Monday, December 20, 2010

Bob Dylan Books

When I gathered my Dylan books together, I was surprised to find that I only have sixteen (twelve are pictured above). A quick search of the Seattle Public Library catalog shows eighty-one books in their collection about or by Bob. Entering the artist's name into the search field at Amazon and clicking on books brings up an astonishing 1690 titles with references to the singer. I'm sure that many devoted fans have at least as many titles as me and certainly any true collector has many more.

Here's where I confess, in these opening weeks of my blog, that writing about books is just my excuse to write about Dylan. Okay, not exactly, but besides books and kids and family and nature, Bob is pretty much next on the list of things I care about in life. As noted above, there is no shortage of words in print about his music, and that holds true for the web also. You can click away to at least a dozen high quality sites devoted to the singer, including his own. I will add those links to this blog soon.

So there is no need for me to ramble on endlessly about Dylan. I will write about him only on occasion.  But I believe I have found a slightly different way to approach the topic of Zimmerman: every so often I will discuss one of the above mentioned books. From his own 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, to Larry Sloman's excellent reportage of the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, On the Road with Bob Dylan, there are plenty to choose from. I hope that tomorrow's Dylan fan (it's amazing how many 16 to 25 year-olds you see at his concerts), wondering which book to read about our greatest living artist, will be able to come here, to the Idiot Child, for a preview of what each one holds in store.

Here's one really cool thing about Dylan, and the reason that there's always room for another book and another website: every Bob story is a personal story. Beyond the statistics on shows and songs and LP's, there is no objective truth. Dylan is the masked man. Anyone who listens closely will, sooner or later, get a peek beneath that mask. Sometimes you will see a bizarre distortion of reality or maybe you will see Mr. Jones or a sensitive lover, but in most cases that glimpse you get of Dylan will look like your own face. I'm not talking about Dylan the real human being, of course. I'm speaking about the art. Every person who has interacted closely with the music has found a unique relationship with it and sometimes a corresponding sequence of crazy real life events. Even in the most scholarly and supposedly detached tomes about Dylan these personal stories are revealed. Many authors have seen fit to spend many hours thinking and writing about Bob Dylan. I intend to share my take on what they've discovered and, in keeping with the theme of this blog, look for a less obvious, more cryptic interpretation of the bare facts. 

Speaking of crazy, I have a personal Dylan story too, and even a book to go with it. The Golden Bird is a memoir of my own strange adventures in the decade of my twenties. It's only a little bit about Bob, really. Dylan is a side character, but an important one. It's like the experience of many Dylan fans, where Bob's art and even his presence has a strong and steady influence in a life that goes all kinds of ways they never planned or expected. I'll be writing more about my book when it is released and available for your reading pleasure.

In the meantime I am re-reading Chronicles, and it will be the subject of my next post. Bob's memoir is a good place to start, because unlike in the music, where you can't tell for sure if it's Bob talking, or that guy you met once in a bar in Spain, or what you thought to yourself yesterday when you were stuck in traffic, the voice in Chronicles is clearly the man who wrote the songs. He manages to tell details of the most revealing sort and yet remain mysterious as all heck. Only this time, because we are getting a look at the real human being a little more strongly than the songs, it's mostly his face behind the mask.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Margaret Atwood's dystopian novels


These two books blew my circuits, in the best possible way. They are very frightening and very funny and all too possible. Coincidentally, as I write these words, the Bob Dylan song "Ain't Talkin'" shuffles into play on my wife's Ipod in the next room. The bard's creepy tune of a world gone all to hell might just be a perfect soundtrack choice for the film version of these dystopian novels.

Atwood must be one of the the most intelligent human beings on the planet. In fact, these chilling works of speculative fiction bring to mind a related story from three decades earlier: Shikasta, by the wise and wonderful Doris Lessing. That book features a vast sweep of time and place; it is a biblical allegory in the guise of space fiction. Many of the characters are citizens of the distant planet Canopus, but all the action happens right here on earth, during familiar turning points and crises from the 20th Century and earlier. The Canopeans, who reincarnate among humanity through the centuries, sometimes gaining positions of influence and other times leading ordinary lives, have come to help us evolve. They hope, at least, to help us stop destroying ourselves. Perhaps I will devote another post to Lessing and Shikasta in the future, but my point is this: Margaret Atwood is much too clever to be merely human; she is undoubtedly a benevolent alien. And we best sit up and pay attention.

