Sunday, December 31, 2006

Six Hours and Counting

Happy New Year, everybody. Sweet lord, it can't be worse than '06.

Be safe out there. See you Tuesday.

Will the Real Plano Please Stand Up?

Unbeknownst to me, there's been a debate raging online about the true nature of Plano, Texas. The main participants are Mickey Kaus of Slate and blogger and widely published journalist Virginia Postrel. The issue, as summarized by Postrel, is: "1) Is Plano really a conservative (or socially conservative) place? 2) Does it say anything about liberal causes that Brokeback Mountain and An Inconvenient Truth did well in Plano?"

I went to high school in Plano and then lived in the general area again for a few years after college, so it's a debate that interests me, partly because Plano is indeed the prototypical exurb of the 21st century, and I see its influence creeping up everywhere, from other cities in Texas to the areas of Long Island where I grew up to even Brooklyn.

As far as I can tell, Kaus initially said that the success of those movies proved that Plano is not a "conservative bastion." Postrel, who lives in nearby Dallas, begged to differ with a more detailed analysis of the place. One of Kaus' posts can be found here, and Postrel's take on her blog is here. She also wrote a longer piece in Texas Monthly, which is available by subscription only.

For those of you who happen to subscribe, here's the link. For those who don't, allow me to summarize. Postrel writes that in the midst of the culture war this time last year:
...New York Times columnist Frank Rich momentarily called a cease-fire. Brokeback Mountain was a heartland hit, he told anxious liberals. It represented “a rebuke and antidote” to President George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The movie, which he acknowledged has “no overt politics,” was “not leading a revolution but ratifying one.” After all, it was even doing well in Plano, Texas.

Nonsense, replied Los Angeles-based blogger Mickey Kaus, of Slate. Plano is no indicator. It’s not the land of pickups and gun racks; it’s just a bunch of yuppies. Kaus, an iconoclastic Democrat, quoted a reader who wrote, “Plano, TX is NOT the heartland. It’s a ritzy, upscale, SUV-choked, conspicuous-consumption-driven Dallas exurb populated by more east-coast ‘expatriates’ than native Texans.” In other words, this suburb isn’t Middle America. It’s an affluent island of educated blue in a sea of ignorant red. It’s a bunch of people who think more or less like Kaus and Rich. ... “What is Plano really like?” suddenly became a hotly debated question in the political blogosphere. The answer matters not because online pundits are considering relocating but because Plano has come to symbolize the fast-growing territories of Red America. As Plano goes, perhaps, so goes the nation. It’s the quintessential “boomburg” and the new Peoria: the touchstone Middle American town, a bellwether for retailers and culture watchers alike.
Postrel goes on to describe Plano pretty accurately:
It allows residents to live a scaled-up, globalized version of the family-centered life of the postwar suburbs, a twenty-first-century Wonder Years. While you can find a $7 million estate in Plano, you can also buy a perfectly reasonable vintage ranch house, possibly with a pool, for less than $200,000. From that address, you can send your kids to excellent public schools. By contrast, on Kaus’s modest street in Venice, a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow was recently on the market for $754,000, making it one of the cheapest houses in the area (and the schools are lousy).

The economics of Plano change the sociology and the politics. Plano is more conservative than Silicon Valley at least in part because its cheap real estate and good public schools support a more traditional lifestyle. Many families don’t need a second income to live a comfortable middle-class life. Mothers can stay at home or work, often part-time, for personal fulfillment and luxuries like family vacations. These educated women also provide a safety net in hard times, like the tech crash. You don’t have to be work-obsessed to live in Plano, and at least in some circles, a work-oriented life seems rather eccentric.

Most Planoites would never ostracize the irreligious, if only because that wouldn’t be polite. But they also don’t really understand resolutely secular people—just as the New York Times has trouble grasping that smart, good-hearted, well-educated people can be conservative Christians. Cosmopolitanism, in both varieties, has its limits.
But I think Washington Post style writer Hank Stuever, who Postrel quotes, got it closest to right with the fewest words when he wrote that Plano "(embodies) everything both dreamily enviable and vaguely unnerving about modern paradise.”


Late Addition to the Love Fest

Just in time to say I loved it during 2006, I've been catching up on "30 Rock," the funniest sitcom I've seen in some time. You can watch all the full-length episodes here. Start in order, because the pilot and the second episode are hysterical. The cast is brilliantly chosen and uniformly terrific: Tina Fey (who created the show) is great, Tracy Morgan is insane and insanely funny, Jane Krakowski's timing is genius, the supporting characters all hold their own... And then there's Alec Baldwin, who steals every scene he's in. Between this and his hosting gigs on "Saturday Night Live," I think it's inarguable (if weirdly) that he's one of a handful of the best comedic actors on the planet. Watching him reminded me of his classic scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, and his parody of that scene on SNL. Enjoy both, please:

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Things I Liked in 2006

Enough out of all of you. And apologies if this reads a bit thrown together, but for the love of God, this stuff isn’t going to post itself. If I wait much longer, I’ll have to fold in my 2007 favorites.

So, in no particular order:

Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady

Everything I read about The Hold Steady had me prepared to hate them. Small and devoted hipster following. Got bigger after moving from the midwest to Brooklyn. Singer talk-spews more than sings. Eek. But I’m telling you, I took a long drive with this record and it was all I could do not to pull over to the side of the road and start moshing.

OK, I don’t mosh.

Plus, more accurately, this album inspires behavior somewhere between lifting a lighter high in the air and pulling your girlfriend into a moving car in order to stage full-scale dramatizations of early Springsteen songs. The music here sounds a lot like the E Street Band, and Thin Lizzy, and Cheap Trick, and I swear to God, Bon Jovi. But it works. No, leader Craig Finn can’t sing. But he can write (the lyrics are razor-smart), and the band behind him touches so many guilty-pleasure bases that you end up too dizzy to ask for more.


Hotel Lights

I’ve written about these guys before, so you should probably just revisit that post, keeping in mind that the album only continued to grow on me after I initially recommended it.


The History Boys (on Broadway)

I enjoyed the movie, too, but it was born as a play and it’s best as a play. Everyone in the cast was terrific, and Samuel Barnett’s performance as Posner was especially moving. Listening to him sing “Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered” was probably my favorite moment of the year.


Road trip

Last spring, I embarked on the Second Annual Baseball and Cultural Exploration Across America with close friend, beef-jerky expert and polymath JF. I got to show him around Texas, a perfectly livable state (other than the fact that it was mid-May and it already felt like the surface of the sun), catch up with some old friends, visit family, take in a few games, and generally have a blast. Highlights included meeting the adorable children of two close friend-couples (four friends in total) in Austin, tipping back a drink (instead of several -- damned lack of public transportation) at a favored watering hole in Houston, and spending time with the usual band of outlaws and kin in Dallas. If you’re interested in learning more (and how could you possibly not be?), the experience has been preserved here.


Jennifer O’Connor

On both her full-length album, Over The Mountain, Across The Valley and Back To The Stars, and her ep, Another Side of Jennifer O’Connor (which includes a top-notch cover of Dylan’s “To Ramona”), O’Connor sounds gritty and maybe even a little mean, but she has an ear for a hook and a pleasingly raspy voice. If you don’t like either “Exeter, Rhode Island” or “Sister,” then there’s probably nothing here for you.


