Thursday, December 08, 2016

Parenting Tips

Posting for the first time in a while to share some parenting advice.

So last year, one of my twin daughters mocked a handicapped kid at school, grabbed a bunch of boys’ crotches and laughed about it, called a classmate fat, said “you have to treat the teachers like shit,” stood up in the cafeteria and loudly said that Muslims should not be allowed to attend her school until “that whole thing can be sorted out,” told a teacher she couldn’t grade her essay fairly because she was “a Mexican,” said that if other schools didn’t have good sportsmanship during football games we should assassinate their families, called kids from Paterson rapists, lied about how dangerous the hallways were, called a fellow student who put one of her friends in the hospital a “passionate guy,” told a teacher who needed to pump breast milk on her lunch break “disgusting,” told a teacher she should shut up because she was probably on her period, spent MONTHS telling anyone who would listen that the principal was probably not born in the US and should not have his job, lied about giving money to the bake sale, called a guidance counselor who is part Native American “Pocahontas,” said that teachers with kids should stay home and change their diapers, never said a word about all of the love notes she was getting from the KKK, called a football player who intentionally drilled an opponent and paralyzed him, “a great player,” suggested a classmate’s father killed the mayor, told a lunch lady she should not be allowed to man the cashier because she was not pretty enough, repeatedly asked the principal why we couldn’t just go to rival schools and smash windows and set them on fire, said she wished she could punch classmates who disagreed with her in the face, compared her sacrificing time to do homework to a classmates’ father who lost a leg in Afghanistan, insulted more than 200 people at the school, took money from a bake sale to buy a picture of herself to hang in her room, told classmates to “watch out for kids from Paterson trying to get into the school play,” lied about a classmate having made a sex tape, called a female janitor “Miss Piggy,” and called poor classmates “morons.”

What a scamp.

Oh! And my other twin daughter did a really shitty job of managing her e-mails, so we had her arrested.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Kids Seem to Love It

So while I may pop in here from time to time, I thought it worth sharing that I've a Tumblr now, called Moments. The basic idea is to share discrete, isolated moments from pop culture pieces that strike me as worthy of noting.

Take a gander, won't you?

Until Whenever

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

2015 - Books Read

Here they are - the books I read in 2015. 30 in all. Not a bad year, but I'd certainly like to read more in 2016. Wouldn't we all?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Stephen King
A wonderful story collection with maybe my favorite King tale ever at its center. (Herman Wouk Is Still Alive)

A Terry Teachout Reader – Terry Teachout
A collection of essays from one of my favorite culture writers. A wonderful overview of Sondheim in here, as well as an amusingly out-of-date piece on “quality TV” that suggests no TV series can ever stand as a true classic given that no one ever revisits an entire series the way they do a great novel or film. In today’s streaming and Peak TV world, that is simply no longer true.

Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith
The third in JK Rowling’s mystery series, the goriest, page-turniest, most personal one to date. Love that she has an ongoing mystery series going. It’s a good fit for her talents.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – Alison Bechdel
Having listened to the cast album of the musical based on this graphic novel, reading it expanded and clarified some of the story, themes, and characters. A wonderful, personal, heart-breaking tale that never wallows in sentimentality.

Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink – Elvis Costello
An idiosyncratic, time-hopping, detail-stuffed musical memoir. I remain undecided if a firmer editorial hand would have made it better or snuffed out the flame of its shaggy charm.

Ms. Marvel, Vols 1-3 – G. Willow Wilson
Fun, feminist comics about a young Muslim teen in Jersey City navigating becoming a superhero.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets – David Simon
Exhaustively, devastatingly reported year in the life of the Homicide detectives in Baltimore. A dense, challenging read but a lively, passionately told one. One of those books that really opens a window on a world you thought you knew (here, from TV), but did not.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory – John Seabrook
A look at how pop hits are manufactured today that was fascinating, but that also felt like, having read excerpts and distillations of the book in two magazines, maybe worked better as a long-form article than a book.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Minor McEwan, but still worth reading. A small story about a judge whose marriage is in jeopardy and the legal case that commands her attention during this personal crisis. Explores the ethics of denying medical treatment for religious reasons with intelligence and fairness, but very clearly.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
A spellbinding novel about a family and its splintering told with great attention to detail and character. Franzen is a treasure.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
A searing and absolutely riveting personal essay on race and America told as if written as a letter to Coates’ son. The only book I read this year that I *know* I will read again. And again.

