"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Throughout June, Salon’s staff is recommending summer books that won’t make you feel cheap and empty. (Or maybe they will, in the best possible way.) Previous weeks featured killer thrillers and chic lit.
In this third of four installments, we spotlight five first-person narratives. All of them involve some kind of escape from average, everyday reality. Some document an actual journey: Anthony Doerr describes an enchanted year in Rome, while Rosemary Mahoney takes us on her trip down the Nile in a fisherman’s skiff. Other books provide a peek at a different way of life: Paul Shirley chronicles his misadventures as a pro basketball player; Jon Katz conjures life with his animals at Bedlam Farm, manure and all; and Mary South recounts her decision to swap a publishing job for a life at sea.
No matter where you find yourself this summer, these memoirs will whisk you away.
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“Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World”
By Anthony Doerr
Bad luck may come in threes — but what about good luck? The same March night that Anthony Doerr’s wife, Shauna, delivers their twin sons, Henry and Owen, Doerr returns home to find the family’s mailman has delivered another delightful bundle: an unsolicited letter from the American Academy in Rome, offering the writer a yearlong fellowship and his family residency in a sprawling apartment high on the Janiculum Hill. And so it happens that six months later, as an autumn rain settles on their Boise, Idaho, home, the new parents pack their sons and their suitcases — full of diapers, baby formula, Italian pocket dictionaries and “two dozen Nutri-Grain bars” — and board an Airbus for the Eternal City, and the adventure of their lives.
In this slim volume composed of four sparkling chapters, each spanning one season, Doerr describes both the mishaps and the moments of wonder that go along with being a new father and a foreigner in one of the world’s most beguiling cities. The meter and rhythm of everyday life come alive in his accounts of grocery blunders (who knew the Italian phrase for “tomato sauce” was so close to that for “grapefruit sauce”?), chronic insomnia, birthdays and writer’s block, but it is Doerr’s poetic portraits of the yawning ceiling of the Pantheon on a white winter day and the funeral pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II that ring with the sublime. Forget Frances Mayes; this is not just another saccharine red-sauce and chianti-soaked travelogue. Instead, delighted by the parrots and pines outside his window, inspired by the great works of Pliny the Elder, Dante and Shelley, and awed by the layers of history he encounters beneath each footstep, Doerr has composed a bittersweet and artful meditation on the craft of writing and a celebration of the city and the senses. To the charmed reader, “Four Seasons in Rome” — like Doerr’s sojourn abroad — may feel as though it ends too soon: It’s long enough that you fall under the spell of his enchanted world, but not long enough to entirely know it. Then again, Doerr himself would be first to point out that, like a peep at St. Peter’s Basilica through a locked garden keyhole, sometimes the most stirring moments of beauty are those that remain a mystery.
— Sarah Karnasiewicz
“Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff”
By Rosemary Mahoney
Little, Brown, $23.99
It’s possible to get bitten by the travel bug simply by reading, and “Down the Nile” will leave you with a desperate yearning that has only one known treatment: a plane ticket to a far-off locale. Rosemary Mahoney documents her journey down the Nile in a rinky-dink rowboat — all by her lonesome. It’s the kind of trip most sane people would prefer to experience vicariously, without the real-life fear of man-eating crocodiles, killer heat and hostile locals uncomfortable with the idea of a woman driving a car, let alone navigating a boat down the Nile.
With vivid and unusual language, Mahoney paints the Egyptian landscape as it passes on either shoreline: “Two camels slumped along across an open plain, gliding and bobbing like sea horses straining forward underwater … Smoke from sugar factories lifted gauzily into the sky … the pretty sandstone temple … with its columns and porticoes, stood gold against the hard blue of the afternoon sky.” But her voice is also dedicatedly unromantic — she describes one stretch of the river as congested with littered power boats and ferries, the water “coffee colored and dumpy, with piles of trash spilling down the eastern bank with the distant look of having been recently unloaded from a municipal truck.”
The same can be said about her unflinchingly honest observations of local culture, which give the book its backbone. She has repeated, surreal confrontations with Egyptian men convinced that: Hillary Clinton is an example of a good wife; women simply do not enjoy sex; and the virtue of a pious Muslim woman is worth more than that of a Western woman. Then there are the local women, one of whom tells Mahoney plainly: “I wish I could be free like you.”
The actual time spent alone, meditatively working her way along the Nile in the blistering heat — a white T-shirt wrapped turban-style around her head — is poetic but ephemeral. The real story is in Mahoney’s struggle to get there — to find even just one local man willing to sell a woman a boat. In this way, the memoir embodies that travel cliché: It’s about the journey, not the destination.
“Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond”
By Paul Shirley
Like lots of sports fans, I’ve often dreamt about what it would be like to play professionally. But after reading Paul Shirley’s “Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond,” I wouldn’t wish that dream on anyone. In the tradition of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” and Ken Dryden’s “The Game,” Shirley takes readers inside the world of pro sports, but rather than a view from the top, Shirley — who has suited up for, among others, the Chicago Bulls, the Phoenix Suns and UNICS Kazan in the Russian league — offers the vantage point of a bench warmer. Whether enduring rickety plane rides to away games with his Spanish club, trying to collect his pay from shifty team owners in Greece or boiling through endless desert bus trips in the lowest depths of American pro ball, first-time author Shirley chronicles, in intelligent, sarcasm-laced prose, the day-to-day existence of his life as a baller with enough talent to eke out a living, but not enough to be a star.