The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

If you haven’t had access to any organ of literacy for the past few months, let me tell you: The Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher (pronounced "oar"), a very poor, very, very large teenager in Memphis who is somewhat miraculously accepted into a private school and adopted by a wealthy white evangelical family. He also becomes, after barely playing an organized game, one of the most highly pursued football recruits in the country. It’s a story that clearly belongs in the "Fiction, Truth Stranger Than" file.

Yes, Lewis has a way of exaggerating his tales until they take on the shine of myth. And yes, he’s getting a bit Gladwellian (and I like Gladwell) in the way everything has to serve a larger thesis. And yes, there are some aspects of this story (particularly the sham that is the “academic” side of big-time college athletics) that he doesn’t take to the mat in quite the way he could or should, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Lewis could write a 900-page book about the manufacture of a single paper clip, and I would be in line to buy it the day it was released.


Band of Horses

Their self-titled album has held up better than anything else released in ‘06. The production has a satisfying amount of reverb and spaciousness without becoming gimmicky, and even though several songs sound the same, it’s not in a “Come on, try something new” way. It’s in a “More, please” way.


The Greatest by Cat Power

This is neck and neck with Band of Horses for record of the year. Pristinely produced, it reins in Chan Marshall’s more esoteric impulses and turns her into something resembling a standards crooner (in a good way). The veteran Memphis players who back her up don’t hurt. I loved Moon Pix, but I was starting to worry that Marshall would end up recording mostly in large fields, underneath thunderstorms, mewling about mental fracture and drunken despair. And I’m ready for more of that, soon, don’t get me wrong. But The Greatest feels like a beautiful, clear-eyed, necessary detour that may turn into another trip entirely.


The NCAA men's basketball tournament

With occasional exceptions, the blog doesn’t really reflect the level of my sports geekdom. It’s not as much of a lingua franca in New York, so it gets buried a bit, under books and career and current events. But it’s there. And last March, I was staying up very late at night to watch what seemed like one good game after another in the first two rounds of the men’s college basketball tournament. But then, in the rounds of 16 and 8, the tournament became ridiculous. You couldn’t write as many dramatic, well-played games: Connecticut-Washington, Villanova-Boston College, Texas-West Virginia, George Mason-Connecticut. Every one of those games -- three of them went to overtime -- could be described as a classic, and they all happened in about 48 hours.


Midlake at Southpaw in Brooklyn

I don’t get to many live rock shows anymore. I’ve seen most people I want to see. I’m disdainful of the crowds and their youth. Honestly, I’m just a bit tired. But I should go more than I do. I explored Midlake after seeing the show and, as is often the case, their appeal on record just wasn’t the same. But this was a great set (opening for Cold War Kids, who were spazzily energetic and kind of annoying). I’ve read many references to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac with regard to Midlake, but I heard more than a bit of the accessible sides of Radiohead and Grandaddy.


Clive Owen in Inside Man and Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking

In Spike Lee’s best movie in ages, Owen plays a bank robber who has all the angles figured out but has to deal with an obsessed Denzel Washington. Despite having his face covered by a white mask nearly the entire time (not even a sheer mask), Owen manages to be charming and menacing and completely in control of the screen.

Thank You for Smoking was probably the new release that provided me the most laughs in 2006, and Eckhart is perfectly cast as a rascally lobbyist for the tobacco industry who’s so generous with his one-liners and his boyish grin that most people around him don’t mind that he doesn’t have the first trace of a conscience. Even when you think the movie is going to sell out the performance and have him Learn Something, you’re in good hands. He’s so great that he even overcomes others who were miscast (hi, Suri’s mom).


Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

I’ve said of only a few people that they can make me laugh just looking at them, but I’m not sure I’ve ever meant it as much as I do with Chappelle. He can be brilliantly funny on purpose, obviously, but he also makes me smile when he’s just ambling down the street. It probably says something about what a neurotic mess I am, but I sometimes just find it hysterical how relaxed he seems. (Let me beat the first clever commenter to this one: "I think I know a way you can look as relaxed as Chappelle.")

This documentary, which chronicles a concert he staged in Brooklyn, with entertaining (and insightful) side trips to his home state of Ohio, is the best time I had in a theater last year. It wasn’t the best movie, though it was good. It was a fun time the way that having a picnic with friends is a fun time. Except that, looking back, no one else in the movie (and there are lots of people) is particularly fun. It’s just Chappelle. He carries the whole thing into the air.


Penelope Cruz in Volver and Helen Mirren in The Queen

It’s no coincidence that these were probably the two best movies I saw in a theater this year -- they both feature phenomenal performances by their leads. Cruz has seemed a bit dreary to me in the past (though always stunningly beautiful), but for director Pedro Almodovar and in her native Spanish, she sparkles. The movie is the third or fourth in a row from Almodovar that’s a must-see and, even more than usual, you can’t take your eyes off Cruz.

Mirren is just bizarre, she’s so good. No matter how often I read about how lanky she is, I don’t believe it after watching her get into full frump mode to play Elizabeth in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The movie is terrific -- well written, tightly edited, beautifully shot -- but even given its many strengths, Mirren towers over it. If she doesn’t win the Oscar, it better be Cruz, or the academy will have even more than the usual amount of explaining to do.


AP Headline of the Day

Trailer Full of Broccoli Disappears

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


I'm sorry to hear that some of you are stuck in offices this week. Bummer. That makes me feel obligated to crank out some material, but the longer stuff I need to post will take a bit more time. For now, my friend Tim sent along this link to a New Yorker piece from a few years ago about the recently departed James Brown. Soak it up.
Even in his earliest, wildest days, when his determination to kill an audience was such that he would swing from the rafters, cut flying splits from atop a grand piano, and even leap from a theatre balcony into the orchestra pit, his outrageousness was carefully calculated to convey that, while he cannot be contained, he is always in control. In contrast to the appearance of effortlessness that so many performers strive for in their quest to exhibit mastery, James Brown makes the display of effort one of the most striking features of his art.

Letters from Iwo Jima

More coming in the next couple of days, and then probably a bit of silence until after the new year, but for now, if the holidays have you in the mood for grim, grim, grim, then I've got just the thing for you.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A day in Brooklyn: An ad, a bag, a statue

Forgive Me, Culture, for I Have Sinned

I've been "tagged" by my pal Ms. Boyd to write Five Things You Don't Know About Me. Coincidentally, just today I was going to post "cultural confessions" -- good examples of which can be found here and here.

Since some of you don't really know anything about me, so that any information would qualify for Ms. Boyd's query (I'm six feet tall, I'm a Capricorn, I was briefly but seriously addicted to Vitamin Water earlier this year), I'm going to answer with cultural confessions, thus killing the proverbial two birds.

1. I've never left the country. This is ridiculous, but true. It will be remedied before too long, I hope, and it's due to a variety of factors: not doing it as a child, preferring road trips to flying (I'm not an eager flyer), financial reasons, etc. The end result, though, is that I'm a rube.

2. I think Moby Dick is incredibly boring. For whatever reason, over the last few years I've overheard several people say they're re-reading this, more than any similar books. Wondering what was up, I gave it a go myself a couple of years ago. I still don't get the appeal. It somehow reads as both dry and overblown, and uninterested in anything resembling narrative force.

