Monday, September 29, 2008

The Debate

I thought the debate Friday night was unexceptional. John McCain obviously knows the world stage very well. That alone is a refreshing change. But Obama clearly knows it, too, and I think he held his own on details and in tone. I didn't hear any major mistakes, though McCain displayed a dash of that impulsiveness that rightly scares some people when he basically ad-libbed a suggestion of a federal spending freeze. Except for the military, of course. Yikes.

As it's been widely noted, McCain's body language was not encouraging. I actually think the way in which he's most out of step with the country is that he seems to have real disdain for Obama. From my experience talking to people who likely won't vote for Obama, they still respect him and find him likable. Not McCain. When he repeatedly said that Obama "didn't understand," he was almost always just talking about differences of opinion. I think Obama "understands" just fine, and it would behoove McCain to move away from that tactic (!) and focus more on arguing for his case than belittling Obama. Didn't work for the Clintons.

If the polls are to be believed, and Obama has a small but noticeable lead, then Friday night should have helped him. He seemed presidential -- as he always does to me -- and McCain's substance was counterbalanced by his shifty, grumpy style, which I don't think undecideds will find palatable. But what do I know.

Palin remains a huge factor. I'm not sure if there's anyone out there still willing to defend the substance of her, but my word -- I do sympathize with her, until I remember that she could have said no when asked. It's true that politicians who are polarizing purely on the issues can galvanize their side. But comprehensive disasters are just disasters, and it's hard to see how she won't continue to significantly hurt the ticket. As much as I like Obama, and as much as I believe McCain is qualified (until I start thinking -- at all -- about the Palin pick), the fact is that either president is going to inherit a real mess in this country, on multiple levels. It's a serious time. Palin's not a serious figure.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

Just a quick weekend post to wish Paul Newman a peaceful rest. From all accounts, a hell of a guy as well as a hell of an actor: Charitable, dignified, and talented. A brief scene from one of my favorite movies, Hud:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Much Time to Blog

It's been a quiet couple of days here while I take care of some considerable housekeeping. Enjoy the debate tonight, and I'll see you next week.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


This parody of blowhard Keith Olbermann is hilarious. . . . I'm glad to see Hillary is taking everything well. . . . I like this: "I served with quick studies. I knew quick studies. Quick studies were a friend of mine. Sarah Palin: you're no quick study." . . . OK. Forget the "serious" candidates. Have you seen Ralph Nader's latest campaign ad? If you haven't, brace yourself. It's truly creepy. If he didn't have the Insane vote wrapped up already, this should do it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Righting a Wrong With the Wednesday Song

Ryan Adams' Demolition was supposed to make my list of 100 albums, somewhere in the 60s or so. I think what happened is that I had forgotten to include Doolittle by the Pixies, so Adams got bumped, since there's plenty of alt-country-ish stuff on the list already (including Adams himself, still to come). Anyway, this is "Desire" off of Demolition, to make up for the error:

Make Way For the List: 45-41

45. Fiona Apple -- When the Pawn (1999)

This album is a good example of what I said this list would represent at the start: some Frankensteinian combination of my current respect for albums and the number of times I’ve listened to and enjoyed them throughout my life. Let’s take an example of something that had a lot of plays but doesn’t have much current respect: The Grease soundtrack. When I was a child, I would put on our stereo’s giant, dark-brown headphones and groove to that album for hours at a time, all the while wondering if my mother knew -- she couldn’t -- that “Greased Lightnin’” included the line, “we’ll be getting lots of tit.” Today, I still think the movie is a guilty pleasure, but it’s not like the soundtrack made my initial bunch of candidates for this list. Conversely, do I think When the Pawn is a better album than Abbey Road or Rumours? No. But did I manage to remove When the Pawn from my stereo for more than five weeks after I bought it? No, I did not. I hadn’t thought much of Apple’s debut, but on this follow-up she and producer Jon Brion crafted more mature (but still bratty when necessary), seriously addictive songs. If “Love Ridden” is too melodramatic by half, it’s still heartbreaking when Apple calms down to sing, “No, not ‘Baby’ anymore / if I need you, I’ll just use your simple name.” “Fast As You Can” was a great single -- on a list of my favorite individual moments in songs, I’d have to include when the frantic production abruptly stops and Apple belts the torchy, “sometimes my mind don’t shake and shift / but most of the time, it does.” And the album-closing “I Know” is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard.

44. Nirvana -- Nevermind (1991)

From the time I was 17 until I was 22 or so, I heard “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” and “Lithium” so many times on the radio that I can’t even form a judgment of them. It would be like aesthetically judging the white noise in my brain. But it wasn’t like I changed the station a lot when they came on, so I figure I liked them. The best of the singles was the first, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which remains, with its catchy opening guitar riff and foot-tapping bass line throughout, more accessible than you ever remember between listens. (Maybe because I’ve only heard them a million times, not a trillion, these days I tend to prefer “Breed” and “Drain You” and “Lounge Act.”) I bristle at the idea of Kurt Cobain being called “the voice of a generation,” especially mine, since most of what he was screaming was either nonsensical or pat. Still, with this album, Nirvana created something new, and that’s not something you can say about rock bands every day (or every decade). They made music with the energy of punk, but they were clearly influenced by the melodies of The Beatles and R.E.M. as much as the anger and poses of The Sex Pistols. They also weren’t overly political (the band seemed most vocal about opposing rape and violent social bullying, which I think we can all agree on). Instead, they sounded angry and confused, disillusioned but energetic, and hyperaware of themselves as marketing objects. In that way, I guess they did represent my generation. Just don’t ask me to explain “sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands.”

43. The Hold Steady -- Separation Sunday (2005)

I’ve written about The Hold Steady many times around here, and I’ll be writing about them again in the future (hint, hint), so I’ll keep this brief. The first few songs on Separation Sunday are fine, but it’s the second half of the record that puts it this high on the list. “Stevie Nix,” alternating between raucous guitar and lonelier keyboard-driven moments, is one of their most epic songs. And even by the high standards of a band that knows the value of a great closing track, “How a Resurrection Really Feels” might be their best.

42. Chamberlain -- The Moon My Saddle (1998)

Chamberlain (now defunct) was formerly Split Lip, a hardcore-emo band out of the midwest. Their transformation on The Moon My Saddle is pretty startling. There are reminders of a hardcore band in the energy of the playing, but the songs are pseudo-epic, optimistic, and nostalgic, in the Springsteen and Son Volt tradition. (Singer David Moore’s voice, gruff but expressive, has been compared to the Boss, but I hear more of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz.) Like Springsteen, there’s a lot of directly addressing a lover and a lot of talk of travel, as in:
So let's be off tonight, while we're awake enough to drive, and by this time tomorrow we'll be alive.
Who’d have thought girl, late last spring, we’d still be the same?
In the backseat, the smell of vinyl and wet streets must have helped you get to sleep.
While this album isn’t exactly gentle -- lots of guitars and drums, and there’s only one spare, piano-driven song -- there’s no question that this is proudly sentimental music. Caution to those who roll their eyes at earnestness.

41. Centro-matic -- Redo the Stacks (1997)

In the mid-to-late ’90s, it being the fashion, I went to a small club in Dallas with a friend of mine to see Mary Lou Lord. I don’t remember much about Lord, but the band that opened for her, Centro-matic, became one of my favorites. Based in Denton at the time -- and now in Austin, I believe -- Centro-matic is led by the prolific Will Johnson. (In the little more than a decade since Redo the Stacks was released, he’s put out 13 more albums and various ep’s under different names -- Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, and, well, Will Johnson.) The band’s gotten a bit more polished, and put out some terrific music, but I still prefer the slightly more ragged, garage-band sound captured on the 23 tracks here, some of which are rough enough to sound like demos and some of which are short enough to serve more as spackle than songs. There are haunting songs about love (“Cannot Compete”), mental breakdowns (“Post-It Notes From the State Hospital”) and arcade games (“Starfighter #1479), but the blood flows best on strenuous guitar workouts like “Parade of Choosers” and my favorite song on the album, “Am I the Manager or Am I Not?”


Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Over at Pajiba, I review the new western directed by (and starring) Ed Harris:
Take a typical western's plot. By which I mean, take Appaloosa's plot: A wrong is committed. The wrong must be avenged. The wrong is difficult to avenge, so the job will require a flinty, principled man who puts nothing above The Avenging. The man is, it hardly needs saying, outnumbered. Badly. And even with The Avenging at the top of his to-do list, said man will have to make some awfully tough decisions along the way. Some of these decisions will place the lives of innocent people in the balance. This man might have a short temper, but he is essentially Decent and Good. Don't expect him to talk about his feelings, because, as the poster for Appaloosa makes clear: "Feelings get you killed."

Voting Against the Media

I'm a bit stunned, but also curious. I meant to include in my most recent Palin post some level of surprise at how many people have mentioned the media's tone as a potential influence on their vote. Three thoughts come to mind:

1. I freely admit that some media coverage of Palin has been too personal for my taste, and obviously her selection has brought out a lot of partisan rancor. Still, everyone has a radio and a TV, right? I'm still in America, yes? Let me get this straight -- conservatives are upset about biased media. The mainstream's liberal bias might flare up (and by liberal, I mean left-of-center, not Trotskyite), but the bread and circuses in this country still come from the right. Rush Limbaugh is Howard Stern, but dumber, and he influences votes all the time. Where's the outrage about that?

2. If you don't think Obama himself is acting in ways that you find very distasteful, what possible "lesson" could you be teaching the media by staying home or voting for McCain because of their behavior? This makes no sense to me. A line of argument that goes, "Yes, McCain deserves criticism for selecting Palin, and no, I wouldn't be comfortable with her as president, but the press is being very, very mean to her, so I'm voting for McCain" is not technically an argument. I'm honestly not sure what it is.

3. Isn't it distasteful that Palin, you know, doesn't talk to the press? I'm not a fan of the Big Bad Media, and I think they overstep their bounds every day in one way or another, but have we really reached the point where it's more important to be nice -- nice only from the left, of course -- like voting for a singer on "American Idol" just because Simon made them cry? Is all of this serious? Am I awake?

Feel free to discuss.

Monday, September 22, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Construction Workers Complain About Nude Skater


I'm not an autograph hound, by any means, but this recent post by Maud Newton got me thinking about my favorite signed books. (Warning: Click through from Maud to the L.A. Times piece at your own peril -- it's frozen my browser every time I tried.) I don't have that many signed books, which helps narrow it down. Last year, I got to briefly meet one of my heroes, Richard Russo, after a reading, and he signed my copy of Empire Falls:

And I've somehow ended up in possession of an old Mickey Mantle autobiography that he had signed for my dad:

(Dad, you can have it back whenever you'd like, of course.)

But I guess it's hard to vote against the signature below as my favorite. I never met him, but my sister got this for me in New York many years ago:

Back to the Trenches

Time to talk politics again. I got sidetracked last week.

I’ve had calls from more conservative friends to address a few different questions: Why liberals and the press have reacted so strongly to the Palin nomination. Why it’s OK for Obama to be a “celebrity,” but not OK that Palin “isn’t famous enough.” Why I myself feel so strongly at this stage in the race.

There were other issues raised, but I think they’re mostly variations on those listed above.

For me, there’s plenty about which I disagree with Sarah Palin, and would disagree even if she were a five-term senator from a highly populated state. She’s against a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. I’m not. (I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority on that one.) Another is abortion, where she stands by her opposition to it even in cases of rape and incest, which frankly, I find horrific. I’m not the most liberal person you’ve ever met on abortion -- but keep dreaming if you think we’re getting into that around here -- but I still think that’s horrific. Another is homosexuality, a word that fundamentalist Christians like Palin can barely bring themselves to utter, even as the majority of the country gets increasingly open-minded about it. (And when she does utter it, I’m not impressed. She’s apparently supported “conversion” techniques in the past, including praying your way out of homosexuality. Even if I thought homosexuality was wrong, I’d find such plans ridiculous as well as bullying.)

But it’s true that specific issues haven’t been the main emphasis when it comes to criticizing her. In the vast majority of cases, I’m happy to let the vice presidents be an afterthought in an election. There are three practical things and one philosophical thing that keep me from feeling that way about Palin. First, McCain would be the oldest president to take office in history. Several weeks ago, this seemed to be a genuine concern on both sides of the aisle, and if McCain had selected, say, someone 15 years younger than him but with a long track record, I’m sure we’d be hearing from Republicans about how he expertly addressed one of the biggest concerns about his candidacy. And they’d be right. (McCain likes to invoke the "party of Reagan." Reagan's age was also a concern, and he chose 56-year-old, highly experienced George Bush. It took prodding, but it happened.) Second, as Republicans frequently claim to, I take the current international climate very seriously. Combining McCain’s age and the various problems abroad, I think it’s particularly important to have someone in the on-deck circle who can swing the bat. Third, Palin is uniquely unqualified for major office. The only two relatively recent candidates who come to mind as competition are Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew. Quayle's problem was mostly his having the ability to speak -- he had served a combined twelve years in the House and Senate by the time he was chosen as VP. Agnew had much less experience, and we all know how well that turned out. Nixon tried to drop him from the office, without success. Eventually, he resigned in disgrace.

The fourth is the philosophical issue, which is what I’ve written about before -- that Palin represents catnip for the religious right, a group that I think already holds far too much influence over the party. I call that philosophical because obviously there are those who would consider her brand of faith and her social beliefs as strengths. We simply disagree.

As for fame. I’ll start by saying that it’s already hilarious that McCain and the Republicans make an issue of a “celebrity” campaign, being the party of President Reagan and Governer Schwarzenegger. (This is not a knock on Arnie or Ronnie. It's just a logic check.) Obama is a popular politician; he was not a celebrity prior to that. But let’s leave that aside. I never meant to imply that Palin should be more “famous.” The commenter who felt that I had implied it pointed to this part of a sentence I had written: “not an average American in the lower 48 has heard of her.” What I was getting at -- and the history with Quayle and the cries of “Spiro Who?” at the ‘68 Republican convention show precedent for this -- is that politicians running for high office tend to become well known through the course of a campaign. Take Obama. He has decidedly less political experience than McCain. So you have to take that into account when judging him. But for the past 18 months -- and close to literally every day of those 18 months -- he has been making his case to the American public. He had to get past an extremely well known opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a process that included more than 20 debates. It’s not Palin’s fault that she was less visible (not famous, visible), but that lack of visibility makes it a hell of a lot less consoling when Charlie Gibson “gets” an interview with her, in the way that People magazine “gets” the first shots of J-Lo’s twins. As vapid as our political process can be, it isn’t quite “Survivor” yet, and I’d like to make sure it never gets there. How about an unscripted press conference, for starters?

I link to Andrew Sullivan a lot (I’m sure he’s very appreciative of the traffic). I read his blog obsessively, and I’m a longtime fan. That doesn’t mean I agree with him on everything, or that I can’t see how he latches on to certain subjects with a fervor that usually escapes me. Sullivan jumped on the Bristol Palin pregnancy story early and often, for instance, and I try to avoid that kind of thing. I hope I’ve made it clear that I don’t think that’s fair -- or relevant -- game. He’s also posted younger, unflattering pictures of Palin, and I don’t see the benefit (or classiness) of that either. But I think he’s right to be outraged at the way the Republicans are shielding Palin -- even changing the rules of the upcoming VP debate for the explicitly stated reason that Palin is an inexperienced debater.

In short, I don’t have .001% of Sullivan’s audience, but I’d like to be judged by what I write here, and not by association. In addition to Sullivan, I read mostly newspapers online and a few bloggers with some level of intellectual honesty and some lack of rabid party love.

With all due respect to certain friends -- and that respect is considerable in all cases -- I think the Palin choice backed them into a corner. What I think has liberals and the press (and many conservatives) worked up about Palin is not her lack of political experience, her stark lack of foreign-policy experience (and thought), her far-right beliefs on certain social issues about which the country is clearly closer to the center, the naked use of identity politics she represents, the fact that she won’t speak unguarded to the press, or the fact that McCain is a historically old candidate -- it’s all these things combined.