Stardancer – Kelly Sedinger
Old-school space opera, with princesses, latent abilities to be discovered, and hidden planets in crisis. Rollicking fun.

Finders Keepers – Stephen King
King attempts to come up with his own series of novels featuring the same detective, as so many have before him and as Rowling has been doing so successfully for the last few tears, but here in his second outing he takes over half the book before actually remembering to, you know, bring the detective back. Still, he manages to make it work, and to craft a wonderfully suspenseful ending.

Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality – Jo Becker
Closely reported accounting of the fight that led to the Supreme Court case calling California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

Red Rising – Pierce Bowen
First in a sci-fi trilogy that felt cobbled by its genesis in other, worthier tales of oppressed heroes rising out of impoverishment to take on the establishment.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion – Meghan Daum
Collection of essays that grapple with interesting topics but that were in the end maybe too personal for me to latch on to.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
Captivating mystery/thriller that for me missed the landing.

Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine – Paul Offit
A hackles-raising accounting of cases where children died because their parents denied medical care for religious reasons and the ongoing efforts to prevent similar tragedies.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande
A beautiful, deeply moving, immensely educational and passionate book about how we treat the elderly in this country, both in their later years and as they die. Coates notwithstanding, maybe the best book I read all year.

Paper Towns – John Green
Solid YA from the The Fault of Our Stars author that suffers in comparison to its more famous kin. Still, this is a compassionate, nicely told story about the search for identity in adolescence.

Life of Pi – Martin Yann
One of those books where you read it and say “Ah – now I get the hype.” A beautiful, lyrical mediation on faith.

Revival – Stephen King
Old school-flavored King. The ending was a little familiar and disappointing, but the journey there was fascinating and not a retread of prior stories or characters.

On Immunity: An Inoculation – Eula Biss
A beautiful little book on the history and metaphysical implications of vaccination. A bit pretentious, but sometimes that works just fine.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin
An engrossing look behind the scenes of some of the best TV of the past decade.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
A lyrical, quiet novel about the end of the world. Beautiful.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2014
A pleasure every year. I *love* these collections.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
A grand and successful literary experiment that tells connected stories over eons. A great novel that has me itching to read more Mitchell.

Sondheim on Music – Mark Eden Horowitz
I can’t pretend to have understood a ton of this deeply technical series of interviews with Sondheim on the musicology behind his scores, but I found it utterly fascinating all the same. 

Until Whenever

Thursday, November 12, 2015

An Experiment

It's been a while since I wrote any fiction--and the last time I did so, it was writing some more of a novel I have been trying to complete for a decade. And yes, since you ask, to be such a cliche IS depressing.

My thinking now, then, is that it might be helpful to try something completely new. A fresh look and all that. 

So--an experiment. Below are 10 opening sentences to short stories that do not exist, yet. The deal is simple: I will write a short story using the one that folks think has the most potential. Which story would you actually want to read? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and, who knows--maybe you will get to.

  1. The dirt was dry, chalky even, and smelled of hay. 
  2. Billy had never imagined a baby could be so heavy.
  3. The tie around Sydney's neck chafed, and he stifled an urge to loosen it as he listened to his new boss explain how to account for time worked in a system with a level of complexity Sydney never would have imagined possible.
  4. The silence was a physical, palpable thing, with weight and sharp corners--and Sally could only destroy it if she remembered her line. 
  5. Bella furiously pedaled her bike down the steep incline, the wind in her hair a magnificent luxury, a shocking pleasure. 
  6. He emerged from the subway with any sense of direction obliterated; "up" and "down" he had a shaky handle on, but beyond that, nothing.
  7. It had only been 45 minutes since he said "I do"--how did it feel like a lifetime?
  8. He walked through the woods, relishing the crunch his boots made on the thin layer of icy snow. 
  9. I am genuinely not sure whether this is a sad or a joyous tale--I hope when it is done you will tell me. 
  10. He enjoyed singing so much more when he was singing with a choir, when he was unable to distinguish his own voice from the dozens surrounding his and intermixing with it completely. 
Until Whenever

Monday, June 15, 2015

Taste vs. Judgment

An online discussion with an online friend has me mulling the eternal question of taste vs. judgment yet again. Here is my proposition: That, at the extreme ends, at least, it is possible (and desirable) to make aesthetic judgments about a work of art's overall quality.

