So many books!
Because of my tendency to love reading but avoid writing, I find myself in a situation of having a shit ton of reviews floating around my brain. Welcome to the summer 2023 reading list / flash review version of What Is Ms. Aalbers Reading?
Books About Music
Dan Charnas, Dilla Time
Nick Hornby, Dickens and Prince
If I’ve spoken with you any time in the last six months about what I’m reading, then you already know about Dilla Time because I’m sure I’ve raved about it to you. Holy shit, this book.
Journalist and professor Dan Charnas explores the life and times of hip hop artist J. Dilla (1974-2006), whose influence on hip hop production and sound continues to define the genre. Born James Dewitt Yancey, Dilla was raised in Detroit by musician parents. He spent his teenage years collecting records, making beats in his basement, and writing songs with his high school friends Baatin and T3 as rap group Slum Village.
Dilla’s capacity for experimentation and his commitment to creating music meant there was little room in his life for, well, anything else. Charnas is careful to keep a neutral and objective tone in describing Dilla’s relationships, but it’s clear that Dilla was not an easy person to work with. In the early nineties his sound caught the ear of my boyfriend Q-Tip, and for a time Yancey was associated with the progressive hip hop collective Native Tongues. LIke many ensuing associations with other musicians and producers, though, this one fizzles out seemingly because Yancey simply cannot work with others. I know this book is all about offering a more thorough and complex explanation for how Dilla’s career played out, but truly my overall sense is that he was a lone wolf who wanted to do his own thing.
As a result, his discography is full of singular, remarkable successes trailed by unsatisfactory relationships with record companies, unfulfilled contracts, and unpaid debts. His personal life is no more cohesive, inclined as he is towards avoiding commitment and philandering.
Buuut…this is a man who fucking redefined beats. Before he was making music, there were two kinds of musical timing: straight time and swing time (please read even just the first few chapters of the book or this blog post for a concise explanation of what this means). Yancey combined both styles, revolutionizing not just the overall sound of hip hop, but also eventually influencing the design of drum machines. Again, if you aren’t afraid to go into a musical rabbit hole, see Charnas’s incredible playlist, which offers familiar examples of each type of sound.
Charnas’s book is exhaustive, which could make it kind of boring. But I assure you, it never is. From the introduction (where he outlines the influence of Detroit’s cartography on its population and culture) through to the messy end of Dilla’s life (including his posthumous debts to and his family’s struggle to identify his wishes for unreleased tracks) Charnas’s writing continues to delight with its genuinely engaging style.
Nick Hornby’s newest book, Dickens and Prince, offers surprisingly similar elements, though it is 1/10th the length (and let’s be real, depth) of Dilla Time.
Hornby addresses the seeming arbitrariness of connecting these two people through personal experience, which is his strength as a writer. The story’s origins are not so much with Prince and Dickens as they are with Hornby’s early twenties, when he first read Bleak House and heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
There are definitely similarities in the way that Prince and Dickens approached their work. Mostly, though, what it comes down to is that they never did anything but work. They both experienced commercial success at the age of 24 and remained cultural touchstones throughout their lives. Hornby speculates that the catalogue of unreleased Prince songs numbers in the thousands (!). Meanwhile, Dickens routinely wrote two books at once, beginning Oliver Twist while still finishing The Pickwick Papers, then starting to write Nicholas Nickleby before Oliver Twist was complete. And even if you aren’t into reading Dickens (I feel you), you’ve got to have respect for a person who can use his brain to manage two massive sets of characters, storylines and conflicts at once.
What’s most satisfying for me about this book is how Hornby takes down Malcolm Gladwell’s proposed theory that what it takes to achieve mastery in any pursuit is ten thousand hours of practice. And don’t get me wrong: ten thousand hours of practice isn’t going to hurt you, but, as Hornby says, Dickens had “been writing for the Gladwell equivalent of five minutes before Pickwick … He was great and successful more or less immediately.” The drive to create art that is shared by Dickens and Prince isn’t quite enough of a hook to make this book feel anything more than a bit light. Still, you could certainly do worse than read what amounts to Nick Hornby writing an implausibly constructed narrative diversion.
Sarah Polley, Run Towards the Danger
Linda Schuyler, Mother of All Degrassi
Samantha Irby, Quietly Hostile
Sarah Polley’s memoir is riveting in all ways. Did you know, for example, that she never really wanted to be an actor, but she was good at it and her parents encouraged her and so that’s how she ended up in the hearts of a million Canadian viewers of Road to Avonlea? Or that her mother died when she was quite young and in the wake of her own and her father’s grief she essentially raised herself? There are a million gems to uncover here, but the one I’m not able to forget is her frank recounting of her relationship with Jian Ghomeshi, at the time lead singer of the band Moxy Fruvous, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-eight.
