Time for the Rest of Your Life

After thinking about Anthony Bourdain and seeing what other people have posted about his suicide, one theme emerges time and again: despite what’s happening on the outside, you just never know the pain someone’s experiencing on the inside.

As I think about this and its connection to my own life, here’s something we all can do, and it’s simple: the next time we ask someone how he or she is doing, mean it. The question is almost always used as a meaningless pleasantry that serves as a conversational placeholder until we can get to what we really want to talk about. For that reason, the response to that question is also usually cursory, superficial: “I’m fine” or “I’m good” or, for the grammatically savvy, “I’m well.”

I’m guilty of this on both sides of the equation. My “how ya doin’?” is meant to convey general interest, and its slangy familiarity is an attempt at casual friendliness. But how often do I ask it and listen – I mean REALLY LISTEN – to the reply before blowing past it and onto whatever we’re talking about next?

And when someone else asks me this, my response is almost always, “I’m good!” But the truth is simple: I’m not good. I’ve gotten skilled at hiding it, but I’ve been dealing with my own stuff — job-related depression and anxiety, mostly — for almost two years now. An honest answer to this question would be something like, “I’ve been struggling for a while” or “I’m feeling kind of lost” or “I’m not sure what my value is anymore.” And who has time for that? Why would I burden anyone with my own issues?

But maybe we need to make time for each other. To ask and listen. To share and respond. If we want to do our small part to prevent more Anthony Bourdains and Scott Hutchisons and Robin Williamses – as well as all the other unnamed people who might not be famous but whose loss is no less important, no less painful – maybe we need to make more of an effort to learn how people are doing on the inside, even if they seem good on the outside.

To ask, “How are you doing?” and really want to hear the answer, whatever it might be.

A Thing I Wrote Post-Parkland for All My Teacher Friends (but Especially for My Students)

I’m a teacher educator. That means my job description is, at its core, to help prepare my students – the next generation of high school English teachers – for the reality of their own classroom. So each day we talk about how to transform reluctant readers into passionate bookworms and how to provide a classroom of anxious writers with authentic writing experiences that will bolster their confidence. We experiment with different methods of class discussion and try out the different instructional opportunities afforded by technology. I show them practical examples of how pop culture can be used to teach literary theory and how images can be read as critically as any print-based text. We write lesson plans and writing prompts and daily calendars. We complain about standardized testing. I hope we laugh more than what’s considered acceptable.

You know what we don’t do?

Talk about how one day they may have to use their own bodies to shield their students from the bullets fired by a semiautomatic rifle that our politicians are too cowardly and greedy to regulate.

Maybe I should. After all, there’s zero evidence that even now, even after Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and too too too many others, anything will change. The Democrats will make a few feeble overtures toward gun control, the Republicans will ignore fucking everything while pocketing the NRA’s money, and I’ll see you back here again in a couple days at the next shooting. So does finding a closet to hide in work better with a lesson on Shakespeare or vocabulary?

The reality is that I don’t know what to tell my students. The craven response is, “Hey, this is the new normal. They need to be aware of it.” But how cynical is that? How defeatist is it to refuse to entertain the notion that maybe there are some practical things we can do to curb gun violence in this country?

But this isn’t an essay about solutions. I don’t have them, and that’s not my job. This is an essay about triage. About doing what I can in my own context.

The best I can do in the short term is keep my focus where I increasingly believe it needs to be: on teaching with kindness and empathy. I can only control what happens in my classroom (and some days even that is a stretch), and so at these terrible times all I can do is be present for my students and make sure they know I care about them and I’m listening to them. Curriculum is important. Of course it is. But whatever content I’m teaching, it has to have at its foundation the aim of helping students be more thoughtful, more sensitive, more empathetic.

If I can impart that to my students, and they can go out into the world and impart it to their students – and, crucially, other teachers begin to understand that all the book learning in the world is meaningless in a society where human life is devalued – maybe, just maybe, we can begin to move the needle.

