Friday, November 30, 2007

2007: My Favorite Songs

Using the same format as last year -- honorable mentions on top, and then a small number of explicated very-favorites below -- here's a list of songs I enjoyed from 2007. I'll say again: The alternating boldface in the honorable mention is only for visual separation, not some secret code (though I won't convince Don DeLillo).

“Two” -- Ryan Adams; “The Sun Also Sets” -- Ryan Adams; “The Ballad of Love and Hate” -- The Avett Brothers; “Salina” -- The Avett Brothers; “No One’s Gonna Love You” -- Band of Horses; “Heretics” -- Andrew Bird; “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” -- Cat Power; “When Am I Gonna Realize” -- Christopher Denny; “Gypsy Into a Carpenter” -- Christopher Denny; “Nothing/Nowhere” -- Clare & the Reasons; “Pink Batman” -- Dan Deacon; “Been There All the Time” -- Dinosaur Jr.; “So Long, Lonesome” -- Explosions in the Sky; “Brandy Alexander” -- Feist; “This is How My Heart Behaves” -- Feist; “Standing in the Way of Control” -- Gossip; “Your Mangled Heart” -- Gossip; “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” -- The Hold Steady; “My Life” -- Klashnekoff; “Modern Love” -- Last Town Chorus; “Wintering in Brooklyn” -- Last Town Chorus; “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” -- LCD Soundsystem; “Add Your Light to Mine, Baby” -- Lucky Soul; “Plus Ones” -- Okkervil River; “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” -- Okkervil River; “Objects of My Affection” -- Peter Bjorn & John; “Everything” -- Radio Citizen featuring Bajka; “Nude” -- Radiohead; “Videotape” -- Radiohead; “Be Good or Be Gone” -- Fionn Regan; “All Cleaned Out” -- Elliott Smith; “Take Me to the Riot” -- Stars; “Midnight Coward” -- Stars; “It’s All True” -- Tracey Thorn; “Jimmy Dean & Steve McQueen” -- Julian Velard; “Grey in L.A.” -- Loudon Wainwright; “Lullaby” -- Loudon Wainwright; “Tournament of Hearts” -- The Weakerthans; “Sorry” -- Youth Group

“All I Need” -- Radiohead

As one reviewer, Hugo Lindgren, put it, "The diffident bastards of Radiohead have spared us another brooding lesson in postmodern musicology and given us songs that have shape and definition and punctuation and melodies that, while not catchy in a pop sense, make you want to hear them again and again." I agree. And it's not because all postmodern noisemaking turns me off, but because, also like the reviewer, "I am one of those philistines who believed, until now anyway, that The Bends, their second album, from 1995, marked their creative peak."

That "until now" must mean Lindgren thinks this year's album is the band's new peak. The Bends and OK Computer beat it for me, but I still file it under Vast Improvement.

“The Birth and Death of the Day” -- Explosions in the Sky

I am not an instrumental rock kind of person. I listen to classical and jazz when I don't want to hear people singing. But this band from Texas partially converted me this year. Their mostly long songs (this one is 7:50; several are longer) gracefully move from churning to chiming guitar, and gentle to thunderous drums, and back. It's also wonderful music to write to, because it's dynamic and keeps me attentive without distracting me. It also keeps my foot bouncing up and down, which is my writing metronome.

“See You Later” -- Elliott Smith

Like my feelings about instrumental rock, I'm usually tentative when approaching posthumous releases. But this year's New Moon is two discs full of stripped-down songs from the mid-'90s that would have been comfortable on Smith's best disc, either/or.

“Destroyer” -- David Gray

I don't love the fact that Gray released a hits collection this month, because I tend to think of that as a lazy move by anyone relatively young, but then again, The Killers just released a collection of B-sides and rarities, and it seems like they formed in August. At least Gray's been releasing music since 1993, when I learned to love him -- a love I still won't apologize for, though it's always easier to love a musician when they're young and hungry, and when only you and your girlfriend seem to know they exist. Fair enough. This song is one of two new ones on the hits CD, produced by "legendary Pink Floyd/Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas." That's Amazon saying that; I've never heard of Thomas, so I'm not sure how legendary he could be. Anyway, you can see Gray perform it here, if you're so inclined.

Little Red Riding Hood -- now there's a legend.

“It’s Not Over” -- Last Town Chorus

A lovely, haunting song featuring slide guitar and an echo-y chorus. It starts with the lyric, "Saw you yesterday out with your new friend / in the neighborhood we used to stroll all over," and ends with rapid bursts of electric guitar abruptly interrupting the otherwise hazy sound. The group's sleepy remake of David Bowie's "Modern Love" (listed in honorable mention) is a neat trick.

“Is There a Ghost” and “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” -- Band of Horses

More on these guys when I list all my favorite things from the year next week or the week after, but these are my favorite two songs off their excellent sophomore album, Cease to Begin. "Ghost" makes use of a repetitive lyric and guitar squall to become one of the better opening tracks on an album in recent memory. "Cigarettes" manages to craft a child-like sing-along chorus out of the words, "While they lied."

“String of Racehorses” -- Hotel Lights

This was officially released in 2006 (as were a couple of the honorable mentions), but I first heard it this year, and it's too perfect to leave off. It's off an e.p.; I'm anticipating their follow-up full-length about as much as anything right now.

“The Underdog” -- Spoon

I'm not a Spoon Kool-Aid guy. I think they're good, but I tend to just listen to my favorite handful of songs, and that satisfies my craving. I thought this was one of the catchiest songs of the year, and I like catchy.

“No One” -- Alicia Keys

iTunes doesn't lie, so this has to be my favorite song of the year. I just bought it a couple of weeks ago, and I've already listened to it more than 50 times. Like another song I enjoyed this year (Rihanna's "Umbrella"), it's a song about loyalty and love, not humps and such. It's not lyrically groundbreaking or even particularly moving (though the delivery is), but it has dignity, which is a hell of a lot more than you can say for most songs that are this popular. Take it away, Alicia:

“Hill believes God has an awesome plan that starts along I-35”

Andrew Sullivan was kind enough to point me (well, and his other million readers) to the video below, in which raving lunatic Pat Robertson introduces a report about how a group of similarly lunatic Christians have "come to believe because of recent prophecies, dreams, and visions, that I-35 (which runs the length of the country between Duluth and southern Texas) is the highway spoken of in Isaiah 35, verse 8." Hmm, if dreams could be so trusted, I'd be worshipping a variety of talking animals and hazily-recognizable ex-girlfriends. And those would be the sanest things I'd worship.

One pastor in the report below says that groups of "on-fire Christians" (one of them on their way to a den of sin, at right) are saving souls outside of "places like abortion clinics, gay bars, strip clubs, and porn shops." Hearing the Christian reporter reel off that list of places in his bright-and-shiny Christian voice was the highlight of the clip for me.

An ASWOBA T-shirt for whoever can find out how much they paid the "ex-gay" teenager to testify on camera.

What's most disappointing to me is that I spent many, many hours on I-35, and all that time I had no idea I was traveling on some kind of Jesus Superhighway. I now realize that the cop who once gave me a speeding ticket in Waxahachie was just trying to rid me of demons. Makes the whole episode a lot more palatable. If any of Jesus' teachings have stayed with me from my church years, they're the big ones: have sex with chicks and obey traffic laws.

This clip does make me miss Dallas a little less. Enjoy:

Gallery 7

"Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey" from The Americans by Robert Frank


Thursday, November 29, 2007


Wasn't inspired to blog much today, but I hope to have my favorite songs of 2007 up tomorrow. Contain yourselves.