3. I've never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, or To Kill a Mockingbird.

4. I've started Saul Bellow novels a couple of times, with the same result -- 20 pages or so of thinking "Wow, he can really write," followed by a complete, irreversible loss of interest.

5. According to the Play Count column in my iTunes, I've listened to "Rich Girl" by Hall & Oates more than twice as many times as my most-often played song by Bob Dylan.

There. That felt good. I guess I'm supposed to ask three others to confess, too. It's the holidays, so they may not even be paying attention -- but if they are: Jason, MAW, and E.J. -- let's hear it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Nothing Could Be Finer

A great diversion over at CityRag: A list of the 50 greatest cartoons (as voted on by the industry a dozen years ago), with links to videos for all but six of them. Here's one I particularly enjoyed. The scat rendition of the Big Bad Wolf story at the end is something to behold. They don't make 'em like they used to. This is from 1946:

To read more about the original cartoon -- of which this is only a scene -- go here:
The quiet doesn't last for long as Daffy launches into a wild, short version of La Cucaracha. This short segment has a plain background, suggesting it was cartooned separately and inserted tentatively, possibly due to some slight innuendos Daffy makes about a girl named "Cucaracha", parodying Lucky Strike cigarette ads: "so round, so firm, so fully packed, so easy on the draw!"... In perhaps the most outrageous double-take in animation history, Daffy turns into a giant eyeball - complete with lashes and blood vessels - when first coming face-to-face with the Wolf before also screaming, and running for his life.
(Via Pajiba)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

North-South Mind-Meld

Since moving back to New York from Texas those many moons ago, I've tried to impress upon my northern friends that the country is really just one big continuous place these days. Our culture has made its way down south. The hip kids in Austin, and even Houston and Dallas, know about the cool bands. You know, magazines and web sites -- they travel. Fast.

But of course, the opposite is true, too. The south encroaches on the north. Not just when NASCAR talks about building a track on Staten Island, but also, occasionally, when one of New York's highest-profile venues -- say, Radio City Music Hall -- makes certain bookings. For instance? Oh....

A Programming Note

So, the last (I think) of your '06 picks are posted below. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did. Can't wait to do it again next year.

I'll be posting over the weekend, including a list of my favorite things from the year now ending, and then I'll probably shut her down until the new year. But before then, a bit more. Soon.

2006: Things You Loved (Part Six)

OK, I think this wraps things up. Many thanks to all who participated. In addition to some very high-quality writing, you turned me on to several great things I hadn't known of before, including Jay Dee's Donuts, the song "Mardy Bum" by Arctic Monkeys (I'd previously dismissed them, but this song is incredibly catchy), and the comic strip site written about below by Ms. Larson.

Be Near Me and "The Wire"

I didn't love all that much this year and haven't read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I admired Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me. It's a terrific book that holds its nerve and tone quite brilliantly. I also loved the first series of "The Wire" on DVD. And Green & Black's Organic Butterscotch Chocolate, which I'm sure you don't get over there.
Nick Laird


A timeless record, a new movie, and good food

Best album of the year: As it has been, so it shall be: Horses by Patti Smith. This album makes me want to do everything physically possible, and all at the same time. Like jumping and laying down, or having sex while drinking a cup of coffee and running. Binaries merge for Patti Smith.

Best movie of the year: Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski. Ostensibly this is the story of a love triangle, but I think to call it a mere love story would be as reductive as defining National Velvet as a story about a horse, when in fact we all know that National Velvet is about the young Liz Taylor’s undying love for a piebald gelding, as well as one young woman’s struggle to hold her own and triumph in a male-dominated sport. Mutual Appreciation is everything I want in a movie: simple, beautiful, well-acted, funny, heartbreaking.

Best things I ate this year: The big plate at Punjab on 1st Street and Ave. A, the house salad at Blue Ribbon Sushi in Park Slope, LEO (Lox, Eggs, and Onions) at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side, pigtails at Momofuku in the East Village, fresh ramen from any number of places.

Best season in New York over the course of the last 12 months: Spring.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin


The Comics Curmudgeon

If you're like me, there's a part of you, left over from childhood, that still cares about the daily comics. It's reassuring that Peanuts, Blondie, Hagar the Horrible, and Doonesbury are still doing their thing; it's somehow satisfying to be enraged all over again by the lameness of Cathy, Garfield, and The Family Circus; it's fun to revel in your total lack of connection to Pluggers, Mallard Fillmore, Rose Is Rose, and For Better or For Worse. I used to share my love and hatred of the daily comics with my mother, who read them at the breakfast table with me. When I was in college, she alerted me to some radical changes happening in Rex Morgan, M.D.: the creator died, and his successor immediately had Rex passionately declare himself to his long-suffering office manager, June. Mom mailed me the strip. We were both giddy.

In New York, you have to go out of your way to get a comics fix, and there aren't many people in my daily life who share Mom's enthusiasm for their particular brand of pleasure. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered The Comics Curmudgeon, a two-year-old blog that appreciates the insane goings on in Mary Worth and the unfunniness of Curtis even more than I do. It's scathing, impassioned, and much funnier than the comics themselves. Check out the archives of the Curmudgeon's coverage of Mary Worth from July, in which Mary is stalked by a hard-drinking Captain Kangaroo lookalike named Aldo Kelrast. Good stuff.
Sarah Larson

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

2006: Things You Loved (Part Five)

And now a word from my friends in the Lone Star State:
Casino Royale

Though I'm a huge Bond fan (books, movies, cheesy theme songs), I fully acknowledge that half of the 20 previous official Bond flicks are bad (the original, campy Casino Royale starring Peter Sellers and David Niven doesn't count, nor does the rogue Never Say Never Again). But that is really beside the point. Once you get into a Bond frame of mind, you accept and even relish some of the badness. That said, with each new release, I do pray and hope for a truly good movie that will revitalize the franchise, something the recent Pierce Brosnan installments, record-breaking grosses aside, most certainly did not do. It wasn't Brosnan's fault. He made a fine Bond, but the scripts were just horrible.

So, imagine my joy to be able to say that Casino Royale is one of the best Bond movies ever made (although, it is hard to top From Russia with Love or Goldfinger). What makes it extra sweet is that Daniel Craig was so maligned before he even had a chance (too blonde, not suave enough, etc.) But after seeing him try on the most famous tux in movies and strut his stuff, I can say that he is the best Bond we've seen. And I am including Sean Connery here.

Finally realizing that they had come to the end of the road with invisible cars and ridiculous world-domination plots, the Bond powers-that-be wisely decided to return to basics. Call it Bond Begins. This Bond is not super-confident and he does not have all of the answers. This Bond falls in love, he bleeds, he's sometimes overpowered. This Bond is real.
Ray Evans


British band, modern film noir, and a writer friend of mine

Best CD:
Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

The members of this British band don't play their instruments like Eric Clapton, and they don't sing socially important songs about war or poverty, or about the ethereal and elusive nature of love. They sing relatively straightforward indie-rock songs about tyrannical bouncers, getting in trouble with your girlfriend, and the inadvisability of text messaging after midnight and a few beers. In other words, they're less John Lennon than Joe Average. But their songs are fun and upbeat and it’s difficult to resist singing along. My favorite song of 2006 is probably "Mardy Bum" from this album. "Mardy" apparently means "sulky," but the song and this album are anything but.

