What it means: A secondary independent melody that complements the primary melody; together, the melodies form a type of music known as polyphony.
How you can use it: To describe a conversation where people are not quite disagreeing.
We're used to thinking of "counterpoint" as meaning "rebuttal," because of the "Point/Counterpoint" feature on 60 Minutes (and vintage Saturday Night Live). In music, though, the counterpoint melody actually picks up key components of the main melody, throwing the main melody into high relief. One example of counterpoint in popular music is Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," where the "Canticle" melody runs along underneath the main tune.
Another example is the instrumental tracks on the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows," which may be the greatest pop song ever written -- and is a highlight of one of the books I read this week.
What I Read This Week
Wallace Stroby, The Barbed-Wire Kiss. After three people recommended this to me at Bouchercon last weekend, I had to buy a copy -- and what an impressive first novel it is. Harry Rane is a widower and former state trooper who's retired after being shot; feeling himself sink into a dangerous depression, he agrees to help out an old friend who owes a lot of money to a minor-league crime boss. What Harry doesn't know is that this crime boss is married to Harry's first love, a woman he hasn't seen in almost 20 years. Great, moody crime fiction, and it reminded me a lot of David Corbett's equally excellent The Devil's Redhead.
Jim Fusilli, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. This small paperback is an extended, heavily autobiographical essay about the Beach Boys' greatest album, and is one of the best things I've read this year. It wrecked a whole morning of work for me, because I couldn't put the book down -- and then I had to listen to the whole album, beginning to end, reliving the spring of 1979, when I heard it for the first time. Even if you don't like the Beach Boys, you should read this book, which has so much to say about music's power to comfort us and give our lives shape.
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. You like Bill Bryson's brand of smart-ass humor, or you don't; I do, and greatly enjoyed this account of his journeys along the Appalachian Trail. He's a little harsh on Southerners, but has kind things to say about Virginia, so I'll let it slide. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is something I've thought about doing for years, but this book makes it clear that it's no project for dilettantes.
Tod Goldberg, Simplify. Tod's a pal of mine, an excellent writing instructor, and keeps a hilarious blog. It's easy to forget what an amazing writer he is. This collection of short stories gives us a rogue's gallery of men (most of the stories are narrated in first-person, present tense) who are coming to grips with crises, stumbling wounded through life. The stories are bitingly funny, horribly sad, and profoundly wise, sometimes all at once. All of them, ultimately, come down to the last lines of "Comeback Special," about an Elvis portrait that mysteriously starts to bleed:
Some of the simplest questions are the hardest, I think. Where are you going? How are you doing? Who do you love? What makes you happy?
When are you coming back?