Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stories With Teeth

The older daughter (12, going on 16) came home from the dentist in tears, yesterday morning. We'd been wondering about a couple of suspicious gaps in her upper bridge. Turns out there were two baby teeth that hadn't yet left the scene. After yanking them out, the dentist informed my daughter she could come back in a month to get fitted for a retainer.

Adding insult to injury, my daughter was slated to attend a Twilight themed sleep-over birthday party, in which participants could dress up like their favorite vampire. With her already weenie incisors now completely removed from the picture, this adolescent would-be vampire looked just a little ... odd.

But it was the looming threat of the retainer that really had her number. I took a deep breath and listened to the sob-story. I attempted placation. I took another deep breath and listened some more. I phoned her mother at work, and summed up the scene. Mom and daughter talked. The tears slowed to a halt.

By lunch time the older daughter was regaling the younger with slapstick stories about the dentist's clumsiness and confusion. Hoots of laughter ensued, and I was thinking, Is this what stories are for? To keep us from getting too serious about our annoyances and grief?

Forty-four years old, and I'm just getting a clue.

This piece
which details the relationship and temperament of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her writer-daughter Rose comes to mind, for reasons I probably shouldn't dwell upon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Darwyn Cooke at DC: The New Frontier JLA

My recent read of Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter left me wanting more — a lot more — so I skipped over to Amazon and scrolled through his back catalog with DC Comics. Cooke is apparently one of the visionaries who has shaped the animated Batman series, as well as other DC franchises that have crossed over to television, including The Justice League of America. The JLA has never appealed to me — “action team” comics strike me as being especially superficial, in a medium that’s had trouble plumbing emotional depth at the best of times — but Cooke’s signature ’63 aesthetic splashed boldly across the book covers persuaded me to plonk down the cash. Even if the books’ pleasures were strictly visual, I figured it was probably money well spent.

In the end, the visuals were in fact the bulk of the books’ bounty. Cooke has cultivated and explored an aesthetic similar to television’s Mad Men. Looking for characters who wake up to a drink and a cigarette? Check. Drive shiny cars with fins? Check. Pursue buxom babes with bulletproof coifs? That’s a big checkeroo. In fact, some of the underlying narrative tensions — political, social, sexual — are similar enough to the critically lauded television series that it’s worth pointing out that Cooke got there first.

Cooke’s approach to the superhero “look” has a similar vintage charm: the juiced-up-gymnast physique is replaced with bods of varying shape and size — Wonder Woman has an especially muscular chunkiness to her (which I loved) while the Flash could almost be described as scrawny — and all the costumes fit with some room in them to allow for drapery folds and wrinkles.

I enjoyed the subplots involving characters I previously hadn’t given much consideration to, particularly the conflicted pacifist/military man, Hal Jordan/The Green Lantern. All the men seemed to want a purpose nobler than Danny Ocean’s insouciant pillaging, but were variously hobbled by limited, self-serving perspectives. This being a franchise book, the characters are pre-required to unite against a very large common enemy, which turned out to be the books’ least compelling aspect. The villain was vague, and driven by a remarkably impersonal motivation, so the final confrontation was a ho-hum by-the-numbers barn-burner. The fact that I was disappointed at all, however, is testament to Cooke’s ability as an explorer of comic book characters. The peril might have been a bore, but I'd grown keen to know more about the men and women who gathered to fight it.

Darn it, I’m back where I started: hungry for more of what Cooke’s been cookin’.

LINKS: The artwork above is Cooke's own (natch), and I cadged it all from this site. The work as rendered in the books is fabulously colored by Dave Stewart. There is a good sampling of it, as well as a typically candid Comics Journal interview with Cooke over here. And here are the Amazon links for DC: The New Frontier Vols 1 & 2.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Beach Reading

Our family just spent the past week in Maine, doing very little except soaking up the sun, sand and sea in every conceivable way. I got my read on, of course, and took the occasion to purchase material I might glance at on-line, but usually ignore in "hard copy." The privations of the beach will do that to you.