Megan McArdle recently wrote, “I find it irritating when people who are harping on flaws in the opposition candidate that they would easily overlook in their own side demand that I join them in their fantasy world.” I agree with that sentiment. It’s one reason why I don’t think exclusively supporting one party makes much sense -- it becomes easy for your loyalty to attach itself to the party name rather than good ideas or good people. All I can say to my more Republican-leaning friends is that I would not be overlooking Palin’s flaws if she were on “my side.” If Obama had the same appeal that I find him to have, but he were 65 and chose as his VP someone with Palin’s experience, I’d be seriously questioning his judgment.

I’ve compiled just a small portion of conservative reaction that I’ve seen in recent weeks to try to make it as clear as possible that I don’t see this as a purely partisan issue.

Republican Chuck Hagel:
She doesn’t have any foreign policy credentials. You get a passport for the first time in your life last year? I mean, I don’t know what you can say. You can’t say anything...
Libertarian Megan McArdle:
I don't see how you can vote for a candidate without being able to assess their foreign policy reasoning, which is a tad difficult if they have no facts to reason from. . . . I've watched part of the Sarah Palin interview, and I think it's very hard to argue that she isn't woefully unprepared; she clearly had no idea what the Bush Doctrine was. She is, to be sure, very good at tap-dancing around questions she doesn't know the answer to.
The Wall Street Journal on Palin's record:
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, hadn't sought earmarks or special-interest spending from Congress, presenting her as a fiscal conservative. But state records show Gov. Palin has asked U.S. taxpayers to fund $453 million in specific Alaska projects over the past two years.
Conservative blogger Ross Douthat, who supported Palin as a potential VP well before she was actually chosen, and who called her interview with Gibson “none-too-impressive”:
I had hoped that the Sarah Palin pick was a sign that they were open to rolling the dice a bit more on policy; at the moment, though, it looks like Palin herself was the roll of the dice, and it's just going to be down-and-dirty politics from here on out.
David Brooks:
Steven Hayward argues that the nation’s founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin. I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. . . . (L)ike President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.
David Frum:
She's under-informed and over-confident. . . . Those who wish to believe in her will continue to believe in her. As for the rest -- well it's a 6 in 7 chance that McCain makes it to the end of his first term. That's pretty good!
Look, Frum is still a strong McCain supporter, and doesn’t want Obama elected. I get that. But the point is, it’s possible to address Palin’s candidacy with real skepticism, instead of just circling the wagons and attacking the liberal media.

Besides, part of the reason I can’t bring myself to support McCain and, by extension, the current Republican party, is because of my conservative side. Which exists. Here’s Wick Allison, Obama supporter and former publisher of National Review, not exactly a leftist magazine:
Today it is conservatives, not liberals, who talk with alarming bellicosity about making the world “safe for democracy.” It is John McCain who says America’s job is to “defeat evil,” a theological expansion of the nation’s mission that would make George Washington cough out his wooden teeth.

I disagree with (Obama) on many issues. But those don’t matter as much as what Obama offers, which is a deeply conservative view of the world. Nobody can read Obama’s books (which, it is worth noting, he wrote himself) or listen to him speak without realizing that this is a thoughtful, pragmatic, and prudent man. It gives me comfort just to think that after eight years of George W. Bush we will have a president who has actually read the Federalist Papers.
On the choice of Obama-McCain, I’m supporting Obama for several reasons, many of which I’ve written about here. McCain's pick of Palin just makes it easier for me. On the issue of Palin, I think we’ve lost our collective mind, and that’s not because I think Palin herself is evil. It’s because there are so many acting like the way this candidacy is being handled is normal. It’s not. Or maybe it is, but it shouldn’t be.

Friday, September 19, 2008


While the financial market going topsy-turvy isn't an everyday occurrence, the art market can be depended on for remarkably steady signs of insanity. . . . Speaking of the financial market, will its dire straits mean really bad news for my city? Megan McArdle thinks it might. . . . My friend sent me this clip in an e-mail whose subject line was “You will laugh until you embarrass yourself.” That wasn’t far off. . . . There’s a 10th-anniversary DVD of “Sports Night,” one of my favorite TV shows, coming out later this month. I hope the super-special anniversary bonus will be that the discs don’t frequently skip like the original box set I bought years ago! . . . Film Forum has more pretentious patrons per square foot than any other theater in America, and probably the world. But it does have the goods. Last night, I caught This Happy Breed as part of the theater's David Lean retrospective. From 1944, it was based on a Noël Coward play about 20 years in the life of a British family between the wars. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Memories of DFW

A small addendum here to my earlier post about David Foster Wallace. (I was going to share excerpts of his work all week, but I figure it's better to just sum it up with: Go read him.) Pomona, where Wallace taught, has put up a page of memories from people who knew him. And McSweeney's has a long list of its own.

It's more than fine to hear his fellow writers share their thoughts, but I find something particularly compelling about his former students, who make him sound like a great teacher in all kinds of ways. These two details, from separate students, made me laugh out loud:
He was obsessed with grammar. He wrote about it some, especially in one published essay, but it’s hard to understand the depth of his obsession without having written and turned in papers to him. Responding to the first essay I ever turned into him, Dave started with the line, “There are a lot of interesting themes you’ve touched on ... but to discuss those themes would be like conversing about the weather over a bloody, mutilated corpse.” Over a few years, Dave learned not only some tact but also that not every person in the world was raised to diagram sentences as a child.
I used to confuse "further" and "farther," and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I'd confused them yet again, and in the margins, he'd written, simply, "I hate you." I've never confused them since.
The Pomona and McSweeney's pages are both filled with personal encounters with Wallace, some of the fleeting variety, some of the rooted variety. I've found reading them deeply sad, but also gratifying. If you were a fan of his, I think you'll find both pages as warm as I have. Here's another detail from a student that I enjoyed:
Sometimes people brought food to class, like for a birthday or to celebrate the last class of the semester. Dave didn't eat sweets, but he would often go on about how good it looked or how delicious it smelled. One time, when someone brought brownies, he held it up to his nose and inhaled deeply for a long time before passing it on. He used to bring plain almonds for himself. If you sat next to him, he'd occasionally place an almond in front of you. He wouldn't ask if you wanted it or not, he'd just put it there. If you ate it, he'd probably give you another one.

A Post About Songs About Girls

No Wednesday song yesterday, because I figured I would let that gargantuan post have its run of the place for a full day. To make up for it, this week's song (embedded below) also involves a game you can play along with if you'd like -- songs with a woman's name as the title. Has to be just a name. This eliminates, for instance, "To Ramona" and "Sweet Jane." A cursory scan of my music collection turns up these as examples: "Debra" by Beck; "Julianne" by Ben Folds Five; "Alison" by Elvis Costello; "Fiona" by Lyle Lovett; "Ann Jane" by The Jayhawks; "Diane" by Material Issue; "Roxanne" by The Police; "Emma" by Richard Buckner, etc., etc. I'm leaving out several of my favorites. Feel free to include yours in the comments.

And now for the song: "Lola" by The Kinks. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Riotous Genius: An Appreciation of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace provided me (and others) with the phrase “howling fantods,” which I’ve often used to describe my not-infrequent states of nervous anxiety -- e.g., “My ex-girlfriend called me for the first time in three years last night, and after I hung up I got the howling fantods and couldn’t sleep,” with the anxiety being described always more of the ambient/terrifying/existential kind and less of the practical/impending-job-interview kind -- and which goddamn fantods, having darkened for Wallace past even the howling stage of their fury, claimed the author last week at 46, an age clearly too young and yet also older than he seemed, the air of wunderkind around him having never fully dissipated. (1)
(1) This sentence represents my sole attempt to approximate -- even in this anemic way -- Wallace’s style in this post, and I know even this is ill-advised. I figured it was better to just get it out of my system and proceed.

