Category: Nick Hornby

“Songbook” by Nick Hornby Review

songbook

Songbook

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2003

My favorite book I read last year was Ten Years in The Tub, Nick Hornby’s collection of columns from The Believer detailing his book reading and purchasing each month. Being a huge music fan as well, I was eager to read Songbook(originally published as 31 Songs, then rereleased with a few bonus essays) Hornby’s collection of essays on various songs and albums. Apparently when this book was first released, a few versions of it came with CDs containing either 11 or even 18 of the 31 songs, so readers could hear these mostly obscure songs that Hornby has chosen to write about. However in the distant future of 2017, readers can now just log on Youtube and listen to every song or album discussed in this book while reading the corresponding chapters.

I’m a pretty big music junky, but apparently my knowledge of Hornby’s favorites was lacking as prior to reading this I only knew the following tracks:
· “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen
· “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado”
· “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin
· “Samba Pa Ti” by Santana
· “Mama, You Been On My Mind” by Rod Stewart
· “Rain” by the Beatles
· “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five
· “Caravan” by Van Morrison
· “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Gregory Isaacs (I think we all know the original, but I was unfamiliar with this version)
· “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne

That’s only ten of thirty one tracks, so I’m going to assume that part of Hornby’s goal was to focus on music that isn’t already known by the masses. I faired much better on his discussion of albums, owning all of the ones he discussed in depth except for a Steve Earle album, and I’ve got a few others by that artist. On a related note I enjoyed the album chapters the most, although if you told me up front Nick Hornby would spend a few pages discussing Nick Cave, Aimee Mann or Blink-182 I could predict with absolute certainty that I would enjoy it.

I wish I could say I fell in love with several new songs by reading this book, but the songs I was unfamiliar with were all pleasant enough but not so amazing that I had to go out and purchase on my own. The one exception was “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide, which was an exception because it wasn’t pleasant but instead a curiosity on unpleasantness stretching out for 10 minutes.

Right away I guess this book loses points compared to Ten Years in the Tub, as I discovered several books and authors I loved from reading that, whereas my musical horizons were not expanded by Songbook (in terms of knowledge, yes, but as of yet no new favorites). As for the writing itself, this is a very quick read with typically 5 to 7 not particularly dense pages about Hornby’s relationship to each song (how he discovered it, how often he listens to it, how it compares to other music he enjoys). My favorite music criticism tends to involve some use of the first person as music is very subjective. In order to trust somebody else’s opinion on music I need some assurances that they have good taste. When I was through with this I had a good understanding of Hornby’s musical tastes in relation to my own styles of enjoyment.

I suspect the most common criticism of Mr. Hornby’s music writing will be his preference for songs that conform to the pop style and format. The final chapter in the book is a review of the top ten albums of the previous year, and Hornby’s critiques of Destiny’s Child, Blink-182, Linkin Park, P. Diddy and others shows a definite preference for music that would be classified as “dad rock” or “oldies” by many people under the age of 30 or so today. I’ll go on record as saying that I didn’t care for a lot of those albums when they came out as well, but I can recognize that several of them resulted in tracks that are still radio favorites 15+ years later, while Hornby’s only song he really appreciated from the list was “Falling” by Alicia Keys.

The real joy in reading this book is in Hornby’s conversational style and charming anecdotes that reveal more about him than the music he is writing about. Hornby’s openness about the challenges of dealing with an autistic child, the changing perceptions of his work once he became famous and his habits upon purchasing box sets stand out in terms of enjoyable sections the reader will take away and retain. Much like Fever Pitch or Ten Years in the Tub, Hornby is upfront that the writing is autobiographical and I suspect readers familiar with his other writing will have a similar reaction (positive or negative) to his work in Songbook.

4-star

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“Fever Pitch” by Nick Hornby Review

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch

Author:  Nick Hornby

Published:  1992

I really expected I would love this book, though its fatal flaw was apparent from page one. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors, and even his bad books (How To Be Good) kept me entertained while reading. Here is an autobiographical account of his love for his favorite sports team over 20+ years and his observations of fandom, relationships and society’s love affair with sports. The same basic style was used in Ten Year in the Tub, and that was my favorite book I’ve read by Hornby. Also, I’m a huge sports fan, somebody who routinely watched every NBA and MLB game for my favorite teams for years, and traveled across the country to see them in different stadiums. So why did I not like this book?