Typing those words makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accustomed to sharing hippy-dippy idealism. Snark is my default. But one of my mentors told me when dealing with students she always tried to err on the side of kindness. That seems more important now than ever.

Be kind. Be kind. And help others to do the same.

The unavoidable flipside, of course, is that this means having some uncomfortable conversations with our students and colleagues. And I say this as someone who, when faced with confrontation, usually just mutters something passive-aggressive while scrolling angrily through his phone. But we need to let people know when they’re acting shitty. I don’t mean lecturing tediously from a place of dubious moral superiority. I mean literally saying, “That was a shitty thing to do.” Sometimes it’s enough to let people know we see them acting shitty – because if no one calls them on acting shitty they’ll think no one saw them acting shitty or, worse yet, they’ll start to believe what they did wasn’t shitty in the first place.

Being kind doesn’t mean being easy. Letting people get away with shitty behavior is just another way of saying we could have done the right thing but chose to look the other way.

So what do I tell my students? These passionate young people who want to get out there and make a difference?

You’re the front line in the battle against all this ugliness, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited for it.

You will make more of a positive impact on this world than you realize. I’m in awe of your willingness to take on this most vital of responsibilities, I will be here to support you in your efforts, and I’m so, so sorry for the mess we’ve left you.

When the Sun Hits

PoehlerThis is and isn’t a review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

I’ve been in my current position in teacher education for nearly eight years – roughly 2,750 days, excluding weekends and breaks. I’ve been comfortable in this position for exactly zero of those days.

I’m a self-aware enough guy to have recognized this for years, even if I haven’t really been able to diagnose the problem. I mean, I’m a bouillabaisse of anxiety disorders at the best of times, but recently it’s also felt like more than that, and somehow inherently different than just garden-variety mopes (which I can usually cure with a good record on the turntable and a slug of scotch). I never felt discomfort and anxiety this acutely as either a high school teacher or Ph.D. student, and I’ve spent the last year in a fairly profound depression, only some of which is Trump-related. Of course there were challenges in my previous positions – shots to my self-esteem from students and parents and my own restless brain, and the process of researching and writing my dissertation was its own unique test of my tolerance for failure – but there was never a persistent voice haranguing me about my inadequacies like there is now.

But Amy Poehler kind of helped me figure it out.

Early in her book – part memoir, part humor – she writes about her days as a developing comic and actor, first with ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, then as one of the pivotal figures in an early incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade. She relates those times as a crucible of inspired creativity, where she met and first acted with some of comedy’s future big names (Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser) and started developing the voice (and, really, the style of comedy) that has become one of the most pervasive in 21st Century pop culture. She tells of their successes but, crucially, she doesn’t discount their failures. In fact, she goes out of her way to mention on more than one occasion that her failures outnumber her successes. At one point she says she and Fey have done “hundreds” of improv shows together and “perhaps ten were very good.” There’s some false modesty there, to be sure, but as someone who knows a little about the combustible, crash-and-burn nature of improv, I understand the feeling.

But the key (for her and, in a moment, me) seems to be this: you grow with the support of other people.

It is, as Poehler says, “easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” There’s a cushion when you fail and a team of cheerleaders when you succeed. It’s that supportive environment that enabled her to take risks as an early actor, to fail and learn and grow.

And so, for me, this:

I read most of Poehler’s book at 30,000 feet. I always have a greater propensity for sentimentality on airplanes – it’s something to do with the lack of oxygen, I think, or my discomfort at being so physically close to strangers – but as I reflected on the confidence I felt as a high school teacher and doctoral student versus how inadequate I’ve felt for the last eight years (and how it’s actually gotten worse the longer I stay where I am), Poehler’s words felt exactly right.

