Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween or, as New Yorkers Call It, "Wednesday"

I was walking to the train this morning without a thought about Halloween when I suddenly saw a grown woman dressed as a bumblebee pushing a stroller in my direction. As she passed, I could see that her months-old baby was squeezed into a velvety bee costume of his/her own. It was cute. It was also clear that it had been done for the entertainment of the mother, not the baby, which looked like it was still working out the whole "seeing the clear edges of objects" things, and hadn't really advanced to the "appreciating pagan holidays" phase of this glorious thing we call life.

It's always good to have a clear, early reminder of Halloween like that in New York. It's a city, after all, that presents quite a challenge if you want to make a visual impression. I met a friend for lunch near Wall Street, and passed an exceedingly muscular guy wearing some variation of a hockey mask and a comically thick chain around his chest and shoulders, like a parachute strap. In most places on Earth, one's first thought upon seeing that in a financial district at noon on a crisp fall day, would be, "Hey, must be Halloween." My first thought was, "Run!," followed closely by, "Oh, right, that woman in the bee costume; it's Halloween."

Some people make it very clear, of course. In the Union Square subway station tonight, I passed three friends dressed as a vampire, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Easy. But close behind them was a male walking alone, wearing camouflage pants and a standard-issue military helmet. And I have to say, I have no idea if that guy even knows it's Halloween.

(Come to think of it, this post from a few days ago speaks nicely to the point.)

To the rest of you, I hope your day's been more treat than trick:

Mid-Week Song

Busy day today, but here's your song -- Ray Charles and friends doing "In the Evening." More later, if life permits. Enjoy:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

And Don't Have Any Chicks Yourself

Just to round out Philip Larkin Day around here (pardon the pun), this funny two-panel comic:

Which refers, as I hope you know, to this classic. The person responsible for the cartoon, Greg Stekelman, has a wistful piece up at normblog today about how difficult it is to choose books that have knocked him for a loop as an adult:
So much serious literature has washed over me, leaving shrugs and weak smiles and tempered admiration. Last month I read Erasure by Percival Everett, which was an enjoyable enough read, but I couldn't tell you the protagonist's name - and yet I can still vividly remember Will Stanton, the central character of a series of fantasy books written by Susan Cooper that I read in the 1980s.
I've got an essay of my own in that series Norm is running -- TK, as they say in the biz.

Trying, and Failing, to Ignore the Passing of Time

I was already sold on the idea of eventually buying the second volume of collected Paris Review interviews, but when I saw that Philip Larkin was included, it became an immediate need. Larkin's poetry, among other notable distinctions, gave this blog its name. He was a lifelong librarian who lived in Hull, a geographically isolated town in the UK. He rarely gave interviews, and assented to the Paris Review's request on the condition that the interview be conducted through the mail. This process occurred in 1982. Larkin would die three years later, at 63, of cancer.

As Robert Phillips wrote in his introduction to the interview:
(Larkin) took nearly five months to answer the initial set of questions sent to him at his home in Hull, England, stating, 'It has taken rather a long time because, to my surprise, I found writing it suffocatingly boring.'
It's not boring to read, as you might imagine, even though in it, Larkin details himself as a proud creature of dull habit...
What is your daily routine?

My life is as simple as I can make it. Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time -- some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next. Or there's my way -- making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.
...and a staunchly conservative critic...
Your introduction to All What Jazz takes a stance against experiment, citing the trio of Picasso, Pound, and Parker. Why do you distrust the new?

It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of modernism in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don't know why; I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.
...and, most hilariously, a proud provincial:
You haven't been to America, have you?

Oh no, I've never been to America, nor to anywhere else, for that matter. Does that sound very snubbing? It isn't meant to. I suppose I'm pretty unadventurous by nature...

And of course I'm so deaf now that I shouldn't dare. Someone would say, What about Ashbery? And I'd say, I'd prefer strawberry -- that kind of thing. I suppose everyone has his own dream of America. A writer once said to me, If you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast; the rest is a desert full of bigots. That's what I think I'd like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you're engaged; and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don't call on the minister. A version of pastoral.
Well, I'm a creature of habit, a fairly conservative critic, and quite provincial myself, so I have at least those things in common with Larkin!

I'd highly recommend these Paris Review books as an addition to anyone's library. Last year, I wrote about the first volume's interview with Dorothy Parker.

Archive of the Day

"Places, Loved Ones" by Philip Larkin

No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay;

Nor met that special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name;

To find such seems to prove
You want no choice in where
To build, or whom to love;
You ask them to bear
You off irrevocably,
So that it’s not your fault
Should the town turn dreary,
The girl a dolt.

Yet, having missed them, you’re
Bound, none the less, to act
As if what you settled for
Mashed you, in fact;
And wiser to keep away
From thinking you still might trace
Uncalled-for to this day
Your person, your place.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Sportswriter

Richard Ford had a noble piece in yesterday's edition of Play magazine in The New York Times, about the ceaseless and almost always meaningless chatter that now accompanies sporting events, often concerning story lines that take place entirely off the field:
And I don't buy the game-killing baloney from the sports media, who are forever telling me that I have a "right" to know all this garbage, and that this story just "won't go away," when in fact "they" won't let it go away. Because I certainly never wanted to know any of it and never would, and would be a better human being for not knowing it, would like the game way more without it...

A little earlier in the essay, he also had me wildly nodding my head, until he crashes the car with his parenthetical aside:
I mean, do kids now think highlights are all the game's about? Do they feel comforted — if they ever get taken to the park at all — that there are Lunesta commercials flashed up on the JumboTron between innings, and that for reasons of (I guess) cash flow and whopper players' salaries, the people in charge of sports in America have decided that live games need to look as much like TV as possible? Did any of us ask for this? ... I don’t want to be sappy about all this and wish for a time that'll never come back and that maybe never existed, anyway. But the truth is I love N.B.A. basketball, but I hate going to an N.B.A. game — because of all the dancing girls and the acrobats and the P.A. guy's tumescent, Michael Buffer-ish voice wounding my ears while some citizen in a pink mascot suit does flying dunks off a trampoline every time the timeout whistle blows. (Don't we all hate mascots?)
Oh, Richard.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

My latest over at Pajiba, for a movie you should see:
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a hard-boiled, full-throttle New York joyride that revels in seamy characters, bad intentions, and sweaty palms. Think your family is dysfunctional? Well, let's see. Are you having sex with your brother's wife on a weekly basis? Are you and that same brother botching an armed robbery ... of your own parents' jewelry store? No? Then get in line, pal.

6 BOOKS essential for your kitchen by Jon Fasman

Jon Fasman is the author of The Geographer's Library, and his second novel will be published in summer 2008 by Penguin Press. His journalism has appeared in The Washington Post, The London Times, The Moscow Times, Slate, and various other publications. He is an online editor for The Economist, and he recently started a weekly food column for Intelligent Life. He's a dear friend of mine, and has fed me very well on many occasions. Below, he writes about six of his favorite cookbooks.
Before we start, some ground rules. First, cookbooks have recipes. Obviously, this excludes some writers that every cook and gourmet should read—M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin, Jeffrey Steingarten—but they write as eaters and enthusiasts, not cooks. Recipes and writing, not pictures, determine the quality of a cookbook. That series of books "X: The Beautiful Cookbook"? They’re very pretty. Put them in your bathroom. Third, and most importantly: cooking is a joy, a pleasure, an essential part of a civilized life, and a good cookbook will reflect this. Beware rules; beware a schoolmarmish tone; beware the wagged finger and lurking disapproval. This is a particular problem with English writers (Delia Smith, Jane Grigson, etc.). One note: These are not the six best cookbooks, or the six I use the most or even the six I like the most. They are simply a viable six—not the viable six—with which to start a collection.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (1975 or 1997 edition)

Every football team needs a David Garrard: a steady, unspectacular backup who understands his strengths (and therefore his limits), won't throw interceptions, and will slide gracefully back onto the bench when his time is up. In the same way, every kitchen needs a reliable reference book. It will offer plenty of information and a broad range of recipes, but you won't cook from it very often. In the American kitchen, there really are two contenders for this position: The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. The latter is too cute, too cozy; it condescends. Joy talks to you like an adult, and no matter how skilled or unskilled a cook you are, it has something for you. It's the foundation. I find the 2006 edition a little busy, but to each his own.