I can tell you a song that won't be on the list, which is the one I heard this morning at my favorite coffee shop. It featured a chorus of people singing "Give Peace a Chance" over African music of some kind, with Steven Tyler occasionally coming in to wail like his banshee self. Each element was bad -- the marriage of them was life-draining.

OK, I just looked it up. The song is credited to "Aerosmith & Sierra Leone's Refugee Allstars," and it appears on Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur. A great cause. But the album also features Avril Lavigne singing "Imagine." Speaking of which, I imagine it's easy enough to just write a check straight to the cause.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ready, Aim, Paglia

In this radio interview with Camille Paglia, who the host calls "a culture war waiting to happen," the professional firebrand (and firm atheist) makes an argument that certain intellectuals should ease up on anti-religious sentiment:
Art, in particular, is suffering right now because people in the art world tend to be either atheist or agnostic, and there is very little spiritual content to the art that is being produced or being taught, except in art history courses that are dealing with overtly great religious art of the past. I'm trying to bridge the divide between the two sides ... My fellow Democrats tend to be, in my view, rather sneering, snide secular humanists who, in fact, have a kind of disdain for people of faith. I, as an atheist, feel that it's perfectly possible to be deeply moved by religion. In fact, without that, a person is going to be unable to respond to the world history of art, so much of which has been religious.
She continually refers to her career as a teacher, and is most upset by the effect of secular humanism in the classroom:
It's that vastness that is missing from poststructuralism and postmodernism, which focus on the social, the political -- they think that nothing exists but political power, and that we are all passive victims of that. ... I so detest the major professors at Harvard, at Princeton, at Yale, Duke, Berkeley -- name them all -- who have destroyed and limited the minds of their students by confining them to these tiny little political paradigms.
Um. Amen?

As an agnostic myself, I'm certainly not in favor of strictly religious education, but I do have a healthy level of hatred for poststructuralism, and probably an unhealthy level of hatred for those "tiny little political paradigms." And I think attempts to eradicate any kind of space for acknowledgment of mysterious vastness -- a school was recently castigated for allowing children a "moment of silence" in the morning -- is absurd, not to mention just as fascistic as some elements of the religious right. Paglia describes those so opposed as people who "don't have a spiritual idea from one week to the next."

Paglia contradicts herself a few times, and is as polemical as ever, but she gives good polemic. One minute, she's talking like the most nostalgic hippie about how the '60s had real heroes like Jimi Hendrix, and the next she's raging against the hedonistic principles that guided that decade. Maybe it's not such a contradiction. Nostalgia and self-recrimination being what they are, maybe we're all bound to alternately cuddle and upbraid our former selves:
As a student of history, I have to say that... when cultures -- as in the Roman Empire, or even earlier, in the Hellenistic period and so on, as they become more secular, as they become tolerant, as they become les religious, they begin to sag, they begin to lose their trade of drive and their sense of identity. The end result is that those cultures collapse. This is the terrible irony -- that what most liberals, or Democrats, on my side of the political spectrum, don't seem to realize is that tolerance has never been a prescription for cultural strength, and that it's usually a symptom of the imminent decay and disintegration of that particular society. That's why, as a career educator, I feel that I have a mission, and all teachers should ... to try to remedy this and try to identify the deficits in the culture and supply what's missing, to try to strengthen it. Instead, the Ivy Leagues and the elite schools spent 30 years in that disgraceful enterprise of poststructuralism and postmodernism to try to knock the pillars out from everything that students believed in, in terms of culture and so on. ... What have we bequeathed in our secular humanism to the young? It is a debased cultural environment that we have bequeathed, a nothingness. If you are not concerned by what the young have -- which is nothing -- then you are irresponsible.


For Wednesday's song, the lovely voice of Dolly Parton -- a shockingly young Dolly Parton -- singing "How Great Thou Art." She's introduced by Porter Wagoner wearing a jacket that can only be described as electric. Perhaps literally.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Spokesman for Distant Trains

I guess I'm one of those rare people who likes Bob Dylan's work without worshipping him (or it) on some level; who believes he's produced plenty of great songs but doesn't think he's hands-down the greatest songwriter of all time; who can hear the deep imperfections in his voice but also believes he can sing.

I've had a copy of Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, for a couple of years now, and I decided to start it while preparing to write a review of I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' fractured biopic.

The book is a mess, but in the best way, Dylan spooling anecdotes and impressions and analyses without much thought to structure. Not a big surprise. It is surprising that he frequently opens up about intimate parts of himself and his environment:
I'd seen and heard trains from my earliest childhood days and the sight and sound of them always made me feel secure. The big boxcars, the iron ore cars, freight cars, passenger trains, Pullman cars. There was no place you could go in my hometown without at least some part of the day having to stop at intersections and wait for the long trains to pass. Tracks crossed the rural roads and ran alongside them as well. The sound of trains off in the distance more or less made me feel at home, like nothing was missing, like I was at some level place, never in any significant danger and that everything was fitting together.
Many people find Dylan's work too obscure for their taste, but this excerpt, in which he describes a roommate of his in New York, shows that he's capable of being mystified himself:
Chloe slapped some steak and onions on my plate and said, "Here, it's good for you." She was cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper -- always hit the nail on the head. I don't know how much weed she smoked, but a lot. She also had her own ideas about the nature of things, told me that death was an impersonator, that birth is an invasion of privacy. What could you say? You couldn't say anything back when she said stuff like that. It's not like you could prove her wrong. New York City didn't faze her at all. "A bunch of monkeys in this town," she'd say.
Elsewhere, he writes about his famously contentious relationship with the press. It's hard to believe that Dylan can't see how he was often unnecessarily confrontational or evasive when questioned, but passages like this one have the ring of truth:
Reporters would shoot questions at me and I would tell them repeatedly that I was not a spokesman for anything or anybody and that I was only a musician. They'd look into my eyes as if to find some evidence of bourbon and handfuls of amphetamines. I had no idea what they were thinking. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline "Spokesman Denies That He's a Spokesman." I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs. The New York Times printed quacky interpretations of my songs. Esquire magazine put a four-faced monster on their cover, my face along with Malcolm X's, Kennedy's and Castro's. What the hell was that supposed to mean? It was like I was on the edge of the earth. If anybody had any sound guidance or advice to offer, it wasn't forthcoming. My wife, when she married me, had no idea of what she was getting into. Me neither, actually, and now we were in a no win situation.
In one way, I think Dylan is like a smart version of Yogi Berra. He once said, "If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself." And the book has plenty of that quick-hit quality, as when Dylan remembers standing in front of a friend's extensive library and writes, "you couldn't help but lose your passion for dumbness."


I'm not going to lie. I occasionally have a day like this (click to enlarge):

But don't we all?

The cartoon comes from xkcd, which I decided to visit after an unintentionally longer-than-usual break. I like this one, and this one, and this one.

I'm Not There

Hey, look, it's my latest movie review:
In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes talks plenty of his own jive, and pulls off the cinematic high-wire act of the year. His decision to cast six different actors as the adult Dylan — including Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin, who is barely a teenager and African-American — generated headlines well in advance of the movie's release. But the finished product, including the casting gimmick, belies easy summary and dismissal. ... The film has great fun with just about everything. It's impossible to get across a sense of its energy as it frolics along like the Beatles do in a hilarious, helium-fueled cameo.

Monday, November 26, 2007


A friend pointed out that the discussion of White Noise started below is between two people who essentially share an opinion. If you'd like an alternate take on the novel, Joshua Ferris praises it here. Perhaps he will convince you. ... The winner of the World's Worst Book Title disappointed me a little. It's funny, but I'm sure it can be beat. ... A friend of Megan McArdle's gets the Quip of the Week award for this one: "Einstein's bagels are so awful, they're anti-semitic."

