This Week's Reads

Chuck Klosterman, Nick Jans, Blair Tindall, and Marisa Silver.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

By Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, $23) Follow Chuck Klosterman's work in Spin (about music) and Esquire (about culture), and a pattern emerges: The more specific the topic, the better the piece. When he riffs on the sudden emergence of bands with "wolf" in their name (as in a recent Spin), he's lucid, funny, effortless. When he's allowed to fill his word count by more or less conjuring something from thin air (his nebulous theories of "advancement," whose parameters he's attempted to map twice in Esquire, to no one's real understanding), we're mostly left to acknowledge that, yep, the wheels are spinning, but they aren't really going anywhere. Which probably made it inevitable that Klosterman would eventually write a road book. Killing Yourself to Live evolved from a Spin assignment to drive from New York to Seattle and visit various sites of famous rock-and-roll deaths. His itinerary included the Rhode Island club where hair-metal has-beens Great White inadvertently torched an audience with pyrotechnics; the "crossroads" where blues great Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil; the site of Kurt Cobain's suicide, etc. What resulted was one of the best things Klosterman has written, focusing dually on rock mythology and the way ordinary people live day-to-day in its aftermath. Spiritually, if not in actual word count, this original magazine portion takes up about one-third of Killing Yourself—easily the best third. The rest divides up just as neatly. Another third consists of loosely strung pop-cult riffs that don't greatly (or necessarily) intersect with the book's core. Some of this is tedious, but most of the time it's pretty entertaining and even insightful. Sure, anyone who knee-jerkingly dismisses Warp Records–style electronica and then rhapsodizes over Radiohead's Kid A is doing the modern equivalent of mocking disco and then saying his favorite Rolling Stones song is "Miss You." But the parallels he draws between Kid A and 9/11 are emotionally charged without getting mawkish. This is not the case with the book's other third. As with any road trip (Klosterman drove over 6,000 miles and brought along 600 CDs), the book frequently stops for gas. This means the author musing on three women he's hung up on. At one point, Klosterman even enacts an imaginary conversation with the three, only to find that—gasp!—they're really all part of his own psyche. This is about as much insight into human relationships as you're going to find in this book. Especially coming from the author of Fargo Rock City (2001), which expertly intertwines the personal and cultural, Killing Yourself disappointingly fails to integrate those elements—aside from their having occurred to him at roughly the same time, and on the same road trip. MICHAELANGELO MATOS Chuck Klosterman will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 18; and at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., Aug. 19. The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession With Alaskan Bears

By Nick Jans (Dutton, $24.95) For 14 summers, Timothy Treadwell pitched a tent in Alaska's grizzliest bear habitat. He carried no rifle, mace, or scientific credentials. Indeed, his presence was quite inexplicable, until he got famous. This he accomplished, in part, by breaking the basic rules of bear country. Edicts like "Keep clear of mama and cubs" and "Leave not chocolate in tent" were lost on this sprightly Californian. So were such unspoken guidelines as "Don't pet bears." Yes, Treadwell would pet wild grizzlies. As Nick Jans reports in his wildly interesting book (a useful companion to Werner Herzog's excellent documentary Grizzly Man, now in theaters), Treadwell was often seen crawling around bear- style on his haunches—and was even spied tromping around a field of bears in a tuxedo. With the public, Treadwell fashioned a touchy-feely "the bears have been misunderstood" act. He even awarded them names Disney would surely reject for being overly cute: "Booble." "Cupcake." 'Nuff said. For his efforts, he received more publicity than any wildlife maven in recent memory. And on Oct. 5, 2003, he got what many feared and others expected. One day before he and his girlfriend were to be picked up by bush plane, the two were mauled and eaten. Rangers later filled two body bags with a mere 40 pounds of remains. Jans does an admirable job sorting through Treadwell's mythology, applying a healthy dose of skepticism without bludgeoning him with judgment. Part of why Treadwell's story fascinates isn't just the overload of tragic irony. Much like Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Treadwell expatriated himself from middle-class America. Among grizzlies he created an authentic life he couldn't find elsewhere. He was hardly noble, certainly misguided, and arguably selfish. But he lived on his own terms, without apology. And it wasn't always a picnic. As nature photographer Joel Bennett, who logged countless days with Treadwell, asks the author: "Think of Tim out on that coast: hunkered in a leaky tent, always wet or damp, no fire to dry clothes or cook, bug-bitten, living on peanut butter. Day after day, weeks at a time, season after season . . . what sort of a man would do this?" Perhaps a man hungry for something greater than what so many of us struggle so hard to achieve. JOHN DICKER Nick Jans will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 20. Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music