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji

This is one of the best organized cookbooks ever written. You can read it cover to cover; it unfolds with the rigor, precision, and inevitability of a detective story. It lays out the seven traditional categories of Japanese food preparation; it explains why and how Japanese food developed as it did; it is as much philosophical investigation as it is cookbook. Even if you never cook a single thing from this book (and the talk of drop-lids and bamboo paddles may stymie even the most enthusiastic of us) you will understand Japanese cuisine better for reading it. And given the penetration of Japanese ingredients and techniques into the western repertoire in the 25 years since this book first appeared in English, you will understand much else, too.

[Best recipe: Salt-grilled mackerel]

The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

This is an ethnography—one of the best ever written about the Jews—in the guise of a cookbook. As befits a diasporic people, its recipes are diverse, yet Roden always explains what makes each different from its mainstream incarnation. In this way, it shows how Jews have been part of yet apart from every culture in which they lived. She writes with enthusiasm, knowledge and affection, and like Tsuji's work, her writing transcends its genre.

[Best recipe: Fish kefta with preserved lemon and cilantro]

Arabesque by Claudia Roden

Yes, I know how many millions of cookbooks there are, so how can I include two by the same author on a list of only six. Be quiet. This book is divided into three sections, one each on the foods of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. What the above book did for the Jewish world this one does for the Arab: it shows its heterodoxy and history on a plate. Roden, a Cairene Jew now resident in London, has an insider's advantage: she speaks Arabic and is widely traveled, and it shows. I tend to use this book more than the above, too.

[Best recipe I have made: Chicken kebabs with tomato pilaf. Best recipe I have not yet worked up the courage to try: Chicken pilaf encased in a pastry shell molded to look like an Ottoman tower. The secret to Arab culinary glories? Servants. Many, many servants.]

Essentials of Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan

Like Tsuji, almost perfectly organized. Before Lidia, Mario, Giada, or any of the TV-ready publicity hounds dominating airwaves and cookbook shelves today, there was Hazan, clearly, sternly (she shades, at times, into Grigson/Smith territory) and thoroughly explaining the principles underlying Italian cuisine. She can be a bit dogmatic (I see no problem with a light sprinkling of Parmesan over pasta with shrimp, precept or none), but her understanding of the cuisine is bone-deep. Before you go Neapolitan, Sicilian and Roman, start here.

[Best recipe: Spaghetti all’amatriciana. Strangest recipe: Her linguine alla vongole involves pre-cooking, shucking and chopping the clams, reserving the liquor, and stirring all of it back into the finished dish. To a simpleton like me, introducing this many steps just introduces that many more ways to mess up a dish. Saute some sliced garlic, throw in some littlenecks, shells and all, add a cup of dry white wine, cover the pot until the clams open, scatter some chopped parsley, and serve. Who are you going to believe: the planet's preeminent authority on Italian cuisine, or some bozo writing in sweats in his flooded basement?]

Authentic Vietnamese Cooking by Corinne Trang

Accepting this choice at number six means accepting something that seems, to me, inarguable: that Vietnamese cuisine is—in clarity of flavors, breadth of technique, complexity of influences, and sheer taste-goodness—the planet's best national cuisine. This is not the newest, the biggest, the most traditional or the most inventive Vietnamese cookbook. I keep going back to its pho recipe, though: that and the braised chicken with bamboo shoots. I'm about to break the spine on this one.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Gallery 2

New York City (2 kids dancing), c.1940, by Helen Levitt


Thursday, October 25, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Queen Latifah Loves Her Curves

Rooting for...Something Worth Watching

As a loyal Yankees fan, I have to hate the Red Sox, and I do. But I honestly don't care if they win this World Series. I'm rooting against them, but now that "the curse" is broken, their victory wouldn't upset me. They spend a hell of a lot more money than the Rockies, so according to the conventional wisdom, they should win.

I'm hoping for a Rockies win tonight simply because the last three World Series have been deeply uncompetitive and dull -- and the last memorably competitive one was six years ago when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees. (The Giants and Angels went seven games in 2002? Huh.) It would be nice to have a compelling series, but the Rockies who showed up last night aren't going to provide it. I'm hoping they remembered overnight that they had (somehow) won 21 of 22 games heading into this series. The first couple of innings tonight will share time with 30 Rock, but after that baseball will have my full attention...

In Defense of Scrapple

My friend Jon has a funny piece over at Intelligent Life about scrapple, "that unappreciated, raggedy, gap-toothed, car-on-block denizen of the supermarket meat section."

Ready to Rumble

From the Only in New York file:

I was walking around the Upper East Side recently when I noticed a woman approaching. Well, I noticed hundreds of women approaching, but only one of them was wearing a nice white dress-and-hat combination with...boxing gloves:

Inside the Editing Process

A friend politely pointed out that the last sentence of my Grey Gardens post yesterday was terrible. I've taken it out. The offending sentence:
In any case, watching Grey Gardens is disquieting but worthwhile.
That's a tepid, pointless sentence. But what's worse, I meant it as a wrap-up of ethical considerations, but it came across as weak enthusiasm for the whole movie, which I heartily recommend.

This has been "Inside the Editing Process," a feature that will not recur, since I could criticize sentences of mine 36 or 37 times a day and would then have no time left over for anything else.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grey Gardens

I'm in the midst of a documentary spree. I suppose it was kick-started when I posted those clips from American Movie the other day. Last night, I watched Grey Gardens for the first time. If you don't know it, it was made by the Maysles brothers, who also made Gimme Shelter, which I found overwhelmingly dull. Gardens is great, though you might not think so from a straightforward description. It was filmed almost entirely inside the decaying mansion in East Hampton, New York, from which it took its name. The sprawling home was owned and occupied by Edith and Edie Beale, an aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy.

According to trusty Wikipedia:
In the 1970s, the First Lady's sister Lee Radziwill discussed creating a documentary with Albert and David Maysles about Jacqueline's girlhood in East Hampton. At about the same time the Edies made national attention when the National Enquirer ran an expose on the deplorable conditions in which the Beales lived. The Suffolk County, New York Board of Health made a raid, ordering them to clean up the property which was falling into disrepair and was being overrun with feral cats.
The house may have passed official muster by the time the Maysles filmed there, but it was still a mess -- spare, stained, neglected. Throughout the movie, Edie and Edith quarrel with each other, sing to each other, and recount old times to each other.

That's it. But there's enough pathos on display to cripple an army, and the Beale women turn out to be as quotable as they are seemingly crazy. (My favorite line comes when the two are looking through an old photo album. Edie was quite beautiful as a younger woman. Edith is bemoaning the fact that her daughter was never married and, after Edie makes a comment about one picture dating to around the time when Germany invaded France, Edith says, "France fell but Edie didn't fall.")

Edith is almost 80, a former singer who now (in 1975, when the movie was made) spends nearly every hour of the day in her bed, with several cats (not feral, I suppose, but plenty grimy) at her feet. Edie doesn't do much of anything, but she overdresses (given the family's lack of contact with anyone or anything, dressing at all was overdressing) and complains about how she had to come home nearly 25 years ago to care for her mother, leaving behind her dreams of success in New York. But given Edie's state of mind -- she can be sharp and funny, but she's also remarkably childlike and clearly imbalanced -- it's just as likely that she needed to come home, and that she's the one who was initially cared for in some way.