As a high school teacher I was lucky enough to fall into a group of veteran educators – who quickly became my friends – who were patient with me, sharing what they did in the classroom, helping me get my feet under me, and providing a constant sounding board for new ideas I wanted to try. They provided me with the helpful criticism we all need to evolve professionally – “I’m not sure that lesson will work that way; let’s try it this way instead and see what happens” – but importantly for me they weren’t stingy with the praise. They always let me know what I was doing well. They borrowed my ideas – the good ones, anyway. They asked me what I thought. They recommended me for opportunities in which they felt I would thrive. I grew the most in my early teaching experience the year I taught a class for special needs students as well as a class for honors students. Both those classes were offered to me after being recommended for them by my friends.

It’s now a well-cited statistic that roughly half the new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. I, on the other hand, felt constantly supported and validated. It was an exhausting and frustrating and wonderful time. I’d go home on Friday more tired than I’d ever been, but somehow Saturday and Sunday would recharge my batteries to get me ready to do it all over again on Monday. And my colleagues were instrumental in that. By letting me know what was working and treating my missteps as opportunities to get better, I didn’t suffer the steep learning curve so many teachers seem to feel.

I owe my career to those friends, and I’ve not shown them nearly enough gratitude for their professional generosity. Jeannie, Norb, Sharon, Mark, Richard, Marcia: thanks. And thanks again.

The same kind of thing can be said of my time in graduate school. I was expecting a confidence-shattering siege in which my ideas were briefly considered and roundly dismissed. But again, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community of people who challenged me in all the right ways while helping me understand how to leverage what I was good at. Central to this development was my adviser and eventual dissertation director, who is unique in his capacity to make you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room while still helping you strengthen your thinking. There’s nothing quite like having him read a section of your dissertation, lay a level gaze on you and say, “That’s really, really smart.” And then keep reading, as though I actually had something to say.

Which isn’t to imply that my time in grad school was one long victory narrative. There were frustrating conversations where I tried to figure out exactly how to finesse the approach my adviser seemed to want me to take (but which I wasn’t smart enough to nail) and emails with written feedback where I had to swallow my pride and just soak up the criticism, as well as torturous periods of revision where I had to constantly tamp down on the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He pushed me and challenged me and reminded me how much I still had to learn, but it was tempered with a steady stream of compliments that never left me questioning my worth.

And that, as it turns out, is the perfect transition to my current situation as a teacher educator, where questioning my worth is pretty much all I do. I see now that I’m one of those people who needs validation and support to grow. I don’t need applause 24/7 – as I mentioned above, well-meaning criticism is hugely important and I welcome the opportunity to get better by recognizing my faults – but because of my knack for self-sabotage I really don’t have a clue as to what I do well. Ask me to summarize my first eight years as a Ph.D. and you’re going to get a laundry list of failures with a single footnote that reads, “Here’s one day where I didn’t suck too bad.”

So, to turn this back around to what I’m learning about myself from Poehler’s book, I can start to source my perpetual discomfort to the nature of validation (or lack thereof) in my current position. I talk a lot to my students about how teaching isn’t the job to take if you need instant gratification, but the gratification you get as a high school teacher is U2-at-Red-Rocks level intensity compared to what I’ve experienced as a professor. In teaching, one form of validation comes from seeing your students’ development, and I could usually see the growth my high school students were demonstrating. I could see them become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. I could take a piece of their writing from August, put it alongside a piece of their writing from May, and see the difference I made. I had students who began the year as non-readers asking for book recommendations by the next summer. The other form of validation is the same in teaching as it is in every other field: simply hearing you’re doing a good job. And I have a grocery bag of notes from students (and their parents) thanking me for the investment I made in their (and their children’s) lives. It wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of each class, but I could feel pretty satisfied most of the time that I was tipping the scales in the right direction.

