Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nick Hornby, essayist

It is my current habit to read a writer into submission. I get one book by a person, and if I like it, I read another and another until I get sick of it. I just finished Philip Roth's The Great American Novel and I am currently sick of Roth.

Let me say the nicest thing I can about Roth right now. Read The Plot Against America. Great novel.

It was a while back that I read as much Nick Hornby as I could. I liked several of his novels, but his books of essays with autobiographical overtones were my favorites. Here are reviews of two of those books.


I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.

Honestly, I'm going to go on for a few more paragraphs, but I can say this right now. If that sentence grabs you, you should read Fever Pitch. If not, I'm sure you'll find something else interesting to do with your time.

Hornby's parents divorce. He and his mum move to London. His father is a bit of a disappointment to the lad, and looking for something to grab his interest, at the age of eleven in 1968 he becomes interested in football. (Yes, I mean soccer for my American readers.) First, interested, then completely obsessed. Like any fan, he picks a team he loves best. Hornby decides to love Arsenal. Arsenal is relatively close to his new home in London, but it might be the nature of the team that is what Hornby is drawn to. Arsenal is despised by the rest of England. Arsenal are a tough, physical team that usually keeps the score low. (His dad, not an Arsenal supporter, complains about the nil-nil draws.)

In some ways, fanhood takes the place of family, and Hornby even becomes a hooligan for a brief period in his late adolescence. (Hornby doesn't look like much of a hooligan; he is small and thin. I had an English friend who was a DJ back in the 1980s. He told me he was also a hooligan. I'm confident I could have kicked both of their asses, maybe at the same time, and I'm a math nerd.)

I am not a very big sports fan, but I do follow the local teams. My heart is probably more tied to the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants than it is to any other team, but when they suck I am able to ignore it, and I feel no particular need to defend some jerk like Barry Bonds when he happens to wear a Giant uniform. I know some people who are more dedicated fans that I am, and Hornby gives me an insight into these folks. More importantly, Hornby is a very good writer, and you can enjoy the rhythm of the words and the pacing of the telling of the tale even if you never plan to buy a ticket to the standing room only section at Highbury.

Hornby the Brit decides to take a job at a San Francisco magazine called The Believer as a book reviewer. He kind of soft soaps the explanation of the people he worked for, but I don't work for them and I'm a Bay Area boy, so let me say that these are the kind of goofballs people think of when they say the word "Californians!" are roll their eyes mockingly. They all dress the same and they have an obsession with positive energy and many other New Age affectations. They form a band called The Polysyllabic Spree, from which Nick nicks the title.

Let's leave them be for the time being and focus on Nick and his writing, shall we?

Each essay in this book focuses on what Nick read than month and what he bought. Some of the books he buys in one month get read and reviewed in later months, some just languish on a bookshelf somewhere. After a few months, the folks from California want Nick to stop giving any negative reviews, so some books on his list show up as on his list as Unnamed Literary Novel or Unnamed Work of Nonfiction to spare the writer's feelings. So for the most part, Nick talks about what he likes about writers. I won't go into too many details, because it's worth reading about how a writer reads. Hornby's essay on Dickens is the best defense of the novelist I have ever read, so much so that I might even dive into a Dickens novel over the next few months.

The Californians didn't want Nick to be so negative, but Nick without snark is a creature nearly without defense. Here's the end of a paragraph he writes about reading the letters of Anton Chekhov, a book he enjoyed, and then reading Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov. It may all feel a bit meta when I explain it, but when you read Hornby, the progression is as natural as can be.

He loved the Chekhov and Malcolm writing about Chekhov, but really hits his stride on a point of disagreement with Malcolm.

I can't understand, though, why she (Malcolm) thinks that the letters between Chekhov and Olga Knipper "make wonderful reading". I've only read Chekhov's side, but she seems to have reduced the man to mush: "My little doggie", "my dear little dog", "my darling doggie", "Oh, doggie, doggie", "my little dog", "little ginger-haired doggie", "my coltish little doggie", "my lovely little mongrel doggie", "my darling, my perch", "my squiggly one", "dearest little colt", "my incomparable little horse", "my dearest chaffinch" ... For God's sake, pull youself together, man! You're a major cultural figure!


And so ends my Sunday book review. Writing book reports on a Sunday morning is almost like being back in school, especially assuming the report is due early on Monday.

My musical selection is the 13th Floor Elevators which comes from the movie High Fidelity, based on the Hornby novel. I had thought they were a San Jose, California band, but they were from Austin, Texas. Obviously a senior moment. Thanks to Splotchy for catching the error.

Now playing: 13th Floor Elevators - You're Gonna Miss Me
via FoxyTunes


Splotchy said...

I thought 13th Floor Elevators were out of Austin, TX?

Or were they transplanted Californians?

I guess I should pick up a Hornby book at some point. Is High Fidelity the best to start with?

FranIAm said...

I love High Fidelity but Matty should be the one 'splainin' to Splotchy!

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the catch, Splotch. I remember Padre Mickey loving him some 13th Floor and I thought they were a proto San Jose scene band. I've obviously blurred two stories in my head, which happens way too often.

High Fidelity is a good novel, and you would likely like it, given your interest in music. Music plays a big part in About a Boy as well. Both have significant differences from the movies that were made about them.

For my money, Polysyllabic Spree is the funniest and most informative book he's written. Your mileage may vary.

Matty Boy said...

The San Jose band was Count Five, the one hit wonder who did Psychotic Reaction.

Padre Mickey said...

Padre Mickey loves him some Count Five, and Chocolate Watchband, but most of all some 13 Floor Elevators. Dat Roky Erikson is king! I think that's why I loves me them White Stripes, too. I loves me psychotic guitarists.

jolie said...

re: 13th floor elevators - you may be happy to learn that roky erickson is still here in austin, and he's been performing some lately, too.

have to give hornby a try.

have you watched "cracker" with robbie coltrane, btw?

Matty Boy said...

Hi, Jolie. I only watched a little of Cracker. My Netflix list is getting intolerably low, so I'm glad for any suggestions right now.