Friday, June 28, 2013

A Review of "Hard Listening"

Tonight, for your reading pleasure: a review of Hard Listening, a recent e-book anthology from members of The Rock Bottom Remainders.  Stephen King, of course, was one of the charter longtime members of that outfit, and so it seemed mandatory that this blog devote some time to the book.

Which, quite frankly, I have a difficult time thinking of as a book.  I have no fundamental objection to reading digitally: I own an iPad, and I have the Kindle app for my laptop.  On occasions when an author I follow releases an e-book exclusive, I am more than happy to use one of those devices.  But the fact is that I prefer a book in my hands, not a hunk of plastic and metal; and the fact is also that I prefer to have something I can put on my shelf alongside all my other books.  Because, like...I enjoy arranging them and whatnot.

So sue me; those are my preferences.

And because of that, I simply don't think of something like Hard Listening the same way I think of Joyland, or even the same way I think of the previous Rock Bottom Remainders anthology, Mid-Life Confidential.  Those, to me, are books; this is...something else.

It's an irrelevant distinction for many (if not most) people, and as time continues to fly by, it will only become more irrelevant.  I only mention it because I felt like mentioning it.  Sometimes I do that.

For example, here is a list of all fourteen of Pixar's movies, from worst to best (in the opinion of this blogger):

#14 -- Cars 2 (Hated by many; not hated by me.  I think it's a hell of a lot of fun.  Still, inarguably their worst.)
#13 -- Brave  (Good movie; feels more like a Disney film than a Pixar film, but good movie.)
#12 -- Cars  (Why do people hate this, again?  I think it's because they are vehemently opposed to Larry the Cable Guy.  Me too, but he's awesome in these two movies.)
#11 -- Monsters University  (Time may move this one farther up the list.  One of the best prequels ever made.)
#10 -- A Bug's Life  (I had a terrible experience watching this movie the first time, and still managed to enjoy the hell out of it.)
#9 -- Ratatouille  (From this point on, every movie on the list is a masterpiece, and you could change the order around almost at random and satisfy me.)
#8 -- Monsters, Inc.
#7 -- WALL*E
#6 -- Toy Story  (Dare I suggest it...?  A perfect film...?)
#5 -- Finding Nemo  (Can't wait for the sequel.)
#4 -- Toy Story 2
#3 -- Up
#2 -- Toy Story 3
#1 -- The Incredibles  (Best superhero movie ever made.)
What's that got to do with Hard Listening?
Not a flippin' thing, y'all.  I just felt like mentioning it.
Here's another thing I feel like mentioning: whether you want to call it a book, an e-book, a PDF, a file, or a watermelon, Hard Listening is a lot of fun to read.

Follow me, and I'll give you a breakdown on its contents.

First off, a quick note about the format in which I read the (sigh) book: I got the iBooks version, because the anthology was supposedly designed with that format in mind.  I also got the Kindle version, so that I could have a version on my laptop.  I am contemplating printing it out and having it bound so I can put a copy on my bookshelf.  (Yes, I am lame; let's all agree to not worry much about that.)
I can tell you now that if you are going to get the book, and have the option of getting the iBooks version, you should do so.  It is, aesthetically, so superior to the Kindle version that whoever is responsible for designing the Kindle version really ought to be ashamed of themselves.  I'll try to give you some specific examples of that as we go along.
[UPDATE, 7/2/13:  It has been pointed out to me that there is an enhanced version for Kindle.  I opted for the standard Kindle edition, so I can't vouch for the enhanced edition.  It is probably a logical assumption, though, to assume that the enhanced version is superior to the standard one.  I certainly felt it was worth mentioning.]
The book begins with a fax sent from Ridley Parson to Kathi Goldmark in 1992, and then transitions into several emails from nearly two decades later.  Correspondences of this nature are peppered throughout the text, and offer a nice peek behind the curtains.

The first essay is by Sam Barry.  It's called "Rock Stars...For Librarians," and it tells (among other things) the story of how Sam and Kathi Goldmark became an item.  Goldmark, in case you didn't know, is the lady who had the idea to form the band.  She died an untimely death in 2012, and the proceeds from Hard Listening are going toward defraying the medical bills she accumulated during her final years.  Sorry if I just bummed everyone out.  This essay won't do that, though; turns out that Sam Barry is just as funny a writer as his brother, Dave, is.