The filmmakers don't explicitly answer that or any other question about the Beales. The movie is a portrait of faded aristocracy, familial dysfunction, and hermetic life. Chances are that many of you have seen it (or at least heard of it), so I won't go on about the specifics.

Speaking more broadly, I wondered about the ethics of it. I'm glad the Maysles made it, but given how stark and lonely the women's existence was, it seemed especially invasive to have someone filming them in such intimate moments. Edie crowed about how much she loved the finished product -- it made her a cult star. (Edith died a year or two after its release.) The mother and daughter appear to have been on friendly terms with the Maysles, and I'm not making any particular accusations. But given Edie's frame of mind, I don't think that her being thrilled by the project absolves it of ethical inquiry.

A Second Song

OK, that post below was more of an essay with video support. So, here's a proper song for the middle of the week. It's Neil Young and The Band doing one of my favorite Young songs, "Helpless." It's from the beloved concert movie The Last Waltz. The best moment might come at the very start, when Young walks on stage and privately says to Robbie Robertson, "Thank you, man, for letting me do this," and Robertson says, "Oh, sure. Are you kiddin'?" And then louder, "Are you kidding?" Enjoy:

Wednesday's Song, with Bonus Treatise

I often think, because I'm prone to thinking such useless things, how odd it was to have lived through the moment when music videos were considered important, mostly because it seemed like a permanent change and became such a temporary one. From the beginning of the universe (which some people date to billions of years ago, others to around 1382) until the early 1980s, the music video machine didn't exist. Then, around 1983, Hall and Oates draped a black bed sheet over a wall in their basement and recorded videos like this one and this one. Like stick-figure mammoth on the walls of a cave, we had to start somewhere. Then, Michael Jackson and John Landis made "Thriller," which proved that music videos could be long.

By the 1990s, MTV had fully overtaken radio as the place to learn about new music. My friends and I first talked about Nirvana because we had all seen "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on 120 Minutes at the same time. Bands like R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Radiohead built their massive success in the early '90s on stylish, cinematic clips.

Then, MTV famously started courting even younger, dumber viewers with shows mainly about strangers having sex. Many people of my generation bemoaned this change for a while, but no one does much anymore, and I think that's partly because we've realized that even the most stylish of those old efforts were, well, lame. It's true that a list of the best videos ever made has some jewels in it, but I mean, have you watched "Jeremy" lately? Yikes.

I bore you with all of that because today's song is a video. I like the weekly number around here to be a live performance (I've only broken that rule once), and this actually qualifies. Fionn Regan is evidently a folk singer with a bit of buzz behind him. He also looks like a Frodo Baggins understudy. For his new video, "Be Good or Be Gone," he filmed himself singing the song live for a few seconds in different locations, and then pieced everything together. It's both complicated and stripped-down, and I like it. For now. A few years from now, inevitably, I'll call it lame. Enjoy:

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Stop! 1-900 Time!

A friend recently picked up a few old copies of Sassy magazine from someone's curb. Sassy was supposed to be the edgier alternative to Seventeen, et al. Flipping through the October 1990 issue, which featured Christian Slater on the cover, I came across this ad:

I love how it proclaims you "can keep in touch with" Mr. Hammer in this way. If leaving messages on some machine in a warehouse somewhere is considered keeping in touch, then hell, you could keep in touch with Abraham Lincoln's ghost just as easily. You also have to appreciate those unattributed blurbs. "I'm dialing..." And you are?

Sordid Glory, Heavy on the Sordid

A good piece on Slate about getting cities right on film -- in this case, Boston, and the movie under consideration is Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. The whole thing's worth reading, and its overall take on the movie is positive, but my favorite stretch is this criticism near the beginning:
But in striving to capture Boston in all its sordid glory, Affleck overapplies the grit. The problem struck me in an early scene in which the camera lingers on a gaggle of daytime boozers, and I swear, more than one of them has a cleft palate...

"I wanted something raw and authentic and even a little scuffed up," Affleck told the New York Times recently. For much of the movie, half of Dorchester seems to be standing around outside their creaky wooden houses, just killing time. But as the camera pushes in on dozens of extras—sickly skinny women and gin-blossomed men with complexions like blood sausage—"scuffed up" begins to feel positively generous. At a certain point, the parade of uglies marches past verisimilitude and into freak-show territory. This isn't actually what the people of Dorchester look like. Yes, you can walk into a Dorchester bar and find a healthy crowd at 11 a.m. on a weekday. But give the barflies harelips and cleft palates, and you're overdoing it a bit. It's Dorchester by way of Diane Arbus.

Theorists and Bears

(Jacques Derrida with Bear, right)

I suppose this falls under the category of Too Bizarre Not to Share. Gordon Lester is "an untrained conceptual artist," which description usually places someone high on my most wanted list. But, on his biography page, he claims that he "hates cats and hippies." That's better.

His series of portraits entitled "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" is strangely hypnotic (maybe due to the demented nursery music playing over it).

As explained here:
His series "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" is based on a stage direction from The Winter's Tale (3.3.57), perhaps the most famous stage direction in English drama. Portraits of figures from "high" literary and critical theory are placed within this imaginary Shakespearean context.
(Via Light Reading)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Reservation Road

My latest at Pajiba:
I haven't read Reservation Road, the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, but there’s got to be more to it than what's on display in the movie it inspired, which barely has enough plot to wheeze to the end of its 102 minutes.

6 BOOKS that made me laugh out loud by Daniel Menaker

Daniel Menaker is the author of a novel, The Treatment, and two collections of short stories. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. His esteemed career as an editor at The New Yorker was followed by an equally esteemed career in book publishing. He spent most of his book years at Random House, but I was lucky enough to meet him during his stint at HarperCollins. Below, he shares six books that made him laugh out loud.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

I started laughing at the protagonist's first name, Alexander--which, with its A. the Great echo stood in such stark contrast to his character--and then laughed on and off through the rest of the book. Well, smiled, or chuckled, I should say, because, in addition to my amusement, I would shake my head in wonder at the transgressive audacity of the voice, and the honesty about hidden desires.

The Magic Christian by Terry Southern

A satire about the greed and cruelty of capitalism, in which the anti-hero, Guy Grand, amuses himself by ornately offering money to ordinary people who must in one way or another--usually a physical way--degrade themselves as they try to get it.

Candy by Terry Southern

Based closely on Voltaire's Candide, this is a scathingly funny send-up of the cupidity and sexual opportunism of various Sixties counter-cultures, in which the naive title character falls for one kind of social or spiritual con after another.

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

The sections in which Sarah Gamp talks about her nonexistent friend "Mrs. Harris" cracked me up every time. Here is one of a novel's marginal characters citing a fictional friend who can always be counted on to demonstrate the fineness of her own creator. I marvelled at early anticipation of meta-fiction in this invention, in which Dickens makes fun of all storytellers, including himself.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Well, one of Heller's military martinets in a court martial in this book bellows to the stenographer "Read me back my last line" and the stenographer says, "Read me back my last line." Let that stand for the sharp genius of the whole book. I realize its influence almost every day--not long ago someone said to me, "Don't tell me what to do," to which I found myself responding, "Don't tell me what to do."

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

A book that by anecdotal consensus of my friends and colleagues is the funniest novel ever, period. The title character is a mediocre don at a red-brick university in England, and during a house visit to the supremely tedious and conventional chairman of his department he must, among other desperate maneuvers, try to cover up or dispose of the bedsheets in which he has burned a large hole. Like the other books in this list, Lucky Jim has a very high desperation quotient.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

6 BOOKS: A Brief Introduction

Just a quick Sunday-night note about a weekly series that will kick off tomorrow and hopefully continue every Monday for a while. It's called 6 BOOKS, and it will feature writer/editor/critic/thinker friends of mine each recommending and briefly writing about six of their favorite books in a category. It won't need any further explanation, as you'll see, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun. Plus, the first contributor is terrific, as is his list. Look for it tomorrow...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Gallery 1

Time for a simple new running feature around here: photographs by photographers I like. Not sure how often this will appear, but here's the first.