Best Movie: Brick

It’s a Dashiell Hammett, hardboiled 1930s detective novel transplanted into a modern-day, Southern Cal high school. It has the archetypal characters, the dense lingo, and a murder that's got to be solved by a damaged but principled loner. I had to watch it with the closed captioning on to follow the dialogue (I'm a moron), but in the midst of a surprisingly great performance, the kid from Third Rock from the Sun delivered my favorite line of 2006 when he was being threatened by a group of druggies: "Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you." This is by no means an Oscar winner, but it's an intriguing concept that made me wonder why it hadn't been done -- or at least done this well -- before.

Best Book: The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman

Reviews often describe it as a more literary Dan Adams (of The Da Vinci Code), but that's like saying The Godfather was a more cinematic Eight Heads in a Duffle Bag. I’d be remiss if I let you escape 2006 without reading this book.
-The Comish (sic)


A championship moment

For four hundred and two seconds on January 4th, my innards may have ceased to function. If not for the simple fact that I continue to exist, I would have no evidence to the contrary. For almost seven minutes, not including commercial interruptions, I could not tell you if my muscles moved, my eyes blinked, or if my lungs took in, or subsequently released, air. As far as I can tell, during that time, I consisted simply of my eyeballs and the sweat glands located on the underside of my hands. With 6:42 remaining in the 2006 Rose Bowl, my beloved University of Texas Longhorns were behind twelve points to USC; a team that many had deemed "the greatest college football team of all time." Any other year, I would gracefully lay down my king, acknowledge defeat, and scan the TiVo for an old "Veronica Mars" episode. Any year but this year.

Some people believe that evidence of God can be seen in the birth of a child, in an awe-inspiring waterfall, or in the burn marks on a tortilla. All the evidence I will ever need is in the existence of a burnt orange number 10 draped across the body of Vince Young. Near 1500 B.C., Moses parted the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Some 3,500 years later, another red sea parted, a sea of red Trojan jerseys, leading Young to the end zone and the Texas faithful to the promised land.

As Matt Leinart's final pass sailed out of bounds, the promise of a national-championship Longhorn team became reality and I began to regain feeling in my extremities. I found myself awash in the joy of almost 31 years of patience, hope, and prayer finally coming to fruition and an overwhelming need to pee. During the course of the next 348 days, Vince has gone on to the greener pastures of the NFL, and the Longhorns have returned to their previous form of pissing away games they should easily win late in the year. Yet for me, the 348 days following and the 11,671 days preceding January 4, 2006, are of little to no college football consequence. I will always have 01/04/06; I will always have four hundred and two; I will always have that burnt orange 10; and no one can take that away from me.
-Jason Wiseman


Goodness of heart, tunes, a book, and a vacation

Philanthropy: I’m really into the idea of microloans. Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses and entrepreneurs in the developing world. For $25, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. You can make a huge difference in an individual (or family’s) life for less than the price of dinner and a movie (or just dinner). And to date, Kiva’s repayment rate is 100%. It wasn’t started in ’06, but I heard about it this year, so I’m counting it.

The RED campaign. My second-favorite philanthropy idea, which is new in 2006. I love the RED campaign.

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, "Hold On." This reminds me of stuff I listened to in college when I was 21 and thought I had a lot of deep, intellectual angst (aka, time on my hands). But it also has great lyrics and inspired vocals: “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers. I know it’s unkind but my own blood’s much too dangerous.”

Mason Jennings, Boneclouds, "Be Here Now." This got me through a miserable job. “Be Here Now” was my flotation device. I think if you like Ray LaMontagne, et al, you’ll like Mason Jennings.

Books: Barefoot Contessa at Home

I don’t have this book yet, but I want it. I read it whenever I’m in the bookstore (aka library). Ina Garten is my favorite chef of all time. She’s adorable and brilliant. She actually worked in the Ford administration on nuclear energy before becoming a professional caterer, followed up with author/TV chef. She’s so pleasant, her recipes and suggestions are understandable and doable, and you just feel like you know her well enough to stay with her in the Hamptons. If only. Crowd-pleasing, simple, beautiful food in its purest form.
-Laurie Higginbotham

Home of the Brave

If you're looking for movies to avoid this holiday season, I get you started over at Pajiba. Their review of Rocky Balboa is also due up later today, and I'm eager to read it. I saw a preview the other night, and it actually looked (gulp) halfway decent. Which reminds me of a moment earlier in the week that I loved -- I was flipping through a magazine and came to a full-page ad for it. My friend pointed inquisitively, and I said, "That's the new Rocky movie." She innocently asked, "Oh, who's playing Rocky?" Indeed.

Archive of the Day

Inspired by an answer to the 2006 poll...

Musée des Beaux Arts
by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Talkin' It Out

Many of you have probably seen the video for a new holiday song that premiered on Saturday Night Live last week, when Justin Timberlake hosted. It's everywhere, so I won't post it. But it's hilarious. Turns out that Timberlake is becoming an Alec Baldwin-level host. I caught a few clips from the show online last night, and they were all pretty good -- "pretty good" for SNL these days equating with "searingly unforgettable" for everyone else. For many years, the only thing more irritating than the show was the subset of the show known as Jimmy Fallon. And though I'm far from ready to forgive him his many comedic sins (not to mention his smarminess), he returned for this sketch with Timberlake, and I thought it was funny:
(Sorry, but thanks to the geniuses at NBC, who evidently don't want word getting out that SNL is still occasionally funny, the video has been removed from YouTube.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2006: Things You Loved (Part Four)

We're nearing the finish line (appropriate, given one of the answers below). There's a special all-Texas friend edition to come, as well as perhaps a few stragglers. But for now:

Chicken, Chong Ching Style, from Grand Sichuan

Everyone always laughs when the waitress brings it to the table. I laughed the first time I saw it, too. It just looked like a prank, like something they spring on white people who don't know better. But Grand Sichuan – zero décor, zero hospitality, people cleaning long beans on the table in back – seems too no-nonsense for that. And plus, the Chinese couple at the next table was eating it with apparent pleasure, and also with total nonchalance, as if this were normal, innocuous date food; you split your ice-cream sundaes, we'll have our Chicken, Chong Ching Style.

The reason everyone laughs is this: What you order as a chicken dish (feeling faintly like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's at the mere act of saying the words "Chong Ching" aloud in a Chinese restaurant) comes to you looking like one of those wreaths of chilis that people in the Southwest hang up at Christmastime, in a dish, with maybe three quarters of a cup of diced chicken tossed in. I'm not exaggerating here: It's an entire steamer basket just completely full of those red chilis that everyone always picks off their kung pao chicken, mixed with tongue-numbing and probably narcotic Szechuan peppercorns, coated with oil and studded with frightened-looking little cubes of chicken that peer up at you as if to say, Please get me out of here, I can't take it anymore.

I should make it clear here that I'm not a member of the "quien es mas macho?" school of dining (or anything else, really). I don't have any Dave's Insanity sauce or After Death sauce or Torturous Rectal Pain sauce on my shelf. I work in publishing and take my self-punishment through the eyes, thank you. All I want from food is deliciousness.

