31/05/2019

Reading - May 2019

You Can Beat Your Brain by David McRaney (2013)
The sequel to the "award winning" (it says here) You Are Not So Smart, and therefore second product of the very interesting podcast of the same name, this is a great pop-science book about psychology. In seventeen easy-to-digest chapters, McRaney sets up a misconception (say, "You honestly define that which you hold dear"), states the truth (in this case, "You will shift your definitions to protect your ideologies"), and then deconstructs why that is, citing studies and giving entertaining examples. Brilliant stuff, and well worth reading to understand more about why people behave the way they do ... although it's a lot to try and remember when it's your own behaviour! I read this from the library, which, annoyingly, doesn't have its precursor, only this.
Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (2018)
Suede first came to my attention when my friend Pat dragged me to the launch gig for their first single - a short performance in the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop. With probably a couple of hundred people crammed into a tiny cellar, it was loud and immediate, and made me a fan. I bought the single, of course - and carried on buying for another decade - and read the interviews. Brett Anderson came across as a precious, precocious, somewhat self-conscious aesthete in the Morrissey vein - likeable, a bit prickly and full of himself.

This autobiography explains where that young man came from as, in clear, unsentimental prose, Anderson describes his childhood and teenage years. One of the things I like about the book is that, unlike many autobiographies, he doesn't understate how much work went into Suede and the sheer, bloody-minded persistence required to get to that first single. He's a bit pretentious sometimes, and when he's talking about the hard work involved in the creative process it is tempting to tut and think, "Get a real job," but overall I really enjoyed reading what he had to say. 

(Minor niggle: the phrase "coal black mornings" occurs several times through the book, and might be an attempt at a kind of leitmotif. Unfortunately it just comes across as unimaginatively repetitive and something that should have been spotted and replaced by an editor.)
The Guitar Magazine (June 2019 / Issue 369)
Notable for the inclusion of some "entry level" guitars, a mere nine hundred of your English pounds thank you very much. Granted, the new Sheeran guitars are a quarter of the price of a full-fat Lowden, but "entry level"? Competition is a Marshall DSL20CR ... crossing my fingers!
The Mixing Engineer's Handbook (4th Edition) by Bobby Owsinski (2017)
On every single of your favourite tracks, however much it sounds like it was just recorded like it sounds, it almost certainly wasn't, and it's probably the mixer as much as anyone who is probably responsible for making it better. Whether it's by adding a soupçon of reverb to fill out a sound, or placing the guitar in the stereo field just right, the mixer's job is crucial to the sound of the finished article. This book contains almost certainly as much as I will ever need to know about mixing, so it's nice to have it all collected in the first half of the book. The second half, which consists of interviews with successful (and, in some cases, famous) engineers, is also interesting but less likely to be revisited. Overall, it gives a real insight into how a good mixer can add a huge amount to any recording. (Quite large for a "handbook" though ...)
Being An Actor by Simon Callow (1984)
Brett Anderson's Coal Black Mornings (above) occasional descent into pretentiousness
 reminded me of the wonderful I, An Actor, but while reaching for it I saw this on the same shelf and realised I hadn't read it for a long time - and this really had to be read first. My copy dates from 1988 and I probably borrowed it from the library before that, and plenty from it has stuck in mind, including one of my favourite sayings, that it's not enough to be talented, you have to have a talent for having talent. The book is part autobiography and part a compelling explanation of what it's like to be an actor - a strange occupation in so many ways - and how it affects the life of that person. Callow is very honest and open about his feelings, and yes, while this does occasionally - OK, quite often - lead to the kind of uncomfortably pretentious moments so mercilessly mocked in the "Nicholas Craig" book, within his own world it all makes perfect sense. A really interesting view.
How Does It Feel? by Mark Kermode (2018)
I initially felt a bit meh about what seemed yet another account of a wannabe teenage rock star's failed attempts to make music. Even allowing for Kermode's constant self-deprecation, he does seem to have carried on trying for far longer than any ability would warrant. However, as the narrative continued, I began to have more and more admiration for his persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness, which by the end had managed to produce a parallel career - or, at least, a paying hobby - in a skiffle band. A testament to "just having a go" and inspirational in a way.
I, An Actor by "Nicholas Craig" (aka Nigel Planar & Christopher Douglas) (1989)
The late Rik Mayall's various versions of himself characters are well known, but his fellow Young One Nigel Planar's superb creation is much subtler and far, far funnier. Nicholas Craig is a bitchy luvvie based, surely, in no small part, on Simon Callow (see above). The book is hilarious throughout. For example, chosen at random, here he is on the subject of comedy:
The first thing to be absolutely clear about as far as comedy is concerned is that it is a desperately serious business. Serious and tough. You have only to watch master comedians like Leslie Phillips and Terry Scott at work to realize there nothing remotely amusing about it.
Fantastic stuff and yet surprisingly unknown.
How To Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff (1954)
A classic - great fun and highly educative. I remember readying my Dad's copy probably thirty or more years ago. Huff genially demolishes most "scientific" statistics in popular publications that, incredibly, are still using the same tired techniques, 65 years later. None of it surprises but it's nevertheless a useful primer on how to read any spuriously precise facts and to always ask: Who says so? How does he know? What's missing? Did somebody change the subject? And does it make sense? 

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