Texas State Fair, Dallas, 1964 by Garry Winogrand


OTF: Off to Florida

The New York Post has a story today about Mayor Bloomberg threatening to shut down OTB (Off Track Betting), which, with its numerous TV parlors, provides refuge for a handful of controlled horse-racing bettors and a tidal wave of degenerates. It's heartening to see that no one's taking the news too drastically:
At the OTB parlor on Second Avenue between East 69th and 70th streets, bettors were aghast at the possibility of a shutdown.

"I'd have to settle my affairs and move to Florida," said Peter, 66, who declined to give his last name.

Archive of the Day

From The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James:
Bent as we are on studying religion's existential conditions, we cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject. We must describe and name them just as if they occurred in non-religious men. It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good for Joe

If the details of this breaking story are accurate, then good for Joe Torre.

It horrifies me as a Yankees fan to consider what might happen to the franchise under the direction of two Steinbrenner sons, but I'll jump off that bridge when I get to it. For now, thanks to Joe for the memories, and congrats to him for telling the ownership clan to stuff it.

It's Never Too Late

McSweeney's recently published Bowl of Cherries by 90-year-old Millard Kaufman, once a successful screenwriter but a debut novelist. Cherries has a 14-year-old protagonist (and people thought Tom Wolfe was ambitious to write about the college-aged!) who ends up spending part of the book in Iraq. I got a kick out of this L.A. Weekly interview with Kaufman. My favorite excerpts:
I found (writing a novel) enjoyable, but, I don't know if it's my age or what, I'd just go over and over sections looking for the apposite word. I guess I had this exalted view of fiction writing, that it was a higher art, but it's really just like anything else—you sit your ass down and you write the goddamn thing.


People are bumblers. The president is a bumbler. I don't have much respect for him, but they all have problems. Clinton did a pretty good job, but he was full of shit too. The Iraqi thing—I didn't want this book to be a war novel, but since the beginning of recorded time, which is about 6,500 years or so, we've never had peace in the world. There's always a goddamn flare-up somewhere.

Building the Blogroll

I discovered a terrific site today called BLDG BLOG, which takes as its subtitle "Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation, Landscape Futures." It's packed with interesting posts on those themes -- like this one, this one, and this one -- and though it uses the same ol' Blogger that I do, it looks really good.

It seems BLDG BLOG is going to be relatively quiet while the author finishes a book, but the site's archives have enough to keep any new readers busy for a long time.

I was led to a recent post there about Los Angeles. A taste:
L.A. is the apocalypse: it's you and a bunch of parking lots. No one's going to save you; no one's looking out for you. It's the only city I know where that's the explicit premise of living there – that's the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic. It says: no one loves you; you're the least important person in the room; get over it. What matters is what you do there.

And maybe that means renting Hot Fuzz and eating too many pretzels; or maybe that means driving a Prius out to Malibu and surfing with Daryl Hannah as a means of protesting something; or maybe that means buying everything Fredric Jameson has ever written and even underlining significant passages as you visit the Westin Bonaventura. Maybe that just means getting into skateboarding, or into E!, or into Zen, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism; or maybe you'll plunge yourself into gin-fueled all night Frank Sinatra marathons – or you'll lift weights and check email every two minutes on your Blackberry and watch old Bruce Willis films.

Who cares?

Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You're alone in the world. L.A. is explicit about that.
(Via The Frontal Cortex)

Brace Yourself for the Terrible Twos

As of today, I've been doing this for two years, and I want to sincerely thank any of you who have been consistently reading or just stopping by from time to time. As I've said before, you're really the only thing that distinguishes me from a guy mumbling to himself on the 6 train.

Over the course of some pretty bad times (and some good ones, too, believe me), the blog has been, in a few ways, what I thought it could be -- a place to try things out, to practice discipline, and a place where at least a few people like to visit. But surprisingly, it's also allowed me to make friends, write movie reviews for a large audience, and develop a voice that's both mine and not mine. It allows me to be a curator, a bloviator, and an advocate (all things I like to be).

The blog is all mine, too, and in that way it's refreshingly simple, an extension of myself in the way it's designed to be, even if that deeply personal bond to it is what earns the format its dicey reputation. I've learned in the past few months that some very smart people I know actually prefer the type of blog that describes which brand of cereal the blogger enjoyed that morning, but I'm pretty certain A Special Way of Being Afraid will never go in that direction, at least partly because I'm a terrible creature of habit; itemizing my daily routines would become a numbing bore for both me and you after about 72 hours (maybe sooner). I rest easy knowing that those of you partial to retellings of breakfast have plenty of other places to go, and I'm happy for you.

For those of you who don't mind what I do, thanks again. Here's to a third calendar full of this nonsense.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"I had a bottle of vodka, or he had a bottle of vodka, but anyway, we were drinking vodka."

I thought this post was going to be part of the one immediately below, because for whatever reason I'm always mixing up directors Mike Mills and Chris Smith. Mills is the one in the post below, and Smith made American Movie, one of my favorite documentaries. If you don't know it, it follows Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he tries to complete a shoestring-budget horror movie called Coven. Mark is often joined by his good friend, a musician named Mike Schank. One of the great things about the movie is that you genuinely like Mark and Mike even when you're laughing at them. And yes, you laugh at them. A lot. Here's a gallery of moments featuring Mike. It's well worth watching the whole thing:

And while I'd hate for you to watch this next clip if you haven't seen the movie yet, I have to add it, because it was probably the hardest I've ever laughed in a theater. Just imagine having met the Mike above throughout the movie -- the gentle, quiet, goofy, droopy-eyed Mike -- and then coming to this scene where Mark enlists him to record something for Coven. (Warning: This is loud.)

My Soul Has at Least the Sniffles

In this interview, director Mike Mills talks about his new documentary, which is called Does Your Soul Have a Cold? It tracks five Japanese people who decide to take antidepressants, a fairly recent option there. As Mills explains in the interview:
If you think about it, during the eighties and nineties the pharmaceutical companies had a growth market in the United States with antidepressants. And towards the middle of the nineties it levels off. And being a profit-based situation they need to create some markets. So they started going everywhere, and Japan was just one of the many places. And the real problem to them, with where Japan was at, while there's a lot of depressed people - depression wasn't something that was talked about or something that people had access to. And that's why they came up with that metaphor "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?", or they would call it "A Cold of the Soul." And that phrase described it really well to Japanese people so they understood what it was. And just that education at the surface of the market, about this thing that I find very true, coming from the perspective that depression is manufactured. It can be, but I think all the people in my film are really dealing with some level of pain that anybody would want relief from.
It was made for IFC, and it debuts on that channel October 22. If you're reading this, you know me, you have IFC, and you don't mind company on October 22, please let me know. I'm really eager to see this.

(Via Pop Candy)

Mr. John With Your Wednesday Song

This clip from 1972 features Elton John singing one of my favorites of his, "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." It also features, more than halfway through, two band members who look like Big Bird might have if he had left Sesame Street to found Spinal Tap. Enjoy:

If you're in the mood for more, this is really good, too. And man, the drummer's outfit is priceless.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Woman Finds Niche Mothering Squirrels

I, Guest Lecturer

A friend of mine is an adjunct professor at a local-ish university, and he invited me to speak to his journalism class about blogging and criticism this afternoon. Another friend who addressed a class last year warned that my greatest fear should be the ravages of time. "You think you're basically the same person you were when you were 21," he wrote. "You are in for a rude awakening."

