Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2013

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2013

Nick Hornby
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  • Rod: The Autobiography—Rod Stewart
  • Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense—Francis Spufford
  • Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar—Cheryl Strayed
  • Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever—Will Hermes
  • Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn
  • Alys, Always—Harriet Lane
  • The Yellow Birds—Kevin Powers
  • How to Stay Sane—Philippa Perry


  • Rod: The Autobiography—Rod Stewart
  • Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense—Francis Spufford
  • Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar—Cheryl Strayed

The first column I wrote for the Believer was published in the September 2003 edition, so technically I shouldn’t be celebrating for another few months, but never mind: woo-hoo. Woo-hoo for a whole lot of reasons, actually. Woo-hoo because this is the first time I’ve ever held down a job for a decade; woo-hoo because it’s kind of incredible that, in the digital age, a beautiful print magazine about books and the arts has survived; woo-hoo that the insultingly young editors of this magazine have a very short attention span—although in their case, it’s too much flash fiction and too many haikus, rather than too much Xbox and MTV—and that they only ever look at the first few pages of the magazine.

The truth is that they don’t even know I’m still here, which is just as well for me and my enormous, shiftless family. They hate older people, and if they ever did read right through to the back I’d be taken out, shot, and boiled down for glue, like a lame cart-horse. If you’re twenty-three, and you’ve made a sculpture of R-Patz out of Play-Doh, pastrami, and your father’s old Pavement albums, then it’s all like, “Oh, hey, come on in! We’ll put you on the cover and do a ten-page interview with you!” If, however, all you’ve done is read books, quietly and patiently, on trains and planes and toilets, and accumulated valuable experience and wisdom over the decades, they don’t want to know. You’re placed so near the end of the magazine that you’re not even in the same time zone as all the cool kids at the front. Ach. The carnival atmosphere seems to have gone flat in the very first paragraph.

In that first column I read a lot of Salinger, a biography of Robert Lowell, and a novel by my brother-in-law. Is there any evidence of flaming youth in that lot? The Salinger jag clearly indicates a youthful disposition, although as I was forty-five years old at the time, you could equally argue that an obsessive interest in the Glass family is a morbid symptom of arrested development. Is there any evidence of decrepitude in the Books Read list above? I rather fear that if the Polysyllabic Spree, the sixty-six staggeringly beautiful young women who control both the contributions to the magazine and the minds of some of the weaker contributors, ever decided to slum it at the back of the magazine, they might be able to use my recent reading matter as an excuse to cut me loose and reduce the payroll. (I haven’t read Hanna Rosin’s recently published book The End of Men, but men have certainly been ended at the Believer. There was one working there, years ago, but he was packed off to Missouri—pour encourager les autres, presumably.)

Granted, sixty-eight-year-old Rod Stewart is possibly not as fashionable as he once was, although what do I know? You be the judge: he plays Vegas, produces album after album of show tunes, and at Christmas puts on a dinner jacket and performs seasonal songs on prime-time British TV. Is he “in” or “out”? I thought you’d say that. Well, when I was a teenager, he made three or four deathless folk-rock records that are still loved even by those who weren’t around when they were first released; and at the time he was the only rock star who managed to combine an interest in Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan with an interest in football, a combination and an endorsement that meant an awful lot to me in 1972. I doubt whether I’d have read his memoir, however, if a friend of mine hadn’t written it (or, as Rod puts it in the acknowledgments, been a “wonderful editor and confidant”). Giles Smith is one of this country’s funniest columnists, and his customarily dry, self-deprecating tone is ideal for Rod’s rambunctious, incorrigible, occasionally baffling life: there’s an extraordinary amount to be self-­deprecating about, much of it involving drink, cars, and extraordinarily unknowing behavior in the domestic wings of the Stewart mansions. You wouldn’t want to be married to Rod, and you wouldn’t necessarily want him and his mates to attend your next poetry reading; on further reflection, there are many, many circumstances and environments where those of a sensitive literary disposition might find the Stewart presence unhelpful. If, however, you don’t worry about any of this, and accept that he is safely confined within the covers of his own autobiography, then the book is enormously enjoyable, and Rod is clearly such a generous-spirited and sweet-natured soul that I found myself forgiving him a great deal, especially as he wanders through the narrative with his hands raised in rueful apology.