Here is one example. If I prefer The Godfather Part III to The Godfather, that is just fine. Taste is personal and I can enjoy any single work of art over any single work of art and if you tell me I am wrong you are just being a dick.

BUT - if I claim Godfather Part III is a better movie, well, then, now I am being a dick. Because if thousands and thousands of smart people have assessed both films (as they have) and decided that one is clearly a better work of art than the other (as they have), then for me to come along and tell them they are wrong is a bit narcissistic and silly. Again (and this is important), I don't have to like it better. I just have to acknowledge that it is objectively better.

Also, it is important to say that this is not scientific. So am I pretending there is some objective way to decide whether Part I or Part II is the better film? No. I could convincingly argue that I is better, or II.  But I could not convincingly argue that III is better. That's kind of my point.

My online friend thought I was wrong here, and I'm certain many of you will too - so, please! Debate me!

Until Whenever

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The U2 Ranking - Songs of Innocence Edition

It's been a long nine or so months since U2's surprise album release, of which the unusual circumstances surrounding its sharing I will say nothing. And now, at long last, it is time to assess where the new U2 songs stand in my prior ranking of U2 songs. Huzzah!

A brief recap:
  • For quick reference, the complete list of (pre-Songs of Innocence) songs and ranking is here.
  • A look at the ranking sorted by album (again, pre-Songs of Innocence) is here
  • Links to the posts about each song are here
And now, we can unveil, from the bottom-up, where in the new ranking the Songs of Innocence songs fall:

#146 - "California (There Is No End To Love)" (placed in between "Stateless" at #147 and "Summer Rain" at #145

There is something too-facile, too easy-breezy about this song, which fell flat for me on the first listen and hasn't since improved. I don't doubt that U2 (or at least Bono) has an affinity for California, but that affinity doesn't really come across here--this feels more like something you would produce if your only exposure to the state was through the movies. The music is pretty generic U2 for me, pleasant enough but without a hook or edge to really grab onto. Too smooth for my taste.

#110 - "Every Breaking Wave" (placed in between "Indian Summer Sky" at #111 and "Stories for Boys" at #109)

This is a weird one, as it is the album version I am of course ranking. That version is very similar to "California" for me - too smooth, too easy, too airbrushed. And the blatant retread of the "With or Without You" bass line just sticks out. But the live version is a gorgeous ballad--a little treacly, sure, but as I've said many times in this project, I am not averse to a little treacle. But rules are rules and I must rank the more anodyne album version, so here we are.

And the far superior live version:

#96 - "Lucifer's Hands" (placed in between "FAst Cars" at #97 and "Staring at the Sun" at #95

A slightly sinister track who's pretty safe and by-the-numbers verses are saved by a nicely aching chorus. This is that kind of U2 track that benefits from the band not trying too hard.

#81 - "Crystal Ballroom" (placed in between "Cedars of Lebanon" at #82 and "The Hands That Built America" at #80

This dance track features, simply put, a great groove.A really nice swagger and confidence on display here, as the band revisits its dance-influenced Pop past. Nothing earth-shattering, but just a nice example of how many areas this band can play in when it wants to.

#75 - "Raised By Wolves" (placed in between "Get On Your Boots" at #76 and "Angel of Harlem" at #74)

I quite like this as a harder-edged rock track from the band, even if its evocation of violence in Ireland feels a little half-baked and repetitive from older U2 tracks. The piano really works well here as well, which sounds odd given that it is its "rock"  sound that I like.

#71 - "Iris (Hold Me Close)" (placed in between "Even Better Than the Real Thing" at #72 and "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" at #70)

I get how personal this song is for Bono, but unlike the superior "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," which is about Bono's father, this song about his deceased mother doesn't hit quite as hard. It's a rousing, passionate U2 song, and I like it just fine, but some of the rapturous claims made about it really struck me as overblown.

