Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The 15 Book Meme

As generated by Bleak Mouse, via Cowtown Pattie, 15 unforgettable books in no more than 15 minutes. There are some incredible oddballs here, I admit, but that's what the exercise produces. This isn't focused on books I enjoy so much as the ones that niggle at me whether I want them to or not:

The Bible (KJV), particularly The Revelation of St. John The Divine. More on the matter here and here. And I agree with this guy: if you can read, you should read The Bible.

The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams: chiefly for the unsettling illustrations by Imero Gobbato, whose current paintings can be sampled here. (A)
Moon Palace by Paul Auster: the necessary entwining of myth and lineage, the ineluctable cycles of madness and creativity, solitude and communion, joy and grief. (A)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: still dealing with the dreams. (A)

On The Road by Jack Kerouac: a maddening book. (A)

Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller & Bill Sienkewicsz: more here. (A)

Gilgamesh: primitive, brutish, viscerally emotional. (A)

Grendel by John Gardner: Gardner employs all five senses to tickle the cerebral cortex into submission. (A)

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies: Our saints and stories are serious business, but that's no reason for us to resort to sobriety. (A)

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle: an adolescent girl learns how to love courageously in an alien locale that's eerily familiar. (A)

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis The most surreal and haunting of the Narnia books. (A)

Unassigned Territory
by Kem Nunn. Nunn's Tapping The Source is more entertaining, and arguably better written, but Unassigned Territory meanders over material and attitudes and yearnings and behaviors in a way that echoes in the memory for a long, long time. (A, Review)

Blood Of The Lamb by Peter DeVries. No father should experience this; every father should read it. (A)

The Road Home by Jim Harrison. A gothic comedy. (A)

Kafka by r. crumb & David Zane Mairowitz A marriage of content and media that is as profoundly disturbing as anything rendered by Jack Chick. (A)

If you're willing, I tag you.

Late correction: Rob in Victoria reminded me of a significant work I somehow missed: John Crowley's Little, Big (A). It's the first title I look for when I walk into a used bookstore, because I'm in the habit of leaving copies behind whenever I stay in someone's guest bedroom. (Chalk it down to envy, brother: I can't see my way through to buying the Limited Edition.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Advancing Age & Musical Retreats

I’ve been listening to Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night (e) — the 1987 gala concert that T Bone Burnett orchestrated in homage to Orbison. I get a kick out of the audience response. A ditty like “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)” elicits cheers and squeals over its quirky pauses, even though the song is only a throw-away compared to “Move On Down The Line.” It's like one of those buildings that wears all its guts on the outside for passersby to marvel at. The title is pretty much the entirety of the song’s lyrical content; the rest of it is built up with the standard chord changes, a washtub bass line, snappy work on the snare, and a chorus of sha-la-la-las: elements that clearly inspired the architecture of some of Burnett’s own tuneful musings.

If Orbison is remembered 40 years from now it probably won’t be for bits like that, but for the songs referred to by other, later singers — specifically “Crying” and “Only The Lonely.” k.d. lang visited “Crying” in one of her many signature covers that didn’t just honor the original but vaulted lang into the firmament; “Only The Lonely,” of course, was thumbed-over by Bruce Springsteen during his high testosterone years. Listening to those songs now, I have to wonder if lang and Springsteen aren’t the final word on Orbison. There are worse fates for a singer and craftsman like Roy Orbison.

Life goes on and our yearnings change with the demands of age. To hear “outlaw” Willie Nelson teaming up with Asleep At The Wheel (e), or John Prine singing old timey favorites with his buddy Mac Wiseman (e), is to hear a couple of formerly young bucks belatedly acknowledge debts to the music of their fathers. Funny how that is: Nelson and especially Prine were once infamous for pushing the envelope. Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (l) was the sneer of a young upstart, flinging contempt in the face of Beulah-land patriotism. Hearing him now breezily take pleasure in a hoary old song like “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” is disconcerting. And hearing anyone sing “Old Rugged Cross” is disconcerting.

Then there’s Willie:

She’s got plenty of these and a whole lot of those
And oh my gosh those sweaty clothes!
Oh! You pretty woman!