A star could never have written this book, though. With no image to protect or endorsement deal to endanger, Shirley is free to take aim at the locker-room lunacy the sports pages are never privy to: shifty doublespeak from coaches; players with Bible scripture tattoos who double as serial adulterers; the mind-boggling ignorance of a guard with a multimillion-dollar contract who hopes to win the lottery and be “set for life.” But beneath Shirley’s exasperation (and envy) is the same thing that keeps us watching overpaid, undersmart athletes put a ball through a hoop — basketball is a beautiful game. It’s Shirley’s love for the sport that keeps him going through the boos and the bungled plays. The truth is: Playing basketball for a living isn’t a dream come true, but it’s still pretty cool. So is this book.
— David Marchese
“Dog Days: Dispatches From Bedlam Farm”
By Jon Katz
Jon Katz isn’t a typical farmer. He watches “The Sopranos” with his border collies, brings a boom box and some grains out to the barn for a “nightly munch-and-crunch” session with his donkey, and teaches his lumbering, two-story building of a cow to “stay.” He gives names, rather than numbers, to all of the animals of Bedlam Farm in West Hebron, N.Y., and he treats his dogs to massages, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
Katz is a seasoned writer and known for his reporting on tech culture, but most recently, he’s been consumed by all things canine. “Dog Days” comes as a sequel to “A Dog Year,” and Katz also hosts “Dog Talk” on public radio. His take on the interaction between people and pets is offbeat but charming. For every poetic pronouncement about his animals and land, he offers an unaffected observation, like, “There is some slut in almost every canine.” (Meaning: Dogs will take a lap, any lap.)
Katz seems more at ease interacting with his animals than he does with his fellow farmers. But it’s hard to blame him. For starters, there’s “3-D” (“Dead, Down, and Disabled”), the gaptoothed man who comes to impassively kill disabled animals and haul away dead ones. Then there are the local farmers who hang around Main Street every morning doing their “Grunt and Grumble” (they take turns griping about “demanding clients, the best way to polyurethane pine, truck suspensions, and the merits of buying supplies at the local hardware store as opposed to Lowe’s or Home Depot”).
As much as Katz humanizes his four-legged friends — more so, even, than the “Grunt and Grumbling” locals — he also knows these are just his own, flawed projections: “The perfect life is like the perfect dog: Neither exists, except in the fervid imaginations of humans, whose fantasies often drive their expectations beyond reality.”
Don’t expect a strong narrative arc or sentimental journey in “Dog Days”; Katz simply invites readers for the equivalent of a weekend getaway at his farmhouse. There are early mornings, frostbitten fingers, and messy cleanups (one dubbed the “Two Minute Diarrhea Drill”). But, for an urbanite like myself living in a studio apartment with only room enough for a cast-iron dog statue — rather than the real, live, breathing sort — it’s, oddly, a welcome escape.
— Tracy Clark-Flory
“The Cure for Anything Is Salt Water: How I Threw My Life Overboard and Found Happiness at Sea”
By Mary South
Mary South was at sea. Or, to be more precise, Mary South felt that without the sea, she’d be at sea. Smack in the middle of her 40s, marooned in a stone cabin in the landlocked woods of Pennsylvania, and adrift in a successful but soulless publishing job, South woke up one day and decided that the open ocean was the only cure for her crushing ennui. It was a dream that began in the pages of magazines — stacks on her coffee table that gradually grew, Professional Mariner Magazine edging out the New York Review of Books, and Motorboating replacing House and Garden — but came alive when South quit her job, sold her house and her belongings, and bought a trawler she christened the Bossanova. The water was waiting. Her rig was waiting. All she had to do was learn how to pilot it.
In “The Cure For Anything Is Salt Water,” a new memoir of her first season at sea, South winningly recounts how — as in life — the real adventures began with her education. With just one stuffed duffel bag and two Jack Russell terriers in tow, she drives to Florida and enrolls in a nine-week crash course at the Chapman School of Seamanship in West Palm Beach. Though the omens are not always auspicious — South flunks her first test and has trouble finding a single marine insurer to cover her — she stays the course. Until soon enough, with John, her classmate and odd-couple first mate at her side, South steers the Bossanova out of its slip, into the Intracoastal Waterway, and onto its maiden voyage.
The 1,500 mile journey from Florida to Maine is part dream and part nightmare, made up of gnarled mangrove islands, empty, shimmering seas, salt-crusted marinas, and spectacular and terrifying storms. But even when her first mate is retching over the starboard, South never loses her breezy infatuation with her boat, or her wonderment at the new life she’s been given. So even if your idea of the open waters is a swim-up bar at the Ritz Carlton, South’s uncluttered style and hopeful prose is charming enough to make you happy to simply float peacefully along in its wake.
— Sarah Karnasiewicz
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)