#70 - "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now"(placed between "Iris (Hold Me Close)" at #71 and
"Elevation" at #69

I love the "Gimme Shelter" homage and the bit of a different feel for U2 this song carries with it. Unlike "California" and "Every Breaking Wave," this song feels like U2 trying something new and not trying to recapture an existing sound or old flavor. It's certainly not revolutionary, but the sense and feel of the song is different. I love the warbly, Theremin-sounding figure and the bit of funk added to Edge's guitar lines. A very solid song.

#62 - "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" (placed between "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" at #63 and "Song for Someone" at #61

I like that little faded sing along at the beginning. But even more, I like the clickety-clack of Larry's sticks that serves as its accompaniment. And then that big, meaty riff? Is it a little self-aware in its bigness and meatiness? Maybe. But it works just the same. I love this song and love it as a first single so much more than "Get On Your Boots." Add to the mix a great, sincere, and catchy as hell chorus and I am sold. I loved this song from listen one.

#61 - "Song for Someone" (placed between "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" at #62 and "In God's Country" at #60

A delicate, sweet, wistful, and simple ballad. This is another example of what I have called attention to before as U2's ability to function as more-pure songwriters - unlike many U2 songs, this song could easily be envisioned as being covered by, say, Adele. The soaring chorus does exactly what it is supposed to do. A great ballad.

#59 - "Cedarwood Road" (placed in between "In God's Country" at #60 and "White As Snow" at #58)
A great intro, with a chiming Edge guitar line that then gives way to a much harder riff, as hard in its way as anything the band has ever recorded. I love the loping, relaxed quality in the verses, in the melody and accompaniment, and the yearning, plaintive quality in the chorus. A great U2 rock song.

#43 - "The Troubles" (placed in between "Vertigo" at #44 and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" at #42

Another great closing song--this band is really good at these. This one has the melancholy (maybe not as deep a melancholy, but melancholy all the same) as "Love Is Blindness" but adds a more resigned, peaceful quality. And the addition of a female vocalist (Lykke Li) adds a TON to the impact of the song. There's an almost tribal feel to her melody, and the sinuous groove and guitar line pairs with it beautifully. A wonderful song.

#36 - "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight" (placed between "Running to Stand Still" at #37 and "Mysterious Ways" at #35

That opening bass/synth line is like a shock to the system. This could be on Pop. And it doesn't relent through the first verse. The opening is relentless in its spareness. Then, with the chorus, we get this restless piano figure and this gorgeously sad melody. Only then do we get some Edge guitar, in some big, rough, and emphatic chords. This is my favorite song on the album, and that the band is not closing with it on tour makes me very sad (it feels like such a natural).

Until Whenever

Friday, May 08, 2015

A Blog Question Thing! Remember Those?

Because I haven't done one of these in a LONG time, and because if it has the Terry Teachout stamp of approval, well, what more do you need?

1. What was your favorite book as a child? Curious George. I absolutely loved the series and carried around a stuffed Curious George wherever I went. I was a "follow the rules to a fault" kid for the most part, so maybe I admired the more adventurous George. Although I did once poke holes in my parents' speakers to "see what would happen" so . . .

2. What’s the last really good book you read? Atul Gatawande's Being Mortal, a personal, honest, and smart look at how we deal with aging and medical care in this country. This book made me cry a few times.

3. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why? Fiction, although not by a wide margin. I try and alternate so that I never read too many novels in a row without a good nonfiction book to cleanse the palate.

4. Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading? Almost always. Every once and a while a book will prove denser than I enjoy and will bounce off. One day, Infinite Jest. One day.

5. List your ten favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end. The Known World, Edward P. Jones
It, Stephen King
Room, Ema Donoghue
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
The Corner, Ed Burns and David Simon
Watership Down, Richard Adams
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

6. Do you reread books? Which ones? As a teen and young adult I reread Stephen King books a lot (I'm pretty sure I have read It four times). The only book I can remember rereading in the last ten to twenty years is Edward P. Jones' The Known World.