Just how far back do those lines hail from? I’m guessing my grandparents might have kicked up their heels to “Oh! You Pretty Woman!” A lusty line like, “Oh my gosh, those sweaty clothes!” is disconcertingly prurient, but gives the old song a real bite.

Funny to think I’m tapping my toes to my grandfather’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” (am) but so it goes. Today’s noise is tomorrow’s hootenanny — provided today’s noisemakers have some facility with a good hook and a clever turn of phrase.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ideas Of Heaven by Joan Silber

I wanted only to be quiet, in the weeks right after. I was trying to remember my old life, when I had been reasonable and had taken a passing interest in all sorts of things around me... I still had my anguish in thinking of him, and a longing that stayed with me, like a secret faith.

Ideas Of Heaven: A Ring Of Stories
by Joan Silber was so delightful and easy for me to polish off, it took some time to register just when and where her characters began to haunt me. All six stories are written in first person narrative. Each voice has its own rhythm, tone and charm — their narration has a deceptive ease which makes their uniqueness all the more remarkable. As I read I began to feel like the bartender in whom complete strangers are only too happy to confide their most troubling desires.

Silber's characters puzzle over the chasm that yawns between longing and gratification. Some of them experience gratification, usually from unexpected sources; others exist in a curiously elevated state of tension. The desires of the heart and the frailty of the flesh are a constant source of surprise and wonder. Death punctuates the stories, but I found reading the book to be a strangely joyful experience.

Full disclosure: I found this book on the Final Remainders table, and bought it for a pittance. It lay beside the bed for a while. When I finished reading The Devil In The White City* I reached for the next thing and discovered it was Ideas Of Heaven. I imagined Silber was akin to Alice Munro (a blurb-comparison in the bookflap), and didn't think I was up for New Yorker-type tales of quiet desperation. The house had cooled for the night, however, and I was even more reluctant to get out of bed to find that Philip Kerr novel I'd been keen on. After two pages I was happily committed to putting Bernie Gunther on hold for just a little longer. Ideas of Heaven is quick reading that sticks to the ribs, and has me curious to read more of Joan Silber's work. (A)

*I enjoyed The Devil In The White City (A) but so did a lot of other erudite people, so I won't bother with additional commentary.

Rybczynski on Detroit

The perpetual adolescent in me — that feral young man fascinated by all manner of ruination — is completely smitten with Detroit City. That place is like Winnipeg, only much, much more so. If I could be guaranteed a modest degree of safety I'd love to spend a week or two walking its streets.

Failing that, there is this photo essay by Witold Rybczynski. If there were a 200-page coffee table book with this material, I'd buy it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Latest DVD Hit Series

I found a pack of Bonanza DVDs on sale for five dollars. I hadn't seen the show in years, so I parted with a fin and took the DVDs back to my private Ponderosa.

The four of us sat down to watch the first episode. When it was over, I glanced at my wife, and she rolled her eyes. Then we asked the girls what they thought. “I kinda liked it.” “Me too. I want to see the rest of them!”

Half-a-dozen episodes later I think I understand the appeal. As with Star Trek, Bonanza is a show firmly established within its own time, the 60s. Unlike Star Trek, where much of the social commentary is implicit, Bonanza's social commentary is explicit — and more emotionally compelling for it. A ten-year-old will understand a Star Trek episode like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," but she will viscerally get what racism is all about when she watches Hop Sing's nephew get beat up by Carson City thugs.

It also helps that the young Michael Landon is a tad dishier than, say, a young Walter Koenig.

A final word on the quality of the DVDs: wow, are they crappy. They look like an old VHS tape has been transferred to the new format. Throw in a copyright issue that prevents the use of the familiar “Bonanza” theme song, and this collection is a marked step down from something you might purchase from one of Hop Sing's nephews. Still, it's the best five dollars I've spent in quite a while.

But speaking of television...

Melanoma Blues

When you make it a habit not to make television a habit, you don't get blindsided by news that the well-paid, well-dressed financial reporters for network television are really televangelists by any other name. And while watching Jon Stewart scold Jim Cramer might deliver a modicum of catharsis to those of us with tenuous job security and dwindling RRSPs, the spectacle of it all is little more than a distraction.

