Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome, everybody, to the second book at Camp ToB, Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The novel is written as an oral history looking back on the heyday of a fictional ’70s rock band, the Six, and a young singer-songwriter from Los Angeles who joins them, Daisy Jones.
To kick off the discussion of the book’s first half, this week’s Activity Leader is Barry Lehman from Minnesota. Barry, tell us a little about yourself. What kind of reader are you?
Barry Lehman: I have been a voracious reader since reading cereal boxes and dictionaries as a kid. I read up to 100 books a year of all kinds, except perhaps romance. I am a musician, although as a trumpet player I have never been in a rock and roll band, though I would have liked to try it. I have been a pastor and an addiction counselor for my adult life and am now semi-retired, which means I don’t have to work when I don’t want to. I have been writing a blog since 2003, and I’ve enjoyed reading the Tournament of Books for several years, though this is the first time I have volunteered to jump in.
Rosecrans: Let’s start with the novel’s format—telling the story of a band as oral history, like we’re reading a roundtable discussion out of Vanity Fair. What did you think about the format when you started the book, and what do you think now that we’re halfway through?
Barry: The novel put me off when I first thought about reading it. I thought it would be one of those books about some recent-type flash-in-the-pan singer and group. When you guys chose this for me, I was disappointed—until I started reading.
First, the characters are all my age group; they’re talking ’bout my generation. That hooked me. But then I was put off by the stereotypical story—sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Which, of course, is a trope because it was reality! So I let go of that. And it ties in to my own life as a recovering person, from the late ’80s onward, and as an addiction counselor.
Through the first half of the book it was up and down about these things, but it was more realistic than I was willing to let go, at first. Halfway through, I feared where the addiction story may lead; not every rock and roller can be Clapton or Elton John.
Rosecrans: Right, and not die from the addictions.
One major thing that stands out to me, there’s a handicap for any novel composed in spoken word—that we not only lack access to characters’ thoughts and motivations beyond what they pronounce, we also don’t get to see them act on them. We’re in the dark twice-over, where anything that occurs in this story reaches us after the fact, but it’s instantly contextualized and answered for by whoever’s doing the telling. As readers, we don’t experience the events for ourselves, but we keep being told how to frame them. It takes the air out of the room, and it also renders characters flatter. And that’s not improved when we’re dealing with characters who are already fairly stock. Billy, the (sexy) songwriter struggling with his ego and addictions. Daisy, the (sexy) songwriter struggling with addiction as she comes into her ego. And then a supporting cast of long-suffering spouses, siblings, and companions.
Just on a structure level, do you find it limiting? Thus far, for me, it’s proving to be immersive, but otherwise I’m struggling. Can you help me?
Barry: I have found it to be a helpful style. As I have been reading, I know that oral histories are flawed—and Daisy Jones & the Six is making sure we know that. Conflicting stories come back to back, then one of the speakers all but contradicts their own statements. That has been able to set up a mystery or two with little hints here and there. Unlike a novel that follows some chronology, this telling of events says, “We know what’s about to happen. We know how this falls apart. See if you can catch us at it!” I keep telling myself that it’s a highly rated book; trust the author; it’s going to be worth it.
Rosecrans: Yeah, I think I’m just in a scenario where the book’s fundamentally not for me, and I wish otherwise. It’s certainly really well written—the format is convincing, the relationships are clear, the voices are defined; it’s well executed on its terms and the pages flip quickly.
Barry: There’s also a simplicity to the style that pulled me in. Daisy Jones & the Six has been able to present several angles on creativity, on addiction, on relationships, on ego. I’m still not sure which ones will come to the front in the second half, but I am intrigued.
I hope that addiction isn’t just a hook, and that something comes from it. There have been some excellent insights about that. About human nature, it just kind of slips in. Something Billy says: “You’re never not yourself. You’re always you. It’s just, sometimes, who you are… who you are is a shitty person.” So much potential in all that.
Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Daisy is a girl coming of age in LA in the late ’60s. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ’n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s 20, her voice is getting noticed. Also getting noticed is the Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road. Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: Tell me more about what you mean when you say “addiction isn’t just a hook?”
Barry: Some stories use addiction as a cliché, and the characters are often less than realistic. Either that or so depressing that you can’t believe they’re real. An interesting account of addiction recognizes the incredible ambivalence that the addict has to becoming sober.