Here is what made for the most compelling beach reading. Follow the links, but please peruse with the awareness that briny air and a gaggle of happy young women will prompt a normally grumpy guy-about-the-house to give greater consideration than he normally might to slight material. Strongest case in point:

“While My Guitar Gently Beeps” by Daniel Radosh, New York Times Magazine. Want to see me fall asleep on the spot? Pass me an article about the making of a video game. Want to watch me lose my temper? Make that article 12 pages long. Yet here I was, cheerfully devoting the first hour of my sunning to Radosh's account of bringing The Beatles to "Rock Band." Most people are familiar with the Rock Band platform (or “engine”): the player picks up an instrument similar to the Mickey Mouse “guitar” and tries to keep time with the song being played on the television screen. So what makes The Beatles' Rock Band different? Basically the surviving keepers of the Four Lads' legacy: Paul, Ringo, Yoko, et al — who are all VERY particular about what they sign off on. The article uncovers some surprising facets in a group I thought I'd pretty much pegged by now.

“L.A. Confidential” by Holly Brubach, NYT Style Magazine. Eve Babitz is Hollywood's “Anti-Didion”, unjustly forgotten — so claims Brubach. I'm more drawn to Didion, West, Bukowski and even Elroy (when he has to answer to an editor), but Brubach garnishes some beguiling quotes that moved me to seek out used copies of Babitz's essays (once I got home, of course).

“Bloody Good: GQ Celebrates The Greatest Movie Violence Of All Time” by various, GQ. Aleksandar Hemon digs on The Wild Bunch. Elisabeth Gilbert celebrates Die Hard. David Carradine enumerates his top five movie fights. Mark Harris sums up the importance of Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange. And that's just for starters. None of it is on-line, alas. But this bit on It Might Get Loud is worth a look. And even though the presence of Jack White is almost enough to dissuade me from queuing up for it, I'm starting to think the movie is probably worth a look, too.

“Beautiful People, Ugly Choices” by Leslie Bennetts, Vanity Fair. A guilty pleasure, to be sure. But it is somewhat comforting to look away from the task of raising adolescent girls and focus for a moment on a family that is wealthier, better looking, and way more messed up.

Spotted commonalities: absolutely everyone has something about Mad Men and Inglourious Basterds. Geez, Louise: with that much publicity, you tell me — which one of these is the pig in a poke?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

But Do They Come With A Factory-Installed Eight-Track Cassette Player?

Let’s begin by getting my pious posturing over with: I bristle at the consumerist “I am what I buy” mindset. If you want proof, just look at my wardrobe. I’ve spared no expense stocking it with comfy, practical, inexpensive clothing.

This attitude applies doubly to the internal combustion engine. It seems like every white guy turning 50 feels compelled to buy a Harley Davidson. Talk about a quick fix to that pesky surplus of fossil fuel we’ve been suffering from! No, I did the motorcycle thing in my 20s, and found the switch back to pedal power a great deal more to my taste.

Some guys obsess over what car to buy. I page through Consumer Reports, find the one that burns the least gas, requires the least maintenance and has the least expensive price tag. Then I ask for it in silver — the color that best deflects summer heat and holds on to a wash. You can just imagine the attention I attract when I roll into a parking lot.

And yet, and yet . . . I have to admit Detroit’s current retro-fixation is strangely compelling. Just what does that say about me?

I have a friend who drives a Porsche Carrera. He’s let me take the wheel, and I’ll be quick to admit: it’s a lot of fun. But even if someone in a butler's suit were to hand me a blank cheque with instructions I spend it on a sports car (or forfeit the privilege to some other clod) I wouldn’t head for Europe. There’s no question Europe produces the fastest, sexiest, most suave and sophisticated sports cars on the planet. But they are so suave and sophisticated I doubt I’d ever feel at ease behind the wheel.

Chevy’s new Camaro (below), or Dodge’s much-hyped Charger (above), on the other hand, are a very different story. I could definitely picture myself driving something along those lines, and feeling like it “fit.” Why should that be?

As with the Hot Wheels vs. Matchbox debate, this goes all the way back to the sandbox. The people I grew up with occasionally managed to buy Detroit muscle cars. A Super-Bee or a Trans Am were attainable and socially respectable status symbols. I might have known a few people with European cars, but they were doctors and lawyers: people we grudgingly paid and relied upon. Watching someone drive by in an Alpha Romeo felt like the guy was lording it over us; someone driving a Shelby Mustang, on the other hand, couldn’t help but draw out a kid’s admiration.

Ah, the Mustang — a car with aesthetic pedigree. Even during the 80s and 90s — the Mustang’s lost decades — it was still quickly identified as a Mustang, while Corvette, Camaro and Trans Am seemed to flow into a singular amorphous blob of fiberglass. At the moment Mustang has regained its cache as a head-turning vehicle — especially with Ford’s release of the limited “Bullitt” edition. Hey, butler guy: I think I just found the recipient for that blank cheque!

