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Monday, June 2, 2008

…And Boy, Are My Arms Tired

posted by on June 2 at 14:14 PM


One of the best things about leaving BEA is that I have a ton of good books for the plane ride home. This is usually more meaningful when BEA is on the east coast and eight hours away, but the two-and-a-half-hour flight still makes for some good reading time. Rather than reading bestsellers, I can actually read some of the stuff that I’m most excited to read.

I stopped by the Continuum booth at the show, and one of their number shoved a book in my hand and completely sold it to me. It came out in November of last year and was completely off my radar. Like most of the 33 1/3 books published by Continuum, it’s about one record’s creation and impact. Unlike most of the series, this isn’t written by someone with a positive slant on the record: it’s by Carl Wilson and it’s called Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Wilson worked as a music critic for a very long time and in this book he studies exactly why he loathes Celine Dion. Apparently, later in the book, he gets into Marxism and the politics of personal taste. Wilson did a lot of research into Dion, tracing her history as a young music sensation and her history with the Quebec separatist movement. He marks a seminal moment at the Oscars when Elliott Smith and Dion were in direct competition—apparently, Dion was so sweet to Smith that he spent the rest of his life defending her in interviews. And it kind of chronologically studies the ascent of Dion-hate.

IamDeath.jpgI was loving the book, but I had to get up at four this morning to take the subway to the airport, and so, sitting uncomfortably in my compact window seat, I had to close my eyes for a little nap. I woke up about five minutes later, when the book fell off my lap into the netherworld between plane seat and plane wall. I scratched at the space below my seat, but Celine Dion was lost to me for the duration of the flight.

Instead, I pulled out I am Death, by Gary Amdahl. It’s a new paperback original comprised of two novellas by the lovely little nonprofit Milkweek Press, which has been producing more and more interesting stuff lately. The title novella, subtitled “or Bartleby the Mobster,” was responsible for my atrocious, painful sunburn that I picked up by the pool yesterday. It was a collection of interviews and excerpts of pieces about a journalist who is interviewing an old mobster who wants to publish a memoir titled A Boy’s First Book of Mobsters. It was pretty great.

But the rest of my trip was spent reading the other novella, called Peasants, which is about the interoffice politics of a publisher of books about a publisher of guides for geographic information systems. It’s funny and embarrassing and painful and great. There’s a lot of wordplay and characters doing things that should seem completely out-of-character, yet they work in a really entertaining way. I was reminded of Stanley Elkin, who is one of the best authors in the world to be reminded of. If novellas are your thing, you should really check it out.

And the nice lady in the seat behind me returned the Celine Dion book to me when we were deplaning, so I’ll finish that one tonight.

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In the old days you could send them home Book Rate and save a bundle, although I still stuffed the ABA books into a suitcase first, shipping the rest by the slower mail services.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 2, 2008 2:20 PM
He marks a seminal moment at the Oscars when Elliott Smith and Dion were in direct competition—apparently, Dion was so sweet to Smith that he spent the rest of his life [in a living hell] defending her [out of a misplaced sense of obligation] in interviews.

My God. Celine Dion killed Elliott Smith. She killed him with... kindness.

Posted by elenchos | June 2, 2008 2:25 PM

What's the history of Céline with the Quebec separatist movement?

Posted by Sirkowski | June 2, 2008 4:21 PM

@3 - none really. The PQ and BQ are really a joke. Canadians have been posturing on that for a few hundred years now, and Celine mostly stays out of it, since she has major sales on both sides of the language divide.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 2, 2008 4:37 PM
Posted by the man who couldn't blog | June 2, 2008 5:12 PM

@5: I saw that post after I put mine up. I knew it was going to be unoriginal--it's a pretty old, tired joke--but it wasn't plagiarized.

Posted by Paul Constant | June 2, 2008 5:28 PM

As usual, Will doesn't know what he's talking about, even when he's talking about Canada. All he sees is the boring party politics.

It's not really true to say "Quebec separatist", but it is true that Dion uses the symbolism of Quebec nationalism. And is one of those symbols herself. These are encoded in ways that Anglophone Canada can't hear (as Will demonstrates), and that America hasn't a clue about (America is for the most part unaware of Quebec's existence). But Quebeckers know it when they see it, and when they heard her speak in Quebec joual slang at the Grammys. When she was awarded an "Anglophone" award for her first English album, she nearly touched off a government crisis with the strength of her rejection.

One of the fascinating parts of the book was the (too brief) glimpse into the alternative universe of Quebecois pop -- the vedette world, the ketaine world. Despite Quebec's relatively small proportion of Canada's population, they have a bustling music and culture scene, which is almost wholly unknown even to anglophone Quebeckers. Celine Dion is right smack in the middle of that. It's not about separatism, it's about identity.

Posted by Fnarf | June 2, 2008 5:37 PM

On the other hand, Will often nearly drives to stab myself through the heart with a kitchen knife. So he does have things in common with Celine Dion.

Posted by elenchos | June 2, 2008 5:43 PM

@6 -- PRETTY old? A master of understatement you are. That's the oldest Borscht Belt joke going, to the point where it's on at least its third round of ironic reference.

Posted by Fnarf | June 2, 2008 5:43 PM

I've known Carl Wilson for many years now from the music listserve, Postcard2. So maybe I'm a bit biased.

All I know is that Carl is a brilliantly smart dude, a great writer, and imho, one of the best music critics in North America, bar none.

I enjoyed his book very much. Since reading it, I've given away around 5 copies to other people as gifts. That's how much I liked it.

If only all the books in the 33 1/3 series were this good and thought provoking.

I agree that the discussion of the Quebec pop scene was interesting and definitely something I knew nothing about.

I also enjoyed Wilson's discussion of Schmaltz, particularly when he describes punk rock as "Anger Schmaltz." Perfect.

Why didn't I think of that?

Posted by j-lon | June 3, 2008 1:44 AM

@ 10:
Agreed. I don't know the author, but this is a brilliant book.

Posted by julie | June 3, 2008 3:29 PM

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