AP Headline of the Day

South Dakota Town May Rename Hooker St.

Lights Out for Logic

Last week, Andrew Sullivan linked to a segment of Albert Mohler's radio show, during which Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asked his listeners to engage in a conversation about Christian views of homosexuality. He wondered whether Christians really were "on the wrong side of history" with the issue, as many people (including many Christians, to be fair) now believe. He's an articulate host, and he spends much of the show honestly confronting the fact that evangelicals are losing the culture's attention when it comes to homosexuality. He admits it's embarrassing that, in the past, the Bible was used to justify things like slavery, and he wonders if a similar mistake is being made now. (He ends up firmly arguing that a similar mistake is not being made now, because of scripture, and this always amuses/horrifies/enrages me, when someone says, "Hey, I know that interpretation of scripture has been used in the past for pretty evil ends, but that's not happening now, and let me point out the scripture that proves it." Ugh. Failure of Logic 101.)

Articulate heads screaming for the fire exit, though, when Mohler opens his phone lines. Most entertaining was an exchange between Mohler and a caller from Louisville named Phillip. The caller before Phillip dusted off the old argument that sex is meant for reproduction, so if we were all gay, it would be "goodbye" to the human race...
Phillip: I think no matter what, (Christians will) be in the minority, because Jesus states in John 7:7 that the world will hate him because he testifies that their deeds are evil. And on top of that, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is against Christianity in 1st Corinthians 6. But not only that, survival of the fittest and Darwinism contradict homosexuality, going back to the comment earlier that, you know, we are not created to be reproductive in homosexuality, so we would die out eventually, so they contradict themselves in that sense, too.

Mohler: You know, that's a very interesting point, Phillip. And you remind me of the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
Wha? Really, Albert?? Phillip reminds you of Kant? Do they have the same haircut?

Mohler then goes on to greatly abuse Kant's categorical imperative in the service of that argument, the one about reproduction. Science increasingly finds evidence of homosexual behavior across the entire biological spectrum, so the notion that we might all wake up tomorrow and choose to be gay is even dumber than it used to be, which was already As Dumb As Possible. Mostly, I just wish that people making claims about morality would just admit it and fight it out as best they can, and stop trying to appeal to practicality. Look around the planet, people -- reproduction is not our problem.

From a Book I Just Finished Reading, My Favorite Sentence That Had Nothing to Do With the Primary Subject of the Book

An American fleet on its way to the Philippines casually annexed Guam.

White Noise: An Exchange (Part One)

There's nothing new under the sun, and that goes double for the Internet, so I'm co-opting the format of Slate's Book Club and probably countless similar undertakings. I recently began an exchange about Don DeLillo's novel White Noise with my friend Tim, who's on a very short list of the smartest people I know. I mention in this first installment that I haven't read the entire novel. I'm currently in the process of doing so for the sake of our dialogue. Parts two and three will follow before too long. White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985. It's widely beloved and stars Jack Gladney, a professor who invents the department of Hitler Studies. The novel also features an "Airborne Toxic Event," and like much of DeLillo's work, it's been praised for its dark humor and its prescience about social disasters and paranoia.



You know that I've only managed to make it through the first 30 pages of White Noise, twice. DeLillo's Underworld is one of my favorite novels despite its flaws, but for some reason the flaws seem much more glaring to me in this book. Yet I think it's generally held in higher regard. I wanted to start by talking about his view of suburbia and consumerism. On the very first page, the narrator itemizes the loot from a recent shopping expedition:
....the junk food still in shopping bags -- onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.
I think some readers must find this funny, or insightful, or both. It just seems silly to me. Maybe in the mid-80s, when the book was written, simply casting one's eye over a panoply of pop-cultural (or in this case, pop-culinary) items stood as some kind of larger spiritual commentary. Or is it just that DeLillo thinks noticing those things is deep in and of itself? He resorts to gimmicks like this often and early in the book, which is one reason I can't bring myself to delve further. Am I right, or does he back off a little bit as he goes?

Of course, when he tries to connect images like the one above to more explicit commentary, I get even more agitated. A few pages later, he goes back to the groceries for inspiration:
It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar package designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls -- it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.
It's clear that DeLillo is satirizing those who have a "snug home" in their souls that is satisfied by food purchases. But whenever I read something like the paragraph above, two thoughts occur: 1. Who are these people who stake their existential happiness on family bargain packs? Isn't DeLillo just creating them in order to destroy them? That seems boring. I feel like people in the 'burbs with the giant, gleaming grocery stores enter and leave them feeling like anyone else would: depending on their mood. I frequently shopped at such places in Texas. Sometimes it was thrilling -- on a good day, or some night at 2 a.m. when I was feeling wistful -- and other times it was deadening and seemed like too much. DeLillo's stance, that it somehow inherently reflects a larger soullessness, strikes me as a teenage feeling. 2. Is it wrong to feel some kind of satisfaction from living a life that allows you to have what you want/need? Where does DeLillo draw that line? Put another way, how many groceries are you allowed to be happy about before you become ridiculous?




The problem I've had in responding to your letter is that I agree so completely with everything you've said, I don't know what to add. On the subject of the supermarket: yes. DeLillo returns there again and again throughout the book. It's worth your time to compare the paragraph you cite to the book's ending, in which the narrator again revisits the supermarket. It would be a useful way for us to consider the book's overall thematic development (such as it is).

On the subject of lists: yes. There must have been a time -- maybe in the '70s -- when providing long lists seemed an exciting literary technique. The master of this, in my reading, is Donald Barthelme. He stole the technique from Rabelais (among others), who frequently uses it as a way of undercutting (by overdoing) the gravity of a situation. Here's Rabelais on the preparation for a siege:
...Some from the fields brought into the fortified places their movables, bestial, corn, wine, fruit, victuals, and other necessary provision. Others did fortify and rampire their walls, set up little fortresses, bastions, squared ravelins, digged trenches, cleansed countermines, fenced themselves with gabions, contrived platforms, emptied casemates, barricaded the false brays, erected the cavaliers, repaired the counterscarps, plastered the curtains, lengthened ravelins, stopped parapets, morticed barbicans, assured the portcullises, fastened the herses, sarasinesques, and cataracts, placed their sentries, and doubled their patrol. Everyone did watch and ward, and not one was exempted from carrying the basket. Some polished corselets, varnished backs and breasts, cleaned the headpieces, mail-coats, brigandines, salads, helmets, morions, jacks, gushets, gorgets, hoguines, brassars, and cuissars, corselets, haubergeons, shields, bucklers, targets, greaves, gauntlets, and spurs. Others made ready bows, slings, crossbows, pellets, catapults, migrains or fire-balls, firebrands, balisets, scorpions, and other such warlike engines expugnatory and destructive to the Hellepolides.
This is totally irrelevant to White Noise. But I love Rabelais.

At some point, though, the newness faded, and that point was long ago. Lists make for uninteresting writing. The engine of any sentence is the verb. Take that away, and you get flat, listless (no pun intended) sentences. Lists smack of laziness, and White Noise is stuffed with them (along with their ugly older brother, fragments). They reflect, I suggest, the essential intellectual laziness that characterizes the novel.

For me, it's useful to consider the ways a book (as distinct from a poem, or a movie) can provide its reader pleasure. Because pleasure, in the end, is what counts. If that seems to slight the role of art (shouldn't it do more than just give us pleasure?), realize that I consider being taught, or made to feel, or -- ideally -- made to feel and think simultaneously, varieties of pleasure.

In order to save something for the next letter, I'm only going to talk here about two ways of the numerous ways a novel can provide pleasure.