7. Do you read poetry? Why or why not? Pretty much never. Just not an art form I have ever really latched on to. I find formless, overly poetic novels to be a chore, never mind actual poetry.  

8. Do you remember the first “grown-up” book you read? I know Firestarter was the first Stephen King book I read - that was probably it.

9. Are there any authors whose work you have read completely? Stephen King, apart from the kinds of things that you were never published, or only published in VERY limited editions. I have read all of Rowling's books, I guess, and maybe some newer writers with smaller catalogs. 

10. How often do you read books that are more than one hundred years old? Almost never. I find the barrier of language as it was used then versus now to be hard to get past.

11. Is there a type (or types) of book you never read? Romance novels?

12. How do you choose what to read? I keep a list of things that spark interest when I read about them in magazines or blogs or even in podcasts. Goodreads has proven very handy here - makes keeping and managing that list easier.

13. What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about? What it is about.  Although once I hook into a writer I really love I will follow them most places.

14. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with? Given my history with his output, probably Stephen King. 

15. If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be? Maybe Eddie from It. I hope he is happy.

16. If you could be a literary character, who would it be? Is Spider-Man a literary character?

17. Have you ever written a fan letter to an author? Never.

18. Is there any book that, if I professed to love it, you would be turned off? Is there any book that would impress you in particular? Not really. Taste is pretty inscrutable and personal. I mean, come on. Of all the MILLIONS of people who LOVE the Twilight books, they are all lacking somehow? Nonsense.  

19. Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking? Nope.

20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished? If I ever finish Infinite Jest, maybe.

21. Have you ever lied about having read a book? Nope. I may have hinted that I had read books I only read part of, and there are many books I have "read" but have NO memory of - Brothers Karamazov in high school, for example.

22. Do you keep track of the books you read? I never used to, but this is another thing that Goodreads has made easy enough that I do now.

23. How do you form opinions about what you read? No concsious process. It just happens.

24. What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated? There are authors who I am assured are wonderful who I just do not care for (Delillo), but none that I would call underrated. None that I would call underrated either.

25. Do you ever read self-help books? No.  

26. What’s a book that shocked you? I'm note sure about "shock," but there was a moment in Room that had me as terrified at what might happen next as I have ever been. And there is a moment in Stephen King's "Gerald's Game," that was incredibly hard to read that I really can't even think about.

27. If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be? The Known World. 

28. What book would you recommend to me in particular? First let's chat.

29. What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet? Twain. I know. I'm a philistine.

30. What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?” None really. There are books I enjoy that go down easier, and some that do not last as long in the memory, but none I'm guilty about.

31. Has a book ever changed your mind about something? Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking really made me anti-death penalty in a way I wasn't before. 

32. If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read? I might reread some books, going for the known quantity rather than something that might prove disappointing.

33. Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me? Nope. That's never been how my memory works. 

34. If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be? More time for it, certainly.

35. Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way? Not really. There are books that have stayed with me in a very deep way, but not sure about "guided."

36. Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation? None.

Until Whenever

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Missing Once and Again. Again

In reaction to this post by Linda Holmes at the Monkey See blog, I had some thoughts:

That I missed out on that Twitter conversation? Kills me. I ADORED Once and Again, and often point to an early season one episode where Rick explains to Jesse that, no, they will never be a family again, along with a confessional scene where he describes telling the kids that he and his wife were going to divorce as akin to just taking a hammer and smashing them in the head, as one of the most emotionally devastating things I have ever seen on television. I also wish Once and Again got more credit for the "talk to the camera" trope. They did those cutaways in black and white and they seemed to be internal monologues almost, so no, it wasn't mockumentary style, but the basic idea is all over TV these days (Hi, Modern Family!).

This will sound (and likely is) ridiculous, but can Deadwood lay claim to being more of a family show than an action show? Unlike The Wire, which brilliant as it is, is still about cops trying to catch crooks, Deadwood was never about lawmen stopping bad guys but about a community developing out of chaos. Deadwood seemed to find its finest moments in small instances of human connection in a way that reminds me of a Friday Night Lights or a Parenthood.

Finally, this piece makes me want to get back to Showtime's The Affair, which I got about five episodes into before dropping. It's not the "Manipulative. Touchy-feely. Soft. Direct. Unironic. Often sweet. Wants to make you have feelings." Holmes is looking for, but it is closer than Breaking Bad!