You will find no aliens however, or anything from another planet, in either of Atwood's most current books.  In both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, all of the bizarre conditions and creatures are products of human ingenuity, greed and delusion, in a near future society. This is Michael Pollan's nightmare culture, where genetic splices dominate the mainstream food supply; the headless chicken has been perfected, and who knows what exactly is in a Secret Burger, but they sure do taste better than a tin of soydines. Corporations and their private police forces make the rules. Public funding for infrastructure and services is only a memory of long ago. The weather is stifling. The afternoon rainstorms can be, quite literally, killer.

Atwood gives us a large cast of far from perfect, but very sympathetic characters. Most are featured in one book and also appear in the other. All are trying to make their way through this scarily plausible brave new world, and then survive in the aftermath of a fearsome, world-changing event. One of the most striking aspects of these novels is the balance of Atwood's precise, rational intelligence, which probes the weaknesses of our natures and our social structures, with her deeply empathetic sense of the way we strive to be better humans. The 'heroes' of the The Year of the Flood are members of a cult called "God's Gardeners." This group of outsiders and freaks is the conscience and soul of the future society. This seems a very revolutionary and brave approach by one of our most well-known intellectuals and feminists, to cast a spiritual movement (strict vegetarians, dedicated to a reconciliation between science and God, with saints such as Saint Rachel Carson) as the sanest part of a freaked-out, nearly destroyed world.  Atwood's other famous work of S. F., The Handmaid's Tale, shows that she is a fierce critic of repressive religious ideology; what a wonderful thing to see here that she is also a champion of the true spiritual impulse. She seems to be saying that in a culture so polluted by human hubris, people need to give up their solitary egos to develop compassion and fight injustice. Maybe God (Love) is the answer after all. Who would have guessed that a such a great thinker would portray a cult in a heroic role? Perhaps readers more familiar than I with some of Atwood's other work would not be so surprised.

I can not recommend these novels highly enough. All the above might make them seem frightening (ummm . . . they are) and brainy (yup . . . that too) but they are hilarious as well. In a laugh all the way to the end of the world kind of way. You know how the Bible says the Lion and the Lamb will lay down together in the peaceable kingdom? Well Atwood has spliced them: the Liobam. But it didn't quite work out the way God intended; you don't want to run into one of these guys in a grassy meadow. But they are apparently delicious, according to the high end customers at the Rarity restaurant chain.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why "Notes from the Idiot Child?"

Several stories from the Brothers Grimm feature three brothers who are given a difficult task by their father. The two tales I know best are "The Golden Goose" and "The Golden Bird." In the latter, each brother is asked in turn to capture a magical bird that has dropped a golden feather in their garden. The father is filled with desire for the material value of a bird that sheds such precious feathers. He first sends out the eldest son. This most trusted child immediately meets a fox in the woods, who gives the boy valuable advice about finding the bird. The vain young man, unwilling to believe and respect such an inferior creature, ignores the fox and loses his way. The father sends the second brother, who meets exactly the same fate. Desperately, reluctantly, the father sends the third boy, the "slow" one, the idiot child.   

This youngest child does not see things the same way as his brothers. His low rank in the family has led to a distrust of superficial realities of power, and at the same time, an innocence, an openness to alternative and hidden possibilities. From his family's point of view this appears only as gullibility and naivete. 

The youngest son meets the fox and gratefully accepts his advice. This leads him to the golden bird and consequently to a series of great adventures and trials. Father and brothers are forgotten. Time and again, in order to surmount a challenge, the third son is asked to believe in something unreasonable that his magic friend, the fox, shares with him. He fails his challenges over and over, not out of pride or greed, but from kindness and a sense of mischievous rebellion. Because of these qualities, the fox continues to believe and trust in the youngest brother, helping him achieve ordinarily impossible tasks. But now there is nothing ordinary about the idiot child's path through the world. It is a path lit by great possibilities and shadowed by great danger.

The idiot child's desire leads him on. He woos a princess, by making her laugh. With the help of the magic fox and the golden bird, the simpleton son eventually inherits a kingdom — a fairy tale metaphor for spiritual satisfaction. His brothers and father are left behind, blinded by materialist values to the real treasures offered by the golden bird, who once flitted temptingly through their garden. 

Even when the youngest son has come into his inheritance, one more task is demanded, requiring a greater trust than ever in the invisible world and the word of his magic friend. The fox asks him to cut his head off. When the young man obliges, against his own will but with faith, the fox is revealed to be a prince and the brother of his bride.

I hope that this blog will provide a view from the less seen side. I want to examine books — their topics, themes and authors — not from the point of view of power and prestige and critical high-mindedness, but from the simpleton side. Because I don't think books should be about fame or money, but about spiritual treasure.