The iBooks version of Hard Listening has already distinguished itself compared to the Kindle version by the first essay, but the way.  There is a minute-long video of physically-challenged Remainders Stephen King and Greg Iles being ferried to an RBR event by being pushed on a flatbed cart.  Kindle ain't got no videos!  It's nonessential stuff, perhaps, but given the choice between having it and not having it, who'd opt for not having it?  The price difference is about $7, and based on the little extras like this and the wide gap in attractiveness-of-design, the iBooks version is the clear champion.

Let's do a comparison.  The iBooks version contains a feature allowing you to zip from one "chapter" of the book to the next; each chapter heading shows tiles of the individual pages beneath it, so you can go from the main page of each chapter directly to one of its individual pages.  For the Sam Barry essay, that looks like this:

Here's the first page of the essay from the Kindle version:

Perfectly readable, sure; but compared to the iBooks version, it looks slapped-together.  At best, it looks slapped together; there are plenty of places where it looks worse.  Example: the following fax from Pearson to Goldmark:

this looks like a complete page

this also looks like a complete page; but:

this definitely does NOT look like a complete page

There is, from a formatting and design standpoint, no excuse for not figuring out a way to squeeze that last line -- the friggin' signature! -- onto the previous page.  Giving an entire page to that signoff is just sloppy and awful, and whoever did it ought to be spoken to.  That sort of thing happens repeatedly in the Kindle version, frequently with photo credits, which ought to appear right beneath the photo itself, but more often than not get shunted off onto the next page, where they sit all by their lonesome, looking pathetic and dejected.

It isn't a big deal, especially if you're reading it on a Kindle as opposed to on a laptop.  Hell, I can't even verify that the formatting appears that way if you're reading it on an actual Kindle device; I don't have one, so I can only speak to the PC app.  But either way, compared to the iBooks version, the thing just looks like ass.

Ridley Pearson -- possibly best-known to King fans as the ghost-author (no pun intended) of The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer -- contributes an essay called "The Green Room," wherein he offers up descriptions of his fellow bandmates.  Here's an excerpt from his paragraph on Dave Barry:

The other person always seems to come first for Dave -- I'm not sure there's a better compliment to be paid for a human being.  He claims to be agnostic, and yet I don't really believe it.  The son of a preacher, Dave has an indomitable spirit.  He can frustrate the hell out of you, because he knows everything.  I mean it: He knows everything.  He doesn't claim to know everything; he just does.

Good stuff.  Apart from Ellen Rimbauer, I've never read anything by Pearson.  One of the byproducts of reading Hard Listening is that I now have a desire to go out and read every single thing every written by at least a few of the authors present here.  That's unlikely to happen, but I betcha I end up reading something by all of them before too much longer.

James McBride contributes an essay called "A Truly Horrible Band," wherein he talks, amongst other topics, about how incredibly shitty the band was.

Amy Tan's "Fifty Shades of Tan" is a recounting of her journey as the band's resident on-stage dominatrix.  This is just as weird as it sounds.  The iBooks version will happily offer up video evidence of this; with the Kindle version, you'll have to take Tan's word for it, which won't really be that, uh, hard to do.  There are at least a few photos to give an idea of the weirdness.

Amy Tan

This is one of the, uh, longer essays in the book, and it's also one of the best.

Scott Turow contributes "Singing in the Key of H," which is the story of how he joined the band, despite not being able to play an instrument of any kind, including his own voice.  He did his level best to make up for that by wearing an increasingly odd variety of wigs.  His spleen also became on ongoing source of humor and contention.

"What I Learned in the Remainders," by Dave Barry: why have I not read more Dave Barry, exactly...?  Seems like a horrible mistake.

"My Elvis Takes It Off" by Mitch Albom tells the story of the author dressed as Elvis doing a striptease at one performance.  This chapter also includes a video of Albom wearing a preposterously magnificent Elvis-imitator wig, and the sight of that damned thing apparently tickled Stephen King so greatly that he literally fell into the floor and had to crawl around for a bit to work it out of his system.  You will see that happen if you own an iPad.  Kindle owners, you're shit outta luck.

"This Is Not About Me" by Roy Blount Jr. includes a thoroughly amusing autobiography that I suspect may be an invention, and not merely because Blount eventually verifies it as such.  Funny stuff either way.

There is a photo of a bowl of grits that made me want a bowl of grits.

