Monday, November 13, 2017

A review about reviews

Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT (2014) is like sitting around with an old friend, talking about what great books you've read lately. It's 130 posts compiled from a blog she wrote for, about re-reading various old science-fiction classics and guilty pleasures.
Walton doesn't pretend to be a "critic" -- she just writes about what struck her upon reading (or re-reading) some books. But she does what all the best book critics do -- enlightens you about what makes a book worth reading. Those flashes of insight are what make her reviews a lot of fun to read.
She hasn't convinced me (yet) to try reading C.J. Cherryh or Lois McMaster Bujold or Steven Brust, but I like and agree with her reviews of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA (a helluva lot going on in that book, it's crammed full of action, thought and detail) and BABEL-17 (flashes of brilliance); and her comments on Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and DOORWAYS IN THE SAND.
Maybe even better are her "theme" columns -- Do you skim? What about novel series(es?) that go downhill? (On Frank Herbert's DUNE series: Read the first one. Then stop.)
There are a couple of reviews about books you've never read -- because they never got finished: Robert A. Heinlein's THE STONE PILLOW and Harlan Ellison's THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS -- this review (for April Fool's Day) wasn't as funny as it could have been, but if Walton's point was that Real Life is way weirder than fiction, she nailed it.
I also back Walton's idea of re-reading books to see if they're better or different than you remember. Every few years I re-read Peter Straub's IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, and every time I get something else out of it, almost like it's a new book. The last time, it was like the story was completely new to me. I've also done this with Roger Zelazny's THIS IMMORTAL and ISLE OF THE DEAD, the two Delany novels mentioned above, and some others. Oh, and Robert M. Persig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I may not be able to read anything NEW, but there are some old friends in the house that I know I won't be wasting my time with.
Walton's book won't waste your time, either.

However, this one might: Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (2017) is the third of Romano's books about progressive rock, and the first to disappoint me. His MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best prog-rock history, and his PROG ROCK FAQ was almost like a sequel, and was nearly as solid.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE recycles a lot of stuff Yes fans likely already know, adds a lot of (to me) unnecessary, extraneous material, adds a list of tour dates, discography, bibliography, a weak index, and ends up almost 300 pages long. You can read the good stuff in an hour.
I was annoyed with this book from the start, with Romano's first-the-earth-cooled history of prog. I know he was trying to set up a context for his story, but. His history of Yes is more solid, and includes some info you may not have read before. But in this book supposedly about one album you get Yes's full career up to CTTE (which was the band's fifth album), plus much about the three albums that followed.
My biggest gripe is that except for a couple of stories, this book doesn't put you into the studio with Yes while they were recording CTTE -- in two- and three-minute segments, with leader Jon Anderson telling the band "If you don't like this tune, YOU come up with something better." There's a book there, about how that band worked ... for awhile.
Romano also takes all this stuff VERY seriously, referring to the title track of CTTE as "a symphony," or at least a sonata. There's a whole chapter on "water imagery" in '70s prog, for chrissakes. It's too much, if you've heard a lot of this stuff.
Romano and Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard could have used a better proofreader. There are words dropped, odd sentence constructions, words misspelled -- it looks like the book was a rush job. The first time Strawbs leader Dave Cousins is mentioned, he is listed with no first name. (The Strawbs is where Yes keyboard-player Rick Wakeman came from.) One more read-through would have helped immeasurably with smoothness, would have avoided jolting me out of the book.
And I'd say Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON defined in the public's mind what prog was. But there's been enough written about DARK SIDE, right?
Yes drummer Bill Bruford has some less exalted views about working on CTTE. Judging by his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, he could have written an interesting, funny, acid-tinged book about what Yes and those sessions were like. But he wouldn't have bothered.

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