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

Monday, February 09, 2015

U2 Ranked - The Posts

It has just come to my attention that the links to each of the U2 ranking posts in the sidebar do not work. So until I can figure out what is going on, Here are the working links:

Mission statement
#161 - #155
#154 - #150
#149 - #145
#144 - #135
#134 - #125  
#124 - #115   
#114 - #101 
#100 - #91
#90 - #81
#80 - #71
#70 - #61
#60 - #51 
#50 - #41 
#40 - #31
#30 - #21
#20 - #11
#10 - #1

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