In a word: soccer. I’ve never enjoyed soccer. Not playing it, not watching it, and (I can say confidently now) not reading about it. Hornby’s lifelong obsession of rooting for Arsenal in the English Premier League taught me plenty about the sport and team that I didn’t know before. Such as the seasons are too long, the same teams always win, and hooliganism/racism are as rampant of problems as the media has made them out to be. While Hornby waxes about how the sport of soccer has the perfect balance of scoring to make each moment exciting, he spends much more time explaining how so many people hate his favorite team for the frequent Nil-Nil or 1-0 outcomes.

As I trudged my way through this, I had no anchor to orient myself to the writing. Hornby would frequently talk about famous soccer players or announce who was playing by naming the stadium the game took place in and I had no idea which team he was rooting for or who was playing (unless it was the chapter title). Sure, I know Pele and can visualize Wembley, but that’s probably 4 paragraphs in a 200 page book; and because I didn’t know any of the other people/places/events that he was referencing, I didn’t come away feeling like I’d become newly educated on all things Arsenal but instead I have a mess of names and places that I couldn’t place beyond stating they are all affiliated with soccer.

There were plenty of universal statements about sport that I could of course relate to. The internal motivation for being a fan; the way fandom changes your personality and social planning; the events that make a game particularly memorable. I understand why some people would love this book, but unless you have a basic knowledge or appreciate for soccer I think there’s a good chance you’ll feel as lost as I did while reading it.

Note: For those that have seen the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie version of Fever Pitch, I’m not sure how the film could even get away claiming to be affiliated with the book. Those reading this expecting there to be a story about falling in love with a woman while still staying loyal to your team will be very disappointed. There are three romantic relationships alluded to in this book, and each is a nameless figure that goes to a few games with Hornby and either stays in a relationship with him or doesn’t (that aspect not even being related to the soccer games). This is a book about one man’s love of a team, not a relationship drama or love story. I didn’t think the movie was great, but it was so different from the book that I would not recommend basing your decision to read the book or watch the movie based on any information about the other media.

2-star

“About a Boy” by Nick Hornby Review

about

About a Boy

Author: Nick Hornby

Release Date:  1998

Will is approaching middle age and lives life to its most relaxing. Blessed with a life of leisure cashing in his father’s royalties from a popular Christmas song, he learns that single moms are an interesting group he could possibly date and comes up with an invented two year old named Ned and an excuse for why he’s never actually around. Through this group, he meets Marcus, a 12 year old who is as helpless as can be, raised by his mom to only listen to Joni Mitchell and have no sense of style or knowledge of anything another 12 year old would possibly want to talk about. Marcus and Will become friends after Marcus’s mother tries to kill herself, and the rest of the book follows both Marcus and Will’s development as people to more well rounded people (or more normal people, depending on your view).

This book has all the things Hornby is best at, with plenty of pop culture references and humorous inner monologues from dense male characters. Will and Marcus are both easy to root for in the cluelessness about the world around them (Marcus in terms of the actual world, Will is more clueless about being an adult). Also, you would expect the book to be about Will having a relationship with Marcus’s mother, or about a big reveal when Will’s lies are exposed, but those are more minor elements that don’t directly really steer the plot.

With all that said, I’d describe this book as a pleasant but somewhat forgettable read. The stakes never rise above a possible breakup, with even the suicide attempt towards the beginning being dealt with quickly and moved on from. The female characters in general have just enough depth to provide a learning experience for Will or Marcus. I’d put this one as better than “How to Be Good” but nowhere near “High Fidelity,” or “Slam.”

4-star

“Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books” by Nick Hornby Review

ten

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books

Author: Nick Hornby

Release Date: 2013

This book was exactly what I was hoping for, namely one of my favorite authors revealing the best stuff he read each month and dropping plenty of his witty remarks that are so prevalent in his writing. I’m looking forward to trying out books by Jess Walter, Meggan Abbott and Simon Bartrom (all writers I was unfamiliar with before reading this) as well as other books by guys like Mark Harris that I already enjoy but haven’t tried out Hornby’s favorite.

When I started reading this collection it was the smaller volume called “The Polysyllabic Spree,) but the first few entries were so entertaining I quickly sprung for the complete (as of today) collection. My only hope is that future volumes don’t require continuing to re-buy all the older material and the corresponding increase in price.

5-star