And Chicken, Chong Ching style, is genuinely delicious. This is not to say that it isn't the hottest thing I have ever put in my mouth. It is. Wherever or whoever Chong Ching is, it must be a very tough person, place, or thing. But hot as it was, Chicken, Chong Ching style, tasted better than anything else I can remember eating this year. It was spicy and savory and salty and good, spiked with a little anise or something else very faintly sweet that made my saliva taste funny and made me want to have another bite right away. It made me feel (and trust me, I know how ridiculous it is to say this about a chicken dish) like I'd been drugged. My friends and I giggled helplessly between bites. We dug around in the oil for peppercorns to anesthetize our tongues, like kids licking a nine-volt battery. We were still laughing when the waitress came and took the dish away.
Nick Trautwein


A little of everything

Book: What Is The What, by Dave Eggers. An exceptional high-wire act; it seems the logical place Eggers' writing has been going all along. Also, my now-ex-fiancee's book, Family and Other Accidents, is wonderful and real and sad and funny and still blows me away every time I think about it.

CD: Age of Winters, The Sword. I don't think it came out this year, but I discovered it this year. These guys rock harder than I'm really ready for. The perfect album for kicking ass and ripping shit up, neither of which I do particularly often.

Movie: The Fountain. Remember when Requiem for a Dream came out, and everyone said they hated it, and then seven years later people were falling over themselves talking about how groundbreaking it was? That's gonna happen again in seven years with this movie, and that's good, since it'll take Aronofsky that long to make another damned film.

TV Show: "The Office." I don't remember the last time that learning that a television show was a rerun during a given week made me actively sad. If you're still one of those people who loved the British version (like me) and therefore refuse to watch this one (totally not me), I feel bad for you.

Web site: The Dugout, a series of mock IM conversations between baseball players, is funnier than anything else I've found on the Internets, and, as witnessed by their famous Cory Lidle post, knowing and empathetic as well.
Will Leitch


Mile 13

Although people have been participating in marathons for centuries (ever since Phidippides dropped dead in 546 B.C.), I just discovered the joys of endurance running this year, and I am here to say, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Runner's High."

A lot of people, most notably the blogger of ASWOBA, think I'm crazy for taking on this training, mainly because it means I'm no longer available for boozy happy hours, or in fact boozy hours of any sort. I know I'm not alone in my insanity, though. Marathons are seeing record levels of registrations, with the sharpest increase of registrants in the "Female, Beginner" category. For perhaps the first time in my life, I fit in with the crowd. And a sweaty crowd, at that.

Certainly, there's something to be said for the purely physical pleasure of a five-mile run, when my stride is long, my breathing deep, and the lights on First Avenue stay green in my favor. I run home from work two days a week, and I swear the drag on my back lessens the further I am from the office. When my neighbor in the Poconos shouted to me, on my return leg one leafy afternoon this October, "How far you goin' today?" I felt so strong when I shouted back, "Seventeen!" knowing I only had three of those seventeen left to go.

But perhaps, if I may indulge in a moment of universality, what I really love about endurance running is setting a seemingly impossible goal, and then very practically pressing forward to achieve it. Impossible goals are relative, right? For some, it may be to read a book a month, or to have a civil conversation with their mother. For others, it may be to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or see 15% increases in their stock portfolio. This is my relativity: on January 14, 2007, I am going to run 26.2 miles without stopping, puking or injury. But what's your impossible goal, and how are you going to attain it?


The Mountain Goats (Bowery Ballroom, 9/30) and The Sartorialist

As you've read here in the past, The Mountain Goats is basically just one guy named John Darnielle. I won't go into detail about why I personally dig his music -- that would take a while. I'll just say that he's truly an original, which seems so rare these days in the world of popular (or even fringe) music, and to witness him tell his smart, painful, plaintive song-stories in the intimate Bowery Ballroom felt akin to being a fly on the wall in Jackson Pollock's barn as he worked. Spontaneous, a little dangerous, and a lot beautiful.

"Sart," as his readers call him, is a fashion photographer and writer who has regular features in GQ and on, and also assiduously maintains his own site. I discovered the blog through a brief recommendation in a magazine and have been semi-addicted since. It's not great reading (in fact, I almost never read the text of his posts, which is usually minimal anyway); it's his photography that provides the allure. I would never list fashion among my interests, but, true to the blog's title, Sart's focus is on personal style and composure more than trends and surface beauty. Maybe it's a guilty pleasure, but I find the parade of slice-of-New-York-life characters set against a myriad of city streetscapes to be irresistible eye candy.
Leigh Williams

Mascot Blotter

We interrupt the year-end festivities to bring you late-breaking news about a football team being sued for $20 million because its mascot injured a player:
T-Rac is played by Pete Nelson, director of mascot operations for the Titans. As T-Rac, he wears a raccoon costume.

"It was the duty of the mascot to perform his job in a manner that would not cause injury to the opposing players," the complaint said.

2006: Things You Loved (Part Three)

More of your recommendations -- not all of them from 2006, but all of them loved...

Untold Stories and a new Lassie

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett, a collection of sketches, diary entries, book reviews, and film articles, was easily my favorite this year, particularly his recollections of growing up in working-class Leeds in the ’40s. Poignant, funny, human, self-effacing and kind of quietly sensible – even when Bennett is writing about friends who have died or his frightening bout with cancer, he is never melodramatic.

If DVDs are included, then I must add Lassie. I'm not kidding. The film, briefly in theaters last year, has no resemblance to the treacly American version. Set in Yorkshire in the late ’30s, it is often pretty grim, in the best tradition of children’s stories. The cast is fantastic, from the marvelous, magnificent Peter O’Toole as the Duke of Rudling to Samantha Morton to Peter Dinklage as a traveling puppeteer. I never cry at movies (I sat stone-faced through both Terms of Endearment and Beaches) but I sobbed from beginning to end.
Jancee Dunn


Violence in diners, Tolstoy, Amis

Trying to think back to a book or movie that really stood out, I'd have to say the whole setup of A History of Violence was terrific. I'm a sucker for diners and violence (Pulp Fiction still has the best diner scene, however).

And my "I'm really kind of enjoying this more than I should" award for a book goes to Anna Karenina. I thought I’d pick it up and nod off on the couch. His characters are more real than some people I know.

The Information by Martin Amis, just to add another novel, is the funniest book I've ever read.
Matt Marinovich


An old thriller and Sparklehorse

The term "psychological thriller" should be permanently stricken from the English language. However, first it should be applied to Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now. Donald Sutherland (with awesome '70s 'fro) and Julie Christie go to Venice to forget the death of their daughter. There, the husband comes to believe her ghost is stalking him through the city. Moody, suspenseful, and visually hypnotic.