True enough. The students didn't seem like kids (they were upperclassmen), but they did have a bit of what Tom Wolfe once described as "the rude animal health of youth."

I spent about 15 or 20 minutes speaking -- too hurriedly, I'm sure -- about how I started the blog (more or less accidentally), what I hoped it to be (still not entirely sure), and what I get out of it (carpal tunnel?). As one perplexed student asked during the Q&A session that followed, "So, you don't get any money from the blog?"

During the lecture, if it can be called that, I said that after the first few months of the blog's existence, I came to see it as the equivalent of a general interest magazine. Choosing just one of my subjects (mascots, neuroses, what have you) and covering it exclusively would be more likely to result in increased traffic, maybe even some advertising revenue, and a general sense of "success." But I figure enough people are pushing success on college students. I wanted something to distinguish myself, so I figured I would peddle failure.

My friend picked up on the "general interest" notion during the Q&A and said it does seem a bit odd to be going in that direction when narrowcasting is all the rage. He didn't mean "odd" in a negative way, just in the traditional "you're a different kind of cat" way. I said it was just a natural result of sharing my enthusiasm for a bunch of things -- books, movies, music, and sure, mascots. On my way home from the class, I had occasion to stop in Grand Central Station and browse at a large magazine store. Silver plates over various shelves had category titles like "Entertainment," "Sports," "Computers," "Literary." Up in a remote corner, I saw a plate that read "General Interest." Several magazines were proudly perched beneath, though the only one that afforded me a clear view of its title was Pet Food Report. So. See? I'm in good company.

Four Arguments

This is all familiar ground in the debate about gay marriage, but somehow, a college student covering it in a few short paragraphs is bracing. Yes, it's the Daily Californian (Berkeley -- ha ha), but this hardly comes across as a left-wing rant. It strikes me the same way it always has, which is: completely reasonable.
Why shouldn't gay people be allowed to marry if they want to? I detect four putative arguments.

There's the will-of-the-people-style argument. There was a proposition, people voted and the results were the results. Superficially that seems to work, but it eludes the substantial question, which is why someone would think that same-sex marriage is a topic on which they ought to be allowed to vote and one that they ought to vote against.

So maybe the real argument is that marriage is defined on the basis of child-rearing. Maybe a mixed-sex couple provides the most stable foundation for raising children, which is why marriage is restricted to them. But that's factually inaccurate...there's no compelling evidence for the truth of the statement. (It's also) an inept description of how the institution of marriage actually functions. We don't ask for fertility tests before people can marry, nor do we prevent unstable people from marrying and reproducing. Hell, Britney did it...

So maybe the argument is from tradition. That is, marriage has always been heterosexual so it ought to stay that way. But that's both descriptively inaccurate and normatively insufficient. Even if we confine the domain of analysis to Western societies, marriage is a highly variable institution. Anyhow, even if something were shown to be ancient, that hardly makes it correct...

I suppose all we're left with is the religious or moral objection. Some churches frown on homosexuality. Well, rock on. I'm not here to tell any faith how to do its job. But, conversely, religion ought not to tell democracy how to do its job. Against gay marriage? All right then, refuse to sanction those unions within your faith community. But religious objections are insufficient to dictate public policy to a pluralistic, secular society.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Gawker Still Sucks

It's been almost seven months since I stopped reading Gawker. Against my better judgment, I've followed links to the site for information-retrieval purposes once or twice during that span, but I've always gotten back out as soon as possible, the way I might desperately scramble to shore if I ever fell in the East River.

A friend alerted me to a cover story in this week's New York Magazine about the media-gossip site. I was eager to read it, but upon doing so, I realized that even secondhand exposure is somehow both disgusting and boring. It's not the fault of New York writer Vanessa Grigoriadis, who does an admirable job of making those associated with the site sound like the delusional, self-hating, envy-besotted high-schoolers-trapped-in-amber that they seem to be based on their "work." Of course, making them sound that way seems to entail only standing somewhere within shouting distance of them and pressing Record.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Rant About Baseball Economics

Feel free to skip this, but it's that time of year and I feel that I've kept myself pretty well in check...

Another season over for the Yankees, and another nail (one hopes) in the coffin of one of the stupidest myths in sports, which is that a team can "buy" a championship. There's no question that the Yankees' outrageous spending over the past few years has helped them make the playoffs, though money doesn't even guarantee that. (I think another team in New York, which was the biggest spender in the National League, could testify to the point.)

I can understand Yankees haters getting worked up about the size of the team's wallet. Their spending drives me crazy, too -- I had no desire at all for them to sign Roger Clemens for another half-season, to choose one of many examples. But I'm stuck with them, a fan for life.

This wasn't always pleasant. When I was growing up, the Yankees were hardly a juggernaut. In fact, from 1965 to 1993, they won the World Series twice, which is the same number of times the Florida Marlins have won it in the 15 illustrious years they've been playing. From 1982 through 1993, from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, the Yankees never made the playoffs. In 1990, they finished 67-95, the worst record in the American League.

When the team returned to the playoffs, in 1996, it did have the biggest payroll in the game, but not by much, and the money was certainly not the reason for its success. For example, the biggest individual contract that year went to Ruben Sierra, a washed-up slugger who was making $6.2 million and was traded in the middle of the season. Likewise, pitcher Kenny Rogers was pulling down $5 million. After a mediocre regular season, he gave up 11 earned runs in seven innings of postseason work. Millions more were wrapped up in average players (at that point in their careers) like Tim Raines, Wade Boggs, and Jimmy Key.

Meanwhile, three of the team's most important players -- the young trio of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera -- were making a combined $456,125. Homegrown talent has always been crucial for any franchise's success, and the Yankees are no different. This year's roster of overpaid stars was bailed out by the late-season addition of young farmhands like Joba Chamberlain, and the future certainly rests on him and other players who won't be eligible to make big money for a few more years.

But the most stunning argument against economic determinism came in 1998. The Yankees still had that core of young, homemade, underpaid players -- Pettitte and Bernie Williams were multimillionaires, but Jeter, Rivera and new addition Jorge Posada were making six figures. The Yankees total payroll that year was seven million dollars lower than that of the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees won a record 114 games. The Orioles went 79-83.

When the Yankees won the World Series the next two years, 1999 and 2000, their payroll was tops, but the disparity was not great (in 2000, they spent just two million dollars more than the Dodgers, who missed the playoffs altogether). It's since 2002 that the Yankees have really financially separated themselves from the rest of the league, culminating in 2005, when they spent $209 million (the Red Sox spent $124m that year, the Mets $102m). Note that the Yankees haven't won a World Series -- haven't come close, really -- while the biggest gaps in spending have occurred.

Again, I don't say this because I'm looking for sympathy. I'm saying this as a baseball fan. The past few years, I haven’t had a good feeling -- at all -- about the Yankees' chances, despite the dollar signs. That's just not how the sport works. Does money help? Most likely, though you wouldn't know it from this year's playoffs, where the teams remaining have the 2nd, 23rd, 25th and 26th highest payrolls in the game. (The second-biggest, if you're curious, belongs to those "scrappy" Red Sox.) The Rockies are 25th. They have a payroll about one-quarter of the Yankees', and they've won an unprecedented 20 of their last 21 games.

An anomaly, you say. Well, last year's World Series featured teams with the 11th and 14th largest payrolls. The 2005 Series featured the 12th and 13th highest. Whoever finishes on top in baseball each season will have played at least 173 games. In a sport of infinite angles and frequent bad bounces, that leaves a lot of room for error. Like in every other area of life, money only means a certain amount of security, and sometimes not even that -- it doesn't impart taste or wisdom. Many owners -- Steinbrenner included -- overpay for players way past their prime, or pay a bunch of guys who don't play well together, or simply get unlucky when important players are injured or suddenly ineffective.