Cramer is like most people who acquire his level of fame and wealth: he traded in what character he had to become a Personality. You could almost say he forfeited his soul to gain the world. I'm not shedding any tears over his public humiliation. But if we're going to live through this we'll have to shift our attention from the unsightly melanomas and address the tumors in the liver.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Canadian Books "Under Attack"?

Bookforum links to This article by John Degen re: the disturbing lack of Canadian Content in our nation's public school curriculum. I had several reactions:

1) Really? A kid can graduate from Canadian public school without being exposed to CanCon? Wow. The Trudeau era really has come to an end.

2) There's no good reason for it. Canadian writers can be just as bug-ass depressing as any other regional writer -- moreso, even.

3) Um ... about that last point .... My chief complaint in my final year of high school was with the tedious and despair-inducing required reading. Poems written by kids who commit suicide, novels written by novelists who commit suicide, and plenty of other stuff that suggests suicide is the only reasonable response to our dark future. I'm looking forward to a day when The Road will be required reading. (Wups -- that last link wasn't Cormac McCarthy now, was it?)

When I told my 12th-grade English teacher that I didn't think I could bear to read one more book that made me want to reach for the razor, he quickly threw Robertson Davies into the mix. Guess what the highlight of my class turned out to be?

I'm not opposed to depressing books, but fer crying out loud: you want the kid to graduate with just a smidgen of their sense of potential intact -- don't you? So go on and pepper the curriculum with CanCon. Just do what you can to make sure at least some of it is stuff a kid might actually want to read.

Monk by Peter Bernstein Trio

Peter Bernstein Trio's tribute/interpretation of jazz-great pianist Thelonious Monk caught my eye when it briefly charted at eMusic (e, A). I hit "download" and the album has proven itself to be durable. The kvetching in the user comments is predictable: pulling Monk's piano through Bernstein's guitar requires significant transformation. That's the way it is with Jazz. If you want the Thelonious Monk Ker-plunk, you'll just have to retreat to your old LPs.

A close listen reveals that Bernstein and Co. are resolutely faithful to the source, however. The slappy boisterousness might not be there, but Bernstein's mode uncovers some surprises and new delights in Monk's phrasing. Let's see: it's easy on the ears, it withstands scrutiny, and in this household it helps with the homework and brings joy to the daily grind. I daresay those are characteristics the master might approve of.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Arcade Nostalgia

Once when our family was visiting my grandparents I discovered a weathered catalog with a blue cover from Auto World, dated 1967. I was 10 or 11 when I found this publication, and I spent hours poring over it. This place in Scranton, PA didn’t just sell and ship every model car in existence (from floor models to “show cars” like 007’s Aston Martin, The Munster’s Dragula, The Man From UNCLE’s Piranha, and of course everything with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s name on it), they also sold every conceivable accoutrement relating to model cars.

I recently mentioned this catalog to my uncle, and this provoked some curious memories from the mid-to-late 60s, when he was an adolescent. When my grandfather drove into the city, he’d drop my uncle and a couple of his friends off at a slot-car derby — an arcade-type establishment where a kid paid 75 cents an hour to run his slot-car on a huge, elaborate track that filled the room. These cars were of a different scale than the ones I was familiar with: mine were no larger than a Matchbox car, while my uncle’s required two hands for proper placement on the track.

My uncle had a cheap model called “La Cucaracha” (purchased from this mail order outfit) which eventually earned the reputation for being the fastest thing on the track. An older brother of a schoolmate dropped a bunch of money on the most expensive model in the catalog, determined to beat my uncle. He didn’t realize until the model arrived that much of what he was purchasing was “detail work” — all sorts of fiddly bits and pieces that contributed to the model’s “authenticity” but did nothing for the car’s potential velocity.

When it came time to race, this kid brought out his expensive car and pitted it against “La Cucaracha.” Unfortunately for my uncle’s nemesis, “La Cucaracha” was a single-molded vehicle which ran low to the ground and hugged the track like a coat of paint. As both cars took the first hairpin curve, “La Cucaracha” fishtailed and sent the fancy car flying off the track. It hit the floor and shattered into dozens of little pieces. The older lad gathered what was left of his formerly fine car, then slouched out the door.