1) Humor

Many great writers are funny. (Perhaps all? Humorlessness a trait of all mediocre artists?) Some, I would submit, are great only because they're funny. Many who admire White Noise seem to think it's funny (my edition features a glowing blurb from the New Republic that cites the novel's devastating wit). I've read it three times, and at no point in any of those readings did I so much as crack a smile. Of course, I can't prove that it's not funny -- that being a negative -- but I would invite anyone who disagrees to provide examples of passages they find funny.

One of my favorite critical essays of the last few years was B.R. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto." In it, he has this to say about DeLillo's sense of humor:
...Throughout DeLillo's career critics have called his work funny: "absurdly comic ... laugh-out-loud funny" (Michiko Kakutani), "grimly funny" (Phillips). And most seem to agree with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt that White Noise is "one of Don DeLillo's funniest." At the same time, they refuse to furnish examples of what they find so amusing. I have a notion it's things like "Are the men in hacking jackets? What's a hacking jacket?" but it would be unfair to assert this without evidence. Luckily for our purposes, Mark Osteen, in an introduction to a recent edition of the novel, singles out the following conversation as one of the best bits of "sparkling dialogue" in this "very funny" book. It is telling that the same cultural elite that never quite "got" the British comic novel should split its sides at this.

"I will read," she said. "But I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women. 'I entered her.' 'He entered me.' We're not lobbies or elevators. 'I wanted him inside me,' as if he could crawl completely in, sign the register, sleep, eat, so forth. Can we agree on that? I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered."
"'I entered her and began to thrust.'"
"I'm in total agreement," I said.
"'Enter me, enter me, yes, yes.'"
"Silly usage, absolutely."
"'Insert yourself, Rex. I want you inside me, entering hard ...'"

And so on. Osteen would probably have groaned at that exchange if it had turned up on "Sex and the City." The fuss he makes over it in this context is a good example of how pathetically grateful readers can be when they discover -- lo and behold! -- that a "literary" author is actually trying to entertain them for a change.
2) Style/Beauty

By beauty I don't mean complexity. Updike and Nabokov are both fantastic stylists. So, in his quiet way, is Graham Greene. So is Denis Johnson. So is Raymond Carver. DeLillo, in my reading, is not. His prose isn't awful, but it’s not special. Here's a selection, chosen completely at random (it's at the start of Chapter 21, page 107 in the Penguin Great Books edition):
After a night of dream-lit snows the air turned clear and still. There was a taut blue quality in the January light, a hardness and confidence. The sound of boots on packed snow, the contrails streaked cleanly in the high sky. Weather was very much the point, although I didn't know it at first.
What can we say about this? There is a taut blue quality in (not "to") the January light. OK. I don't think that's a meaningful change. I think it's supposed to be profound and ominous; I find it a little self-conscious. The third sentence ("The sound of boots...") is a fragment, a favorite DeLillo technique. I think it works fine here; this is probably my favorite sentence in the paragraph. Stylistically, there's nothing much here to praise or censure. By the way, the paragraph's ominous conclusion ("although I didn't know it at first") perfectly captures the book's mood. In the midst of banality lie great dangers. But we humans are blind! We don't pay attention! We're distracted by all our objects, by the machines and products which fill our empty days!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's not much relevant to a discussion of White Noise, but I want to include a selection from Couples, Updike's semi-notorious chronicle of infidelity among the leisured elite. It's a novel whose characters repelled me and whose story didn't really interest me. But I couldn’t put it down, because the writing was so transcendentally beautiful.
...Piet was by profession a builder, in love with snug, right-angled things, and he had grown to love this house, its rectangular low rooms, its baseboards and chair rails molded and beaded by hand, the slender mullions of the windows whose older panes were flecked with oblong bubbles and tinged with lavender, the swept worn brick of the fireplace hearths like entryways into a sooty upward core of time, the attic he had lined with silver insulation paper so it seemed now a vaulted jewel box or an Aladdin's cave, the solid freshly poured basement that had been a cellar floored with dirt when they had moved in five years ago.
I can ignore and forgive any issues I have with Updike because the prose affords me so much pleasure, something I can't say about DeLillo in White Noise.

In my next missive...more ways White Noise lets me down!


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tryptophan Time

A quiet-ish few days around here. I have some things I'm saving for after the holiday, because I'm sure you're either out of town, or distracted, or sweating cranberry sauce, or have never heard of this blog before.

Below you can find your Wednesday song, as well as a new entry in the increasingly popular photo gallery series, which normally runs on Friday. I’m going to bow out for the rest of this week so I can get some work done on other projects, including the project to eat five pounds of corn pudding.

On Monday, things will crank up again, and I have to say there's some good stuff on deck. Despite the panic caused by my writing about six books this week (stocks plummeted, grocery shelves emptied, people slept with heavy artillery beneath their pillows), there are several guests who should have lists to me soon, and when those lists arrive, the economy will rebound. Supplies will be plentiful. Firearms will be unnecessary.

I've also been having what I think is an entertaining exchange (meant for the blog) about Don DeLillo's White Noise with a good friend of mine, and that will start going up in a few installments next week.

I'm also waiting to hear from people about their favorite things of 2007. Those seemed to be a big hit in 2006, and this year's contributions will start appearing in early December. Between now and the year-end holidays, you should get your money’s worth around here. And 2008 for ASWOBA...however glorious you’re imagining it to be, you’re coming up way, way short. Way short.

See you next week. Enjoy the holiday.

Gallery 6

From a 1973 series called Suburbia by Bill Owens


Billy for Wednesday

I'm an unapologetic Billy Joel fan. This is a clip from 1978 (God bless YouTube) of Joel on the British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, doing one of his best songs, "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)." This was written in the mid-70s, when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy and Joel was imagining a future without it. It may have been more accurate to write about $1600 studio apartments in the outer boroughs, but hey, hindsight is 20/20.

Yes, Billy fancied himself a hardcore rock star even though he was more a show-tunes guy, when he wasn't an appropriator of pop sounds from the '50s and '60s (and there ain't nothin' wrong with that). But I feel like that just makes him more charming, and however you would describe what he did, I think he was really good at it. Observe:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Toss 'Em On the Pile!

Over at Paper Cuts, Dwight Garner "gawks" at the latest electronic reading gadget, an Amazon product called Kindle. Garner asks if this iteration of paperless technology is the "game-changer" that the industry has been seeking for a while. Me, I can't get past the name. Kindle!! Take that, lovers of traditional books.

One commenter on Paper Cuts takes issue with the name (I chime in on the board myself), but says it's probably meant as "to arouse" or "to animate," etc. It's true the word can mean that. But given that we're talking about books, and that every product name is micro-managed to the nth degree these days, I'm not giving the benefit of the doubt. Thanks to the handy online dictionary, we see the primary meanings of kindle:
1. to start (a fire); cause (a flame, blaze, etc.) to begin burning.
2. to set fire to or ignite (fuel or any combustible matter).
So, the gauntlet's really been thrown down now. We're not just developing new technology, people, we're starting a giant bonfire.

I'm the first to admit that my books are a pain. The only way they wouldn't be is if I lived in a house in which I planned to die, which isn't likely to happen for, oh, 20 years or so. But start talking about them as kindling and you get my attention. Especially if you're a blandly futuristic Everyman like the dweeb who walks you through the introductory video on Amazon.

Not too long ago, I had the chance to try one of these sleeker machines (I don't know if it was exactly what became the Kindle, but it had similar features, most notably the gray-ish "newsprint" screen that's easy on the eyes). It looked good, and if people want to read it on the subway, I guess it will do the trick. But what else is it good for? In places without mass transportation, you're not going to read it while driving to and from work (that's what audio books are for). And if you're in anything resembling a permanent home, space shouldn't be an issue unless you're buying books at a truly ridiculous pace. It seems to me that the only reason for a thing like this is to make books cheaper (financially and culturally) and more disposable. Any thoughts?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Indy, Jr.