But now? It’s much harder to point to student success. They write learning objectives better? They really aligned that one assessment with the standard at the top of the lesson plan? The growth I see within a course is largely facile, which is no knock on the students; it’s just the nature of the work. And what about praise for my teaching, that other external support mechanism? Once a year I sit down for my annual review, I get a pat on the back for staying so busy, and that’s it for the next 364 days. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to have figured it all out by this point.  Maybe the assumption is that once you’ve worked your way up to a Ph.D. you’re beyond such earthly concerns as routine praise. But for someone like me whose default setting is, “Well, at least nothing’s on fire,” I’ve found university teaching to be a solitary, uncomfortable time where I don’t really know if I’m doing anything well at all.

I should add that I don’t necessarily think I’m unique in this. The lack of a support mechanism for faculty is, in some ways, a product of the way the university system is set up. We’re all in our offices or teaching our classes or working on our individual projects, and the kind of supportive cross-pollination I wish I had more of isn’t easy to come by when the very framework of our profession is scattered. I just think some people are better at dealing with it. They either find other ways to derive satisfaction from their work or they’re simply more confident and don’t need as much external validation. (Alternate scenario: We’re all just a bunch of seething malcontents who never give voice to our collective frustration.) But when you combine the fundamentally diffuse nature of the university with my own introverted, standoffish nature, it actually starts to make a lot of sense that support and validation would be hard to come by.

Student evaluations get their own paragraph, because end-of-semester feedback would seem to be one concrete way I could point to specific successes. These evaluations can be nice, but they’re largely too anonymous and general to be of much use. It’s like a Yelp review from a total stranger. “I learned a lot in your class” is the educational equivalent of “Your taquitos were just the right amount of crispy.” It’s fine, but what am I really supposed to do with that feedback? It’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. I’m not going to win many awards with “The readings were appropriate and not to [sic] long.”

This, too, is important: I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I may not deserve praise in the first place. If I felt like I was doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’d care too much about what anyone else thought. I’d be all, “Suck it, world,” and go about my business. But when you feel like you’re largely a garbage fire on legs, praise from other people becomes more important than perhaps it should be. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was wired in such a way that I could go about my business with little input from the rest of the world. But this particular garbage fire needs a little encouragement from time to time.

And yeah – maybe I should stop being such a ninny and ask for feedback when I need it instead of waiting for it to come to me.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk a little bit about writing, since that’s another metric of success at the university level and an additional way to receive validation and support. But that presents its own set of problems. When it comes to the research component of the professorship, all that matters is publication. You can tell me, “That’s a fine piece of writing,” but a folder of “fine pieces of writing” means absolutely zero if no one wants to publish it – which actually means that as far as the profession is concerned these aren’t “fine pieces of  writing” but are, in fact, garbage. It would be nice if man hours counted for something in terms of promotion, but unfortunately a folder of unpublished writing is useful as wallpaper for my office, but not much more.

So, if I’ve got a largely unsuccessful track record of publication (which I do) and not much validation for my teaching (which I don’t), that only leaves me with the third component of my job: professional service, as the undergraduate adviser. And that, friends, means my big contribution to the field is clerical work. Which, when I think about the people in my own life whom I want to emulate, is just too depressing to think about.

I’m drifting into gripe territory, which isn’t my intent. To be clear: I work with world-class colleagues who are all doing amazing stuff (winning awards and publishing books and making a difference for their students and all that) in a department that’s stacked with talent, and it’s their own dumb luck to have to work with someone who’s the Adam Sandler to their Daniel Day-Lewis/Jessica Chastain/pick your favorite thespian. I don’t mean for any of this to come off as a criticism of them, and it shouldn’t be read that way. I’ve tried to make clear that I situate most of this on my own (surprisingly broad) shoulders. And, of course, on the very nature of teaching at the university level. When you’re working in an environment where you have less contact with your students and your colleagues have less access to your teaching, it only makes sense that if you don’t have a pretty strong faith in your own ability you’re going to wonder if anything’s working.

So.