My uncle’s story has come to mind because Boing-Boing has been linking to nostalgic recollections of video arcades, the slot-car derbies of my youth. In the late 70s and early 80s downtown Winnipeg was the living embodiment of a hippie’s bad acid trip. From Eaton’s to The Hudson Bay, Portage Avenue was chock-a-block with arcades, record stores and head shops (which not only had video games, but rock ‘n’ roll and drug paraphernalia, and skids and skids of porn). I can only recall a few of these establishments — there was Circus Circus, a creepy, filthy place with too much light for good gaming; the Pirate’s Den, which was painfully loud despite its wall-to-wall carpeting; and Mother Trucker’s, which somehow acquired the distinction of being “drive-through drug city.”

I can’t begin to account for the hours and money I spent in these places, which were all billed as “Family Fun Centres!” Out of a perverse desire to prove the point I’d occasionally cajole my dad into joining me (which he did out of a perverse desire to bond with his son) and dropping five dollars for 30 minutes of noise and mayhem. The proprietors treated him the same as anyone else, but at 40-plus he was easily double the age of any other patron in the room. I got a kick out of how the twittering, chirping, buzzing pandemonium that hit him at the door always seemed to catch him off-guard.

My friend liked to initial his high scores with “DDT.” I chose “ZAP”; when I later spotted someone else using that, I switched to “ILK.” We were both jealous of our friend “KAZ” — a uniquely truncated version of his last name, which also served as his nickname. When a game called “Commando” allowed for longer high score entries, I underwhelmed a potential girlfriend by entering, “I ♥ JAYMIE D!!” My fruitlessly saccharine missive placed 10th in a list of gutter obscenities.

Some guys manage to dovetail their video game addiction into true love. Last Christmas a neighbor was given a vintage “Asteroids” game, from his wife. That woman dropped serious coin on eBay, but it’s a matter of record her husband outdid the “Nintendo response” come Christmas Day. That’s a “first year of marriage” gift: at our stage of the game (15 years next month), if my wife were to present me with a vintage cabinet I’d take it as a pointed cue to book the marriage counselor. A mutual gift of new living room furniture, on the other hand, is the sign of a healthy, happy marriage. Well ... that and a boxed set of some kind.

These memories are certainly pleasant, but I can’t say I’m especially nostalgic for video arcades. Every senior centre on the continent has a billiard room where the menfolk go to remember the glory of their youth. A video arcade in my future retirement centre would be a waste of space. The consoles and games of today beat the simple pleasures of the 80s by a very wide margin.

And yet, and yet ... a couple of years ago KAZ sent me a disc loaded with MAME versions of arcade games. I booted it up and showed my daughters a few favorites, including Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. I found that even after I tweaked the controls I couldn’t get any further in the game than I could when I was 19. Twenty-five years later, I still suck.

So why is it, in this age of Wii delights, the girls occasionally nudge old ILK in the ribs and ask him to fire up GnG and play with them?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Breaking Windows to R.L. Burnside

A couple of years back I was talking to a trucker friend about my growing despondency over rock music. “You listen to the blues at all?” he asked. I rolled my eyes. “What was that for?”

I said I'd followed some of eMusic's recommendations for blues artists. It seemed to me their hired Poindexters couldn't get excited over any recording more polished than two strings thumb-plucked on a porch next to a field full of crickets.

“Well,” said my friend, “you should check out a guy named R.L. Burnside.”

Burnside's flinty, brawling style of blues proved to be just the ticket. Better than that, the big man seemed to enjoy it when youngsters booked him for the studio to help dig his groove. My first Burnside disc was A Ass-Pocket Of Whiskey (A, e), 40 minutes of Burnside messing around with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I hadn't heard of JSBE before this, and probably couldn't discern a deconstructionist from an exhibitionist. But Spencer carries on like a kid brother who just got invited to play with the big boys, breaking windows he knows he'll have to pay for in the morning. This disc seems to get blues fans — including John Morthland — foaming at the mouth, but even Morthland has to admit it sounds like Burnside is having fun. So was I. The album is nasty, brutish and short and loaded down with more “mofos” than I cared to tally up.