I have always been fascinated by how Parenthood has taken off from the film that inspired it. Particularly, I find it very interesting how the movie--which I think today has a reputation for being something of a goofy Steve Martin comedy--actually is more willing than the ostensibly more serious network drama to let its characters be, at their core, just not good people. The Jason Robards and Tum Hulce characters in particular never get redeemed, but finish the movie as basically selfish, unlikeable people. Whereas their TV analogues (Craig T. Nelson and Dax Shepard) carry over some of the same personality traits (gruffness and aimlessness), and yet as the show progresses are pretty clearly painted as very good people (flawed, maybe, but good). As much as I like Parenthood, this has always bugged me some--all of the characters are Very Good People in the end. I'm not even suggesting that the film is better than the TV show, really. I just find the contract intriguing.

Until Whenever

Friday, January 02, 2015

Books I Read in 2014


Not Enough Books

In reverse-chronological order:

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
A thorough, if at times too puffed-up, look at atheism and the arguments for it (as well as a thorough swatting down of the arguments against it).

The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith
JK Rowling’s second detective Cormoran Strike novel, a delightful, if very traditional and straight-ahead, mystery.

Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award – Peter Filichia
Some interesting details on some Broadway shows, but overall a bit of a slog – too much plot summary of too many shows.

The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
A memoir of growing up in Iran during the revolution told in comic book form. Deeply informative and moving. Worth seeking out.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
An extremely well-done sci-fi novel with big ideas that ultimately just didn’t grab me. I could see the vision and talent but it didn’t click for me.

Saga, volumes 1-3, Brian K. Vaughn
Wonderful new comic series about a galaxy-spanning war between alien races and the mixed-race couple just trying to raise their daughter. Visually delightful and never afraid to go BIG. Can’t wait for Vol 4 in a few weeks.

The Drop – Dennis Lehane
Tight, short, gripping crime novel by my favorite crime writer. A delightful surprise in between “big” novels.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick – Matt Fraction
Quirky, imaginative series about a couple that discover they have the same odd power. Very confident storytelling – I have no idea what is coming next, which is just so nice.

Fool – Christopher Moore
My first Moore. What a great voice and wit, although the Shakespeare stuff made for a bit of a slog for me with all of the courts and wars and inter-marrying.

NW – Zadie Smith
Not my favorite of hers, with the fragmented plot just making things murky for me, not intriguing, but damn, can she write.

Mr. Mercedes - Stephen King
A tight (for him) piece of suspense writing, with a suitably creepy villain and a hero who felt flawed enough.

Frog Music - Emma Donoghue
Wonderful historic novel spinning off from a real historic footnote of a San Francisco murder case in 1876. Not the all-time great that Room was, but still a wonderful read.

Redshirts - John Scalzi
Damn fun sci-fi novel where a bunch of “redshirts” in a TV show universe start to realize their fictional reality.

Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
Essay collection. Great pieces here, including an account of a Disney vacation from a very skeptical viewpoint and a visit to a Christian rock festival.

David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell
Lesser Gladwell, but still informative and chock-full of great stories.

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything – Barbara Ehrenreich
More of a memoir than I expected, and not a particularly compelling one.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
Wonderful, dense novel that was more fun in its first half when the protagonist was a kid. Still, has me looking to get her other big novel, The Secret History.

The Martian – Andy Weir
Hard sci-fi about a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars. Love the level of detail and accuracy, but the main character is not nearly as delightful and witty as the author seems to think.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation – Michael Pollan
Wonderful deep dive into the history and modern execution of grilling, braising, fermenting, and making bread by the very engaging food writer Pollan.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith
The first in the aforementioned series, equally engaging.

Newtown: An American Tragedy – Matthew Lysiak
Nowhere near as good as the world-class Littleton book that came out two or so years ago, but still a devastating, well-reported summary of that horrible day.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster – Jon Krakauer
Amazing story about a tragic attempt to climb Everest. Exceedingly well-balanced between fact and reporting and personal memoir.

