Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

realives

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There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.

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City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review

realives

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Edmund White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels.  I read the first of these “A Boy’s Own Story” not long after it was published in 1982 and it has since become the classic coming out tale.  I’ve read all three as well as his 2000 novel “A Married Man” which probably ranks as my favourite out of these.  White is a highly esteemed novelist, literary biographer and essayist but I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away.

From a British gay man’s perspective I value very much his contribution to gay-themed literature but I have never had the emotional response from his work that I have had from Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, for example.  Compared to these authors I think he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth- perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.  Admittedly, it has been a while since I’ve read anything by him and I’ve not read all but this is my impression so far and throughout the years I have been choosing my Best Books of the Year he has never featured in my Top 10.

Things could change with this.  Subtitled “My Life In New York During The 1960s and 1970s”, a memoir in which the struggling author relocates to New York and benefits from the cheapness of rents and the richness of the creative and literary minds he is able to surround himself with.  It is a significant period for New York as it heads towards bankruptcy and areas become violent and dangerous as well as a hub for civil rights and in 1969 a fracas at The Stonewall Inn changed lives for gay men and women across the globe.  White was there.

During these years White met many important figures in the Arts and provides almost rapid-fire character sketches and gossip.  Many readers nowadays will only recognise a handful of these names but that doesn’t matter as we’re drawn into White’s associations.  He also catalogues the increasing sexual freedoms of the era as lived mainly by those who escaped the repression of small-town America for New York City life. There are lovers, friends and sex partners and the many men he met tended to fall into one of these separate categories.  It was only in the era of AIDS, White proposes, that one person could fulfil all three roles.

My interest in this book was as much to do with the city in this period as much as the man and he conveys the feel of New York very well.  There are sojourns in San Francisco and Venice but the pull of Manhattan wins out. White takes us to the point at the end of the 1970’s where a new virus is looming menacingly, poised to wipe out many of the characters in this book.  (White moved away from NYC and lived in France for much of the 80’s).  He ends his account with a metaphor which I find effective and very much gives the feel of this book;

“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms- then clears out.  Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars names on the marquee) then it vanishes.  With every new play the theatre itself is just a little more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished.  Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely.  The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages.  Nothing lasts in New York.  The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.”

“City Boy” recounts Edmund White’s time in this vanished world.

fourstars

City Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.  I read the 2010 paperback edition.

4321 – Paul Auster (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Paul Auster has chosen a numerical title for his contender for the Great American Novel which has been shortlisted by the Man Booker judges.  Here are some other numbers for you:

18– This is Auster’s 18th novel in a fiction career which began in 1982 when his first was published under a pseudonym.  A major American writer with poetry, memoirs, essays, screenplays, translation and collections where he has acted as the editor to his name.

1– This is Auster’s first appearance on the Booker shortlist. (US titles have only been eligible sine 2014 and this is Auster’s first novel for 7 years.

5/1– The odds allocated by Ladbrokes for him to win the prize, putting him in 4th position out of the 6 contenders.

1.5– The books I’ve read by this author.  I’m counting “True Tales of American Life” where he acted as editor and collator as a 0.5.  I actually preferred the novel of his I read 18 years ago, his 1987 publication “New York Trilogy” which cemented his reputation as a writer.  This was a well-written read which just missed out on my end of year Top 10 that year.

16– The number of days it has taken me to read this book.

866– The number of pages in the hardback edition.  It’s not the longest book I’ve read but the quite densely printed pages and the stop-start structure of the narrative made it feel like it.

1– The number of other novels I read whilst reading this.  Now, I never normally do this and it caused great consternation for me to pick up another book, but a long train journey beckoned and I’m a book reviewer and not a weight-lifter so I let Fiona Mozley’s novel sneak in, which I completed on public transport and in breaks at work, with me returning to 4321 when I got home.

1307– The number of grams the hardback weighs which explains why I was not ramming it into my bag to take to work.

It this all sounds rather flippant and as if I’m being negative, I’m not but I do have reservations about this book which Auster himself has referred to as a “sprinting elephant”.

In the closing pages Auster gives a rationale for the novel which is basically four versions of a life;

“he would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.”

It actually took me a while to work this out and there was quite a bit of flipping back in the early pages to check what I sensed were inconsistencies but which were actually different versions of the same story.  I would imagine that this would make this very difficult to read as an e-book.  Once the penny dropped the flipping back diminished.  The actual events ceased to matter so much to me, this narrative structure had distanced me as a reader and although I was enjoying what I was reading I was quite happy to live in the present of the novel with the past and the future not mattering much to me.  This is the main loophole of the novel.

