time to learn about an important historical figure and his mostly crazy ideas.

¬†The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been a Maugham fan since I first read The Moon and Sixpence. You’ll think I’m crazy, but I love the slow pace and formal tone of Maugham’s writing. If you’re a Stephen King fan, you probably won’t dig it. The pace of these novels gives the author the opportunity to weave complex characters, dialogue and situations, so that when the action does come to a resolution, it’s perfect. I love the formality of the style of writing as well.

in the Razor’s Edge, the story is told in a reflexive way through Maugham’s eyes (at least, Maugham as a fictional writer, perhaps). The writer-narrator chronicles the life of his family-friends; the society-obsessed uncle, his dowdy dowager sister, her eternally-youthful daughter, and her lover. Each character is constructed with care and given time to flesh out throughout the story, but the real main character is the lover, Larry. A young man who was a fighter pilot in the war and an adoptee into proper American upper-class society, Larry is looking for something more, although he can’t put his finger on what. The story is essentially Larry’s existential search for the meaning of life as told through the interactions he has with the writer-narrator. Set against an 1800s or early 1900s upper-class American and British background, this is a story about self-discovery and rebellion against society. A super, super, super good read that I would recommend to anyone who can tolerate very formal and stiffly-written literature (my fave!)

Carry the One – Carol Anshaw

This book was pretty much the opposite of how I felt about the Razor’s Edge. I found this book in one of those community neighbourhood take-a-book-leave-a-book cupboard things that you see around, so I didn’t know what to expect. The story is about some siblings and their friends/lovers who hit and kill a child while driving one night, and what happens to them after that. The story follows two sisters and one brother and their respective partners, as well as a friend who was in the car, but who serves only as a footnote at group functions.

I found this book to be lacking in substance. The subject matter could have led to a richly-woven story that drew the events of that fateful night all together for all the characters, but the author instead chose to use it as a launching-pad for the life story of these three siblings, whose lives weren’t really all that affected by the girl dying. The dead girl is utterly unimportant in the events that follow, which stretch from the immediate aftermath all the way up into the character’s middle age. It’s essentially a loose collection of random events that happen to three siblings that starts the night they kill the kid, but the book never really comes around to bring all the events back together again. As a novel, it feels kind of pointless. There is a halfhearted attempt by the author to make one of the sisters (the artist) have a kind of epiphany through artwork she’s made about the dead girl, but the girl herself, and her family, basically play no role from the moment she gets hit. Aside from a few mentions throughout the book, it isn’t clear what role the death even plays in the life of the characters. They get married, get divorced, do drugs, get sober, get promotions, become successful.. and then the book ends. There are also a lot of lesbian sex scenes for no reason. The only reason I can think for the number of sexy lesby scenes are that it’s a cheap attempt at keeping the reader entertained through the boring subject matter. Unlike W. Somerset Maugham, who can take a story with hardly any action at all and turn it into a breathtaking piece of art about the meaning of life, Carol Anshaw can’t seem to muster deeper meaning out the literal life and death of innocence. I recommend you give this book a pass and read something with more substance.

The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams

I don’t have a lot to say about this book, which was actually a play. I was excited to read something by Tennessee Williams because I’m a pretty big buff for historical literature/writing, but this play didn’t do it for me. Maybe it would be different if I actually saw it on the stage but I wasn’t invested in any of the characters, all of whom I found annoying and stressful. The eventual end to the book was anticlimactic for me because it didn’t resolve anything. It’s a story about a guy who lives under his mother’s thumb and who has to provide for his widowed mother and unmarried sister, presumably in an era before women could work. The play centers around this guy trying to help his mom find someone for his sister to marry, and eventually just getting fed up and running away. Although I know this play is partially autobiographical, it irritated my feminist sensibilities. Why couldn’t the mother and the sister just get a job? And if there WAS some concrete, real reason that they HAD to depend on this guy to survive, then it was pretty shitty of him to just run off and leave them without any means to support themselves (although I also kinda can’t blame him). I don’t know. I feel like this is a piece of literature/art I would apprecaiate more if I had taken some kind of theatre or lit class where we analyzed it, but from an outsider perspective of just reading it, I don’t really get why it’s a famous piece.

New Lives For Old – Margaret Mead

I got about three-quarters of the way through this ethnography, or anthropological study, of the people of Manus. It was really the sequel to the book Growing Up in New Guinea. If you’re not familiar with Mead’s work, she’s an important historical figure in the world of anthropology, right up there with Franz Boas in terms of her work’s significance around refuting racist notions about indigenous and “primitive” peoples. But I’ll resist the urge to glorify her as any kind of a saint, because there are still a lot of inherently problematic things about white American and European people studying these so-called primitives. Although the field of anthropology has come a long way and has moved out of the realm of belonging only to white people studying the “other”, this book was written when anthropology was still a very new and more simplistic field of study.

The book was actually quite interesting because it chronicalled a really sudden social change in the Manus society. Mead had travelled to New Guinea years before and spent time with the kids from the Manus culture and was now returning to visit them as adults, and was surprised to find that there had been a very distinctive cultural shift, partially due to the presence of (French?) imperialist forces. Ethnographies are always pretty dry, so I’m sure a few of the details are blurry. It’s interesting to read about any culture you’ve never heard of and knew nothing about but I thought there were some interesting insights from Mead that might be portrayed differently by someone who wasn’t a white westerner; for example, she pretty much had nothing nice to say about the Manus people at all. According to her experience, they were petty, sullen, and generally glum. She didn’t seem to find a lot of positive aspects to their culture at all, aside from the childhood aspects of it (the children, in contrast to their sullen, stressed, and ever-offended parents, have a carefree and happy existance). I wonder if that’s truly the way the culture is or if this is Western eyes ¬†looking for, and not seeing, what we would value and recognize as happiness or pleasantness. At any rate, it was a huge, huge tomb of a book that I couldn’t finish. Only read this book if you’ve read Growing Up in Guinea and have some reason to be reading an ethnography.