The final selling point to these retro-styled Detroit muscle cars? The back seat. ‘cos as fun as it can be taking your woman out for a spin, there is nothing finer than taking the family out for ice cream.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I spent my 21st summer working in the shipping/receiving bay of a furniture factory. Most of the time we were figuring out how to pack a semi-trailer to the gunwales with sofas, love-seats and comfy chairs, but there were also smaller outfits delivering the odd order to rural furniture stores. One of these guys was a farmer who did delivery on the side. When his semi rolled in, my manager's orders were always the same: “Prajer! You and the other farmboy — load this thing up and get it out of here.”

Even though the trailer was clean, it had very obviously been used to haul livestock. I'd spent a string of my previous summers helping (I use the term loosely) my uncle out on his farm; the “other farmboy” had, indeed, grown up in the country, and was saving up to start on a small acreage. The smell wasn't an issue for either of us.

One afternoon as we packed in a few sofa-beds, my buddy said, “This is kind of a nice smell, actually.”

I reluctantly agreed. “You never heard me say it, though.”

“Guys like you and me, we know there's nothing wrong with that smell. Unless the cow is sick, it's a nice smell.”

These days, after I've pedaled past a half-dozen small farms I don't mind being a little more vocal on the issue. Yes, a little manure is a nice smell. Some varieties are more agreeable to this nose than others, mind you: I prefer horses and cows to pigs and goats. But even the latter aren't bad, so long as we're not talking about an industrial farm with a lake's worth methane-producing manure. When it comes to manure I will happily take it, and recommend it, over a petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer any day of the week.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lit Links

This weekend, while driving home from the city, our family tuned in to Eleanor Wachtel's interview with cartoonist-slash-artist-at-large Lynda Barry. It is engaging, wildly entertaining, hilarious, empowering, yea even magical. And yet I can't find it on the Corp's podcast page. But you can stream it here. Just, please, do yourself a favor and tune in.*

I like Thomas Pynchon. I think he's funny, clever, illuminating. But the last Pynchon novel I read was Vineland, and after finishing it I decided I wasn't going to devote any more of my reading time to him -- I'd read enough. Too many books, too little time. As for Sam Anderson, well ... he hates Thomas Pynchon. Hates, hates, hates him -- over here.

*I should add that I am not an unreserved fan of Wachtel's show. I think Wachtel is a talented and incisive interviewer, but her subjects -- published and internationally venerated authors -- are frequently tedious bores. She recently interviewed a writer I enjoy, someone whose prose has made me giggle (as he intended). Three-quarters of the way through her interview with the guy, I had to shut it off lest I lose the last of my love for his work. All this is to say, her interview with Barry is completely exceptional.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Girl's Guide To Modern European Philosophy, A Novel by Charlotte Greig

Susannah is a second year university student, carelessly indulging her confusions in a manner that readers of a certain age will quickly recognize. Watching her drift between her two lovers, her capacity to properly attend to matters is apparently questionable, except when it comes to her curriculum. She mulls over her western philosophers as frequently as she considers the benefits and weaknesses of her lovers, or her wardrobe, but with a little more care. Her moment of clarity is foreordained, of course: she becomes pregnant. Since the year is 1974, and the cultural revolution is only now trying to sort itself out, this moment carries a great deal of freight. Can her philosophers help her, or will they only add to her confusion?

I thought Susannah’s head was an agreeable place to be in for 270-odd pages. Charlotte Greig colors in a point of view that is blinkered, but which is generated by an intelligence that slowly gains the confidence it needs to get beyond the worst of its naiveties. Early in the book Susannah watches a male classmate come apart at the seams after taking Nietzsche just a little too seriously. By book’s end she speculates that western philosophy, with its awe inspiring edifices, might just suffer from being an all-male club: sure, Heidegger considered himself “thrown into the world,” but his mother probably had other thoughts on the matter.

If at first glance that reads like a frivolous tweak, closer inspection reveals some enlivening possibilities. Heidegger’s mother could well have been a voice worth listening to, but for better and for worse, the first generation of women to address the established western canon is the one that roughly came of age in the 60s and 70s. Susannah is it, in other words. Readers might disagree with Susannah’s application of Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling, but I thought it consistent and of a piece with her point of view, and, more to the point, an emotionally powerful conclusion to the story.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that I read this book because of a public critic/author dust-up. I’ve got several scattered thoughts on the matter, which I’ll just lay out for consideration. First of all, now that I’ve read Greig’s novel it beggars the imagination how a guy like A.C. Grayling could put the book down then turn around twice and walk right into it with his chin. If his original review had been as thoughtful as his rejoinder to Greig’s riposte, he wouldn’t have made Greig’s own point so spectacularly.