What’s the takeaway, then, from Poehler’s book and my midair epiphany? I don’t really know. It’s a problem without a simple solution. I’m not just going to wake up one day and suddenly feel good about my work when I’m lacking the evidence to support that feeling. A solution to this problem will be labor intensive, and who needs that in his life when he’s already got a digital stack of lesson plans to grade? But I guess I know this: I’ve either got to figure out how to muster up some personal satisfaction in what I’m doing or I need to make a more concerted effort to go somewhere or do something where I’m going to get what I feel like I’m missing.

Also, therapy.

But this, too: My dumb brain circles around to gratitude a lot of the time and how it seems as though Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and whatever the hell it is we’re supposed to do with Twitter has somehow replaced substantive acts of generosity among friends. I’m guilty of it, too, clicking the “like” button when it’s been years since I told that hypothetical person how much I (hypothetically) value him or her as a (non-hypothetical) person/friend/colleague. I think we all (me included) need to remember to show more gratitude for what we recognize in others. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall short much of the time. I’m uncomfortable with emotion and the last thing I want is to seem like the skeezy dude who overshares. But be the change you want to see in the world and all that. If I feel like my world isn’t supportive enough, what am I doing to be supportive in my world? It’s a fair question.

Poehler writes at the end of her book, “The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.”

Indeed.

Also, because this is (and isn’t) a review, Amy Poehler’s book is really, really good. You should read it.

Return to the Last Chance Saloon

sick-in-the-headThere’s this notion that as you get older you eventually come to peace with who you are. The hardest part of that process for me was realizing I’m too insecure to do what I really want with my life. I’ve always loved acting, and for a time I loved writing (until academia beat that passion out of me). Growing up, I just always assumed I’d get involved with TV or movies or theater, doing something for a living that genuinely made me happy. And while I do love teaching, the most fulfilling times of my life were when I was doing improv or writing sketches in college or teaching high school kids to do improv or acting and directing in community theater. But when I had the chance to make the leap – I lived near Los Angeles for fifteen years – I couldn’t make myself do it. I even wrote a couple screenplays, but the thought of subjecting myself to the grind of judgment and evaluation was just too much. So I gave up on it. And now of course I hate writing and my teaching schedule eliminates even the possibility of doing some local theater in the evening. The closest I get these days to the thing I love is watching as many movies as I can.

All of which is a lengthy, navel-gazing setup to explain why I’m still irresistibly attracted to books <i>about</i> the creative process, even though as a frustrated, wannabe artist I’m no longer engaged in that process myself. Viewed from that angle, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a delight, a 550-page series of interviews with various comedians, actors, and directors that could’ve been double the length and I still would’ve devoured it. As a high school student, Apatow recognized his desire to be a comedian and suckered various managers into letting him interview their up-and-coming comedians, never letting on he was actually a teenager lugging around a tape recorder for his high school radio station. The book starts with his first interview – a 1984 talk with the still relatively-unknown Jerry Seinfeld – and ends with (in this new, expanded edition of the book) a 2016 interview with author David Sedaris. In between we get conversations about comedy and creativity from such diverse pesonalities as Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and more – essentially a murderer’s row of the best comedic minds of the last 50 years.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to condense a book like this into a couple paragraphs, but there’s no denying the big takeaway from these interviews (especially in light of how I opened this review): the common thread among all these comedians is an unerring faith in their ability and the ways in which they could add their voice to the larger artistic conversation. That isn’t to say they didn’t have moments of doubt, but it’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of how their drive to do what they loved overcame whatever insecurity they felt. Interestingly, this is especially true of Apatow himself, who speaks freely with his guests of how critical he is of his own work (and worth).  I’m not sure what lesson I personally should take from this; at 43, whatever creative ship I might have hopped aboard has almost certainly sailed.  But as someone who lives vicariously through the lives of those doing what I wish I were doing, it’s compelling stuff.

(Tangent: It’s particularly fascinating for me to hear from the people who are Apatow’s contemporaries.  They [and he] are roughly my age, and it’s fun to hear how we all prize the same pop culture touchstones – Carlin, Monty Python, SNL, Pryor, et. al. – even if they eventually went on to do something with their obsessions.)