Years later, when he was revealed to be a sexual predator hiding behind a carefully constructed persona of engaged and (ugh! He really called himself a) “feminist” interviewer, Polley consulted with lawyers about whether she should come forward with details of her sexual assault as a way to contribute evidence to the ongoing trial. To a person, the lawyers unilaterally advised her against it. And as much as I hope that a 2023 trial of Ghomeshi might transpire differently from the one that happened in 2016, this serves as a haunting reminder of the limitations of a patriarchal and sexist justice system.
“Run towards the danger” is advice Polley receives from a concussion specialist she sees after a head injury that leads to several years of life altering post-concussion symptoms. Instead of retreating from the activity that worsens symptoms, he suggests she dive further in, challenging her brain to rewire itself in the face of difficulty. It’s an elegant metaphor for the memoir overall, and as life advice in general. Polley’s skill as a storyteller builds what could be a maudlin collection of stories about terrible events into a compelling testament to living and thriving beyond what is comfortable.
And this has nothing to do with Polley’s personal life or memoir, but I’m just going to take this moment to advise you to see Women Talking, her masterfully directed adaptation of Miriam Toews’s book.
You don’t have to be the Degrassi fan that I am to enjoy Linda Schuyler’s Mother of All Degrassi, but it might help. Schuyler, a former middle school teacher, created the initial series (Kids of Degrassi Street, 1982-86) to highlight the voices of young folks like the ones she worked with as a teacher at Earl Grey Senior Public School. The series had several sequels, Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989) and, my personal fave, Degrassi High (1989-1991). Throughout each production, Schuyler was committed to ensuring all characters were age-appropriately cast and all stories were told from the children’s perspectives. These details are what made the shows corny but also very very charming. Schuyler and her writers never shied away from telling politically difficult stories, ensuring, as she reveals in this interview, that the right actor was cast for the right storyline.
It blows my mind that both series only aired for four years, partly because I remember them so fondly, but also because they appeared in syndication for many years following the conclusion of the original Degrassi franchise in 1991. Schuyler’s storytelling vision is unwavering, and her memoir will not disappoint you in its exploration of that vision.
If you’ve never read Samantha Irby’s work then, honestly, can we still be friends? Her latest, Quietly Hostile, is a collection of essays about all manner of subjects: why she is a great party guest; which are the all-time best episodes of Sex and the City; how not to sound like a complete loser when talking with teenagers, and so on. Irby is not going to lie to you about her Crohn’s disease, her social anxiety, or her primary desire, which is to be alone watching television and reading magazines at all times. She will share details about pooping that would be gross and shocking if they weren’t so goddamn hilarious. Does Irby feel shame? Oh yes indeed. But she also recognizes the harm we do to ourselves when shame is what keeps us quiet. Her writing invites us to recognize each other’s filthy and embarrassing humanity, and it is an extraordinary treat.
I will confess to skipping the one called “Dave Matthews’ Greatest Romantic Hits.” Honestly, my interest in that band is so minimal that even the promise of rock criticism not written by a middle aged white guy was not enough to make me read it. But maybe you like Dave Matthews and are gonna be into it? Either way, no worries, because the other 95% of the book is worth every minute of your time.
Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road
Rick Emerson, Unmask Alice
In Robert Kolker’s extraordinary Hidden Valley Road, we read the story of Don and Mimi Galvin, whose twelve children were born between 1945 and 1965. By the time their youngest, Lindsay, was born, six of her ten brothers had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Kolker’s approach is to alternate narrative focus, moving from one family member to another, and from past to present. The structure allows him to build both a suspenseful storyline and a thoroughly researched portrait of the family’s experiences. As the family’s story unfolds, he includes detailed research into the available medical treatments for schizophrenia.
The depth of trauma experienced by the Galvins is astonishing. When they were very young, the brothers wrestled with each other, which was perhaps initially encouraged as a sports-like pursuit, but always devolved into actual conflict and assault. As they grew older and stronger, the boys’ behaviour became more erratic and destructive, and for some, ultimately criminal. Having no effective medical or personal support, Mimi and Don cope as well as they are able. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of maintaining cohesion in the family falls on Mimi, who is there to do it while Don builds his career and remains less engaged with the day to day struggles.
Hidden Valley Road exists because the youngest Galvin siblings, Mary and Lindsay, reached out to Kolker with an invitation to share their story. His respect for them and for Mimi too, as survivors of their particular family dynamic shines through the narrative.
Similarly thorough in its research, Rick Emerson’s Unmask Alice is equally compelling and shocking. Since its publication in 1971, scores of teenagers have devoured Go Ask Alice, initially authored by “Anonymous”. Emerson’s subtitle (LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries) kind of gives away the whole story here, but the book is nevertheless a fascinating exploration of Beatrice Sparks’ bizarre commitment to telling “true” stories of real teenagers that were in reality blatant forgeries. Sparks’s 1978 book, Jay’s Journal, was also billed as an actual diary of a teenager, but Emerson reveals that while Sparks borrowed heavily from a teenager’s journal and from true events surrounding the suicide of Alden Barrett in Utah, all of the scintillating bits about satanic rituals and demon possession were, well, made up.
