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