His attempts to woo back an ex, the model Kelly Emberg, are indicative of the chaotic Stewart decision-making process: he cheated on her several times, she left him, and he embarked on a summer of hedonism before learning that Emberg was seeing someone else, at which point he decided that he couldn’t live without her. On learning that she was sailing up the West Coast with her new lover, Stewart booked a plane to fly after her, trailing a banner sporting a proposal of marriage. Between the booking and the romantic proposal, however—a fatal gap that included a Saturday night—Rod met someone else; unable to contact the pilot, he was obliged to hunker down and simply pretend that the offer of marriage had never been made. This is not exemplary behavior, and it certainly doesn’t suggest an evolved moral intelligence, but I’m afraid it made me laugh. You could take a more judgmental line than mine, I suppose, but I’m not entirely sure what the point would be, and I doubt very much whether you’re the kind of person who would pick up the book in the first place.

I’m almost certain that there was nothing in the pages of Stewart’s autobiography that led me directly to Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, and I should reassure you that you can read either one without having to commit to both; certainly it would be hard to make the claim that the former shone any light on the latter. It could well be, though, that my desire to read the Spufford book is another indication that I’m not as young as I was: I am fast approaching the age where I need the answers to questions of metaphysical speculation.

There aren’t that many people I’d listen to on the subject of God, despite the increasingly pressing need to find out whether He is real, but Francis Spufford is one of the cleverest and most thoughtful nonfiction writers in England, and when he talks, I listen, no matter what the subject. And his subjects have become increasingly perplexing as his career has progressed: before Unapologetic, he has written books about ice, childhood reading, boffins, and Soviet five-year plans, so you could hardly claim that he is an evangelical monomaniac. (You couldn’t claim that he writes only for the fame and the money, either.)

Unapologetic is exactly what those who’ve followed Spufford’s career might have suspected it would be: an incredibly smart, challenging, and beautiful book, humming with ideas and arguments. What I wasn’t prepared for was its tough-mindedness, its tendency to bleakness: this isn’t a woolly book offering the promise of an afterlife so long as you say your prayers and stop watching online porn. As Spufford points out, Christianity is a religion of orthodoxy, “right thinking or teaching,” rather than orthopraxy, like Islam and Judaism, “right doing.” In Spufford’s version of Christianity, an afterlife isn’t even the point, particularly. In one of scores of asides that wiped the patronizing smile off this particular nonbeliever’s face, he refers to the Christians who are banking everything on eternal bliss as the “conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy.” It’s all about forgiveness in the here and now, given what he calls “the human propensity to fuck things up,” or, as he refers to sin throughout, ­HPtFtU. (“I don’t need to point out that I am not any kind of spokesman for the Church of England, do I?” he says in his notes at the end of the book.) And note the difference between potential and propensity: he’s saying—and he’s saying that Christianity is saying—that we all fuck up, all the time; we can’t avoid it. HPtFtU “isn’t a list of prohibited actions you can avoid. Fucking things up is too sensitive to our intentions to be defined that way. The very same action may be a secret kindness, an indifferent bit of trivia, or a royally destructive contribution to the ruination of something delicate and precious, all depending on what we mean by it. (There are remarks that end marriages, and very often what makes them so decisively poisonous is that they’re chosen to seem perfectly innocent and ordinary when uttered in public, no big deal, deniable, yet touch deliberately on a pain which only intimacy could know.)”