By Blair Tindall (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24) As a musician friend once told me, "The classical music business thrives on the illusion that we're not human beings." It's one of the few remaining professions for which it may come as a shocking revelation that its members (1) have sex, (2) abuse controlled substances, and (3) occasionally behave less than ethically. Blair Tindall's enjoyably sordid memoir of her days as a freelance musician in the '80s shatters this illusion (for anyone who might actually believe it), revealing herself and her colleagues as all too human. The fun begins in elementary school, when Tindall is assigned the oboe more or less at random, then finds she has a certain aptitude for it. Years as a band geek in an OBOE POWER T-shirt lead to the North Carolina School for the Arts, an alternative high school where she's quasi-groped by both her teacher and the orchestra conductor, then seduced by the talented but unstable concertmaster (17 to her 14). Soon we're off to Manhattan, where Tindall quickly becomes the Samantha Jones of the double reeds, launching overlapping affairs with three of the city's busiest freelance oboists (two of them married). Consequently, she gets a lot of work. "Blairie, do you want to do the New England tour in March?" is a typical postcoital comment. Also consequently, she gets very little work after these dalliances go south. (We're supposed to be appalled that Tindall got and accepted job offers in bed, but looked at another way, it's self- evidently more rewarding to play music with friends than with strangers.) At the top of her game, she plays The Rite of Spring under Bernstein one night, film soundtracks the next, and Schubert (while stoned) with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Unhappiness is endemic in the milieu Tindall describes: Those without steady jobs complain of financial insecurity, while those with complain of boredom. Eventually, after a long, lucrative, and nearly unendurable stint in the Miss Saigon pit, Tindall's frustrations push her into a second career. By the end of the book, she's waxing romantic about the excitement and satisfaction of—are you sitting down?—journalism. All these reminiscences are intertwined with historical background on classical music's growth in America and where it might be going. Tindall's eloquent on the failings of a music education system that turns out many more graduates than the business can absorb, setting them up for the same drudgery and disillusionment she faced. True enough, but what's the alternative? To deny kids access to music study based on some vague guess as to their future employability? The advice aspiring musicians really need to hear is at once hard-nosed and idealistic: You'd better be doing this because you love it, because a diploma is not a coupon good for one job, nor is a job a guarantee of eternal bliss. Unless you consider a life spent in music its own reward, don't bother. Tindall did eventually learn how to strike a balance between this love and the necessity of earning a living. If the path to her happy ending was grueling, she at least was able to turn it into an entertaining cautionary tale for the rest of us. GAVIN BORCHERT No Direction Home

By Marisa Silver (Norton, $23.95) Every day, young authors and washed-up celebrities pen silly little first novels that critics deem "promising." I will, then, avoid using that word to describe Marisa Silver's debut novel, as "promising" is both vague and, in this case, inapplicable. No Direction Home is constructed as a series of interrelated vignettes expressing themes of loss and fear. All swirl around the L.A. residence of struggling actor Victor and his wife, Eleanor, who is losing her mind to dementia. Other characters include their daughter, Caroline, who has been abandoned by her restless husband, and her twin boys, who are slowly going blind. Eleanor's caretaker is an illegal immigrant, Amador, whose son, Rogelio, braves the Mexican border to bring home his errant father. The last is Marlene, an angst-ridden teenager, who travels to L.A. in hopes of finding her biological father, Frank (Caroline's estranged husband and father to her boys). The dysfunctional-family plot dynamics, of course, are mightily familiar. The characters all have issues, but dammit, they are survivors, and they are going to make it through just fine. To add insult to cliché, Home is wrought with stereotypical gender roles. The men leave their wives and children, steal, cheat, deceive, and hold women at knifepoint. Everything you'd expect. In response, the women cry, run away, sleep with married immigrants, and wish really, really hard that men loved them more, proving once again that men are jerks and women are weak. Also vexing is much of Silver's contorted prose. "A small, wiry man, the driver leans forward and hugs the enormous horizontal steering wheel as though he is mounting a giant whore." Profound. "The stinking smell of his own body follows him wherever he goes like a hungry dog. If his body was a dog, he would kick it." Really, what does that even mean? In a very sentimental sense, Home is universal. It deals with shattered desire, yadda, yadda, yadda. Some readers will enjoy it in the way that they would Chicken Soup for the Soul. It definitely has a warm, fuzzy sensation on its side. It's a quick summer read manufactured to evoke tears. For some of us, that can be nice, but then nice is just another one of those vague words that critics use when they are trying to throw a bone. NICHOLE BOLAND

 
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