Matt Groening contributes an essay titled "I Was the Man in the Marge Simpson Mask" that is about exactly what it sounds like it would be about.  Hey, I didn't know Groening could write!  I thought he was strictly an artist!  Shows what I know...

Roger McGuinn, of The Byrds fame, apparently can write, too, and he contributes a fine essay wherei he details how he came to join the band.  It's called "Hitting Rock Bottom."  Also, he apparently at soe point lost a karaoke game because he was unable to sound as much like himself as the computer thought he ought to sound.  Ouch...

" 'More Cowbell!' " by Greg Iles finds him tossing off a few stories about some of his fellow Remainders; his is one of the many essays in this book not written by Stephen King that prominently feature King in the guise of anecdotes from bandmates.  So for you Kingphiles who think there might not be enough actual content by King to justify your purchase, know that he is discussed frequently by his fellow authors.  Especially Iles, who, like King, was involved in a terrible car accident; this was years after King's, and Iles actually lost a leg.  That leg has been replaced by a fine-looking metal one, though, and he looks like a bit of a badass with it.

King contributes an essay called "Just a Little Talent," and for those of you who have read his essays before know, he's just as good a storyteller in nonfictional form as he is in fictional form.  This is the tale of a King we never knew existed: one who, during all the years in which he made the journey from aspiring writer to household name to living legend, carried a guitar with him the whole way.  It was a guitar he could never play as well as he wished, but the moral of the story is this: don't let not having talent dissuade you, because sometimes having merely a little talent is sufficient.  It's a great essay; if not the best in the collection, certaily close to the top of the pile.

After that comes a lengthy series of emails from various members to each other and to the group.  Then, something called "The McGuinn Karaoke Challenge...For Authors," which consists of four short stories.  Each is written in emulation of the style of Stephen King; one of them is by King himself (the others are by Pearson, Dave Barry, and Iles), and the fun for readers lies in trying to guess which one is his.

The iBooks version gives you the ability to actually vote for your pick, but don't fear: after the fourth story, you will be told who wrote what.

I was immensely proud of myself to have picked correctly.  Not only that, I correctly identified who wrote each of the stories!  I won't spoil the fun of divulging which is which here; you'll have to buy the book for that.  There is also a fun piece by the Book Genome Project, which analyzed all four stories and makes analysis/predictions of who wrote what.  The results...may surprise you.  Or not.

And that is basically it.  Twelve essays, all good, several great; four short stories, one of which is by King himself; and a lot of tidbits like emails, faxes, and whatnot.  I was greatly entertained by it all, and if a print edition is ever published, I'll happily buy a copy.


  1. Greatly looking fwd to this one, especially this guess-the-author bit at the end. Sounds like fun.

    I've always meant to devote more time to almost-every non-King author in this collection. Amy Tan in particular; she seems like a pretty cool lady. I read Joy Luck Club around the time the movie came out, but I remember very little about it. (If I don't re-enforce something with a re-read at some point, off the cliff into memory oblivion it tends to fall.)

    Looks like the iBooks was the way to go, most definitely.

    1. Boy, you're preachin' to the choir on the subject of rereads. I've had to begin blogging about things in order to remember 'em! ;)

  2. I was wondering if this was strictly digital, or a digital and print deal, thanks for the info.

    Random Remainder thoughts:

    First, there's the CD....

    Oh dear, the CD!!!!!

    It's called "Don't Quit your Day Job", and all I can say is, when you here King belting out Bo Diddley, or Matt Groening and Joel Selvin, and Roy Blount trying to do "Wild Thing" (PRAY YOU NEVER DO!!!!) I can understand why they called it that.

    My advice, handle with salad tongs or medical forceps.

    Thoughts on Individual Remainders:

    I don't know if he's in the "book" however one of the most contentious personalities is supposed to be Rock critic Dave Marsh.

    People (especially, I'm just guessing, Selvin) accuse Marsh of being either too elitist or exclusive in his Rock musical taste. The overall complaint goes something like, "Oh all he's capable of enjoying is Springsteen and any music he deems worthy to fit in that type of mold."

    A lot of it comes fro mhis scathing reviews of musician's others like, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash or Bob Dylan and Neil Young, or even Roger Mcguinn (he even claims the Beatles 67-8 material is nonsense). I've even heard him claim that what those musicians do isn't Rock and Roll.