I think Greig’s objection was chiefly correct, and that Greig was considerably more level-headed when making it than some other authors have recently been. But is Grayling's advice that an author “never reply to negative reviews” essentially sound? In this instance, the truth is I wouldn’t have read Greig’s book if she hadn’t. Now it rests comfortably enough on the same shelf as Elaine Dundy, Jill Neville, Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta. Make of that what you will.

A Girl's Guide To Modern Philosophy by Charlotte Greig (A)

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Saving" Jazz

Terry Teachout asks, "Can jazz be saved?" here. Blowhard Donald Pittinger has a few thoughts on the matter ("Jazz Goes Geriatric"), generating commentary over here.

My ten centavos? I have to wonder about the parameters of the survey, as formulated by the National Endowment for the Arts. I can't help but suspect that the focus of the survey was indeed, "Geriatric Jazz" of whom the most contemporary act might be Diana Krall -- precisely the sort of station my parents have pre-set on their FM tuner. If you go to a Medeski, Martin & Wood concert, the hall is usually full and the median age is 30, possibly younger. As danceable as their music can be, I'd still have to call it "jazz." Then there's all this other weird stuff the kids are listening to: Acid, Ambient, Bebob, Funk, Fusion, Hip Hop, Trance and a few other sub-genres I know little about. Purists will argue these genres might contain elements of jazz, but they aren't the thing itself. But I'd say the only time jazz has ever been the thing itself is when it crossed the threshold into smarty-pants music -- the kiss of death for any genre. Nah, kids are listening to jazz music. It's just that geezers like Teachout, the NEA and myself prefer the older stuff.

Speaking of which: The Bright Mississippi by Allen Toussaint is quite a find. Toussaint is one of the genre's elder statesmen who's proved himself adept at keeping the music fun. This time, with Joe Henry sitting in the producer's chair, the music is bathed in a different, almost unsettling aura. The album is definitely not as creepy or dissociative as a David Lynch film, but that's who first comes to mind. When I first queued up the disc and stepped inside Henry's muffled echo chamber, I felt like I'd cleared through a hallway of cobwebs and discovered a nearly empty, amber-lit dance hall. Here's where Toussaint and his mates are playing, and as the disc proceeds the life force within their music gets stronger and stronger. This is marvelous music, especially for those of us who want "traditional" jazz to stay around just a little longer.

Post-Script: I was so pleased with myself I went ahead and posted the bulk of my argument on Pittinger's post.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Way Home by George Pelecanos

I’m skeptical whenever a critic claims a genre writer “gets better with every book.” Most writers I’ve followed (including, perhaps especially, the high-falutin’ types) work steadily until they find their groove. Once established, they return to the groove and work it until it becomes a rut. George Pelecanos came on the crime fiction scene just over 15 years ago, and immediately proved himself as someone worth reading. And, dammit, he gets better with every book. He definitely has his groove, but it is gaining depth and breadth.

Some of the pleasures I take from Pelecanos’ books:

1) It’s A Working Man’s World. Pelecanos’ perspective isn’t just resolutely masculine, it’s resolutely blue-collar — involving guys who have learned how to do a job they can take pride in, whether it’s run a diner, work a chop-shop or install flooring. Even when he introduces a minor character, he takes pains to accurately portray the work they do. This approach is something of a revelation, and certainly a welcome change from the artists, free-spirits and flakes who populate other books.

2) Attribution. GP has cited movies as his chief source of narrative inspiration, but his books are filled with other tip-offs. The early books were often written with an accompanying soundtrack (one novel even came with a CD). Characters carry paperback copies of books with them, standing in as the author’s list of recommended reading, which is worth following up. Pelecanos hopes to join a particular company of authors who, in turn, have provided company and encouragement for a very particular audience (see above).

3) Literary Self-Improvement. GP’s template gets wider with every book. In The Way Home (A) Pelecanos spends the first 100 pages getting into the head of a self-destructive, self-centered late-adolescent punk who, through circumstance, very slowly begins to get a clue — tiresome reading in the hands of a lesser, more self-infatuated novelist, but I couldn’t put it down. Mortal peril is eventually thrown into the mix (something else I always appreciate about GP’s books) but the larger question is will this kid make it to the end of the book and become a man?

This is one of those books I immediately donate to the public library, so that readers in my town get the chance to discover it for themselves.