If I know anything about you, dear reader, then I suspect that your interest will be piqued by that elegant, shrewd, novelistic parenthesis, and there are plenty of purely literary reasons to read Unapologetic. The chapter entitled Yeshua is a brilliant, fresh, conversational retelling of the Gospels, which draws attention not only to the power of the story of Christ but to its essential oddness, too, its complications and its refusal to work at the level of myth. But the best reason to read the book is that it enables thought, specifically thought about who we are and what we’re doing here and how we intend to negotiate the difficulties and tragedies that are unavoidably a part of being human. And we’re all for enabling thought, right? I have not become a Christian as a result of reading this book, but I have a much greater respect for those who are. And I intend to read it again, soon; there was a lot of thought enabled—too much, maybe, for a tired man at the end of a hard year.

Cheryl Strayed won’t thank me for saying this, I suspect, but there is something Christlike about her alter ego, the advice columnist Sugar, whose columns written for the Rumpus have been collected into a book entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. I don’t want to accuse her of being messianic, although I suppose I must be doing precisely that, etymologically speaking: I’m sure Francis Spufford would have something interesting to say about how atheists have managed to spin a whole sneery complex out of the story of Jesus. I mean only that the people who write to her, all of them—like all of us, riddled with the HPtFtU—are listened to with tolerance and compassion, and answered with extraordinary wisdom and clarity. Yes, Sugar can be an unlikely Christ, just as Spufford comes across as an unlikely Christian. “The first time Mr. Sugar spanked me we’d been lovers for a week,” one column begins. “The fuck is your life,” another ends, lovingly but firmly, as a response to the question(s) “Wtf? Wtf? Wtf?” But nevertheless, Sugar is someone whose ability to hear every note of someone’s pain and confusion can strike one as almost supernatural on occasion. And, like Unapologetic, Tiny Beautiful Things is a book that aids introspection, makes thought about our lives cut a little deeper, stretch us a little further.

There is remarkably little literature that does this satisfactorily, when you think about it. Fiction is supposed to do it, but invented stories so rarely chime with our own, and in any case novelists have so many other jobs to do during the course of a novel that they have very little time or room to spare a thought for our woes. Pyschotherapeutic books have agendas, self-help books are usually cynically conceived and deal with single, usually intractable issues… What else is there? Strayed deals with marital dissatisfaction, grief, ambition, self-loathing, sexual disaster, parental cruelty, and just about everything else that can go wrong during the course of our allotted time on this planet, and she simply refuses to accept that any situation is literally hopeless; it’s part of her brief to offer hope, even if that hope is a very faint light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Tiny Beautiful Things hasn’t yet been published in the U.K., and in many ways it’s a very un-English book. There may be people here who dismiss Sugar’s belief in redemption and autonomy as American; we prefer to think that nothing can ever change, so it’s best just to shut up and plod on. The second essay in this book, however—though I doubt very much whether the English were on Strayed’s mind when she wrote it—is the best, and most careful, dismantling of our philosophy of despair that I have ever read. A woman writes, heartbreakingly, to Sugar about her late-term miscarriage, and her inability to move on from it. ­Sugar’s reply contains a long story about her experience mentoring a group of badly damaged girls at a middle school. Every day these girls talk about their horrendous home lives, and Sugar listens, appalled. She tells them that many of the abuses they are enduring are illegal, intolerable, and she will get something done about them; to her amazement and despair, she finds that the relevant authorities are uninterested and powerless. So now what?

Strayed tells one of the most afflicted girls that “escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen… She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck for every bad thing.” Because, really, what else is there to say, if you have any ambition left for anything or anybody? Sometimes, when reading this book, I was reminded of some of the monologues that Springsteen used to deliver onstage in the late ’70s, just before blowing an auditorium up with a “Prove It All Night” or a “Badlands”: there’s the same theatricality, the same soul, the same sense that there is a way out, despite all appearances to the contrary, but it will take courage and sometimes just rage to find it. “Write like a motherfucker,” Strayed tells one young literary hopeful at one point, and you’ll find yourself wishing that she was talking to you. But then you realize that she is. Tiny Beautiful Things will make you want to read like a motherfucker, too, long after you’ve finished it. And that, I hope, is what I’ve spent a decade telling you to do, in my own pinched and muted way. 

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