A good friend was in town last week, and he expressed a desire to see something while here that he probably wouldn't be able to catch in Birmingham, where he currently lives. (We met years ago in Texas, where he's from.) I suggested we try to catch adults relieving themselves on a subway platform, but the friend narrowed his suggestion -- he meant something cultural.

He found a listing for a documentary about innovative saxophonist Albert Ayler playing at Anthology Film Archives. That movie's run had stopped the previous day, but I saw that Anthology was offering something I had read about a few years ago and since forgotten -- Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-for-shot remake of the original done by three kids in Mississippi. They began filming in the early 1980s, when they were 12, and finished the project seven years later.

The crowd waiting to get in was formidable (the theater doesn't offer advance sales), but we managed to secure tickets. Two of the filmmakers, now in their late 30s, were in attendance -- Chris Strompolos, who plays Indiana Jones, and Eric Zala, who directed and plays Jones' nemesis, Dr. Belloq. They introduced the feature by advising us to "let the Betamax wash over you." And indeed, the visuals and (especially) the sound left a lot to be desired, but the project didn't. As Sarah Hepola once wrote in the Austin Chronicle (the rarely-shown movie was first publicly screened in 2003 at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse Cinema):
Everything is here – the rolling boulder, the live snakes, the heart-thudding truck sequence, and everywhere flames, flames, flames. The boys have made a few inventive substitutions – a puppy dog stands in for a monkey, a boat for a plane. But even more impressive are the things they don't substitute – a submarine, a truck on fire, a melting face, the same copy of a 1936 Life magazine used in the original.
Afterwards, the pair answered several questions from the thoroughly geeked-out audience. Their insights into the process were funny and harrowing, and you'll eventually have the chance to learn them for yourself -- Daniel Clowes is currently writing a screenplay for a major-studio release about the kids' making of the movie. In the meantime, here's a BBC review of The Adaptation:

Southland Tales

My latest for Pajiba:
In short, this is dystopia as joyride, and plot is both everything and nothing. Kelly has said that he wanted Southland Tales to be "like a big piece of pop art." Well, he nailed the pop part.

6 BOOKS of fine short stories by Me

Me is me, the person who runs this blog. From time to time, I'll be contributing one of these lists until more contributions from guests are in the hopper. Below, I write about six of my favorite short story collections.

Drown by Junot Diaz

This sharp set of stories set in the Dominican Republic and Dominican communities in New Jersey and New York charts the lives of immigrants and the generations that follow them -- characters who might be described as marginal by some, but who come irresistibly alive through Diaz's mix of colloquial and poetic style. Funny, serious, and moving, Drown was released in 1996. In a blurb on the back jacket, Francisco Goldman wrote, "Diaz is going to be a giant of American prose." For the decade after this debut's publication, fans and critics who agreed with Goldman waited eagerly for a follow-up. It finally came earlier this year with the publication of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel near the top of my to-read list.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's short stories from the 1950s and 1960s, gathered here, showcase the author's legendary range of satirical gifts. On the extreme edges, they also show him delving into more traditional science fiction and even romance. They're populated by terrifically named characters like Diana Moon Glampers.

But you know about Vonnegut already, so I'll just point out that Monkey House also features one of my favorite dedications ("For Knox Burger. Ten days older than I am. He has been a very good father to me.") and one of my favorite epigraphs ("Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." --Thoreau).

Like Life by Lorrie Moore

Moore's Birds of America probably makes more lists, but I prefer this earlier collection of fewer stories. Mixing humor and insight as seamlessly as ever, Moore describes one character's cautious nature thus: "She didn't like to do things where the trick was to not die."

In "Two Boys," the opening story, a woman is carrying on more than one relationship simultaneously for the first time in her life. The boyfriends are referred to as Number One and Number Two. The former is married, and the affair includes this moment:
"I'm worried about you. You seem distant. And you're always dressed in white. What's going on?"
"I'm saving myself for marriage," she said. "Not yours."
Number One looked at her. He had been about to say "Mine?" but there wasn't enough room for both of them there, like two men on a base. They were arriving at punch lines together these days. They had begun to do imitations of each other, that most violent and satisfying end to love.
The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

I haven't revisited this one much since college, but seeing as how it includes everything that Kafka published while he was alive -- including "The Metamorphosis," "In the Penal Colony," and "A Hunger Artist" -- it's an easy choice. In the foreword to the edition I own, John Updike wrote, in 1983:
(These stories) remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka's strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret.
Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

Like the work of any experimentalist, Barthelme's can be wildly hit-or-miss, but this collection has plenty of hits. It includes my favorite story of his, "The Sandman," which takes the form of a sometimes-passive-but-mostly-aggressive letter written from a woman's lover to her shrink. A taste:
Susan says: "I want to buy a piano."
You think: She wishes to terminate the analysis and escape into the piano.
Or: Yes, it is true that her father wanted her to be a concert pianist and that she studied for twelve years with Goetzmann. But she does not really want to reopen that can of maggots. She wants me to disapprove.
Or: Having failed to achieve a career as a concert pianist, she wishes to fail again. She is now too old to achieve the original objective. The spontaneous organization of defeat!
Or: She is flirting again.
The one thing you cannot consider, by the nature of your training and of the discipline itself, is that she really might want to terminate the analysis and buy a piano.
The Collected Stories by William Trevor

Every decent personal library should have a copy of this one. It's nearly 1,300 pages of Trevor's precise, beautiful writing. It was released in 1992, and Trevor has continued churning out work since, even as he nears 80 years old. (To see that he's still on top of his game, read his latest collection, Cheating at Canasta.) I once wrote to a friend something along the lines of how I'd like to move to a bog in Ireland, polishing the same few sentences over and over again until they look like William Trevor's.


Chuck Endorses Mike

Almost two years ago (egad), I wrote about how much I loved the "Chuck Norris facts" available on these here Intercomputers. I even teamed up with some friends to create a few new ones. Now, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is getting in on the act and, politics aside, I have to say I respect this.

(via Metafilter)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Gallery 5

(I strongly recommend clicking on this photo to enlarge it. A good idea for every gallery, I think.)

Table Rock, Nebraska (1993) by Markus Jokela


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wristcutters: A Love Story

My latest for Pajiba:
The main flaw with the clever-on-paper premise is that, once it's been established, it has no effect on the action. The road trip could just as easily be taken by two living guys in search of a lost love. The premise can't do any of the heavy lifting, so that's left to the script, which is a dud.

Down the Stretch

Steven Crist, horse racing handicapper and writer par excellence, recently discovered YouTube's "treasure trove of historical racing footage," and he celebrates his find by linking to a real dandy -- the 1989 Preakness, which features Sunday Silence (who was coming off a Kentucky Derby win) and Easy Goer. It's thrilling enough on its own; just imagine having a big bet on one of the leaders at the top of the stretch. If you watch what's below and don't get the appeal of racing, I can't help you.

A Mystery Solved

Whenever I take Amtrak to parts north of New York -- which I like to do as often as possible -- I pass by a small island in the Hudson River that seems to be the home of an abandoned castle. It's a great sight, and I've always wondered about it. Thanks to BLDGBLOG and photographer Shaun O'Boyle, now I know that it's Bannerman's Island:
As American Heritage describes it, "this island fortress was once the private arsenal of the world's largest arms dealer." And that was Frank "Francis" Bannerman.