In 1996, I was a senior in college, in San Antonio, when my older sister -- who lived in New York, worked in the publishing industry, and with whom I frequently swapped literary opinions and recommendations -- told me to drop everything and read an essay in Harper’s about time spent on a Caribbean cruise ship. In the essay -- which as far as I can tell is one of the very few (maybe only) that members of my generation can confidently identify (and light up about) on the basis of only two words (“cruise ship”) -- Wallace covered a vast amount of cultural, spiritual, and power-toilet-themed ground. He started with a list of declarative statements that have the tone of a shell-shocked war correspondent. Here are a few, condensed:
I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. . . . I now know the difference between straight Bingo and Prize-O, and what it is when a Bingo jackpot “snowballs.” I have seen camcorders that practically required a dolly . . . I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. . . . I have now heard -- and am powerless to describe -- reggae elevator music.
(That last sentence features one of my favorite Wallace-isms, the use of which almost always makes me laugh out loud: his stating the incapacity of even his prodigious descriptive powers in the presence of the mind-boggling. There are three good examples of this over the course of just a few pages of “Big Red Son,” his essay about the porn industry:

1. About women who agree, spontaneously and unscripted, to have sex in a van for an adult movie, he writes in a footnote: “No theories on this phenomenon or on the civilian females’ possible motives/susceptibilities will even be attempted here -- the relevant questions are just too huge and stupefying.”

2. About a mover and shaker in the porn industry: “Max, after detailing ... the vo- and avocations that led him into the adult industry (a tale too literally incredible even to think about factchecking and trying to print)...”

3. In another footnote, describing a dinnertime conversation in Las Vegas with a former child actor who has become a director on the porn scene, Wallace writes that the actor’s introduction to porn took place “through a flux of circumstances too tortuous to even take notes on...”)


Right around the time I was reading -- and rereading -- the cruise ship essay, Wallace was publishing Infinite Jest, his 1,079-page novel about a futuristic America. At the considerable risk of summing up such a doorstop’s concerns in one word, the novel dealt with addiction. It featured a halfway house, a videotape thought so entertaining that it killed those who viewed it, and years no longer numbered but named after corporate sponsors.

My friend DR called Jest “one of the most rewarding novels I’ve ever read,” but also acknowledged the effort it required, writing: “I’m a guy that believes a book should look like a properly used baseball-uniform when you’re done with it: Worn-in and stained, with a few holes in it. My copy of Infinite Jest, which sits tattered, shredded, and broken on my bookshelf, suffered almost as much as I did reading it.”

Unlike DR, I was (at the time) surpassingly delicate with my books. Especially with first editions of books that I envisioned passing on to future generations. This gentle treatment reached its zenith with Jest. Instead of underlining passages like I did in most books, I kept a separate set of notes about which pages, paragraphs and sentences left the biggest impression. When I finished, I typed up the list, and to this day there are three dot-matrix-printer pages tucked into the front cover of my copy of the novel, to guide me, with notes like “p. 523 -- middle paragraph about Politeness Roulette” and “footnote #269 -- and all of its parental theories, etc.”


Wallace once described the Oscars ceremony as “the whole cynical postmodern deal,” and that phrase describes his beat. A former student of his called him “a noticing machine,” and both the adjective and the noun are perfect. There was something machine-like about his brain (he was going to pursue a career in mathematical logic or semantics before he gained notice as a writer; as David Gates wrote, “I suspect that Wallace was a genius who happened to be a writer, rather than a writer who happened to be a genius...”) and about his prose, which can be called -- among many other things -- industrial and intimidating. And nothing escaped his notice, which thrilled some readers and turned off others. In an essay about John McCain’s run for president in 2000, he spent the better part of a page describing a malfunctioning bathroom door on a campaign bus. It had nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with Wallace’s style, which immersed you in whatever he happened to be immersed in at the moment. Some might think the style self-indulgent, but Wallace’s powers of observation and nuclear-grade sense of humor meant that his most ardent fans would happily read a hundred pages from him about a ketchup dispenser.

His focus on the quotidian (he focused on the grand, too, but we’ll get to that), in both novels and nonfiction, almost reached the level of meditation. He wrote and spoke several times about the importance (and difficulty) of living in the moment, and after reading his copiously detailed (and legendarily footnoted) reports from the field, one couldn’t accuse him of ignoring his own advice.


In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talked about David Lynch and what identifies an artist: “They've got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and . . . if it's authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.” And in an essay about Dostoevsky, he wrote:
That distinctive singular stamp of himself is one of the main reasons readers come to love an author. The way you can just tell, often within a couple paragraphs, that something is by Dickens, or Chekhov, or Woolf, or Salinger, or Coetzee, or Ozick. The quality’s almost impossible to describe or account for straight out -- it mostly presents as a vibe, a kind of perfume of sensibility -- and critics’ attempts to reduce it to questions of “style” are almost universally lame.
Wallace certainly had his own perfume. One of his essays for Premiere appeared in the magazine under two pseudonyms, which is maybe the funniest fact of his entire career. I don’t know the particulars of why this was done -- perhaps for some lawyerly reason having to do with conflicting obligations -- but it couldn’t have been to disguise Wallace as the author. Trying to convince a reader it wasn’t Wallace would have been like trying to pass off Dustin Hoffman as Cindy Crawford by gluing a fake beauty mole to his face. I don’t think I’ve ever read a single thing by Wallace that, stripped of a byline, I wouldn’t be able to identify, within 50 words, as his. You don’t need a Ph.D. in literature to recognize the power of Wallace’s work. You just need a set of healthy nerve endings.


Wallace’s grim fate left me worried that going back to read him for the purposes of this post would be, at best, a bittersweet experience. It wasn’t. He was such an egghead that the lingering memory of his work can be one of difficult, sometimes opaque brilliance, but the actual experience of reading his work is riotous. Even in the shadow of his suicide, Wallace’s voice on the page is so distinctive and so human (if a little Rain Man-y at times) that he seems to remain alive, which I guess is the ultimate test for all writers, eventually. Up until 2 a.m. reading his essays the other night, I only felt a twinge of sadness after I put down the book and went to bed.

Even when he was writing about depression or delusions, Wallace could stick the landing on jokes like nobody else. Take this long sentence from Infinite Jest:
He’d kept noticing mice scurrying around his room, mice as in rodents, vermin, and when he lodged a complaint and demanded the room be fumigated at once and then began running around hunched and pounding with the heel of a hand-held Florsheim at the mice as they continued to ooze through the room’s electrical outlets and scurry repulsively about, eventually a gentle-faced nurse flanked by large men in custodial whites negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated.
Oddly, it’s the writing that tends to get lost in discussions of Wallace, whose brains and ambitions often receive focus at the expense of his actual sentences. There was something physical about both him (a lumberjack of a guy with a Mount Rushmore-sized head) and his prose that made people consider him in a way they normally reserve for athletes, not authors.

But it isn’t Wallace the inscrutable colossus who will last, it’s Wallace the careful craftsman. Here are just a very few (criminally few) of the images I rediscovered in the last couple of days:

On campaign-trail beverages: “coffee that tastes like hot water with a brown crayon in it.”

On a veteran New York Times reporter: she wore “a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification...”

On a third-party candidate winning the presidency in the imagined future of Infinite Jest: “...the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it...”

From The Broom of the System, his first novel: “Through the giant window high over the cubicle a thin spear of the orange-brown light of a Cleveland sunset, saved and bent for a moment by some kindly chemical cloud around the Erieview blackness, fell like a beacon on the soft patch of cream just below Lenore’s right ear, on her throat.”

On the protagonists in John Updike’s fiction: “Though usually family men, they never really love anybody -- and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.”

On South Carolina during the 2000 presidential campaign: “You can tell it must be spooky down here in the summer, all wet moss and bog-steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat.”

One more, also about South Carolina: “The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and broomsedge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring.”

I’ve seen entire horror movies that aren’t as creepy as the last nine words of that sentence, and I’ve read poems that aren’t as lyrical.


To an outside observer, Wallace's humility and lack of pretension matched his talent. He grew up in the midwest, and eventually taught at Illinois State University (before moving on to Pomona College in California). On two occasions (at least), he wrote pieces in which he refers only half-ironically to Harper’s, for which he was on assignment, as “a swanky East-Coast magazine.” His piece for Rolling Stone, “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” describes his reaction to 9/11, the events of which he watched on TV in the living room of a septuagenarian in Bloomington, Illinois. He regularly and earnestly asked questions about emotional investment and civic responsibility that would have gotten him laughed out of any hipster party in Brooklyn.