Good Morning, Spider by Sparklehorse – the perfect mixture of pop hooks and noise; celebration and darkness. Track five, "Sick of Goodbyes," is especially great.
Tim Lake


A work of art, almost seen

I've been asked to recommend something I greatly enjoyed in 2006. I can unequivocally recommend a work of art, a great work of art, that I have never seen. Let me explain. In June I went, as I have done for the past three years, to a large contemporary art fair that takes place annually in Basel, Switzerland. One hasn't nearly enough time to see all the art on view, and the average viewing time per artwork is something like .6 seconds. If you're lucky. The experience ends up a blur, of colors, shapes, names, dates and prices. After the fair ended, I found I had an extra day on my hands, a day I ended up spending wandering around Basel -- a small, quiet, idyllic canton on the Rhine, by the way -- in a zombielike state. It wasn't unpleasant. When I returned to New York, however, and told a colleague the story of that lost day, he asked why I hadn't instead gone to Colmar, France, and seen 16th-century painter Matthais Grunewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece in the Musee D'Unterlinden. I ought to have done that; I ought to have spent some time with a work of art as stupendously great, as wrenching and exultant, as the Isenheim Altarpiece. The point is, since June I've been thinking intermittently about the thing, especially the crucifixion scene, with its strangely marmoreal, half-collapsed Mary, and the sinewy, thorn-crowned Christ, whose splayed fingers alone are proof positive of Auden's observation about the Old Masters, that "about suffering they were never wrong."
Sarah Douglas

(click to enlarge)

Monday, December 18, 2006

2006: Things You Loved (Part Two)

More of the things you loved, with many more to follow...

Walk the Line

I saw a number of movies this year that I'll go back to: Brokeback Mountain is one that made a big splash; Junebug was a quieter success but also exceptionally good. If I have to choose a single film, though, that I loved and came out of feeling as bouncy as if my team had just won the Ashes, it has to be Walk the Line. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were both stupendous, and the music... well, the music is Johnny Cash. Top stuff.
Norman Geras


Rabbit Fur Coat - Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis teams with folk harmonizers Chandra and Leigh Watson for a decided departure from Rilo Kiley's mopey indie rock. Fusing country, folk, and soul, the album is a beautiful look at the pains of love and Lewis' frustration with organized religion. But it's more than a gimmick: Lewis' emotional songwriting is a perfect match for the album's alt-country leanings, whether it's the declamatory "Rise Up With Fists!!" or the defiant "You Are What You Love" or the cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care." A wonderful album that defies easy classification, Rabbit Fur Coat is catchy, sad, and smart. And just about perfect.
Daniel Carlson


King Dork by Frank Portman

Admittedly, King Dork wasn't the smartest or the best written book of the year. But nothing has felt as personal to me since Adam Davies’ The Frog King several years back and High Fidelity before that. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age novels, as it is, but Portman’s voice – half Salinger, half Hornby – is so infectious and lively that it's impossible not to be won over by it ... and it’s especially great for anyone who has a love/hate relationship with Catcher in the Rye. There are parts of King Dork, in fact, that I've read 30 or 40 times this year – I keep it sitting next to me for inspiration whenever I am struggling to get my inner voice in gear. It's witty, hilarious, and at times downright heartbreaking, but more than anything, it's just fun to read.
Dustin Rowles


A new back yard

I've had a hard time coming up with a single answer. In thinking about what I've loved in 2006, I see how much has happened with work and travel, and I wonder why nothing in particular sticks out as unusually amazing and treasured. Concerts? CDs? Books? This thought makes me wonder if I've made time to stop and smell the roses, which makes me think of our new back yard. THIS is my favorite part of 2006 – we moved and now we have a substantial back yard, and grand gardening plans for 2007 and beyond. The week we moved in, we planted an 'oculus draconis' evergreen and a Japanese maple in the yard, and I bought Diana a new bird bath, since the old one didn't seem to be able to handle the avian traffic of the new yard. The ugly chain link fence will eventually be replaced, but for now it affords Seth (the greyhound) a place to really stretch his legs. Here's where the rain barrels will go. Here's where the buffalo grass and longer decorative grasses will go in front of the sunflowers. Here's where I've been splitting logs for the wood-burning stove. This will be the long strip of side-by-side tomato plants. This is how the skunks and rabbits get into the yard, and that's the tree with the great horned owl. We'll take it slowly, but I can see where the yard is going, and I look forward to enjoying all of the work it takes to get there.
Jay Ryan


A worthy follow-up

This year I enjoyed A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon for two reasons (other than the story and characters). First, I was so happy he came through with a good second novel. (The first being The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I loved.) Bad novels following novels I loved can really ruin an author for me (John Irving, I'm looking in your direction). Secondly, as I am raising a small child, I am thrilled when I can finish reading something longer than a magazine.
-Shannon Cunningham


Ys by Joanna Newsom

I've never heard anything like Ys before. First of all, the objective stuff: lyrically, it stands not just with Bob Dylan but with any story Adrienne Rich or Thylias Moss ever told in poetry; musically, Joanna Newsom uses the harp in an entirely new way -- somewhere between a guitar, a piano, a bass, a harpsichord, and a music box; vocally, the elfin harshness that may have made The Milk-Eyed Mender hard to take has matured into something cleaner and more controlled. Structurally, it isn't exactly pop music, or indie rock; you could, I guess, call it modern lieder, or a song cycle, or something like that, but who cares. The proper response to this album is gratitude, and repeated listening, then more gratitude. Repeat forever.
-Jon Fasman



So, one thing that I loved about 2006, huh? One thing? But there's so many to choose from! I loved that it was an even-numbered year, that the Democrats conquered America, that Britney Spears finally dumped K-Fed, that White Castle introduced Ranch flavored chicken rings, and that my hair looked pretty good for the majority of the year, but if forced to pick the one thing 2006 gave me that I enjoyed the most above all else, I would have to choose YouTube.

Remember life before YouTube? Remember when you couldn't watch Kids in the Hall's "Citizen Kane" sketch and Cat Power videos that don't air on television whenever your heart desired? Remember when you had to actually watch Saturday Night Live if you wanted to catch the 2% of the skits worth watching, like Natalie Portman rapping gangsta style? Weren't those days awfully dark?

Sure, in the last few months they've sold out and gone corporate, but YouTube still gives me obscure music videos, Michael Richard's racist rant, and the ability to share videos of my dog in very compromising positions with the world. Good job, 2006. Well done.

2006: My Favorite Songs

Here's a laundry list of honorable mentions, and then the favored favorites with a bit more explanation. (The alternating boldface in the honorable mention is only for visual separation, not some secret code.)

"The Wait" - Built to Spill; "Deep Down" - Calexico; "Where’s My Love" - Caroline; "Patience for the Ride" - Centro-matic; "Voice Inside My Head" - Dixie Chicks; "Hot Soft Light" - The Hold Steady; "Stuck Between Stations" - The Hold Steady; "Chillout Tent" - The Hold Steady; "What You Meant" - Hotel Lights; "Motionless" - Hotel Lights; "The Big Guns" - Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins; "Good Man" - Josh Ritter; "Wolves" - Josh Ritter; "No Backbone" - The Lemonheads; "Out of Control" - Mindy Smith; "Breaking the Ice" - Mojave 3; "Woke Up New" - Mountain Goats; "Star Witness" - Neko Case; "Exeter, Rhode Island" - Jennifer O’Connor; "Sister" - Jennifer O’Connor; "The President’s Dead" - Okkervil River; "Somerville" - The Pernice Brothers; Star Mile -- Joshua Radin; "Sour Shores" - Portastatic; "Getting Saved" - Portastatic; "Life of Leisure" - Rainer Maria; "Barfly" - Ray LaMontagne; "Three More Days" - Ray LaMontagne; "Fidelity" - Regina Spektor; "Canyon" - Richard Buckner; "Before" - Richard Buckner; "Safe Sound" - Trespassers William; "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives" - Voxtrot; "Painting by Chagall" - The Weepies; "Crowd Surf Off a Cliff" - Emily Haines

"Ootischenia" - The Be Good Tanyas

For some reason, the version that I downloaded was called "Opal," but this seems to be the official title. In any case, I discovered the Tanyas this year, and they're right up my alley: Three Canadian women who channel the American south in a slightly off-kilter way. They do a lot of traditional songs and covers ("For the Turnstiles" by Neil Young, a brave revision of Prince's "When Doves Cry," etc.), but this song is an original, and it's my favorite from the record they released this year. It starts with a shuffling drum-and-banjo beat, and when it's joined by the singer's odd, boozy delivery, you're hooked. Or, you should be.