Bannerman, we learn, "bought up ninety per cent of all captured guns, ammunition, and other equipment auctioned off after the Spanish-American War. He also bought weapons directly from the Spanish government before it evacuated Cuba. These purchases vastly exceeded the firm's capacity at its store in Manhattan and filled three huge Brooklyn warehouses with munitions, including thirty million cartridges." Accordingly, "Bannerman now needed an arsenal." Or, more accurately speaking: he needed a private island.

Bannerman soon purchased "six and a half acres of scrub-covered rock called Polopel's Island, about fifty-five miles north of New York City." But even that wasn't enough. He then "bought seven acres more of underwater land in front of the island from the state of New York. He ringed the submerged area with sunken canal boats, barges, and railroad floats to form a breakwater" – a kind of artificial reef. "The island was under continuous construction for eighteen years."

Photos of Bannerman's Island, copyright Shaun O'Boyle

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

U.S. Sets Record in Sexual Disease Cases

No Country For Old Men

Almost all fans of Ethan and Joel Coen believe that the fraternal writer-director team has been in a 21st-century slump. But I'm the rare fan who believes the slump showed signs of starting before the change of the millennium. The Big Lebowski (1998) is already a cult classic, adored equally by Coen-heads and potheads who couldn't match a director's name to a movie for a super-size bag of Cheetos. I laughed, but mostly thought it was pretty boring for such a "zany" movie. Likewise, Fargo (1996), which is probably the consensus pick for the pair's best effort, is beautifully made and I've seen it more than once, but it's not my favorite. That would be Raising Arizona, the giddy, dreamlike comedy about mismatched newlyweds stealing one of a wealthy couple's quintuplets.

Arizona was released twenty years ago, and the Coens have done a lot of great work since then, but nothing else that succeeded quite so perfectly on its own terms. Until now. In addition to all my natural interest in it, my appetite for No Country really spiked when I read this line in A.O. Scott's New York Times review:
For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it's pure heaven.
He couldn't be more directly addressing me if he had written, "You'll like this movie if you're pale and twitchy."

Of course, just about every Coen movie is a delight on the formalist level, but this one might be their best. It's like a piece of Shaker furniture -- well, a piece of Shaker furniture covered in blood. The story, quickly, is that a hard-nosed Texan finds two million in cash among many dead bodies at the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He's then pursued by a sociopathic killer who's charged with getting the money back. All the while, a sheriff is (hesitantly) on the case. A lot of what other critics are saying is right: As the sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic. As the sociopath, Javier Bardem is chilling. As the guy who learns the very hard way that "finders keepers" is an oversimplification, Josh Brolin is perfectly cast. (Don't back up; you read that right.)

Something you may not know: Brolin's wife is played by Kelly Macdonald. Her presence in the movie means that it could've been directed by Carrot Top and had all the formalist appeal of a local car-dealer commercial and I would've bought a ticket.

What struck me was what a great companion piece the movie is to Raising Arizona. In fact, whenever the DVD comes out, I'll probably host a back-to-back viewing for friends. Both films are set in a mythical West (No Country is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, and if McCarthy had a taste for the absurd instead of the gothic, he might have written something a lot like Raising Arizona by now). Both stories are set in motion by a desperate man taking something that doesn't belong to him. Both feature bounty hunters then pursuing that man, and that pursuit is represented in both films by ominous shots of dark highway spooling underneath a moving vehicle. Both feature extended conversations between a criminal and the cashier of a remotely located convenience store, one played for laughs and one for tension. Raising Arizona's H.I. McDunnough comes from "a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types;" No Country's sheriff comes from several generations of lawmen. There's more, but I'll save it for the lecture I give before the double screening, which no one in their right mind will attend after reading this.

All of this says nothing about No Country's subtle themes, its propulsion in spite of some deeply unconventional narrative decisions, its lack of a single unattractive frame, and -- despite what I'm sure some people are saying -- one of the best endings in ages. You can get all those things by seeing the movie, though, and you should.

There Are Only So Many Ways to Write a Headline Telling You That Wednesday is Music Day

More posts in the hopper for this afternoon, but first a song. This is Beck going absolutely insane on "Debra." It's like James Brown, John Travolta in Urban Cowboy, Prince, Michael Cera in Arrested Development, and a drunken karaoke customer with a mean falsetto, all rolled into one:

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Back in the Saddle

If anyone noticed the silence here yesterday, I apologize. I should let you know where I am. I should call. I hope you didn't stay up waiting for me.

I was returning from another jaunt to Ithaca. The jaunt was lovely. The first half of the return trip was fine, but then turned into a seven-hour ordeal that's inspired me, among other things, to write a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Anyway, I'm back. More posts in a bit. No books list this week -- nothing's in the hopper, and I'll normally try to fill any gap like that with a list of my own, but I'm unprepared this week. For now, pictures of Ithaca. It's purty, especially this time of year:

Friday, November 09, 2007

Gallery 4

Moves + Pepsi, Harlem, 1955 by William Klein


Loose Buttons, Junk Mail, and Dusty Refrigerators

At Paper Cuts, the New York Times' book blog, a different author is asked the same three questions every week. One of them is: "How much time - if any - do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?"

I thought P.J. O'Rourke's answer today was amusing (and true):
I don't even know which end of a computer one is supposed to gaze into. I've never used a computer. I do all my writing on an ancient IBM Selectric. And I do my research in books. Once in a while I'll hire a college student to pull something off the Internet, if I need an up-to-the-minute statistic or a Lexis/Nexis search or that sort of thing. But that's as far as my use of the Web goes. This is not because I am a Luddite. It's because I have - as most writers do when they're writing - super-severe Attention Deficit Disorder. I can be distracted by a dust mote, a loose cuff button, an unopened junk mail solicitation from The Dizziness From Standing Up Too Fast Fund. I once had a conversation with some fellow writers about this problem. One of them summarized it as, "Gosh doesn't the top of the refrigerator need dusting?" If I had a computer I would do nothing but play with it all day.
Last month, I attended a talk by Lorrie Moore and Jeffrey Eugenides. During the Q&A period, someone asked Moore when her next book would be out. It was a question so predictable that there was a collective smirk among the audience when it was asked -- Moore has a fervent fan base, and her last collection was published more than eight years ago, so people are getting antsy. Anyway, in addition to saying she's been teaching and raising a kid alone after her divorce, both good excuses, Moore said maybe the biggest reason for her drop in productivity was the discovery of e-mail. If Lorrie Moore is so addicted to e-mail that she's writing less, what hope is there for us mere mortals? Lordy.

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-Five

"No One" by Alicia Keys

Currently my favorite song on the planet.

I'm serious.

"Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor

My favorite song on the planet when I was eight. I had a crippling Rocky III fixation for a while, and I bought this song on 45. I vividly remember my mother telling me one afternoon, after repeated plays, "Don't wear it out." I thought she meant the grooves on the vinyl might wear away and make the record unplayable. "Can I break it if I play it too much?" I asked in a panic. "No," she replied, "you might just get tired of it." Silly mother, I thought. Tired of "Eye of the Tiger"?!

"Maneater" by Hall & Oates

My favorite song when I inevitably got tired of "Eye of the Tiger."

I'm a sucker for strong bass lines, I guess. (I actually love Hall & Oates to this day.) My mother makes a cameo appearance here, too -- when she saw me watching this video, which featured a woman walking around in stiletto heels, she banned MTV in the house, a rule that actually had some teeth for a while. Watching the video now, I don't see more than a couple of momentary flashes of ankle, and I'm starting to wonder if there was a very brief attempt to raise me Amish.

"Neverending Math Equation" by Sun Kil Moon

A beautiful cover of a song by Modest Mouse. A friend wrote the other day, after discovering this song, to say that it is "the essence of John Williams' music," so I figured it deserved a mention, being the essence and all.