I don’t know whether he turned down teaching positions at higher-profile universities -- it’s kind of hard to imagine he didn’t -- but his obituaries make it clear that he was beloved by his students. Gary Kates, the dean of Pomona, said: "I know a great novelist has left the scene, but we knew him as a great teacher who cared deeply about his students, who treasured him. That's what we're going to miss.” A former student of his said, “once you had his trust, he would do anything for you. He was a big dude, about 6-foot-3, but a real gentle guy.”

Of all the things I read since Saturday night, those details made me saddest.


Many critics -- and readers, like myself -- saw Infinite Jest as a dazzling-but-only-intermittently-rewarding novel, and as proof that Wallace, in order to fulfill his promise, might have had some whittling and humanizing to do. Well, as far as fiction went, he whittled it down to almost nothing. He never published another novel. In 1999 came Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection of dutiful postmodern workouts that read like time-killing calisthenics after Infinite Jest. Five years later another collection of stories, Oblivion, which I admit to not reading, though I did cringe at a few of the excerpts I came across in the mixed reviews. In his post-Jest fiction, Wallace’s ambition seemed to shrink to executing the kind of experimental set pieces of which Barthelme et al. were brilliant pioneers, and that George Saunders does equally well as Wallace, if not better. So I think it’s fair to say that Wallace never did live up to his potential as a fiction writer, granting that the size of said promise is a significant and maybe unfair consideration in the verdict.

The sheer heft of Infinite Jest imparted it a planetary gravity, which pulled most of the discussion about Wallace back to it. But without that book’s mass (and its notorious endnotes, which themselves would have made a not-small novel -- endnote #110 alone goes on for more than 17 pages, in tiny type, and features a full set of its own sub-endnotes, lettered A through L), I’m not sure the majority of coverage would have focused on his stature as a novelist the way that it has. It’s more notable to me that Wallace was arguably the best nonfiction writer of his generation.


Simply listing, in order, the subjects tackled in his two collections of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, show the breadth of Wallace’s view: growing up in the American midwest, TV’s influence on fiction writers, the Illinois State Fair, literary theorist H. L. Hix, filmmaker David Lynch, tennis player Michael Joyce, time spent on a Caribbean cruise ship, the porn industry, Kafka, dictionaries, 9/11, tennis star Tracy Austin (Wallace played and loved tennis), John McCain, the ethics of eating lobsters, a multi-volume biography of Dostoevsky, and conservative talk radio.

It’s feasible that fiction gave him more freedom than his brain knew how to handle. For someone who could turn a proscribed magazine assignment into a hundred-page disquisition on modern culture and life’s biggest questions, a pile of blank pages and no constraints might have been too much. Let loose in real life, Wallace could use his singular talent to write about things that had some inherent structure (multi-day events, etc.) or were independent of plot (theories, ethics, etc.) without having to worry about the mechanics of fiction, which he never seemed ideally suited for.

It was in his nonfiction where Wallace used his familiarity and comfort with both high- and lowbrow culture to create a portrait of America at the hinge of two centuries that will endure. (Chuck Klosterman shot to fame by distributing Wallace Lite, which maintains the torrent of cultural references and the stratified analysis but substitutes the middlebrow for the highbrow. Thus, fewer pesky calories.)


It’s at least 25 years too early for such a thing to feel remotely OK, but Wallace’s death has predictably renewed interest in his work: As I write this, books of his occupy the number 12, 25, and 26 slots on Amazon’s bestseller list. As I told someone recently, I consider feeling compelled to revisit his work a very, very thin silver lining to last week’s news.


In the aforementioned interview with Charlie Rose, there’s a small moment that captures, for me, a great deal of Wallace’s charm -- while simultaneously capturing why his head might not have been the most pleasant place to reside. He and Rose are discussing a piece that Wallace wrote about filmmaker David Lynch:
CR: You never got to interview (Lynch)...

DFW: I said from the outset -- this is the reason they let me on the set, of all the other journalists, is I was the only who said he did not, in fact, want to interview David Lynch.

CR: Why did you want to go observe David Lynch?

DFW: I...I mean, why did I not want to interview him or why did I...?

CR: Why was David Lynch interesting to you, as the subject of a magazine piece?
Wallace was always turning things around to investigate them, so that a simple question -- one that 99.9% of people would respond to without pausing -- serves as a speed bump, causing him to inquire about a potential (if highly unlikely) misunderstanding. This was the semantics geek in him. This was the guy who wrote endnotes for his endnotes.


I’ve heard a few people -- both friends and others -- call Wallace’s suicide “incomprehensible.” One particularly eloquent friend, JF, wrote to me: “One thing I liked about his footnoted style of writing is that it always seemed to be correcting and commenting on itself. It let the world in, and it gave him the space and license to wander. I can't believe he shut the door to correction, as it were, so permanently.”

There’s another reason I felt bewildered when I first heard. Wallace’s sense of humor always stood side by side with his more cynical, acidic take on people and events. It seemed, on the page, that laughter was a balm for him, something he could use to offset his disgust or confusion. (This was less obvious in televised interviews, where he often seemed highly self-conscious and ill at ease.) Of course, we know now that Wallace had been fighting depression for two decades, and had stopped taking a priorly effective medication more than a year ago.


What I perceived as Wallace’s humility seemed to also attend his view of his depression. When Rose pushed him to talk about earlier suicidal feelings (The Broom of the System was published when he was 24), and suggested that Wallace had been to hell and back, he responded, “No, I don't think any more than most people my age.” And pushed harder, he said:
The problem was I started out, I think, wanting to be a writer and wanting to get some attention and I got it really quick and . . . realized it didn’t make me happy at all, in which case, “Hmm. Why am I writing?” You know, “What’s the purpose of this?” And I don’t think it’s substantively different from the sort of thing -- you know, somebody who wants to be a really successful cost accountant, right, and be a partner of his accounting firm and achieves that at 50 and goes into something like a depression. “The brass ring I’ve been chasing does not make everything okay.” So that’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s -- what it is, is very, very average.
Of course, Wallace’s work was far from average, and so were his plentiful passages about ambivalence and anxiety in the face of existence. Infinite Jest involves a subplot about alcoholism and support groups, and it has a lot to say about the difficulty of controlling one’s thoughts and moods, including this:
No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. . . . It’s too much to think about. To Abide there. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen; he could treat his head like G. Day or R. Lenz: clueless noise. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.

"I will lend you mine."

You've probably seen this on one of a million other sites by now, but I want it on mine, too. Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin is scary-good. It doesn't hurt that there's a physical resemblance, but the accent's great:

Monday, September 15, 2008

The List Wishes to Say a Quick Hello: 50-46

I know at least one person who will be upset by this (ahem), but I'm listing this week's five albums quickly below, for two reasons: 1. I'm busy writing about other things. 2. In the case of four of the five artists below, I've either written about them on the list already or will write about them further along in the list, so why double up? The one that won't be mentioned again -- #47 -- is a fairly simple case: It's a record full of terrific, durable pop songs.

50. Billy Joel - Songs in the Attic (1981)

49. Buffalo Tom -- Let Me Come Over (1992)

48. David Gray -- Flesh (1994)

47. Crowded House -- Crowded House (1986)

46. Beatles -- Abbey Road (1969)


Archive of the Day

From "Big Red Son" by David Foster Wallace, an essay about an adult-video awards ceremony that originally ran in Premiere, later included, expanded, in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays:
Some of the performers come in limos, others in shiny penile sports cars; others seem to mysteriously just suddenly appear. There are even more starlets here than there were at the CES, and they are seriously dolled up. There are cerise halters and pear-colored Lycra bodysuits with open-toed pumps of burgundy suede. There are platinum lamé gowns slit all the way to the tenth rib. Bottoms less covered than shellacked look like they by all rights should have panty- or at least thong lines but do not have such lines. There are lime-green vinyl leotards and toile bellbottoms and fishscale bustiers and miniskirts the same texture and length as a tutu’s ruffle. Garter straps flash and Merry Widow bodices shade the interiors of translucent blouses. Several of the outfits defy very basic precepts of modern physics. Coiffures are towering and complex. The starlets are all on the arms of men, but none of these escorts are male porn performers. Average heel-height is 4”+. A loud-voiced civilian in the cabstand crowd actually utters the phrase “Va Va Voom,” which yr. correspondents had never before heard anywhere outside a Sinatra movie. Breasts are uniformly zeppelinesque and in various perilous stages of semiconfinement. Max Hardcore is under a Stetson the color of weak chocolate milk, and his adjustable B-girl -- arrayed in a type of scarlet cowboy suit that’s mostly fringe -- has inflated her breasts to what’s got to be maximum capacity.