    So from that perspective, I can see where a lot of his critics are coming from. Heck, in his (overly-adulatory) Springsteen bio, Marsh even goes so far as to quote from one critic who claims he's "Stuck in 1962", to which he essentially replied, he doesn't care (to which I'd add, even if his critics are maybe right).

    So why read him? Well, he's got a lot of heart, and while some of his convictions come out with a bit of exclusivism, I recognize that it comes from a slum kid who got out and made good, and what helped him was the rock music played there.

    So I can't say I always agree with him, but as someone who's been around barrios, I can at least respect where he's coming from.


    1. More random Remainder thoughts.

      Dave Barry.

      Huh, how exactly do you sum up someone like Dave Barry, especially without swear words.

      No, I kid.

      The truth is the best way to describe Barry may not make much sense, but in a way, he's kind of like a Modern Day Savant.

      I hope I didn't mis-write or imply anything wrong there but, he just seems to have this funny ability to find himself in a situation, give it a look over, and then sum up the absurdity of it in the simplest, yet most profound terms.

      I know that probably doesn't make much sense, but it's the truth, even with the MAD Magazine inspired wit thrown in (and it's not like MAD was never on target some of the time).

      Yyyyyyeah, if I seem to be making him into this Confucius character or something, didn't mean anything like that. He's just so damn funny and sharp.

      By the way, is there anything in the book by, or about Warren Zevon?


    2. Zevon is name-checked a few times, but there is no content by him, nor any that directly concerns him in any meaningful way. And now, I cannot resist typing this: better stay away from him; he'll rip your lungs out, Jim...but I'd love to meet his tailor.

      Similarly, Dave Marsh is not represented. I'm not familiar with his work, but I think I aim to keep it that way. Any Springsteen fan who hates Dylan is probably worthless to me (the last song that played in my car on the way home was Springsteen's version of "Chimes of Freedom"!), and if he slags The Beatles in the process, you can eliminate the "probably."

      As for Dave Barry...yeah, I can actually picture him as a bit of a Confucius figure. I've only ever read a few short pieces by him, but they all made me laugh. I know beyond any doubt that his work would be right up my alley. I'll get around to it, one of these days. And thanks to the tenuous Stephen King connection, I'll probably report on it here. Look for that circa 2037, though; it probably won't be much sooner, sad to say...

    3. And now, for the sake of wasting everyone's time...

      Critic Peter Chattaway wrote an interesting article about the "Three Phases of Pixar" recently:

      It got another critic, Steve Greydanus to write a commentary on that article:

      Apparently, Chattaway must have read the Greydanus commentary, because he soon wrote a follow up essay.

      Here's Chattaway's follow up to Greydanus, where he discusses the idea of an Incredibles sequel:

      As for an Incredibles sequel, only two ideas seem to stand out, one is the little baby character and what he could grow into, another is an element of the first movie where the villain says he designs weapons, and it's implied he either works for, or sells them off to the government and various international rivals. Then there was that computer hit list of all the superheroes.

      The question that brought all these together was, what if that guy really was working with the government to help take out all the superheroes covertly?

      This is nothing official, here, just random musings.


    4. As to the baby...

      I had three components in my idea for him. One came from actually opening a comic called "The Book of Magic" and seeing John Constantine for the first time and I liked the idea of this kid being a bit of a wiseass, so I gave him Constantine's brown coat over a regular Incredibles uniform.

      Somehow, the idea of him being also kind of bookish, as well as a wit, was something I liked (probably drawn on personal experience, and skip the probably). The way it worked was to contrast him off the rest of the family.

      Mom and Dad are basically just Superman and Wonder Woman if they got married and had kids (all to likely now with New 52), the son is your average jock, the sister is a valley girl, which leaves just the little brother as kind of bookish comic/book/computer nerd with a bit of a smart-mouth. Basically, he would be Egon and Venkman combined, with a bit of Ray thrown in for charm.

      As for his powers, the third component, based on what I saw in the first movie, it got me thinking of the T-000 from T-2 and wondering, well, what if he were good guy?

      I liked the idea of this quiet kid who could put someone through a wall if messed with, and who would also pursue a villain with dogged determination of the T-000, except he's maybe 10 and wears a miniature version of Constantine's coat.


  3. For the benefit of anyone who's interested in such things:

    Didja know that this got released in trade paperback in 2018? Sure did. I didn't find out about that until a couple of days ago, but it's true.