Rosecrans: That’s a great point.
Barry: They want recovery, and know they need it, but they want the substance as well. So far, Billy has shown he wants [sobriety] for the sake of keeping his family—a very common reason—but does he really want it for himself? I’ve been honest and not read ahead in the story to find out what happens, but if he really wants sobriety, he will need to see why he himself wants it and why he would be willing to do whatever he has to do to keep it. Addiction doesn’t always have a happy ending.
Rosecrans: One thing I keep doing—unfairly—is comparing this book to nonfiction works like Life by Keith Richards, or Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin, or even Live From New York, about the makings of Saturday Night Live. Any fictional oral history is going to pale in comparison. I also find myself thinking about the Gaga/Cooper A Star Is Born, which I found to be pretty weak compared to the 1937 version with Janet Gaynor, which is still flimsier than 1932’s What Price Hollywood?—and none of those even touch the hem of, I don’t know, Sunset Boulevard.
The point is, in either fiction or nonfiction about artists, specifically musicians, what do you think is required for a book to be great?
Barry: Honesty! Patti Smith opened that up for her life. Bob Dylan played around with it—you never know when Dylan is telling the truth, but he managed quite a story. Gregg Allman was a surprise. Springsteen was able to do a lot of reflection on himself and the life and times he came from. This book is taking a slice of time in the late ’60s and ’70s and putting a spotlight on it from one angle. We are not sure who is the most honest. I think we will find out.
Rosecrans: You’re a musician. What do you think of the portions so far about the music?
Barry: Writing and performing music is a lot like writing books, or blogs, or articles. If music is in you, you can’t not do it. Daisy shows that, so does Billy, and they both have struggled to accept the other person into their writing world. But I have to admit that I have found this the weakest part of the book for me. The musical writing and performing through the first 151 pages has not come across as an interesting part of the storyline. Only as it shows the egos and selfishness of each of them has it done anything for the story. There is going to be a group blowup on stage, the narrator told us at the start. It better be good.
Rosecrans: For what remains in the novel, what questions will be asked and answered?
Barry: Who is going to be the winner and who the loser in these clash of egos? For most of the first 75 pages Daisy was almost a side character, then she explodes on the scene. Wow! We know it was going to happen, but she becomes this shooting star. Is the story now about creativity and the barriers and pitfalls of celebrity? Karen is showing a gentle side; Camila is the dutiful and supportive mother; Simone may end up being the narrator?
In the end, is this just a way of deconstructing the myth and legend of ’60s and ’70s rock and roll, and will it matter? As Pete, one of the band members, says, “It’s just rock ‘n’ roll. None of this really matters.”
Rosecrans: Yeah, that’s the main worry for me, especially for a book running over 300 pages. I’m wondering how I’ll feel about it by the end. Will it be an entertaining beach read, or something worse, or something better? Will it finally stop seeming like the novelization of a fictional movie about Fleetwood Mac? Even for a beach book, I wish it were soap-ier, sexier, more entangled or more thought-provoking, just less cliché. Barry, any final thoughts before we douse the campfire?
Barry: I also have to admit that the book does not have as great of a hook in me as I would like. Maybe I am beginning to think like you, that we’re not getting anything interior about the characters. It’s simply a lot of back and forth justifying their own place and understanding of the world.
What has kept bringing me back has been the hope of something important and interesting happening in the second half. A lot of things are set up so far. I just hope it doesn’t end up, as I said above, to be just about how it’s only rock and roll and isn’t all that important. If it is Fleetwood Mac—and I pray it is not—I will be disappointed. Good luck in the second week, and thanks for having me here.
Rosecrans: Thanks, Barry, and much appreciation to everyone reading along. Campers, chime in below and tell me I’m a dick for giving this novel short shrift, I’m ready for it. After that, we’ll see you here next week as we read the conclusion of Daisy Jones. Finally, apologies that the archery range is closed again—people, wear your eye protection!
The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar
- June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
- June 12: Bowlaway to the end
- June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
- June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
- July 3: VACATION
- July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
- July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
- July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
- July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
- Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12)
- Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
- Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
- Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
- Sept. 4: Announce summer champion