This Week

I'm working on two long-ish posts -- another about politics, and one about David Foster Wallace (which will actually be pretty mammoth and will likely go up first, hopefully tomorrow afternoon) -- but I'll be posting other things in the meantime. For instance, there will be an Archive of the Day every day this week in honor of Wallace, and the first of those will be up later today.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Big Loss

Breaking news that's just awful: The Los Angeles Times is reporting that writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Friday night.

Wallace was only 46, and this will leave a lot of great things unwritten. I won't attempt to be the first online to post extended thoughts about him. I became a big fan of his at a pretty early phase of his career, and honestly I feel a bit sick. Next week will bring a lengthier, more composed tribute.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Line: Jacksonville (-1 existential crisis)

For those of you who are literary eggheads, the post below this one is for you. For those of you who are sports geeks, and/or fans of absurdist comedy, this post is for you. Hopefully you're into all of the above, and then this entire blog is for you.

This video has been making the rounds. Andrew Sullivan just posted it, and my friend BW just sent it along. Enjoy:

Edward and James

There are those odd books I own that are of great interest to me, pretty slim, constantly recapturing my attention, and yet still remain unread for years and years. One of those books is (was) E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. With the recent publication of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, I figured I would read them back-to-back.

Forster’s book was published in 1927. It was a collection of lectures that he’d given about the novel at Cambridge University. Like Wood’s book, I would say it’s of value to aspiring writers, critics, and just serious readers, but it’s hard to parse the exact value of each book to each of those groups. Forster’s inspired more underlining of extended passages for his writing alone, while Wood’s book pleased me most when it offered bursts of insight and description that replicate his top-notch criticism for The New Yorker and others.

Some of Forster’s book is still widely quoted, like the way he differentiated between story and plot:
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Anthony Lane, in his review of Pulp Fiction, updated this example to fit the work of Quentin Tarantino:
The king died while having sex on the hood of a lime-green Corvette, and the queen died of contaminated crack borrowed from the court jester, with whom she was enjoying a conversation about the relative merits of Tab and Diet Pepsi as they sat and surveyed the bleeding remains of the lords and ladies whom she had just blown away with a stolen .45 in a fit of grief.
Wood is a fan of Forster’s, but also willing to confront him. In the introduction to How Fiction Works, Wood writes that Aspects of the Novel is “canonical for good reason, but now seems imprecise.” And much later in the book, he writes about Forster’s analysis of “flat” and “round” characters, saying, “flatness is more interesting than (Forster) makes it out to be,” and “roundness is more complicated than he makes it out to be.”

And it’s true that Wood’s focus is tighter, with more examples to back up his points. Forster’s lectures had broad titles, like “The Story,” “People,” and “The Plot,” and were full of long passages of his conversationally expressed opinion, whereas Wood’s equally broad chapter headings (“Narrating,” “Character,” “Dialogue”) belie a more atomized structure, 123 “mini-chapter” headings over the course of 246 pages. Because of his reliance on example, Wood’s book also includes a bibliography of about 90 titles -- listed chronologically, from Don Quixote to John Updike’s Terrorist -- many of which I now want to read for various reasons. By contrast, Forster only inspired me, as a reader with a checklist, to deeply reinvestigate Moby Dick for the first time since high school.

In this way, Wood’s books is more like a survey literature course, and Forster’s more like a high-minded address to aspiring novelists.

Here are a few choice bits from Professor Wood:

On Wordsworth and Flaubert, and the way they focused on the “large, bewilderingly various amounts of detail” that came about with city life: “The writer zooms in and out at will, but these details, despite their differences in focus and intensity, are pushed at us, as if by the croupier’s stick, in one single heap.”

On the movement of action in The Bible and other ancient writings: “Time lapses between the verses, invisibly, inaudibly, but nowhere on the page. Each new ‘and’ or ‘then’ moves forward the action like those old station clocks, whose big hands suddenly slip forward once a minute.”

On the “picaresque plot accumulation” in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day: “The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.”

Those are great moments, but I slightly prefer the shaggier and charming (imprecise, I guess, but still enlightening) style of Forster, on display in this passage about Laurence Sterne and Virginia Woolf:
(Woolf) and Sterne are both fantasists. They start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again. They combine a humorous appreciation of the muddle of life with a keen sense of its beauty. There is even the same tone in their voices -- a rather deliberate bewilderment, an announcement to all and sundry that they do not know where they are going. No doubt their scales of value are not the same. Sterne is a sentimentalist, Virginia Woolf (except perhaps in . . . To the Lighthouse) is extremely aloof. Nor are their achievements on the same scale. But their medium is similar, the same odd effects are obtained by it, the parlour door is never mended, the mark on the wall turns out to be a snail, life is such a muddle, oh, dear, the will is so weak, the sensations fidgety -- philosophy -- God -- oh, dear, look at the mark -- listen to the door -- existence is really too . . . what were we saying?
He’s not bad with the aphorism, either. Here he is on judging books:
The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.
And on the unknowable details of birth and death:
Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses.
I lied above, about Moby Dick being the only thing Forster inspired me to read. There's at least two or three others, now that I think of it. So the last thing I’ll excerpt is part of Forster’s thoughts on War and Peace, which actually make me want to tackle that behemoth:
Then why is War and Peace not depressing? Probably because it has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them.
I could go on -- there’s a great, sympathetic paragraph, for instance, about Gertrude Stein, and why experimentalism is doomed to end in failure. But I’ll let you go and find it for yourself if you’re interested.

Scheduling Note

I know what you're thinking: When, oh when, can we have more of your thoughts about politics? Well, I do have a few that were stirred up by a couple of comments this week, but I think I'll take the next couple of days to sort them out, so look for a post about them on Monday. Most likely, the only post today -- up in a little bit -- will be about E.M. Forster and James Wood, so come back to get your literary geek on and then have yourself a good weekend...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now With 5% More List: 55-51

This stretch of the list is packed to overflowing with mopey Brits and folksy middle-Americans, which, if you threw in a Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin record, is pretty damn indicative of my pop/rock collection. Here goes:

55. The Cure -- Disintegration (1989)

This week, I’m writing my own thoughts about these records, but this negative review on Amazon was too good not to share. It’s written by someone who goes by “Janitor X” and claims to live in “The Mountains,” so it has to be good. Take it away, Janitor:

Asking me to listen to the Cure or U2 is like asking me whether I would like to be shot in the gut or kneecaps. "Disintegration" is nothing but a 71 minute and 42 second pity party. Heavily laced with cheesy '80's synthesizers, the music and vocals are so fragile it's sure to induce nausea at least. ... It's not [sic] dark and gloomy album but rather a pathetic opus. Dark and gloomy is murder, suicide, and child molestation, not universal life experiences. Middle class anxieties and broken relationships are not heavy emotions; it's normal life experience. ... It’s [sic] surprised they don't whine about hangnails and bad parking spots. The cherry on top of this sunday [sic] is Robert Smith's voice. If his pathetic whining voice is not the most annoying thing recorded, I don't know what is. How anybody could stand it for more than five minutes is a mystery. There are not enough words to describe how awful the complete waste of time called "Disintegration" really is. Horrible, disgusting, nasty, wretched, and atrocious doesn't even to begin to describe the listening experience.