"Nightswimming" by R.E.M.

My favorite song, ever. I've tried not to wear it out. Really. I only listen to it a couple of times a year now, if that. Mom taught me well.


Thursday, November 08, 2007


Atheists take yet another step toward becoming their own domineering "church," while also proving that they should probably be working for automobile design companies. ... On the other side of things, Megan McArdle takes issue with Adam Gopnik's view of Christianity. ... I have a meaningless but firm rule that the headlines I individually feature from time to time come from the AP, but a friend sent along this beauty from CNN: "Cow falls from sky, crushes minivan on road."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Speak of the Dave

Yesterday, my guest writer Sarah discussed a book of essays by critic Dave Hickey (pictured at right, a long time ago). I happen to know that another good friend of mine is also a big fan of his. And after Sarah's post went up yesterday, I found this interview with him in the brand-new issue of The Believer. It's highly entertaining, so I recommend the whole thing. But here are some of my favorite nuggets. Early on, Hickey has this exchange with novelist Sheila Heti, who conducted the interview:
DH: Art and writing come from somewhere down around the lizard brain. It's a much more peculiar activity than we like to think it is. The problems arise when we try to domesticate the practice, to pretend that it's a normal human activity and that "everybody's creative." They're not. Honestly, I never sit down to write anything without thinking, This is a weird thing to be doing! Why am I sitting here writing?

SH: So if it's the kind of thing that comes from the lizard brain and is not this gentle, political thing people do at all, then this idea of working hard, which is a very Protestant, American value... I mean, going to the studio from nine in the morning to five at night—it sometimes seems like there's such a professionalization of art-making. Is it commensurable with this activity that's—

DH: Well, let me put it like this. I think that if you don't like it and it's not easy, you shouldn't be doing it. You know what I mean?

SH: If it's not easy you shouldn't be doing it?

DH: I mean it's work, but it's not labor. You have professional obligations like any adult, but it's fun to solve problems. It's fun to sit there by yourself with no one telling you what to do. It's fun to nuance things that no one will notice except in their lizard brains. I enjoy doing it, and it's easy for me, but there are a lot of people out there who are working too hard at it. [Big laugh]
Then there's this description of critic as goalkeeper that I like:
SH: OK, so what are the supposed art magazines interested in hearing about, if not about art?

DH: They want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.
And lastly:
SH: Do you think humor's a very important element of art?

DH: It would be if anybody could take a joke! Alec Waugh proposes "seriousness" as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree.

Wednesday is Music Time

More in a bit, but let's get this week's song out of the way. Frustrated by a quick tour through YouTube, I'm being lazy on relying on my old friends in R.E.M. They just released a live CD/DVD that will probably be the first official release of theirs that I don't buy, because it focuses on recent material that I'm not crazy about. But "Leaving New York" is one of their best from the last 10 years or so, and here it is from the DVD:

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

6 BOOKS that will help you develop an eye for art by Sarah Douglas

Sarah Douglas is an art journalist based in New York. She is a staff writer for Art+Auction magazine, and has written for other leading art publications such as The Art Newspaper, Flash Art and Art News. Knowing Sarah is a bit like getting to go to graduate school for free. Below, she writes about six books of criticism that she "guarantees will help you develop that good-art-detecting thing called a mind that people generally just call an eye." She asks that you "trust her on this one."

The Dyer's Hand by W.H. Auden

Okay, this is a desert island disc. The prologue of this book consists of two related essays. The first one is called "Reading." The second one is called "Writing." They are made up of sets of what are essentially interrelated aphorisms, some longer than others. I've read these two essays so many times that I probably thought "okay, this is a desert island disc" when I plucked the book from the shelf because one of the aphorisms, in "Reading," is as follows: "Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously 'truer' than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways." But a quirky mnemonic event hardly justifies my having chosen this. Wait for it! There is a part, also in "Reading," where Auden argues that in order for a reader to be in a position to judge a critic's judgments, the critic must first describe to the reader "his dream of Eden." What follows is a questionnaire devised, and completed, by Auden, which reads, in part: "Landscape: Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast... Climate: British. ... Size of Capital: Plato's ideal figure, 5004, about right. ... Formal Dress: The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ‘40’s. ... Sources of Public Information: Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers. ... Public Statues: Confined to famous defunct chefs.”

Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey

Dave Hickey's Eden is likely a desert, decked out in blinking neon lights of every size shape and color. Last month I spotted the iconoclastic, Las Vegas-based critic sitting on a bench in London's Regent's Park, a cameraman recording the interview he was giving to a dapper BBC reporter. Hickey, who had just given a lecture in which he had aptly captured the primary and secondary art markets of the 1990s by observing that if you made it past the confetti and dog turds in the front room with your shoes clean you could get to the back room and buy yourself a nice Donald Judd, was, in jeans, paunch and baseball cap, harshly anomalous against the manicured setting. I'd first encountered him eight years ago at a conference in the middle of the west Texas desert, where he seemed at home enough to be part of the local flora – the cactus, the tumbleweed, the Dave. Anyhow, I started to wonder whether his lively volume of essays, Air Guitar, which I'd devoured just after college, had stood the test of time. Had it been a youthful enthusiasm? I'm here to report that either it wasn't, or I remain youthful – good outcome either way. So. You know you're in funny territory right off the bat because when you open the book you see a picture of Keith Richards wielding a guitar like it's a weapon, along with this quote from the Rolling Stone: "Let me be clear about this: I don't have a drug problem, I have a police problem." Then you get Hickey's erudition interspersed with bursts like "I'll tell you what I would like. I would like some bad-acting and wrong-thinking. I would like to see some art that is courageously silly and frivolous..." Hickey was a rock critic before he was an art critic. Maybe there is more enthusiasm in the rock criticism line of work. Because that – the enthusiasm -- is what doggedly refuses to age in these essays.

Intentions by Oscar Wilde, in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Richard Ellmann

Recently, at a party, a rock critic told me that his ultimate goal is to make an album with no bad songs on it. I thought he was speaking metaphorically, but it turned out he has a band. Anyhow, the group of Oscar Wilde essays called Intentions is an album with no bad songs on it. But I would draw your attention especially to "The Artist as Critic." There are too many good bits in it. My copy is so underlined I can barely read it. Wait, here's something: "Yes: writing has done much harm to writers." Here's something else: "Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin's views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvasses in England's Gallery..."

The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art by John Ruskin

It seems that, after a while, John Ruskin's views on Turner were not very sound. There is a snippet of one of his letters in the introduction to The Lamp of Beauty, a lovely little volume of his writings, that has haunted me since I read it. In it is his great devotion to the art of Turner, evinced among the mutterings of a mind at odds with itself. There is a lapidary quality about Ruskin's criticism; its very texture betrays both a crystalline control of language, and a need for control in general, and like many who are concerned with control, he may have been teetering for quite a while on a precipice and eventually, as happens, a crucial fragment of him tumbled down and smashed against some sharp rocks. In the letter he writes to a friend, "Indeed I rather want good wishes just now. I am tormented by what I cannot get said, nor done. I want to get all the Titians, Tintorets, Paul Veroneses, Turners and Sir Joshuas in the world into one great fireproof Gothic gallery of marble and serpentine. I want to get them all perfectly engraved. I want to go and draw all the subjects of Turner’s 19,000 sketches in Switzerland and Italy, elaborated by myself. I want to get everybody a dinner who hasn't got one. I want to macadamize some new roads to Heaven with broken fools' heads ... I want to play all day long and arrange my cabinet of minerals with new white wool. I want Turner's pictures not to fade – I want to be able to draw clouds...and I can't do anything and don't understand what I was born for." What else would any real, art-loving critic do with a whittled-down mind, other than to hope that pictures don't fade? It's heartbreaking.

Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists by Robert Hughes

Because, say what you will, he's a real, art-loving critic. Because the last essay in the book is a satirical epic poem in heroic couplets called "The SoHoiad," based on Pope's Dunciad, that lambastes the ever more lambastable world of contemporary art. And I don't even mind that I am, like, so implicated! Look -- "Behind, a pliant and complaisant throng / of Art-Reporters flatulates along / With tongues a-wag and wits made dull by rust, / Trustees who deal, and dealers none may trust, / Curators clutching freebies to their breasts, / The bureaucrats, the urgers, and the pests."

"The Renaissance" by Walter Pater in Walter Pater: Three Major Texts

Because "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame" is still "success in life." Right?


A Link to Me

Norm Geras runs a "writer's choice" series, and he kindly allowed me to go on at length about my favorite novel, The Brothers K. You can read the whole thing here. A taste:
Judged on a few technical levels, The Brothers K may not be the best novel I've read, but it's had the longest impact on me. Without resorting to maudlin shortcuts, Duncan conveys the frustrations, consolations, and ultimate joys of human connection in a way that's both open- and broken-hearted, and I've never encountered another writer who renders such a large canvas so intimately.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Anonymous Cuteness

The week's real business around here will start tomorrow, with the books list and several other things.

For now, a snapshot. As my nephew, who's almost two now, grows older, I'm not going to be posting pictures of him, even though his cuteness would slay you, just because I've always kept friends and family reasonably veiled on the site. But he dressed as a puppy for Halloween, and everyone's favorite picture happened to be one where you don't really see him. Observe:

As a friend put it: "He looks like an adult about to walk to his job at an amusement park."

I Lied

This week's list of six books will be up tomorrow, not today. Most of the time, it will be on Mondays.

Run, Chewie, Run!

The New York City Marathon is, as my friend Nick smartly put it on the phone this morning, "what New Year's Eve in Times Square is supposed to be." It's a citywide expression of ambition and support of your fellow man (and woman and, as you'll see, wookie). My friend Patty ran in it this year, and I was lucky enough to catch her passing by while I stood along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. A couple of weeks before the race, she had written to me: "I'm guaranteed to be in considerable pain. The most I'm hoping for is to avoid serious injury." She got to me around the eighth mile, when many others already seemed to be flagging, but she was bounding along like she had just started. Congrats, PF, and F40, indeed.

It's more thrilling than you would think (or than I would think, at least) to scream support to total strangers as they glide or stumble by. It's inspiring and touching to see so many different types of people tackling such a monumental goal. Here's another excerpt from my conversation with Nick:

Nick: "Did it inspire you to try it?"
Me: "Oh, no. No. I can run a decent distance if I trained for it, but 26 miles sounds like hell. But it inspired me to do something. You know, whatever my thing would be."
Nick (channeling me): " 'I'm gonna go inside and eat a whole gallon of ice cream.' "

The one thing I wasn't prepared for was the volume of people who run the race in costume. I have no idea if this is a way to gain money for a charity or just a sign of psychic breakage, but my first clue that it would be a theme came when a snowman ran past:

OK. Then later came Chewbacca:

You can see Princess Leia right ahead of him. (If you want some real fun, read the Wikipedia entry for Chewbacca. Sample fun: "The 1978 television program The Star Wars Holiday Special introduces Chewbacca's family: Mallatobuck, Attichitcuk, and Lumpawarrump. They live together on Kashyyyk.")

I thought a giant fur costume would surely be the toughest thing in which to run, but that was before I saw "Larry the Lighthouse":

It's hard to tell, but "Larry" was actually moving along pretty well, all things considered.

Lastly, a far more boring outfit, just a guy in a trench coat (evidently the NYC marathon equivalent of jogging shorts and a T-shirt), but it was the best one I got. You only see a smattering of spectators on the other side of the street in these shots, but my side was pretty packed, and unobstructed photos weren't easy to come by. So, I'll leave you with this guy:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Good Sunday

Monday will be a busy/good day around here, including another list of six books (if you haven't caught on, a new list is going up every Monday, and the "gallery" photos are being posted on Fridays). But a quick note now at the end of the weekend, inspired by a friend.

It's true that I do an awful lot of complaining about New York, both on the blog and to my three-dimensional friends. But it's also true that there are days like today. I woke up at a reasonable time (for me, on a Sunday, that means anytime before noon, but it was actually considerably earlier than that today) after having "gained" the hour last night. (I can't tell you how much the talk about gaining an hour agitates me. We didn't gain an hour. We just told ourselves it's a different time. I could say, "Hey, everyone, it's 1976 again!" but that wouldn't mean I'm going to live 31 years longer than I normally would.)

Where was I? I got up and walked less than one block to watch the marathon runners make their way through Brooklyn. (More on this tomorrow, but for now I'll just say it's a tremendous event.) I sat for a while at a charming local coffeehouse, ate my body weight in "blueberry buttermilk coffee cake," and continued reading a book that may or may not be changing my life, but probably is, as much as individual books can do that. (Much more on that book before long -- too much, really.) And tonight, after watching football at a friend's apartment, three of us decided at the last minute to see a comedy show at a bar less than one block away, featuring my buddy Eugene Mirman, the always-hysterical Todd Barry, and the desired-by-male-nerds-everywhere Sarah Silverman. We almost didn't go because the option of doing something like that presents itself so often here that it's hard to get enthused. But that's the point. I should sing this place's praises more often. If I left it, there would be some immediate sensory benefits and perhaps a (no doubt temporary) uptick in the Sanity Department, but it would hurt like hell.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Mike Falls to the Ground

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has said that he doesn't believe in biological evolution:
Oh, I believe in science. I certainly do. In fact, what I believe in is, I believe in God. I don't think there's a conflict between the two. But if there's going to be a conflict, science changes with every generation and with new discoveries and God doesn't. So I'll stick with God if the two are in conflict.
St. Augustine, sixteen centuries ago:
If we come to read anything in Holy Scripture that is in keeping with the faith in which we are steeped, capable of several meanings, we must not by obstinately rushing in, so commit ourselves to any one of them that, when perhaps the truth is more thoroughly investigated, it rightly falls to the ground and we with it.
(Via Reason)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Gallery 3

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central
Park, New York City
(1962) by Diane Arbus


The Serious Side of '08

This will never be a full-time political blog, but I'm sure 2008 will see more posts on the subject. I mostly refuse to partake in the excruciating two-year slog that leads up to presidential elections in this country. Isn't an excruciating year enough?

That said, I find it increasingly impossible that I'll be able to support any major-party candidate other than Barack Obama. Whether he's doing the goofy pop-culture stuff (like dancing with Ellen) that Bill Clinton made a codified part of the process when he played the sax on Arsenio and answered questions about his underwear on MTV, or he's seriously addressing an opponent's tactics, there remains something deeply intelligent, dignified, and relatively unscripted about him. These days, that's almost enough in and of itself. Or at least, I hope it's almost enough. As Joe Klein recently wrote, "(Obama) assumes a maturity in his audiences, and in the press, that simply may not exist."

There are a ton of concrete issues in play during this election cycle, but I still think the largest one might simply be the public tenor of the country. Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are politicians as cartoon characters, divisive not only for their legacies and opinions, but because of how they animatronically address their bases.
Obama seems to me like the only viable candidate who might save us from watching our politics slide even further into petty disgrace.

(Links and Klein quote from an Obama supporter with a far larger readership, Andrew Sullivan)