A bunch of interview transcripts may not sound like the most entertaining read in the world, but trust me: it is. Especially if you consider yourself a fan of comedy, Sick in the Head is essential reading.

*****

Current listening:

malcolm-13

Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ’13

The End of the Way It’s Always Been

Until academia convinced me otherwise, I always thought I was pretty good writer.  I wrote a lot as I grew up and, generally speaking, I enjoyed it.  It was challenging, sure, but it was a good challenge, the kind that involved getting the right word to slot into just the right space or getting the phrasing to sing.  I wrote copiously throughout elementary, middle, and high school, and I enjoyed the (admittedly pretentious) cachet that accompanied the adolescent boast, “I’m a writer.”  The words might as well have been wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises.

I continued to write throughout college, ten years of teaching high school English, and grad school – short stories and poetry, essays and criticism, screenplays and sketches. I’ve always been far too critical of myself to think there was anything truly inspired going on in my writing, but I enjoyed the affirmation and the creative process, and I genuinely liked sharing my work.  From my close friends and colleagues I learned how to take criticism and avoid being too precious about my writing. Especially as a fellow of the South Coast Writing Project, I saw how a trusted and impartial eye could make weak writing strong and good writing even better.  I welcomed the feedback.  Criticism wasn’t personal.  My writing wasn’t me.

Ha.

As soon as I landed a tenure-track position and writing became necessary for professional survival, everything changed. I still had things to say – at least at first – and I thought I was saying them well. Until I began sending manuscripts to reviewers.  Then the rejections started rolling in, couched in the veiled language of “revise and resubmit,” which is really just the editors saying (at least in my case it seems), “This article isn’t very good, but go ahead and spend a couple more months rewriting it so we can turn it down again.”  While I’ve managed to accumulate a modest publication record, enough to be awarded tenure anyway, the rejections are now well into the double digits and recently – at a time in my career when I thought I was supposed to have this publication thing figured out – my accomplishments have dried up completely.  As I watch my colleagues score success after success, it’s now reached the point where I can’t even get a proposal accepted at a professional conference.

The result?  The kid who adored writing, who spent long hours scratching in a notebook, has become a man who hates it. Dreads it, in fact. The net result of being told over and over again by editors and publishers that I’m apparently incapable of writing anything worth reading is a sort of compositional paralysis, a complete loss of confidence in the belief that I have anything at all to say. The mere thought of writing anything now makes me distinctly uncomfortable (even this post, which I’ve resisted writing for months), and the act of sitting in front of a blank page makes me feel the way I imagine air travel or public speaking afflicts others. In the rare instances when I do write, it’s only out of a lingering sense of guilt, the nagging suspicion that I should write, not that I want to write.

I find all of this deeply unsettling. It’s a fundamental shift in my personal identity, but it’s also made me question myself professionally as a teacher of writing.  I know most writers wrestle with self-doubt, but from the inside looking out this feels different. My insecurity isn’t situational, a matter of wrestling with a specific piece of writing that I trust I can eventually revise into submission – it’s systemic. Recurring professional rejection has caused me to doubt everything I thought I knew about myself as a writer and teacher, and I’m not sure how to take the next step, or even in which direction I should turn to look for it.

If our identities are created by an accretion of experiences, it’s interesting to consider that 25+ years of largely positive writing experiences were undone by a relatively minimal seven years spent in the machinery of academia.  The solution, I know you’re saying, is to not let it bother me so much. And you’re right.  Of course you are. I’m supposed to remember all the stories of successful authors whose early work was rejected again and again and again. I’m supposed to remind myself that rejection is just part of the process, and I can’t let it get me down.  I’m supposed to resolve to keep writing, because giving up means I’ll never get where I want to be.

I know all of that.  But rejection is so much more persuasive.