"Don’t Wait" -- Dashboard Confessional

This wasn't one of my ten favorite songs of the year, but I figured if I put it in the longer list above without explanation, you would all start thinking I look like this guy. I'm not a devoted emo fan. In fact, I'd rather listen to a three-day panel discussion on the films of Rosie Perez than attend a show with all those teenagers who scream along with Dashboard Confessional's songs. Still, the guy has an ear for catchy hooks, and here he's really belting out a stadium sound, more U2 wail than self-recriminating whisper. Plus, as much as I know it's embarrassing to ever listen to DC, there are fairly hip critics out there who take My Chemical Romance seriously, and have you heard those guys? Good lord.

"Crazy" - Gnarls Barkley

What this choice lacks in originality, it makes up for in necessity. It couldn't possibly be left off. It's this year's "Hey Ya," universally loved by all crowds, except I think this one will age better. I came to it late, on a highway in Texas, when a friend played it for me. We were driving around the state to attend baseball games, and for the next several days I probably drove him batty with my continual requests to hear it. As you must know by now, it's catchy as hell, the singing is top-shelf, and (what puts it over the top for me) the lyrics are actually an existential puzzle of sorts.

"Ain’t No Other Man" - Christina Aguilera

Less existential.

There comes a time in a man's life -- say, 8:30 on a Wednesday morning -- when he's getting ready for work and he's shamefully watching VH1 and he's reminded of the fact that, even though her albums are probably sprawling messes of vocal over-reach and pat lyrics about skank-emboldenment, Christina Aguilera can flat-out sing. In another era, she might have been something. And in fact, her double-album this year was an attempt to capture (or at least appropriate) classic sounds, as if she realizes that what she would be best at went out of style fifty years ago. I'm pretty sure she mostly failed in the attempt, but this single, which actually sounds most vintage in its sample but is otherwise very modern, is a home run.

"Trains to Brazil" - Guillemots

I think I've written about this several times already around here, so I won't bore my regular readers. For new readers, just go listen to this. You won't be sorry.

"Break Us" - Kelley McRae

This song about God's grace might be beautiful enough to make Richard Dawkins believe.

"Catastrophe" - Rainer Maria

The band broke up this year, sadly, but they went out on a great note with their last record, which manages to overcome the fact that its first track (this one) is its best. Toward the end, when singer Caithlin De Marrais is playing with the lines "I've got a plan/I'm gonna find you/At the end of the world," I'm more affected by the sentiment than I was by the entirety of the apocalyptic novel that everyone was kneeling before this year. (More on that soon.) In fact, this might have been my favorite song of 2006, except for...

"The Funeral" - Band of Horses

I'll be writing more about these guys, so for now I'll just say that this transcends even the usual and reliable pleasures of other songs (like "Creep" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit") that go "shh, shh, shh" and then "bang-bang-bang."

When Lists Attack!!

More of your favorite things (as well as mine) will be posted tonight (and tomorrow, and probably tomorrow night, and maybe the next day -- it's a bonanza of preferences!)

In the meantime, here's a ridiculously long roster of other year-end lists floating around out there, including but far from limited to 2006 music picks from New Yorker critic Alex Ross, Decemberists leader Colin Meloy, and of course, that renowned cultural arbiter, the Baltimore City Papers (which includes some picks from special guests at the bottom of the page).

Person of the Year

Wait, is this real? Did Time really do this? If so, I don't know how to react -- whether I should feel anger about the further glorification of our increasingly selfish culture, or whether I should be psyched that I was just named Person of the Year. On second thought, I think I'll react by ignoring Time. Why should this be different than any other week?

2006: Things You Loved (Part One)

Over the past couple of weeks, I've asked several friends, colleagues, and members of the Witness Protection Program to come forward and share something they loved in 2006. I've genuinely enjoyed compiling their answers (and hope that more are forthcoming), and I think you'll enjoy reading them. Because I was lucky to get a bunch, I'm going to post them five or six at a time, starting with these below. More to follow...

The opening credits of Casino Royale

The movie itself is spectacular, but the opening credits to Casino Royale are, in three words, Uh, May and Zing. Daniel Kleinman, the title designer, gives a virtual "big up" to the father of film titles, Saul Bass, in a sequence that makes me want to buy a gun and shoot someone, if only to see their body shatter into a hundred little diamond shapes.
–Jen Tadaki


Dying to Say This to You – The Sounds

This is pretty fantastic if you're in the mood for something hyper-poppy. And it mysteriously has the girl from Misshapes on the cover which is: a) not necessarily a good thing and b) odd because The Sounds are Swedish, and that girl shows no signs of being Swedish. Anyway, I have found myself listening to, say, The Killers on my way to work and wishing that – just for the duration of a few songs, at least – there was a female vocalist. So I spin my thumb in circles until I hit The Sounds (their old album is also excellent) and it's always a good decision. Plus, they're made from bits of real Swede, so you know they're good.
–Sloane Crosley


The Devil Wears Prada
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Streep was Streep, but I will longer remember the performances of Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. The soundtrack, pacing, and shots of the league leaders in the world's great cities, New York and Paris, make it watchable on a regular basis (I know I am a little weird). Having worked for a slave driver with a touch of charisma also personalizes it a bit for me. Light fare for the serious-minded, but a major treat for someone who shies away from "deep thinking."

