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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Encouraged by feedback from people telling me they'd bought Alan Lomax's The Land Where The Blues Began on my recommendation I thought I'd take time to list a few more books and records that seem to me to have achieved greatness and/or that I love. If some things on the list seem obvious, well, so be it.

First, a few items from the list of favourites on my Profile Page:

A contemporary novel set in a highly atmospheric but never swamp-gothic clichéd Louisiana, powerfully written, driven by strong narrative and equally strong, real characters, fused together with compelling ingenuity. Scrupulous, admirable, humane: a wonderful book.

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot
The greatest novel I have ever read.

FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson
Funny, acerbic, angry, unique right from the opening page. Thompson gets an entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia that includes this: "By his style, passion, humour and vividly conveyed sense of horror, he captured and magnified, perhaps even helped to develop, a hip public’s sense of rabid disgust at the politics and politicians of Amerika. Watergate was made for him..." and this: "His masterpiece...was Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, published in book form at the end of 1971, which charmed and captivated a generation right from its combative and seductive opening sentence: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’ There are striking connections and correspondences between this great early-1970s prose work and the Bob Dylan of 1966 - especially the Dylan of ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’.

COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier
The film was likeable, but the novel is magnificent, and surely one of the best books of any kind centred on the American Civil War.

NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
A magnificent, bleak and beautiful novel written in, and set in, the Depression and the 1930s drought, told as from the inside, about an urban family struggling to be tenant farmers. This sounds depressing, and it is, but this début novel by the 24-year-old Johnson also has a towering poetic majesty, and at the same time an unerring eye for detail that makes it scintillating to read its prose. The book was a huge success when published in the 1930s, but she never matched its popular success again and it has become a largely forgotten masterpiece. Which is absurd, because this is right up there with The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory.

More recommendations will follow in a day or two.

Obviously if anyone unfamiliar with any of the above is moved to try one or two, they could buy or order them from their local independent book store; but for those on a budget, I've put links to them on Amazon (US and UK where possible) in the updated Recommendations column on the left. I know this is now a long column, but you'll still find the Links section underneath it.


Anonymous Bev said...

Bold claims for Middlemarch - care to elaborate?

Do you ever write any books or articles on literature, or have you just stuck to music?

6:09 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hi Michael,

Great list, though I'd have to say, some Russian novelists might challenge even the great Middlemarch.

And Don Quixote trumps even them.

Did Alan Lomax write any other books as good as The Land Where The Blues Began?


11:20 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hi Bev
I studied it at university in the mid-1960s and loved and admired it enormously, and have re-read it a couple of times in the decades since - which always refreshes my admiration for it. It's huge: so shrewd, sharp, humane, glowing, symphonic, intelligent.

I've generally stuck to music and travel. Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell is a crossover between the two, and I've just finished a wholly travel-book book, which I hope for news about soon. As for literary topics, well, I wrote a long essay about the politics of Spiderman once, but the couple of places I sent it to both turned it down. I was told by a woman at The Times about five years ago that they'd send me some books to review, but they never have. I reviewed a few books for the Literary Review in 1991-92, and wrote a couple of reviews of political books for Rebel (1972) and Socialist Worker (1973), interviewed the poet Mogg Williams for Radio Times in 1974, wrote a piece about Agit-Prop Postcards of Leeds for The Times in 1990, had an article in The Literary Companion To Dogs (ed. Christopher Hawtree) in 1993 - though really it was about Bob Dylan's dogs...

By the way, re Socialist Worker: some of my best friends were members of IS, as it was then (International Socialists), but I wasn't. But we all thought revolution was just around the corner. Instead, Margaret Thatcher was.

11:43 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hi Kieran
Not for me. Close, though. PErhaps it's time I re-read them.

Alan Lomax never attempted anything similar - he mostly wrote far smaller books about, and edited collections of, folk songs.

11:47 am  
Anonymous Bev said...

'The Trilogy' by Samuel Beckett (Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unamable) is probably my favourite novel, although by tea-time I imagine I'll have changed my mind.

Middlemarch is excellent though. It's one of the few of those huge Victorian novels that actually seems to jusitfy it's length. I too studied it at university and reread it a few times since.

And I'm ashamed to say I've never read Don Quixote...

11:54 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I thought Don Quixote would be obscure and difficult, but actually, despite it's tragic and absurd elements it's also a laugh-out-loud romp.

And in spite of this, it's also tragic. Its influence is huge, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevski and essentially any great modern novel. Quixote's "madness" is something which a cleverer man than I once said is defined differently, depending on the era you live in.

And so, the Romantics in the 19th century didn't think him mad at all, whereas modern psychology might have a definition for his "condition". And alongside him, his faithful, snide and wonderful squire Sancho Panza.

We used to think that Bob Dylan could write twisted and absurd epics, but really, he's a baby, a dilletante, compared to this stuff.

On Alan Lomax, what a pity! I so loved that book, that I thought he might have something more. I suppose, it makes The Land... even more an extraordinary work...

6:19 pm  
Anonymous Bev said...

Kieran - you've convinced me. I'll give it a go.

11:07 am  
Anonymous kieran said...

I hope you enjoy it, Bev. The translation I read was by Edith Grossman.

For a book that's 400 years old, it's quite a post-modern classic. Cervantes wrote the first part, then some unknown usurper wrote a wretched sequel while Cervantes himself was writing the 2nd part.

He used this impostor's book well, referring to it in the sequel, letting the characters be bemused by the "rumours" which were doing the rounds, etc, having them comically curse and sometimes praise the unknown biographer of their exploits.

It really is a marvel, and like I say, some scenes are so absurdly funny and brutally sore at the same time, you can't help but laugh out loud while you wince at the sufferings these guys inflict on themselves.


6:53 pm  
Blogger LanglandinSydney said...

Where's Piers Plowman? Closest to Bobness out there. Way older than Don Quixote, which is the Together Through Life to Piers Plowman's Freewheelin'. Worth checking out.

9:56 am  

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