54. Wilco -- A.M. (1995)

I think that Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are fine albums, but I also think people go a little too nuts for Jeff Tweedy. He’s good at making a pastiche of his influences, and he’s a solid songwriter, but he also leaves me a little cold. Maybe it’s my problem. Or maybe I just don't feel like I love him as much as I should. After all, he’s on my list here and in other places (even later in this same post) -- between all of his bands and projects, he prominently contributed to four of my favorite 100 records. On Wilco’s debut, A.M., he hadn’t yet set his sights on being his generation’s Brian Wilson. He was still mining the alternative-country sound that he helped pioneer in Uncle Tupelo. The record is full of clever lines, like “I just can’t find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read,” and “we used to have a lot of things in common, but you know now we’re just the same.” Its music is more lilting and pastoral than the grinding sound that fellow songwriter Jay Farrar seemed to prefer in Uncle Tupelo. As much as I love Tweedy’s prior band, I’m not sure you would call their music “charming,” but it’s a word that fits A.M..

53. Billy Bragg & Wilco -- Mermaid Avenue (1998)

There aren’t enough good ideas like this one. Nora Guthrie took lyrics left unused by her father, Woody, and approached the British singer Billy Bragg, who has a long history of social conscience in his music. Bragg approached Wilco, and the rest is history. Including vocals from Natalie Merchant on a couple of tracks, these songs are rollicking (“Walt Whitman’s Niece”), gentle (“Ingrid Bergman”), and disappointed (“One By One”) by turns. It never feels like the gimmick it could have been. It sounds like Bragg and Wilco were making songs together in a basement somewhere for a long time and emerged with the best of the bunch. They released a sequel that wasn’t as consistent, but this first effort is both worthy and fun.

52. Morrissey -- Bona Drag (1990)

This solo album represents almost no drop-off from the best work of The Smiths, which is saying something. Here is Morrissey’s London, giddy London, with its hairdressers on fire, ouija boards, and interesting drugs. And of course, its desolate, soul-draining satellites:

Hide on the promenade,
etch a postcard:
"How I Dearly Wish I Was Not Here"
In the seaside town
that they forgot to bomb
come, come, come nuclear bomb

51. Jayhawks -- Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)

Let me write this review in a way that a good friend of mine will understand and appreciate:

If you want to capture the feeling of this record, but you can’t find a copy, here’s what you do instead: Rent a car -- American-made, with some miles on it -- just south of Pittsburgh. Drive it down through West Virginia and into the Blue Ridge Mountains. While you’re down there, maybe in western Virginia or North Carolina, fall in love with a girl. Get back in the car (with the girl) and head for the midwest. Take in a few minor league baseball games. Settle down. Start a family. Maybe in Omaha, maybe Wichita. Wistfully watch your children as they fall asleep at night. Play catch with them in the yard. Go ahead and barbecue a little. Let the smell of smoke from the grill remind you of when you were a kid, bicycling through your Middle American neighborhood, filled with peace and promise and a premature nostalgia. When both you and your wife soon grow dissatisfied, take a road trip (alone) to California. Drive up and down the coast a few times. Start missing everyone, but keep driving until you really miss them. At this point, you might want to actually pick up a copy of the record. Pop it in the car stereo, and drive across breezy, sun-dappled highways back toward home, listening to “Blue” and “I’d Run Away” and “Over My Shoulder” and “Two Hearts,” and arrive on the porch around dinner time, crying and ready.


Questions for Anthony Lane

Not from me, alas.

In researching a future post that will (very) tangentially involve him, I came across this interview with Lane from about six years ago. I've very rarely seen him interviewed (and only in print), so I was happy to find it. He explains why "Roger (Angell) is 80 going on 21 and I am the other way around," why "the pleasure of getting out of British journalism cannot be overstated," and that "Forrest Gump is not a good movie, never was and never will be. Despite all the severed heads I got in the post telling me these things, telling me that I was wrong about it."

To a question about The Sweet Smell of Success, he responds:
In fact, it seems some of the movies that are very acid about journalism and publicity—that movie throughout and lots of Citizen Kane look better and better, wiser and sharper with every passing year. Only the really acute filmmakers were able to prophetically imagine what was going to happen to the press. You shouldn't have been able to imagine what it was going to be like, that the appetite would grow that much for the scandalous.
In another place, he also praises Kind Hearts and Coronets, which I posted about earlier this week.

(Update: Well, I've found several interviews with him on Google, including this video interview with Charlie Rose. Ignore what I said above about rarity.)

Creating and Meeting Expectations

Shopping for a used book on Amazon, I came across this description, which I enjoyed:

"This copy is in poor condition. 100% customer satisfaction guaranteed."


One of the reasons I was glad that the Republicans had no real choice but to nominate John McCain this year is because there seemed to be a real possibility that he and Barack Obama could combine to run a decent general-election campaign. You know, decent, as in the textbook definition, “conforming to the recognized standard of propriety, good taste, modesty, etc.” Or, if you prefer, the definition seventh from the top, “wearing enough clothing to appear in public.” Well, McCain is now running the streets stark naked.

It’s one thing to make impulsive decisions for political purposes, like nominating a good ol' hockey mom from Alaska for vice president when not an average American in the lower 48 has heard of her and then locking her away from the press for the month of September. If Republicans want to act like that’s cool, or like they wouldn’t be (rightfully) losing their last ounce of shit if the Democrats pulled something similar, that’s fine. ("Barack Obama today announced that he's chosen Vladimir Melnikov as his vice presidential nominee. Melnikov is a first-generation American who teaches European History at Princeton, and Obama believes he'll firm up the liberal base. Melnikov wil make his first unscripted public appearance on Nov. 5.")

It’s another thing to run an ad that says Barack Obama supported legislation to teach “comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners,” with an announcer intoning, “Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

Of course, this is a gross lie, and the legislation allowed kindergarteners to be taught about the warning signs of sexual predators. Not that you needed me to tell you that. Is there a person who’s heard Obama speak for more than five seconds who would believe that he approves of teaching “explicit sex” to kindergarteners? It’s absurd to anyone with a functioning brain stem, but I don’t think those are the people the ad targets.

McCain knows better, and he certainly -- once upon a time -- promised better. And if you listen to James Carville in this clip, you hear someone who seems genuinely bewildered at the behavior of a guy he admires. I know the feeling. I argued much earlier this year that this election isn’t only about policy, given the level of political discourse in this country, which has steadily plummeted from silly to dumbed-down to gravel-brained. Time and again, with the Clintons and now with McCain, Obama has responded to personal attacks and the usual smears with dignity -- arguably too much dignity, since a little outrage isn’t exactly unwarranted here. He’s even defended his opponents. When the news of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy hit the airwaves, Obama quickly appeared and stressed that his mother had him when she was 18. Forget the Republican-Democrat divide; it’s hard to imagine another politician from either party doing something like that. Issues matter, obviously, and I think Obama can hammer McCain and Palin on several of them. But dignity matters, too, both in personal terms and as a broader example to our culture. Or doesn’t it anymore? You might not think Obama deserves the presidency for that dignity alone, and that’s fair, but I think he deserves to have it factored into your decision.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Three Quick Thoughts About Music

1. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours should have been higher (much higher) on my list of 100 albums.

2. Do you know both versions of the song "Think Too Much" by Paul Simon? They both appear on Hearts and Bones, one of his most underrated records. I've been listening to them, and thinking about how terrific they are, and wondering if there's ever been a song recorded two ways (with variations in lyrics) that's quite as terrific.

3. I've been listening to The Kinks a lot lately. So I've put Andy Miller's book about them near the top of my to-read list. It includes this epigraph: "If I could live over again I'd change every single thing I've ever done." --Ray Davies, November 1967

Raindrops on Roses...

We'll start Wednesday with the song. This is John Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things." Enjoy:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


John Warner writes a very funny piece for Maud Newton about promoting his struggling book imprint. . . . Conan O'Brien sent his trusty correspondent, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, to cover the Republican National Convention. The hilarious two-part results are here and here. (My favorite line: "Rudy has a real challenge tonight in his speech. How do you think Rudy's going to be able to connect Bristol Palin's pregnancy to 9/11?" My second favorite, to African-American Lynn Swann, a former star with the Pittsburgh Steelers: "It's OK to admit you're lost. There are guys here who could escort you to a Democratic function.") . . . I meant to link a while ago to an article in The Nation that argues that Texas "will morph, by 2020, into the nation's second-largest Democratic state." . . . Lastly, this blogger sees some parallels between the '08 election and a particular season of The West Wing.