This was going to be a post about Joe Torre, because he was winning titles when the Yankees weren't outspending everyone by leaps and bounds. The constant for this team over the past 12 years hasn't been money, it's been Joe. It might be best that they let him go rather than bring him back only to put him through all this nonsense again, but I'm rooting for him to return.

People of the World, Please -- Pretty Please -- SHUT YOUR CAKE HOLES!

Dan Savage's recent screed about a woman shouting on her cell phone in an airport waiting area reminded me of something I meant to write about a few weeks ago.

On my trip to Saratoga this year, two older women were on my Amtrak train and wouldn't stop nattering to each other in Italian the whole way up, which was quite annoying and distracting. (I don't think it's xenophobic to say that overhearing a language you don't understand for hours at a time is brain-frazzling.) But I sympathized -- they were going to visit one of their sisters, they were together, and conversation is natural. I hope they enjoyed their ride, even though I had some fairly sinister thoughts about them in the heat of the moment.

But the return trip, the following Monday, was a different story. The man across the aisle from me was loudly on his cell phone for at least 30 minutes, discussing some problem he was having in his job. From his side of the conversation, I gathered he was an executive at some type of hardware retailer, and he was talking to another friend of his at the company about how his job was being jeopardized by someone he was trying to pass off as an incompetent underling. During one very brief stretch of his conversation (maybe a minute), he used all of the following phrases, no lie:
it's a no-brainer
been there, done that
at the end of the day
we're trying to keep his head in the game
don't give up hope
if we can just keep our heads on straight
I want what's best for the branch
all's I see is the trees for the forest now
I had wanted to listen to some peaceful music on the way back, to accompany the continuous view of the Hudson River, but after listening to this guy for a while, I created a playlist on my iTunes called "Drowning Out the Jackass," composed of what passes for heavy metal in my collection. Before I secured the headphones and set the volume level to Stun, I caught two more gems:
we're just going to go out there and sell nails and screws at a certain margin

down the road, do I have a feeling that we'll be stocking more screws? Yes, I do have the feeling that down the road we'll be stocking more screws.
Do I wish I was more the type of person like the friendly young woman sitting in front of me who finally told him to keep it down? I do. But the world shouldn't have to tell people to be polite. In fact, that's kind of the whole point of being polite.


My friend SD pointed me to this obituary, which she calls "perhaps the strangest ever." ... Getting people to tell the truth in a survey is still very difficult, and likely to remain that way. As a survey-hater, I can't say I'm broken up about it. ... Best. Nobel. Reaction. Ever.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Colbert Column

When is a Maureen Dowd column best? Easy: When it's not written by Maureen Dowd.

Her column today was written by Stephen Colbert (or a team of his writers, but who's keeping track?), and it's a treat. First, there's this:
I'd like to thank Maureen Dowd for permitting/begging me to write her column today. As I type this, she's watching from an overstuffed divan, petting her prize Abyssinian and sipping a Dirty Cosmotinijito. Which reminds me: Before I get started, I have to take care of one other bit of business:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn't have to think about. It's all George Bush's fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

There. Now I've written Frank Rich's column too.
Then this:
And Fred Thompson. In my opinion "Law & Order" never sufficiently explained why the Manhattan D.A. had an accent like an Appalachian catfish wrestler.
Everything else is pretty funny, too. Read it.


In a sport dominated by money, reputation, and a few storied programs, it's pretty cool that South Florida is ranked as high as No. 2 in college football right now, given that the school started playing the sport only 11 years ago. Still, if this crazy season isn't the one that proves college football needs a fuller, more traditional playoff system, then it can't be proven. (Of course, it's been proven to anyone with an intact brain stem for many, many years now. Proving it to the members of the NCAA is obviously a different story.) I'm a fantasy sports geek, and it makes me feel better to know that one of the most popular sports in the country decides its champion based on a spreadsheet -- see here for the madness. Aren't jocks and computer geeks supposed to be bitter enemies? Talk about revenge of the nerds.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Books Gathered and Displayed in a Pleasing Manner

I don't have many specific material goals in life, but here are two -- I'd like to have a house with a screened-in porch someday (and in a place where that could be enjoyed for much of the year) and I'd like to have a really nice, maybe even specially designed library room. This extensive photo gallery of libraries from around the world has stoked the craving. It's impossible to choose a favorite, but I love this shot of "The Long Room" at Trinity College in Dublin:

(Via 2 Blowhards)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Just a Quick Thought Inspired by Watching the Baseball Coverage Tonight

I think Tony Gwynn should replace Santa Claus.

I'm serious. I think we should teach children to write letters to Tony Gwynn telling him what they want for Christmas, and we should teach them to behave well because Tony Gwynn is watching them.

I can't think of a single good reason why this shouldn't happen.

Food and Drink

From Cracked comes a list of the world's most terrifying foods. This is not -- I repeat, NOT -- for the weak-stomached. Let's put it this way...these are two of the more appetizing sentences on display:
Casu Marzu is a sheep's milk cheese that has been deliberately infested by a Piophila casei, the "cheese fly." The result is a maggot-ridden, weeping stink bomb in an advanced state of decomposition.
Um, yeah.

If that's not your kind of thing (read: if you're not batcrap-crazy), perhaps this highly entertaining report card on beers is more your thing:
The bottled version is heavenly, but in a can it goes warm instantly and is flat after three sips. If apples could urinate, they would pee this beverage. Drinkers in the room dubbed it "the Kool Aid of beers" and "liquid homelessness." Rating: Really bad.
But fear not. Unlike the food link (for which I'll probably be apologizing as long as the blog exists, and maybe even long after that), other ratings for the beers include "extremely outstanding," "unstoppable," and "freedom." Also, there are more entries in the series here, here, and here. Oh, jeez, and here.

(Via Pajiba and my friend JF, respectively.)

AP Headline of the Day

Court Orders Apology for Insult to Dog

Doris Lessing, Come On Down!

This year's Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Doris Lessing, swelling the list of accomplishments for people who never finished high school.

In addition to a great photo of Lessing reacting to the news while sitting on her front porch, the New York Times mentioned this in passing:
At 19, she married and had two children. A few years later, feeling imprisoned, she abandoned her family. She later married Gottfried Lessing, a central member of the Left Book Club, a left wing organization, and they had a son together.
Lessing is respected for the feminist concerns in her writing, but this brought me up a bit short. She was a very young person, and I'm not one to judge other people's lives too harshly, but certainly no man's abandonment of children would be so blithely explained by his "feeling imprisoned." So I was glad to find that Dwight Garner, in a posting on Paper Cuts, a Times blog, printed this excerpt of an interview he conducted with Lessing in 1997:
Were you surprised at the criticism you received after writing, in your first [memoir], about leaving the kids from your first marriage behind you?

Of course I wasn't surprised. The thing was that this was a terrible thing to do, but I had to do it because I have no doubt whatsoever if I had not done it, I would have become an alcoholic or ended in the loony bin. I couldn't stand that life. I just couldn't bear it. It's this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate. Nobody can do it without going crazy. My husband was a civil servant who became increasingly high in the ranks. He couldn't afford a wife who had [radical ideas]. I wouldn't have lasted. I became friends with the kids later, and the grandkids, and so on. I'm not pretending that anything terrible didn't happen.
That seems like a more appropriately complicated take on it.

Congrats to Lessing for winning the award, and condolences to anyone who wagered on Philip Roth. There's always next year.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Archive of the Day

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:
"When (Jane) was only fifteen there was a gentleman at my brother Gardiner's in town so much in love with her, that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."

"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth, impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"

"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.