Double Feature - Owen King
This debut novel by Stephen King’s son is, unlike King’s other son, Joe Hill's work, not at all like the father’s writing. Funny, tragic, personal story about an aspiring filmmaker trying to escape his outsized father’s shadow.

The Circle – Dave Eggers
Like a novel-length episode of Black Mirror, this paranoid novel envisions a future where privacy is seen as a social evil and snuffed out wherever possible. Chilling fable of where technology could take us.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2013
My favorite collection each and every year. Can’t wait to dive into this year’s!

Until Whenever

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Not Part of Its World

You ever admire the heck out of a book and not really like it? I grokked to the Hugo-award winning novel Ancillary Justice when it was lauded on my favorite podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour. I can't recall which panelist was talking about the book, but the premise--the main character is one piece of a massive star ship's artificial intelligence that has lost its connection to the ship--intrigued, and an inter-library loan got me the book.

I just finished it yesterday, and here are a few of the thorny, interesting, complex, and just-damn-cool ideas it plays with:
  • Consciousness shared among hundreds of bodies and even space ships
  • "Ancillaries" - bodies re-purposed as beings that an AI can control
  • Galactic empires spanning thousands of years--and characters that, as AIs, are immortal and recall all of those years
  • All-powerful alien weaponry that can destroy basically anything
  • A consciousness split among hundreds of bodies that eventually separates and tries to sabotage itself, with one half at war with the other
  • A massive galactic empire that has no gendered words in its language--and a first-person narrator from that empire who keeps the reader at seas as to characters' genders.
But the thing is, the plot of the actual story never really grabbed me. That, coupled with the sometimes-impenetrability of this world, made it a hard novel to get comfortable in. Leckie does very little hand-holding, and a lot of the above-listed conceits (and many others), were opaque to me and took much longer than I would have liked to really understand. So, as much as I liked the ideas themselves, and really wanted to lose myself in this alien world, I just couldn't get there.

Now, of course, this is more a "me problem" than an "author problem," given the praise the book has received and the number of readers that flat-out adored it. I just wasn't one of them. If you suspect you might be one of those who would like it, be aware that the sequel, Ancillary Sword, just came out.

Until Whenever

Monday, October 13, 2014

U2 Ranked: The Album View

So as I continue to look at this list I created, I wanted to see how each album fared - what albums had the highest-ranking songs, which albums had the least - that kind of thing. So - here are the albums and their songs as they ranked, in chronological order:

Boy (Average song ranking: 94.8)

33. I Will Follow
49. The Electric Co.
88. An Cat Dubh / Into The Heart
93. Out Of Control
98. Stories For Boys
104. Shadows And Tall Trees
105. A Day Without Me
111. Twilight
117. Another Time, Another Place
150. The Ocean

It makes sense that U2's first album would be so relatively poorly represented, with its highest-ranking song "only" at #33. But on the flip side, issuing your #33rd-best song right out of the gate is not too shabby.

October (Average song ranking: 107.6)
69. Gloria
70. Scarlet
73. October
87. Fire
89. I Threw A Brick Through A Window
120. Tomorrow
125. Stranger In A Strange Land
127. Rejoice
132. I Fall Down
140. Is That All?
152. With A Shout

October is widely considered U2's weakest outing. That sentiment is not contradicted here. 

War (Average song ranking: 90.9)

6. Sunday Bloody Sunday
25. New Year's Day
55. Surrender
62. 40
96. Like A Song...
110. Drowning Man
116. Seconds
128. Red Light
155. Two Hearts Beat As One
156. The Refugee

War, on the other hand, is widely considered U2's breakout album, and with a #6 and #25 ranking in there it shows nicely, if not as well as I may have guessed when starting out. It also points out the limits of this exercise of looking at albums - while War holds up very well as a cohesive album, some if its songs sound very dated today, to me at least. These rankings are meant to look at the songs apart from the albums they come from, so when you smash them back together like I am doing here, it's not an entirely fair view. 

Unforgettable Fire (Average song ranking: 82.4)
8. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
10. Bad
40. The Unforgettable Fire
81. A Sort Of Homecoming
83. Promenade
90. Wire
95. MLK
99. Indian Summer Sky
158. 4th Of July
160. Elvis Presley and America

Such an odd album. Two top ten songs, and two in the bottom three.  That is some goofy range going on. It also points up the value and risk in experimenting. "Bad" is an experiment that wildly succeeded. "Elvis Presley and America" is one that did not. 