The Darkest Part of the Night

cuckooMy attitude toward the Harry Potter series was nicely summed up in Jane Lynch’s recent interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.  They described some of the various social events they’ve been invited to but declined to attend. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “I just don’t want to do it.”  And that pretty much captures my ambivalence about J.K. Rowling’s wizard.  I’m sure the books are good; great, even.  I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them.  My wife has all the books sitting on her shelf, and I bought her the new one a month ago.  It would be so easy to pick them up.  I just don’t want to do it.  I’ve got too many books of my own to read to even consider committing to seven books and however many thousand pages Rowling’s series represents.  But when the three Robert Galbraith books – written under Rowling’s pseudonym – showed up on Barnes & Noble’s “cheap books” shelves, that seemed much more manageable.  A quick text to, and an enthusiastic recommendation from, one of my former students whose taste in mysteries runs parallel to my own clinched it.  My first experience with Rowling wouldn’t be with Harry Potter but with her schlubby amputee detective, Cormoran Strike, in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Regular readers of this blog (or my Goodreads feed) might recall my love for two other U.K.-based mystery writers, Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder.  Their series – Rankin’s Edinburgh-set mysteries featuring D.I. John Rebus and Hayder’s grittier stories starring the tortured D.I. Jack Caffery – are, for my money, the best ongoing thrillers today.  So how does Strike stack up against Rebus and Caffery?  Not bad, although it feels as though Rowling is still growing into a genre she’s not yet comfortable with.

Strike himself is a compelling character.  Rowling hasn’t finished delving into his backstory, but we get enough of it here to want to know more. Illegitimate son of a groupie and a rock star, Strike served for a time in Afghanistan as part of the British military’s Special Investigations Branch.  While there, he was caught in an explosion and lost part of his leg.  He returned to England, resumed a highly dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and became a private eye.  When we first meet him he’s hit rock bottom, living out of his office and with only one client to his name.  In a fortuitous turn of events, he’s gifted a plucky new receptionist and a wealthy client on the same day.  Robin arrives fresh from the temp office, excited to be rescued from another stultifying turn in a cubicle.  The client, John Bristow, has a childhood connection with Strike: Bristow’s brother Charlie was Strike’s best childhood friend before dying in a freak cycling accident. Bristow has now arrived to ask Strike to re-investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry.

Strike begins his investigation with reservations, essentially taking Bristow’s money only because he’s deep in debt.  The case takes him through the pretentious upper echelons of London’s fashion scene, and Rowling has a lot of fun contrasting Strike’s hulking, disheveled bulk with the sleek, trim models and designers he comes into contact with.  Rowling’s obvious strength and the book’s great joy – and honestly, the one reason I’d be willing to check out the Potter series – is her dialogue.  Her characters come from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and as a long-time Anglophile, I could hear the different regional dialects leap off the page.  The supporting characters are all finely drawn, from Bristow’s rodent-like obsequiousness to film producer Freddie Bestigui’s bullish thuggery to homeless addict Rochelle Onifade’s crude desperation.  And receptionist Robin – clearly positioned to play a larger role in the next two books – is the most fun of all, an adventurer bristling against her role as an office worker engaged to a banker.  From this book alone, it’s easy to see how Rowling created a world in the Potter series that people wanted to live in.

The larger problem with The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, comes from Rowling’s mishandling of some of the genre’s tropes, which may simply be attributed to a first-timer’s rustiness.  A lot of the plot – and you can see it from the very start of the book, when Robin and John Bristow both arrive on the same day Strike is rendered homeless – hinges on coincidences and lucky twists of fate.  Rowling’s book is no less meticulously plotted than Rankin’s and Hayder’s books, but unlike those two writers, the internal logic she employs isn’t as consistent.  In Rankin’s Rebus series, you can clearly see how each plot twist rises organically from character and motivation.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling, certain plot points emerge only because Strike was in the right place at the right time or was able to make some enormous intuitive leap based only on an offhand comment.  And then there’s the book’s lazy climax, where Strike explains the entire case to the villain and waits for him to confess on a pocket recorder.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, where, at a movie’s climax, the bad guy could easily kill the hero but instead wastes valuable time explaining his motives, which of course causes him to be captured.  The generous view is that Rowling is paying tribute to classic mysteries where this kind of thing was normal.  The more critical view is that she just wasn’t sure how to bring the various plot threads together in any way other than the most straightforward.  No matter which view is correct, the climax doesn’t really work.