The Wizard of Oz: The First Five Novels – L. Frank Baum

So, I actually read five Wizard of Oz books, which included the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the story we all know and love), The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and the Road to Oz. Not all of these books featured Dorothy as a main character, or even at all, so I was surprised to learn that the world of Oz was bigger than the characters I was familiar with. I think the only character who was consistently in all the books was actually the Tin Man, who is a way more important character than he seems to be in the movie.

L. Frank Baum is sometimes credited with writing the first-ever children’s story; the Wizard of Oz. It was written in an exceedingly simplistic, but not unenjoyable way. The book was definitely written for young children. Throughout all five books I was struck by how rich L. Frank Baum’s imagination was, and how big the world he created was when he created Oz. That being said, not all the books were equal in their quality. In at least two it felt a bit like Baum was grasping at straws to draw out the story into another book. Wizard of Oz was pretty much how we remember it from the movie, with only a few variations that don’t match up, but none of which I would say make the book any better than the movie. One interesting detail is that in Baum’s book, the emerald city is only emerald because everyone who enters it is forced to put on emerald-colored goggles, which they can’t take off for the duration of their stay inside the city. We also learn that there are four witches in total (well, three if you don’t count the one that Dorothy killed).

In the Marvelous Land of Oz, Dorothy had returned home and we are introduced to an entirely new set of characters; Tip, a young boy raised by a cruel witch, Jack Pumpkinhead, his pumpkinhead companion brought to life through magic dust; the Sawhorse (my personal favourite character), another creature brought to life through said dust; and the Woggle-Bug, an oversized, somewhat pompous insect. We are also joined by a few of our old friends, the Scarecrow and the Tinman, as they battle an army of little girls led by General Jinjur, who takes over the emerald city and turns it upside-down by making all the husbands do the cooking and cleaning while the wives run amok. It’s surprisingly forward-thinking for the times and with a cute feminist twist. I feel like Baum enjoyed a bit of mischief in his writing; characters are often saying sarcastic and even snide things to one another.

In Ozma of Oz, Baum goes next-level with a full on gender-bender as the boy character Tip becomes Princess Ozma, rightful heir to the throne of the emerald city and true ruler of Oz. Ozma and Dorothy meet and the book is a fun story of their adventures together with their gaggle of nonhuman friends, including Dorothy’s pet chicken Billina (it was a female chicken named Bill, but Dorothy thought it should be more feminine) and Tik-Tok the mechanical man.

Things start to drag a little in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. We are introduced to even more characters including Dorothy’s cousin Zeb, his talking horse Jim, Dorothy’s kitten Eureka (for some reason Toto is the only animal companion of Dorothy’s who never gains the ability to speak upon entering Oz). The story follows pretty much the same plot of the first three novels; the group of unlikely companions has to get from point A to point B and have many adventures along the way, but wind up safely at their final destination. While the first novel has an air of urgency around it (Dorothy is trapped and has to get back to her home) which makes the journey necessary, the rest of the books don’t have the same kind of urgency and the whole “group on an adventure” plot starts to get a little tiresome. In the Wizard of Oz, the various and sundry adventures they have along the way are all somehow connected to their greater goal and journey, but in the later books, Baum just starts shoving whatever random thing comes to mind without any foreshadowing or plot. I did, however, like the part where they meet a man who manufactures the sound of ruffles for dresses.

In The Road to Oz, we meet still more characters including the Shaggy Man, Button Bright and Polychrome, the daughter of the rainbow. In the first two novels, the characters like the Scarecrow and the Sawhorse were so well-developed, even for a children’s book, but by the last novel it seemed like Baum had given up trying to actually develop his characters and just started shoving more and more stuff in there in a desperate attempt to just crank out pages and words. I never really felt like I understood the mysterious Shaggy Man or his motivations, and the equally-mysterious genesis of the character of Button Bright, a lost little boy who doesn’t know where he came from, is never resolved. The last novel follows the pattern of the others; Dorothy, the Shaggy Man, Button Bright, Polychrome, and Toto (who makes a comeback) must journey to the Emerald City for Ozma’s birthday, but will they get there in time? (spoiler: they do). One nice twist is that Baum wraps up the epic set of novels and characters with a giant birthday party that features not only all the minor and major characters from the previous four novels, but also various and sundry imaginary beings such as gingerbread people and even Santa Claus himself. You know you’re pretty important when Santa Claus comes to your birthday party!

All in all, the novels were enjoyable even for an adult, but I think Baum could have cut it short after Ozma in Oz, as the characters and stories that followed didn’t really add anything to the overall franchise. The cheeky but intelligent Sawhorse, who no one really gives much mind to, was definitely my favourite, because he reminded me of Mykel. Recommended for the young at heart and those with kids. Enjoyable all these years later.

Stick around for part 2, in which I review:

Blye – Manic Quixotic & Blyku Pop
The Disorganized Mind – Coaching your ADHD Brain to Take Control of your Time, Tasks & Talents – Nancy A. Ratey
Duino Elegies – Rainer Maria Rilke
Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne
Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne

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