Joshua Tree (Average song ranking: 43.0)
1. Where The Streets Have No Name
19. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
28. Bullet the Blue Sky
29. With or Without You
30. Red Hill Mining Town
36. Running To Stand Still
37. One Tree Hill
43. Exit
57. In God's Country
80. Mothers Of The Disappeared
113. I Trip Through Your Wires

The Joshua Tree is still my favorite U2 album. But what this exercise forces me to admit is that a good portion of that is nostalgia. As remarkable an album as it is, I have to really look at whether I place it too high given that it was the album I fell in love with the band on. Still, it is the only album with eight songs in the top fifty. That counts for something.

Rattle & Hum (Average song ranking: 80.8)

13. All I Want Is You
47. Love Rescue Me
66. Desire
67. Angel of Harlem
76. Van Diemen's Land
79. When Love Comes To Town
91. Silver And Gold
107. Hawkmoon 269
123. God Part II
139. Heartland

A solid enough showing for an odd melange of an album. And of course there are several covers and live cuts here that do not get ranked. 

Achtung Baby (Average song ranking: 40.6)

4. One
5. Acrobat
9. Love Is Blindness
22. The Fly
32. Until The End Of The World
35. Mysterious Ways
39. Zoo Station
41. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
51. Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
65. Even Better Than The Real Thing
78. So Cruel
106. Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around The World

And we tie the record, with Tehran eight songs in the top fifty. Also - three songs in the top ten, and only one out of the top 100 (and barely at that)? This is likely my real favorite U2 album.

Zooropa (Average song ranking: 94.1)

20. Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
52. The Wanderer
54. Zooropa
60. The First Time
109. Lemon
121. Babyface
122. Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car
124. Some Days Are Better Than Others
130. Dirty Day
149. Numb

This is another example of an album that works much better as an album than if you examine the songs apart from the whole.

Pop (Average song ranking: 81.8)
2. Please
23. Gone
24. Wake Up Dead Man
61. Mofo
74. Do You Feel Loved
80.5 Dsicotheque
85. Staring At The Sun
94. If God Will Send His Angels
112. Last Night On Earth
131. If You Wear That Velvet Dress
141. Miami
154. The Playboy Mansion

I really thought I liked Pop more than the numbers suggest I do. 

All That You Can't Leave Behind (Average song ranking: 48.1)
3. Walk On
7. Beautiful Day
16. Kite
21. When I Look At The World
31. Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of
38. Grace
48. In A Little While
64. Elevation
82. New York
100. Peace On Earth
119. Wild Honey

U2's "comeback" album shows very strongly - four songs in the top twenty-five.

How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Average song ranking: 64.5)
14. City of Blinding Lights
42. Vertigo
44. Yahweh
45. Original Of The Species
46. All Because Of You
53. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own
59. Love And Peace Or Else
63. One Step Closer
97. Miracle Drug
118. Crumbs From Your Table
129. A Man And A Woman

This is an album that has fallen some in my estimation since its release. 

No Line on the Horizon (Average song ranking: 49.9)
12. Moment of Surrender
18. Breathe
26. No Line on the Horizon
27. Unknown Caller
34. Magnificent
50. I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
56. White as Snow
68. Get On Your Boots
72. Cedars of Lebanon
84. Stand-Up Comedy
102. FEZ-Being Born

A pretty strong showing for one of my favorite U2 albums, with six top-fifty songs. 

And after all this analysis, how would I rate the U2 albums? Pretty close to those averages, but with Zooropa and HTDAAB big outliers.

1. Achtung Baby (40.6)
2. The Joshua Tree (43.0)
3. No Line on the Horizon (49.9)
4. All That You Can't Leave Behind (48.1)
5. Pop (81.8)
6. Zooropa (94.1)
7. How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (64.5)
8. Rattle & Hum (80.8)
9. The Unforgettable Fire (82.4)
10. War (90.9)
11. Boy (94.8)
12. October (107.6)

Until Whenever