(Triumph clips via Quiz Law)

Ready Enough-ish to Lead

I hadn't seen this when it first aired on The Daily Show during the Democratic Convention, but it's really funny:

Fun With Ads

From the blog Weirdomatic, here are several old advertisements, proving that the business of pitching things to people has always been a strange (and strangely entertaining) one.

First up, knocking out grandpa when he gets a bit frisky:

Look out, he's got a cane and he can almost bend his arm to a right angle!!!

Not shuffleboard for this agitation. Not a crossword puzzle. Not a walk around the neighborhood. Straight-up Thorazine.

Next, finding the most wholesome bread for your Satanically possessed child:

"What Mommy doesn't know is that she's covering that bread with the delicious blood of my former best friend Sally!! Mwwwaaaa-haaaaa-haaa!!!"

And lastly, we'll have to ask the children to leave the room:

(For the full details of what this ad is suggesting, click to enlarge.)

"A man marries a woman because he loves her." Makes sense. "So instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself." Oh, wow. Yes, dear, please unlock your Doubt and Inhibitions, and particularly your extra-thick chain of Ignorance, and get into the bathroom with that Lysol. Maybe then we'll talk. Maybe.

(Via Very Short List)

Monday, September 08, 2008

Alec x 8

I've been remiss in not pointing you in the direction of Kind Hearts and Coronets, a 1949 comedy released by the UK's legendary Ealing Studios, which I caught several weeks ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of my neighborhood's gems. The most often repeated fact about the movie is that Alec Guinness plays eight parts, and he's terrific. But that gimmick is not what makes the movie so great.

Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, who is in line to be a duke. But it's a long line. In front of him stand eight members of the D'Ascoyne family (all played by Guinness), including Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne. Louis narrates the story of how he methodically picks off family members in order to inherit the dukedom. It's the best movie I've seen in a while, beautifully written, and funny in ways both morbid and goofy. I'm a big critic of voiceover narration in movies, but this is mostly when it's done in the third person -- Little Children and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to name two recent examples. First person tends to be more successful. In any event, the quality of writing in Kind Hearts makes the narration more like a novel than a movie.

On the commentary for another DVD, Guinness said, "I read [the screenplay] on a beach in France, collapsed with laughter on the first page, and didn't even bother to get to the end of the script. I went straight back to the hotel and sent a telegram saying, 'Why four parts? Why not eight!?'"

Interrupting the Velvety Smoothness

Raymond Chandler, in a letter to his publisher:
Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it'll stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive... I think your proof-reader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street in between.
(Via Normblog)

Picking Up Where We Left Off

OK, I’m going to cram the political stuff into this post, to spare anyone who would prefer to skip it. Posts later in the day will involve Raymond Chandler, Alec Guinness, and the like.

First, I want to thank Canadian-American reader B.C., who sent me this op-ed, which appeals to my baseline cynicism about politics, and my belief that no matter who wins this election, the U.S. isn’t going to miraculously turn everything around:
Mr. McCain said he would eliminate wasteful spending, while cutting taxes; Barack Obama said he would raise taxes on the wealthy, while cutting them on everybody else and spend a lot more money on a long list of programs. Neither approach is remotely plausible to balance the budget.

Speakers at both conventions promised to tackle the U.S. oil deficit, pledging to eliminate the country's dependence on foreign oil. The speakers were fooling themselves, or their audiences, or both.

Neither party talked about energy taxes... Neither party underscored the enormous U.S. foreign indebtedness, the result of the country's consuming more than it produces, importing more than it exports, and living on borrowed money, mostly from China.
But, I remain committed to figuring out whether Obama or McCain is the best man for the moment. That’s all we can do, right? I reiterate my history of respect for McCain. Have I come to believe that his temperament makes him a better thorn in the side of a party than a leader of a party? Absoultely. If his opponent were anyone but Obama, would I be pushing as hard as I am against him? No.

That said, I did fall into the political wormhole last week, here and elsewhere. I spent my time visiting political blogs, friends’ blogs, leaving comments that ran to hundreds of words, and reading the similarly long comments that were left in response. The debate geek in me has to vent somewhere.

A few thoughts from the experience:

Talking with my more conservative friends from Texas has been instructive. On the one hand, they keep me honest, because they’re among the smartest people I know and they don’t operate by the same assumptions that my more liberal friends do. They tend to be less idealistic, which I also tend to be (politically). They are also, to a person, not religious extremists, or even religious. When I quickly think of the first four who come to mind, I would classify them, respectively, as two atheists, a firm agnostic, and a believer who I can't remember ever bringing the subject up in a political context. So speaking on their behalf (and they’re free to correct me, of course), I don’t think any of them want to push God’s agenda through Washington.

In this year’s election, I still think they’re wrong. I also think they’re making some leaps of faith for which they would roast Democrats.

I’ve shown that I’m touchy when accused of seeing Obama as a savior. I defy the five people who have read all of my political posts to find one in which I argue that he fits that description. (Arguing that he’s the best option for the job, or that he might have the smarts and dignity to improve things doesn’t count, unless we’re radically lowering the definitional bar of “savior.”) Given that I don’t think he or McCain is going to part the waters (speaking of which, as an avid hypocrisy-watcher I loved that the Republicans mocked Obama for talk about “healing the planet” but cheered McCain for wanting to “restore the planet’s health”), the key question in my mind is who is less likely to pander to a dangerous constituency, and who is more likely to work in a spirit of unity (pardon the gauzy phrase).

This just in: There is no liberal base in this country. At least, not liberal in the sense that Romney and Giuliani and Limbaugh rant about... I’m not saying there isn’t a strict communist in a basement in Maine somewhere, or that “media elites” aren’t mostly liberal (though if you watch any mainstream media at all, the idea that they’re radically liberal is fall-down hilarious, and if you look at the last 30 years of governance in this country, the idea that they’re effectively liberal is even funnier), but there certainly aren’t enough of them to constitute a “base.” A Democrat who chose an extremely liberal running mate wouldn’t be solidifying 20% of their support, they would be committing political suicide. This is not a liberal country at the moment, except in the classical sense (an important sense, granted). This is why even the quite centrist Bill Clinton never won 50% of the vote in an election, and why he governed from the middle, though that middle wasn’t good enough for the far right, which is, famously and proudly, a base.

So, obviously, I don’t fear Obama falling into the clutches of, what . . . A revolutionary mob led by Noam Chomsky? A revivified Black Panther Party? Can we be serious, please? I am worried that if McCain takes office on religious support, we’re only feeding an already unreasonably large beast. But from what I can gather, my friends in Texas -- those who would not vote for a President Palin -- firmly believe that the past eight years of McCain’s career, and his current campaign, are a Trojan horse. That he will ride the evangelicals into office and then smite them. That somehow, he will defy the political math that says you have to have certain people in your corner in order to get anything done. That McCain will simply shed the supporters he doesn’t prefer once he’s in the Oval Office. Now who sounds like a savior?

Sarah Vowell wrote in yesterday's New York Times:
During a gubernatorial debate in 2006, Governor Palin claimed that if her daughter, then 16, were impregnated as the result of being raped, Ms. Palin would hope that the girl would “choose life,” which is a polite way of saying she would expect a tenth-grader to give birth to her rapist’s baby.

Here’s a not-so-polite fact about the United States: According to Amnesty International, a woman is raped here every six minutes.

Like his running mate, Senator McCain has been a true-blue opponent of abortion rights during his political career. Unlike his running mate, he supports the right to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. So does President Bush. . . . This year, Senator McCain himself didn’t bother to stand up to the right wing of his party to insist that the rape and incest exception be written into the Republican Party platform.
The thing is, McCain hasn't really stood up to the right wing of his party in eight years.

I’ll close with a comment made here last week. A reader asked if I didn’t think that McCain would be better at working across the aisle than Obama would. I mostly responded by pointing out that Obama has received the support of many Republican politicians and many intellectual conservatives. The reader responded:
As for my question, I wasn't trying to make a comment about Obama at all. I think he would be perfectly willing to work with both sides of the house. However, I just don't think the Republican party, as a whole, would ever give him that chance.
Great. So this argument goes that Democrats would be willing to work with McCain, but Republicans wouldn’t be willing to work with Obama. So, tell me again: why is any remotely moderate person supposed to be rewarding this party?