Morthland and company are especially dismissive of A Bothered Mind (e) which revs up Burnside's recordings to hip-hop and electronica beats. Morthland best appreciates the earlier stuff: First Recordings (e) and Acoustic Stories (“on which he's accompanied only by a harmonica player” — and a handful of crickets (e)). A Bothered Mind completely swept me in. I know a few of the artists featured, and most of them sound like they're hoping a little of Burnside's electricity will rub off on them. It makes for kick-ass fun, actually, and is especially delicious when played at night, while driving into the city.

Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (e) is similar in style, and contains some genuinely unsettling material — particularly “R.L.'s Story,” which recounts the year Burnside's father, brother and two uncles were murdered. This is an unusual piece because it doesn't seem to be “performed”: Burnside talks, the tape rolls, then loops back and plays again while Kenny Brown's bottleneck slides from deep to deep.

Performance, it seems to me, is the chief virtue of the blues. Aesthetes can get their kicks from obscure recordings, and finding the “genuine” blues masters, but it seems to me that much of the blues is about messing with the audience. Consider this interview with blueswoman Janiva Magness (a performer I quite like). The interviewer recounts some of Janiva's early tragedies (parents who committed suicide, teen pregnancy, giving the baby up for adoption, etc.) Janiva does little more than acknowledge this. The interviewer presses on: “And then you met the love of your life, for a minute.”

Janiva pauses. “Which one?”

That's pure blues. Now try this on:

“I didn't mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”

That's from Burnside's wiki. The whole scene — six months in jail for killing a man, only to be released in order to drive tractor — strikes me as being juuuuuuust a bit tall. But so long as he's working that single chord and the room is jumping, I'm right there with 'em — breaking the windows.

Links: R.L. Burnside interview. Michael Blowhard really digs the blues.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Fakers by Paul Maliszewski

As my hackwork piled still higher I began to think of journalism not as a series of unique assignments or stories, but as a limited number of ideas and conventions, which each story had somehow to affirm.

Thus begins Paul Maliszewski’s short but colorful career as a hoaxer and satirist. As a young employee of the Business Journal of Central New York Maliszewski conned his own newspaper with letters to the editor from fictitious business “titans” who illustrated and inflated the Journal’s bias to grotesque proportions. His disgust with his work and the shabby standard to which he was held served to inspire ever crazier letters, which, to Maliszewski’s increasing astonishment, were accepted at face value and posted alongside the editorial. The fun didn’t come to a stop until the FBI finally knocked on his door at the behest of a satirically implicated governor.

This experience is the platform from which Maliszewski launches his book, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (A). Needless to say, Maliszewski’s first impulse when exploring the world of Fakers is often sympathy toward the artists/perpetrators in question. His second impulse is to explore the public mindset that accepts these deceits at face value. Why is a given group of people susceptible to the charms of the most banal fraudulence? Who bears the greater burden of responsibility — the con or the conned? Under what circumstances?

In the course of this short book, Maliszewski looks closely at frauds celebrated and forgotten, exotic and commonplace, and sifts through the conditions that allowed these cons to succeed. He interviews satirists who receive gullible public response which further enlivens and informs the content of their satire. Some of the conclusions Maliszewski reaches might surprise the reader. Maliszewski has a novelist’s eye for the subtle elements of persuasion — the quote at the top of this post is reminiscent of the observations that compel Paul Auster’s characters into (often fraudulent) action. This makes Malizsewski’s histories richly entertaining, but the deeper pleasure lies in the book’s moral discovery. Without giving too much away, I’ll admit I was chiefly onside with Maliszewski’s moral argument, even as I remained skeptical of any claims regarding the efficacy of satire.

As Maliszewski’s examples make abundantly clear, this book is pertinent to any time — but especially ours. Fakers rewards its readers on many levels, offering a value that exceeds its modest price and format. I highly recommend it.

Links: Paul Maliszewski interviewed at Bookslut.