It’s hard to know whether Sparks believed she was creating important and true material or whether she was just a scammer. She claimed to be a Ph.D-educated psychologist and youth counsellor, though no evidence has been found to legitimize these claims. Emerson insinuates that Sparks was driven to find fame and riches, which eluded her until the breakthrough of Go Ask Alice in 1971. Recognizing the formula for creating an intensely readable book spurred her to create more of the same. Ironically, in her search to build veracity into the storytelling by asserting the writing was based on “true diaries,” she denied herself credit for the work.
Through painstaking research and broad contextualization, Emerson shows the impact of such deception (or, say, fake news) on a wider culture, drawing a straight line from Sparks’s Degrassi-esque cautionary tales and the fear of destructive teenagers for decades afterward. (c.f. The West Memphis Three, subliminal messaging in rock music, and Geraldo Rivera).
All of which is to say: enjoy the spectacle, friends, but don’t be afraid to check your sources.
George Saunders, Liberation Day
Kate Taylor, Serial Monogamy
Ruth Ware, The Turn of the Key
Isabel Kaplan, NSFW
Diana Clarke, The Hop
Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
Stephanie Danier, Sweetbitter
You will never go wrong with George Saunders. Just trust me and read his newest book. It’s a wonder of skilled storytelling and deeply affecting humanity.
Kate Taylor’s book (the one I could not remember the title of months ago) is a modern day story of marital infidelity with a parallel fictionalization of Charles Dickens’ affair with Nelly Ternan. It’s a clever mash-up, centring Ternan’s voice and experience and connecting it with the narrator’s own marital betrayal. Many thanks to my sister Liz, who helped me remember the name of this one many months after I finished reading it.
The Turn of the Key is a mystery taking place at a remote Scottish castle with (hey, this is cool) an overgrown poison garden. One too many plot twists near the end, imho, but overall hard to put down.
NSFW is the story of an unnamed female assistant to a Hollywood studio executive just before the #MeToo movement exploded. No surprises here, but solid storytelling and extremely thoughtful representation of office power structures built on humiliation and harassment. It reminded me a lot of The Assistant, a quietly devastating movie in which Julia Garner is Jane, the assistant to a similarly dangerous and sexually opportunistic Hollywood mogul.
I wrote about Diana Clarke’s Thin Girls a few months ago; her follow up, The Hop, a fictional celebrity expose is equally interesting. Having grown up poor, our protagonist Lady Lane (nee Kate) is shrewd about money, and finds early financial success by partnering with her friend Lacey to sell kisses and make-out sessions to their junior high classmates. Her search for financial security means no work is ruled out, and ultimately she takes a job as a “bunny” at a Nevada brothel called The Hop. The owner of The Hop, known only as “Daddy,” takes a particular shine to Lady Lane, but this does not necessarily lead to comfort or security for her. Lady Lane recognizes early on that although technically she is a free agent, in reality she is bound by the “safety” and “control” created for her through surveillance cameras and third party scheduling. Clarke’s ability to present sex work as a viable career pursuit, while still sharply pointing out its limitations based on patriarchy is really impressive. It’s a genuinely engrossing tale.
Please drop whatever you are reading right now to pick up Louise Erdrich’s sublime The Sentence. In the book’s opening, Tookie, our protagonist, is recently released from prison and working in a Minneapolis bookstore that sounds a whole bunch like Erdrich’s actual Minneapolis store, Birchbark Books. Tookie’s story is contemporary, including the impact of the pandemic lockdown on her family’s life and the protests that rocked Minneapolis following the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Erdrich frames Tookie’s experiences with these global events, artfully reminding us that movements for social justice demand acknowledgement and participation at all levels. I especially enjoyed watching Tookie tenuously build a relationship with her step-daughter, Hetta, a new mom in search of community and family. There’s so much more to this book - I mean, I haven’t even mentioned the bookstore ghost, or the cleverness of the title - that makes it great. But for me, the literariness of The Sentence, with its many references to other books and authors (shout out to Cherie Dimaline!) is a constant delight.
You may recognize the title Sweetbitter because it was turned into a television series in 2018 (both are good!). It’s a story in which main character Tess moves to New York City to, I don’t know, find herself? What she finds instead is work at an upscale restaurant with a crew of servers, chefs, and bartenders who give her an education in, basically, hustling . Despite the clichés (brooding and sexy bartender, check; mansplaining restaurant owner, check; bitchy hostess, check), Tess’s story is charming. She makes all the mistakes you’re meant to when you’re twenty, so you can then grow old and remember them fondly in your dotage. And there’s all kinds of information about food and wine that will make you feel very sophisticated even if you have no intention of ever eating oysters.