I’m not adverse to these kinds of experiments.  Indeed, I adored Kate Atkinson’s stop again-start again “Life After Life”  (2013) where I was totally involved.  Here, I loved main character Archie Ferguson but the amount of details needed to convey his lives is just too much to take in and can lead to the reader feeling a little cheated by this narrative device and to see the whole thing as artificial.

In one of the narratives Archie doesn’t last that long (which again reminded me of the many deaths of the main character in “Life After Life”) and from that point on that section of Archie’s tale is marked by a blank page.  The sections do diminish- hence the title 4-3-2-1.

The four Fergusons are born in 1948 and follows childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, predominantly in the New York area.  So it becomes a record of American history as perceived by someone who may or may not have been at some college or another during the tumultuous mid to late 60’s when America turned on itself with civil rights, student action, riots and over the horrors of the Vietnam war.  This is why this feels like an important work- a great American novel with an epic sweep and a cast of hundreds spread over the four sections.  In one narrative Auster relates:

“Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.”

It does feel like Auster has had a good go at doing this!

I did feel completing this novel was an achievement (small fry compared to the writing of it) but it is far too long and involvement in it fades in and out which is a shame because it contains lots of great writing but just as I felt I was being really drawn in there was a different Ferguson to consider.  This could be considered a “cliffhanger” but really it’s just frustrating in this format.

Maybe there’s an alternative read here, by completing the sections separately things that drifted away from me may pull together, but oh, hold on, don’t ask me to read it again please……………………

One final number:

 939  -The number of words I have taken to try and get over some of the feelings I had about this book.

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4321 was published in the UK in 2017 by Faber and Faber.  The paperback edition (lighter) is out now.

 

City On Fire – Garth Risk Hallberg (Jonathan Cape 2015)

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The first thing I need to tell you about this book is that it’s long – 944 pages.  That’s not such a bad thing, with winter approaching, hunkering down and losing yourself in a long book is to be recommended.  That is – if the time invested in reading so many pages is rewarded and with this much anticipated novel I’m not absolutely convinced it is.

I was drawn to this book by its setting- New York, spanning primarily from the end of 1976 and working towards a big set piece for the city, the night the lights went out – July 13-14th 1977 when a localised total blackout led to looting, arson and panic in the streets.

This, however, is no “disaster” novel.  It is very much character led and at the centre is William Hamilton-Sweeney, troubled son of a millionaire businessman, who disappears from family life on the eve of his father’s remarriage and reinvents himself as an artist and as Billy Three Sticks, a musician in underground punk band Ex Post Facto.  At the start of the novel William is in a relationship with Mercer, an African-American not long up from Georgia who is working in a girls private school.  This mismatched gay couple are strongly characterised.  In fact, for me the most successful aspect of this novel is its characterisation.  For a work with an epic sweep and ambitious scope the cast of characters is smaller than you would imagine and I know that I have spent a lot of time recently in their company but I do feel they will linger with me when I move on to other (shorter) books.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day an incident occurs in Central Park which will have ramifications for all the characters from the wealthy in the Hamilton-Sweeney offices to the anarchic Post-Humanist punks living their drug-induced lives in a commune where revolution is being plotted.  There’s a Police investigation and an intrepid journalist and, importantly, there is the character of New York itself, simmering away as a general air of disgruntlement during the time when punk and disco overlap, where drugs, probably for the first time infiltrates all levels of society and the loss of power over one night will change lives forever.

I wanted this book to be an unqualified success but it isn’t.  It has the tendency to suck the reader in and then spit back out.  There’s some really engaging writing and a real zest for language.  I lost count of the number of new words I had to look up, but there’s also great chunks of frustrating uneventfulness which might suggest overall that the author was not quite ready to guide us through a book of so many words.  I did feel that, at times, there’s a great shorter novel waiting to explode from this mammoth one, but thinking about it once completed I am not sure what I would cut.  There are occasional interludes away from the plot, including journalistic pieces and fanzines, but these often contain some very good writing and do have a bearing on outcomes.

I do think many readers will get left by the wayside with this novel.  The blurb compares it to the TV series “The Wire”, a comparison I cannot fathom apart from its structure.  I know that this book will divide critics and it has certainly divided this one reviewer as I am still not totally sure of my opinion of it. However, film rights have been sold and there has been an initial $2 million publishing deal, a six figure deal in the UK where the editor apparently called it “the best American novel I’ve ever read on submission.”   Whether this “publishing phenomenon” will sweep this country remains to be seen.  For me, it is a bold, ambitious work which is good rather than great and might not live up to the hype being built up around it.  I have wavered between the 3 and 4 star rating throughout the reading of it but because of its magnitude; because I think elements of it will remain with me  and because of  the sense of achievement I am feeling in completing it I am opting for four stars.

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The City On Fire will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on 22nd October.

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin (Jonathan Cape) for providing a copy for review.