"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Every thing nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

Thom & Co.

OK, I should retract the venom I spat Radiohead's way a short while ago. I could still do without their more precious communications, and I still think they lost their way after Kid A, but I downloaded their newest, In Rainbows, today, and after a couple of listens, it's really good. It's generally mellow, but there's structure, too. Mostly it sounds like vintage eerie-but-pretty Radiohead, a la "No Surprises" or "How to Disappear Completely."

The band's been getting a lot of press for the way they've chosen to distribute this record, in case you just woke from a coma. The aspect of all this I liked best was that they announced the record release just 10 days before making it available. When I was in high school, the joy of figuring out when a band was going to release something new was half the fun. The information wasn't available online, and usually required flipping through obscure magazines. Once the date was set, I had all that time to anticipate it. But now, I generally know things too far in advance to enjoy the lead-up, and songs start leaking online in bits and pieces way ahead of time, making the experience more fragmented and diluted than coherent and satisfying. As one blogger put it:
By offering the album in the way they did, Radiohead gave us a bit of a gift: universal excitement. This effectively brought back the joy of album release day — millions of people hearing the record for the first time at once — and combined it with our modern ability to instantly gush to all of those fellow fans online. It's the best of all worlds.

Ci piaceva la stessa musica

This week's song is from The Boss, one of my favorites of his, "Bobby Jean." A couple of bonuses here: The video for "Atlantic City" -- his best song, in my opinion -- follows it. And you have to sit through a few seconds of Italian title pages before the clip starts, but then you get Italian subtitles for the lyrics throughout! Don't let anyone say ASWOBA skimps on the extras. It's like Berlitz in here.

And just for fun, while we're talking about Springsteen, here's a clip of Ben Stiller, back when he was funny.

And here's "Bobby Jean," live sometime in the mid-'80s. Enjoy:

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-Four

"What is Life" by George Harrison

I saw Built to Spill perform this song at Irving Plaza in 2001, and it was one of the best live covers I've ever heard. The original is great, too. iTunes just posted Harrison's catalog for the first time, so I highly recommend grabbing this if you don't have it already.

"Another Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill" by Jens Lekman

There are songs of his I like better, but gotta love this lyric:
I had a friend, a girl who looked sort of like a guy
I can't forget her dark painful eyes
And they burned her with a cigarette lighter
When the cops came they had to untie her
Another girl was free to grow up a cynical writer
"When Am I Gonna Realize" by Christopher Denny

I just discovered this guy and downloaded his debut, Age Old Hunger. He's a 23-year-old from Arkansas whose voice sounds like some photographs from 1880 look: Twangy, weary, but spirited. And it's surely affected, but who cares? He can also write a song, and after only a day or two of listening to him, this is one of my favorites. You can see him performing another song, which I don’t like quite as much, here.

"Love Has No Pride" by Bonnie Raitt

Beautiful song, gorgeous voice.

"Train Song" by Mindy Smith




Michiko Kakutani on Alice Sebold's new novel:
The resulting novel is annoying, unconvincing and deeply perplexing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Band of Horses

Some were jealous that I was writing about this band's latest, Cease to Begin, several weeks before it was available. What can I say -- living in New York has its advantages. (It has to.) One of those is knowing several people who get advance copies of things.

The record is officially out today, so go get it. Likely to be the year's best to my ears, just like their debut was last year. Pretty impressive.

Fight, Cotton, Fight!

I know what you're thinking. OK, I don't really know, but I have a firm guess. You're thinking, what's with all the long posts on books? Where's all the material on mascots and giant squid and robots?

I share your concern.

It's true that since I stopped working for a major publisher, I've felt liberated to write more about books. It probably has something to do with not being affiliated with a particular producer of them, but it has even more to do with now having the time to actually read them. (It's an oft-expressed contradiction that still holds true: Publishing is not for readers.)

But I do see the need to shake things up a bit. That need is staring me right in the face. It haunts my sleep. It refuses to bring the check.

So here's a mascot for you. It arrives via my friend SL, who attended a school in Connecticut called Loomis Chaffee. That sounds like an unfortunately named line of underwear to me, but it appears to be a fine prep school. A fine prep school whose mascot is the Fighting Cotton Ball:

Wait, no. Sorry. Turns out that's a pelican. Go Pelicans!

Discovering Charles Portis (Again)

In one way, things are going according to plan in my attempt to not buy any books for a while, in the sense that I haven't bought any books for a while. ("A while" would usually be defined as three or four days -- I think I have an anxiety/consumerism problem, the latter half of the problem thankfully limited mostly to books rather than, say, large household appliances -- so the fact that it's been almost a month is a small miracle.)

In terms of the specific reading list that I drew up, though, my path has been predictably redesigned. In fact, long story short, I'm reading Pride and Prejudice and then The Varieties of Religious Experience, and then I'm heading to the bookstore for a liberating purchase or two.

I got sidetracked from my list in the best way possible -- by discovering a new writer (new to me, I mean) who I love. Several years ago, when Charles Portis' novels were reissued, there were appreciations written about his status as a beloved cult author, and I remember reading a particularly eye-catching rave for his debut, Norwood. It's been on my shelf for a few years, and a recent post about Portis over at Paper Cuts inspired me to finally get around to reading it. So I guess it's not that Portis is new to me, I've known about him for a few years. It's the actual work that's new.

Born in Arkansas, now 73 and famously reclusive, Portis published Norwood when he was 32, and he's written four more novels since, the last one appearing in 1991.

In 2003, in the first issue of The Believer, Ed Park wrote a long essay praising Portis. I've only read the first part of it, because I want to read the rest after I've gotten through all the novels, which shouldn't be too long from now. Here's an excerpt from early on in Park's piece:
(Portis) left for New York in 1960, and became a general assignment reporter at the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, working out of what has to be one of the more formidable newsroom incubators in history—his comrades included Tom Wolfe (who would later dub him the "original laconic cutup") and future Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham. Norwood's titular ex-Marine, after a fruitless few days in Gotham, saw it as "the hateful town," and Portis himself had once suggested (in response to an aspersion against Arkansas in the pages of Time), that Manhattan be buried in turnip greens...
Norwood is only 190 pages long -- quick pages, too -- and if you read books for big endings, it's not for you. It's all about the ride, literally and figuratively. Norwood drives from Texas to New York on an errand for a shady character, and as the back of the book says, "By the time he returns home to Ralph, Texas, Norwood has met his true love, Rita Lee...befriended Edmund B. Ratner, the second shortest midget in show business...and helped Joann, 'the chicken with a college education,' realize her true potential in life."

All true.

I'll leave you with an excerpt that's indicative of the novel in one way -- it features snappy, funny dialogue, and the book is crammed full of that. The way it's not indicative is that this dialogue takes place between Norwood and a stranger in a costume. Given my fascination with mascots, I just figured this was the most appropriate choice:
(Norwood) walked up as far as Fifty-ninth Street, where things began to peter out, then came back. There was a man in a Mr. Peanut outfit in front of the Planters place but he was not giving out sample nuts, he was just walking back and forth. The Mr. Peanut casing looked hot. It looked thick enough to give protection against small arms fire.

"Do they pay you by the hour or what?" Norwood said to the monocled peanut face.

"Yeah, by the hour," said a wary, muffled voice inside.

"I bet that suit is heavy."

"It's not all that heavy. I just started this morning."

"How much do you get a hour?"

"You ask a lot of questions, don't you?"

"Do you take the suit home with you?"

"No, I put it on down here. At the shop."

"The one in Dallas gives out free nuts."

"I don't know anything about that. They didn't say anything to me about it."

"He don't give you many, just two or three cashews."

"I don't know anything about that. I work at the post office at night."

"Well, I'll see you sometime, Mr. Peanut. You take it easy."