Ford's mouthpiece, Frank Bascombe, is at his introspective best as he chews on everything from strip malls in New Jersey to the sobering reality that his future is, in large part, behind him. There is plenty of deep thinking at work here, but also a large supply of laughs as Ford/Bascombe casts a savage eye on current mores.
Jake Williams (aka Dad)


A perfectly-placed phrase

Well, this has been hard. While I didn't entirely sleep through 2006 (I read Pessl, saw The Queen, and even caught an episode of "Ice-T's Rap School"), nothing really stuck. I'm sure the fault was mine. How about my favorite sentence I read this year? Actually, we could boil it down to a favorite perfectly-placed phrase: "ugly fruit." It's from Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett (2003), describing a real putz of a villain: "there is something particularly repulsive to me about the way his hands swell, wristless, painful, at the ends of his short arms, like ugly fruit."
Edward McPherson


Donuts – J Dilla

The impact of Donuts was compounded by the fact that its producer, 32-year-old James Yancey (aka Jay Dee aka J Dilla) passed away literally within hours of its release, a victim of complications associated with lupus and an incurable blood disease. In his dozen or so years of service to the hip-hop community, the Detroit native was probably more prolific than any other beat maker, and arguably more revolutionary, continually breaking hip-hop's unspoken rules about how drums should sound, what to sample, and the way to put it all together. Donuts represents Jay Dee's most experimental work; it's more like listening to his subconscious mind – the thousands of sound clips running through his head and the patterns into which he incorporated them – than listening to any kind of hip-hop record that came before it. Sadly, we won't have that experience again, but the extraordinary vision Jay Dee expressed in his short career – nowhere more evident than here – should inspire listeners and musicians for years to come.
Strath Shepard (Visionaire)


Emily Haines
A dance performance

Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric, released a solo record called Knives Don't Have Your Back (Domino). This and Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood were the two best things I've heard all year. Forget Fiona Apple's return to form, forget Regina Spektor, even Nellie McKay. Haines is a girl at the piano who does not trade on cutesy or verbose quirk. These songs are not Performances – you don't get the sense that she's pulling herself up straight on the piano bench and clearing her throat before letting her freak flag fly. She's impressionistic, wry, bitchy, sorrowful, yearning; all the songs sound and feel effortless. Her record marries Sylvia Plath's craftsmanship and confessionalism to John Lennon's easy, wandering piano balladry. Cat Power fans will appreciate!

Also, "Dogs," a dance by Sarah Michelson that premiered at BAM. Michelson is a British choreographer who my dance writer friend introduced me to; this piece fused tropes of classical ballet to op-art to feminism to drawing room comedy. It was operatic and beautiful while being aware of where we get our ideas of both – and being aware of the fact that maybe it's too late for all that now, but she's going to try to do something approximating that anyway. Michelson grew up on a council estate going to clubs, so there's a real dry wit in her work, and a love of spectacle. Costumes and set design matter, and so do jokes. This was one of the best things I've seen – better than most movies and rock shows and even plays – this year.
The Humorless Feminist

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Central Park, Saturday Night

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Help Desk, Anyone?

I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming with a problem. I just figured out that, on iTunes, you can view stores from other countries. And in most cases, this isn't a big deal. For instance, I don't know what they're listening to in Italy, but at the risk of sounding un-P.C., I really don't care. I can only imagine that most of the rock stars there look like these guys, actual Italian rock stars, according to Google:

But there is one country, unsurprisingly, that represents a mother lode of songs that I can't find in the U.S. store: The UK.

The problem? It seems you can't buy music from other countries. Am I alone in wondering: Then why the hell can you browse through those stores?

This might seem like a simple time-wasting post, but honestly, I can't tell you how agitated I am right now. This is the kind of dilemma that could end with me making incredibly expensive phone calls overseas in order to get satisfactory answers. If any of you happen to know a possible solution, please let me know. I found a conversation online where someone was bemoaning the fact that you couldn't buy from the other stores, but that was in April 2005, or, in Internet time, 427 B.C.

2006 Through the Lens

Slate links to several of its favorite photo galleries from the past year today, and all of them are worth touring. There are shots from around our planet. There are somber shots in honor of Memorial Day, and a terribly disturbing photo-and-audio feature on the devastating effects of Chernobyl. On a lighter note, especially if you're not feeling very good about your own relationship, check out the shots of "bored couples." They're bound to cheer you up. If they don't, then maybe it is time to break it off. Just sayin'.

Her: "I like what they've done with the lobby here."
Him: "I hope this is an arsenic margarita."

Friday, December 15, 2006

AP Headline of the Day

Man to Wear Pup Costume for Shooting Dog


Brace Yourselves

Just a fair warning that sometime over the weekend, I'll start the 2006 wrap-up posts, and they might not stop until it's 2014.

Lots of good stuff on deck, and I say that, for once, with all earnestness, because a lot of it was created by other people. Several guest contributors have been kind enough to highlight something they loved in 2006, and I'll start posting their recommendations early next week. I'll get in a list of my own favorites, too, of course. Blogs are still about massive self-absorption, believe.

Artist or Turtle?

Randall Munroe at xkcd continues to crack me up:

Thursday, December 14, 2006

James Wood Reviews Sam Harris

I don't think you need a subscription to read the whole thing (so do), because James Wood's review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation is terrific. Wood is a non-believer, but in his usual smart way, he manages to be kind and respectful to any potential reader, something that polemicists like Harris aren't interested in. With half-hearted apologies for the length, here are three excerpts I found particularly thought-provoking, moving, in order, from critiquing religion to tackling some philosophy to critiquing the adamant atheists:

After years of hearing thousands of petitions offered to the Lord, I cannot recall a single answered prayer.

How would you know, asks the believer, since God's ways are inscrutable to us? But prayer is one of those cases where an inscrutability argument will not work, because one knows what one has oneself requested, and therefore what has been denied. If you pray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies, your prayer was not answered. To retort that God's mysterious way of answering your prayer--"but God needed her by his side in heaven, that's why he let her die"--might involve not really answering your prayer at all is essentially to nullify prayer, to kill it. I knew that at fifteen. Years later I read Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, with its extraordinary image of the futility of prayer: a bee, inside a room, mistaking the floral wallpaper for the real thing and briefly attempting to extract its illusory pollen.


The model is Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot," gleefully quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. If, says Russell, I told you that a celestial teapot was orbiting the sun but that you could not see it, nobody would be able to disprove me; "but if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense." God is like the teapot, we are supposed to infer. Dawkins uses Russell to argue that we cannot prove God's non-existence, but then we cannot prove anything's non-existence. "What matters," writes Dawkins, "is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't), but whether his existence is probable.... Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things."

I agree with (Richard) Dawkins's conclusion, and consider God highly improbable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occur neither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent--the content of the belief--matters here. God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in God is a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, precisely because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing, and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all, that no one has ever worshiped a teapot: it does not allow enough room to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into it.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself seems to agree with this complaint. In a recent conversation in Time with the geneticist Francis Collins (who is a believing Christian), a conversation in which both men spoke eloquently, Dawkins was pushed by Collins to admit that, in Dawkins's words, "there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible beyond our understanding." That's God, said Collins. Yes, but it could be any of billions of Gods, replied Dawkins: "the chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small." In other words, the God of a particular scripture and tradition is a parochial and inherently improbable notion. But the idea of some kind of creator, said Dawkins, "does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect." To which one should add: by definition, then, this "grand and big" idea is not analogically disproved by referring to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur.


(Harris') brand of public atheism is very good at the necessary disrespecting of religion, and it has a properly hygienic function. But how worthy of respect is it itself? The problem is that its bright certainty about the utter silliness of religion leads very quickly away from philosophy and argument. There is a dismaying gap, in these books, between the righteous anger of the critique of the many absurdities of religious belief and the attempts to account for why people have believed this apparent nonsense for so many centuries. I would rather that these writers refrained from speculation altogether than plunge into their flimsy anthropological kit bag. It is peculiar indeed to read (Richard) Dawkins's eloquent pages on evolution, and on how evolution may in the end solve the question of who created us, and then to find that very evolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical, rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believed in God for so long.

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