Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman: A History of the Greatest Decade of All Time

Seminal Simpsons scene from Season 7, Episode 24, Homerpalooza, which aired May 19, 1996.

GenX Concertgoer 1: Oh here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.

GenX Concertgoer 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?

GenX Concertgoer 1: (startled, then saddened): I don't even know anymore. 

That's the nineties in a nutshell, isn't it? 

But what I love about Chuck Klosterman's new book, The Nineties, is that he reframes this decade in fascinating ways to show that everything you thought you knew about the 1990s might be wrong — even if you think you remember the decade vividly. He certainly doesn't argue that the nineties was the greatest decade of all time, but he doesn't not argue that either. 

I started high school in 1991 and finished college in 2000 (don't do that math lol), so yeah, the nineties were definitely my most formative years. I remember where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. I saw Titanic in the theater. I borrowed a dubbed cassette of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be from a friend and listened to it secretly on my Walkman (sorry, mom, if you're reading this). I was amused by the unreality of The Real World. And for a brief time, I was just as perplexed by the Internet as everyone else. Oh yeah, and of course we had one of those silly see-through phones that's on the cover. (I even bought one as a gag gift for my wife on ebay a few years ago.)

Klosterman handles all these and so much more with the discerning eye of an historian, the coolness of a cultural critic, and the writerly chops of a top-tier essayist. He covers so much ground here, including Ross Perot, Biosphere 2, Friends and Seinfeld, Body Count, Napster, Bill Clinton, the 1994 MLB strike, Crystal Pepsi, Reality Bites, Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair, Pulp Fiction, Michael Jordan, cable news, Garth Brooks, and about a thousand other things. I was surprised at how comprehensive this feels. 

Even if you don't always agree with Klosterman's arguments, and there are definitely some not-universally-agreed-upon ideas here, it's still fun seeing him make his case. His main point here is that almost nothing about how we remember the 1990s is how it really was. Still, it's pretty easy to draw a straight line from much of what happened in the 1990s to how things are today, even if things today are very, very different.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole: Love Is a Smoke Made with The Fume of Sighs

Fair warning to take this absolutely glowing review with just the tiniest grain of salt. That's because Lee Cole's debut novel Groundskeeping is an absolute wheelhouse book for me, so there's almost no chance I wasn't going to love it. And love it, I did! 

It's a campus novel. It's a love story. It's an examination of class and politics. It's a look at how writers are inspired to write what they write. And it's all narrated by a guy from a small conservative rural town trying to punch his way up in the world. Yeah, there's a lot going on here, but it works. Cole is a deeply astute writer and all these ingredients of story combine to create a richly satisfying dish. 

The story is this: Owen is 28 and drifting. He lives in this rural Kentucky town with his grandfather and Uncle Cort and works as a groundskeeper at the local small college. Still with aspirations of being a writer after crashing and drifting a bit, the job allows him to take an English class, a first step to getting his life back on track. Then, he meets Alma, 26, an already medium-successful poet and novelist who is a writer-in-residence for the year at the college. Sparks fly! 

But Alma's background -- her parents emigrated from Bosnia to escape the war when she young, she's a Muslim though non-practicing, and she attended Princeton -- is very different from Owen's. Owen's parents, though he's mildly estranged from both (hence why he's living with his grandfather) are both divorced and remarried, both evangelical Christians, and very conservative. Alma's parents, immigrants, doctors, well-educated, are...not those things. They're two families, both alike in dignity, but both skeptical of their children's choice of partner.

The story is set in 2016 and all around Owen's and Alma's rural Kentucky town, Trump is ascendent. Though Owen and Alma are both appalled by this development, their different backgrounds create its own tension. Owen has a mild inferiority complex, always wondering if Alma looks down on him, and bristles when she ask him about things like his past drug use, etc. Even in (or especially in?) this day and age, can two people from such different origins make it work?  

As I read, I felt about this book about how I feel about all books I'm connecting with. I didn't want it to end. In fact. let's let Cole himself explain what this is like (in the context of Owen meeting Alma for the first time): 

“I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger.”

That's not a particularly original sentiment, I realize. But just the way Cole writes these sentences illustrates that point so clearly and deftly. It's a good representation of his style, his perceptiveness, and why I loved reading this.  

This novel first arrived on my radar when I noticed blurbs from both Ann Patchett and Richard Russo, two of my all-time favorite writers. So naturally I was going to check it out. If you are one of the many people, like me, who was disappointed by the latest Sally Rooney novel, try this one instead. The feel is similar, but this is so much better. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

The Storyteller, by Dave Grohl: Genuine, Affable Man Loves Music

The Storyteller is an episodic memoir about Dave Grohl's life, his fascination with music, and his rise to become one of the more recognizable rock stars of all time. Yes, his time in Nirvana and his relationship with Kurt Cobain is in there, but it's not the focus. Rather, the focus is just how much Dave Grohl loves music. My favorite parts of the book are when he is assuring us how gobstopped he is to meet his musical idols, from Iggy Pop to Little Richard to AC/DC, even after he himself has achieved no small measure of fame. It's immensely relatable! 

Here's the thing about this book: If you didn’t know much at all about Dave Grohl, you’d probably read his book as, at best corny and at worst just god-awfully sappy. But instead, because it is Dave Grohl, and because we know music is quite literally his life and that he just seems like an affable, genuine dude, it's pretty easy to love this book. After all, it’s extremely difficult to be cynical about the writer of a book who himself seems to be the antithesis of cynical.

And the man sure can a tell a story! Grohl tells us he definitely wrote this book himself (no ghostwriter!). He explains that when everything shut down in March 2020, he nearly lost his mind because he missed the connections with people. And so he needed something to occupy his time while he couldn't play music. And I believe it! Some of the writing here is just so goofy and earnest, it couldn't have been written by anyone else but Grohl. Here, let me show you:

"I walk through this crazy life of a musician like a little boy in a museum surrounded by the exhibits I've spent a lifetime studying. And when I finally come face-to-face with someone who has inspired me along the way, I am thankful. I am grateful. And take none of it for granted. I am a firm believer in the shared humanity of music...I believe that people are inspired by people. That is why I feel the need to connect with my fans when they approach me. I'm a fan too."

I’ve seen Foo Fighters live twice, and both times they absolutely rocked the joint (the joint, in both cases, was the venerable Wrigley Field). One of those times was during the now-infamous “throne” tour in 2015 — Grohl was confined to a ridiculous throne he designed himself while on pain meds after he broke his leg falling off a stage in Sweden. Still rocked. He talks about this Wrigley show in the Conclusion of this book, and discusses how playing a show at a stadium across the street from where he saw his first ever show (Naked Raygun at Cubbie Bear in 1982) had brought his illustrious career full circle. 

I like Foo Fighters' music well enough, but I would never try to make an argument that they're in the top-tier of rock bands. Still, they're just a really good time. And that's the draw to see them live — or, as my friends are probably tired of hearing me say, I wish I loved anything as much as Dave Grohl loves playing music.

I greatly, greatly enjoyed this book. I mean, there's no way I wouldn't. And it's not just me: Literally every reader I've talked to who's read this has loved it too. You will not be disappointed! Remember: It's times like these we learn to live again.