"Okay. You too."

Monday, October 08, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That

My latest for Pajiba:
The fact remains that even allowing for a distinction between the Old Masters and the modern movements, and allowing for vigorous argument about the relative merit of methods and their impact on viewers, the widely aired notion that "my kid could paint that" is, almost every time, hogwash. Admittedly, there are exceptions, but the best of modern art is — at least — visually determined in a way so that even what looks initially chaotic gives way to some sign of organizing intelligence. The story of Marla Olmstead nicely illustrates the point.

"You the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs."

Well, this is the most charming thing I've seen in a long while. It's Steve Goodman singing his song "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request" on a rooftop right outside Wrigley Field. I had never heard of Goodman, but it seems he was a singer-songwriter who met with some success when others -- like Arlo Guthrie and David Allen Coe -- interpreted his material. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, and died in 1984 at the age of 36. He didn't live to see the Cubs in a playoff game, but the team played in one just eleven days after he passed away. He had been scheduled to sing the national anthem.

Based on the reference to Keith Moreland, who started playing for the Cubs in 1982, this must have been recorded in the last year or two of Goodman's life. In any case, it's intimate and funny and moving. And I think Goodman would believe it an appropriate choice after the Cubbies were swept over the weekend. Enjoy:

Here's another clip of Goodman. Seems like he had a genuinely joyful spirit, and I'm suddenly wrapping up this weekend in a wistful mood.

(Via Reel Fanatic)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

Officer's Shots Save Skunk Stuck in Jar

Bush and Baseball

I disagreed with this piece on the other day. In it, Jerry Crasnick argues that George W. Bush, back when he was owner of the Texas Rangers, was wrong to vote against the realignment and wild-card playoff system for Major League Baseball. He cleverly exhumes this 1993 quote from Bush, who was the only "no" vote, as the system passed, 27-1: "I made my arguments and went down in flames. History will prove me right."

I guess it's not so easy to be The Decider when you're only one of 28 voices. But was W. wrong to vote against the current system? Crasnick argues that baseball's record attendance this year and booming revenue are enough to settle the case. I'm not so sure. For one thing, there's the regular season: the realignment into three divisions in each league seems to produce at least one truly mediocre division champ every year. (I have no hard science to back any of this up. I think Bush would approve.) This year, it was the Cubs. Last year, it was the Cardinals, who ended up getting hot and winning the World Series. In 2005, it was the Padres.

Then there's the wild card. You don't have to be a fanatical purist as a baseball fan to believe that the very long regular season is supposed to mean something significant. I'm a Yankees fan, and they're the wild card this season. I wasn't thrilled about it. Don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for them. But it used to be that a division race could become classic. Crasnick and Bud "Beavis" Selig are elated that those races have been replaced by wild-card races, usually involving more teams and keeping late-season attendance inflated in more cities. But how dramatically satisfying was it on September 10 to know that seven National League teams were within five games of the wild card spot?

Compare that to what is called the "last real race" in another ESPN piece. That was 1993, the year the Braves and Giants entered the last day of the season with identical records of 103-58, but only one could make the playoffs. (The Braves won the division on that last day.) When an uninspiring division winner or a wild card wins the World Series (which has happened much more often than not so far this century), I feel like the regular season has been cheated a bit. And this is to say nothing of the ridiculous first-round series, which the unimaginative Selig can't seem to extend to seven games instead of five. A best-of-five baseball series is like a 15-minute soccer match.

Andrew Sullivan, who admittedly knows nothing about baseball, picked up the Crasnick piece and used the Bush quote above to have some fun at the president's expense (nothing wrong with that). But I agree with a reader of Sullivan's who wrote back:
Sorry, Andrew, you're wrong on this one. Bush was right about the wild card, and the sportswriters who think that the current baseball system is a good thing are just mistaken. No point in running through the arguments -- since I don't think you care very much! -- but while baseball did in fact have a somewhat difficult problem to solve, the solution that Bush voted against wasn't the right one.

In fact, Bush on baseball turns out to be an interesting subject. I'm a political scientist and a fairly serious baseball fan, so I have pretty good qualifications on this one, and I can tell you that every time I've heard Bush talking about baseball he sounds not only well informed, but quite intelligent. My conclusion? He's not at all a dumb guy; he's just not interested in government and public affairs. I think he's interested in the political junkie side of electoral politics, but I just don't think that, you know, the world is particularly interesting to him.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Au Revoir, Week

Working on a post just now, I realized that I'd rather not, so I'll save it for Monday. I hope everyone caught the season premiere of "30 Rock" last night -- funniest show on TV, hands down -- and here's to the Yankees getting back on track against Cleveland tonight. Have a great weekend...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Field Maloney wrote a piece for Slate a little more than two years ago that makes it almost unnecessary for me to discuss Wes Anderson. That won't stop me, of course. But in the piece, Maloney expounds on an idea that I had long suspected myself, which is that Owen Wilson's contribution to the scripts for Anderson's first three movies -- Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums -- is what made them so good. (For the record, I wouldn't say Tenenbaums was all that good, and I would imagine that Wilson, an increasingly busy and famous film star at the time, played a lesser role in crafting that one.)

Anderson's last movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, was the first that Wilson didn't co-write with him, and the title alone warned that Anderson's self-indulgent whimsy might float out into deep space without Wilson to anchor it. And it did.

From the previews, I was hoping that Anderson's new project, The Darjeeling Limited, would turn things around. It doesn't. It's inevitably more coherent than Life Aquatic, but it suffers from the same Anderson flaws that are now so frequently and similarly described by critics and frustrated fans.

Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman play three brothers traveling across India by train. It's the first time they've seen each other since the funeral of their father a year before. They also haven't seen their mother in at least as long -- she skipped the funeral, and Wilson has learned that she's now in a remote monastery in India. His secret plan is to bring his brothers to the monastery for a family reunion.

From the beginning, Darjeeling features several of Anderson's favorite tics: a claustrophobic, hyper-stylized set blasting with saturated colors; a control-freak character (Wilson) who believes the world can be corralled with laminated schedules of activity and will power; matching outfits (the brothers have similar pajama sets); and terrific taste in music (this time, the Kinks are heavily featured, with "This Time Tomorrow" and "Strangers"), but an over-reliance on having characters walk or run in slow motion to that music -- it's as if Anderson saw the scene in Swingers where the guys walk in slo-mo to parody Reservoir Dogs but didn't think it was a parody, just the continuation of a great new trend. And it is a cool technique, but when so overused it only makes things cool in the way that a terminally ill kid makes things sad. It's cheap.

Despite the tics, the first half of Darjeeling does show off a few of Anderson's greatest strengths. There's plenty of wit, everything is beautifully framed, and the actors (particularly Brody) are sharp. About two-thirds of the way through, just moments after Wilson delivers an absurd, hysterically funny line, the movie takes a sudden turn for the very serious. The dramatic sequences that follow succeed on their own terms, though being asked to actually feel something in an Anderson movie of recent vintage is a bit like cutting to a PSA about Darfur right as Wile E. is closing in on the Road Runner.

It's after those somber sequences that Darjeeling goes off the rails -- pardon the pun. A tonally awkward flashback to New York City on the day of their father's funeral is followed by the brothers staying in India several scenes too long. As my initial optimism about the movie gave way to resignation, I felt the way I have reading some of Martin Amis' fiction. Amis is a brilliant observer of human nature, he's wickedly funny, and he's a hell of a stylist. I'm just not always convinced that he would know a story from a frying pan. And that's fine. He was born for the extended riff, and he does it better than just about anybody. Maybe Anderson was designed to be a...designer. Of costumes, of stage sets, of soundtracks, of dry one-liners. But if that's the case, if Wilson really was the designer of characterization and narrative architecture, the two of them should team up and start making great movies again.