Books you read with your ears.

Anything Too Stupid to be Said…

is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”

I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)

Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.

Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.

All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”

There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.

Categories: Audiobooks, From the Lips, In the Ears, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abridged Over Troubled Waters (or, The Cheese Stands Alone)

I once picked up the audiobook of Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.” I was hopeful. First of all, it had been recommended by a friend, and secondly, it was read/performed  by the author. (I always like hearing an author’s inflections while reading their own words.) And so it began, with Klosterman announcing the title of the book, the fact that he was reading it, and then (gasp!) that it was abridged. What?

I’ve never understood the need for abridged versions of anything, really. Either you read the whole book, or you get the Cliff’s Notes version of it—sort of an all or “almost-nothing” version of the text. But to read sort of most of a book? Almost? Without knowing what you’re missing?

When I was young, swiss cheese perplexed me. I honestly remember wondering why someone would cut holes out of perfectly good cheese. (I’m fairly certain this was influenced by my experiences of baking Christmas cookies.) Of course I am older and wiser now, and can enjoy swiss cheese without feeling short-changed, but I still harbor great resentment when it comes to abridged texts. I was eleven or twelve when I first read The Count of Monte Cristo—in its entirety. (And oh, what beautiful books they were—two volumes for just that novel alone, red textured covers with gold writing, printed in 1902, part of a 30-volume complete Dumas collection. The Three Musketeers volume in the collection still had some uncut page signatures. Delicious. However, I digress.) The point being that yes, there are sections of books of that genre and/or time period that ramble on a bit, describing things at great length that perhaps aren’t exactly crucial for plot development. But they are part of the book, and to chop out parts is an editor’s job before a work is printed, not to be cut out afterward!

Back to the cocoa puffs:  Confusion set in as to exactly why Klosterman’s book needed abridging in the first place. After all, it’s not as if it’s some aged, mammoth encyclopedic text that needs to be shortened for the modern attention span. I listened to a few chapters and was vaguely amused, but I couldn’t get past it. I was missing details—real words, not just gas bubbles. I was compelled to pop the disc out and give up. My overwhelming curiosity about what I was missing just got the better of me. If I ever pick the real book up to read, I will read the whole thing.

The cheese stands alone.

Categories: Audiobooks, On the Page | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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