All of which is to say – as I usually find myself doing – that I didn’t dislike the book.  It’s a fun, fast read, and the dialogue alone makes it worth your time.  To be fair, the degree to which Rowling grows into these characters and this genre might cause me to modulate my criticism later.  It’ll be increasingly difficult to view this book’s flaws generously if they continue into the next two.  But again, its rocky final chapters notwithstanding, The Cuckoo’s Calling is strong enough overall not to feel exceedingly optimistic about the series’ promise.

*****

Current listening:

air-talkie

Air – Talkie Walkie (2004)

Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966

Crawl Out from the Fall Out

GirlIt’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting.  Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme).  The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart.  In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies.  In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people.  Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject.  In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were.  But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.*  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop.  Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a  thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!”  And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen.  Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic.  Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.

Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books).  At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning.  They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent.  Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure.  Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.

For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other.  Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie.  Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world.  Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further.  And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job.  As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children.  Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.

The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts.  Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been.  He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.

So that’s the horror/thriller part.  But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is.  Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine.  She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling.   This is largely down to how they view her.  Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group.   She has a role.  She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger.  So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless.  But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her.  Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one.  This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.

It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end.  The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.

 

* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel.  Nit-picking, probably.

*****

Current listening:

Sonic murray

Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)

Ghosts of a Different Dream

Bluebells sistersDiscogs Challenge #2

In my inaugural Discogs Challenge post I claimed that my musical wheelhouse has been, since about 1988, “fey honkies playing guitars that go jingle-jangle.”  Turns out Discogs has a sense of humor, because the album it pulled up for my second post doesn’t get much feyer or honkier than The Bluebells’ 1984 album Sisters.  Even that name – The Bluebells – conjures up images of Dutch schoolgirls frolicking in a meadow before settling down to a lunch of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sans crusts, and you just know at least one band member regularly wears a cardigan and/or horn-rimmed glasses.  The band isn’t completely dissimilar from fellow early-80s Scots Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but the tunes just aren’t the same caliber.  It’s all pleasantly inoffensive – quite nice for cleaning the house or grading papers, but it’s not a band that will change your life.

Part of the problem, I think, is the band’s occasional willingness to dabble in instruments and styles that butt up against their otherwise genial indie rock.  Opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” comes sailing in, buoyed by a gently parping harmonica, and the very next song, “Young at Heart,” brings the fiddle in a virtual hoedown.  There’s absolutely overlap between Scottish folk music and American country or bluegrass, and while I can hear the lineage the band is following, the result – especially considering the album’s later songs – comes across more as a band that doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like.  An album like The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (a record I hope Discogs pulls up for me at some point) makes this instrumentation central to its effect; it isn’t just grafted onto the songs like a Frankenstein’s monster made out of an unholy marriage of mandolins and Marshall stacks.  Fisherman’s Blues weaves the instruments into a tapestry; Sisters proclaims, “Hey!  Here’s our fiddle song!”  We get a brief respite in the really quite nice double-feature of “I’m Falling” and “Will She Always Be Waiting,” but the harmonica makes its return at the end of Side 1 in minor radio hit “Cath.”   At least the instrument works better here, accenting the guitars and underpinning the ebullient “Whoa oh” chorus in what is probably the album’s best song.

(Re-reading those last few sentences, it strikes me that maybe I just have something against the harmonica.  But I don’t.  Promise.)

I don’t mean for this to sound as negative as it does.  While I’m not a stone cold fan of The Bluebells, the record fits nicely into my love of bookish indie, beginning with the previously mentioned Aztec Camera and continuing through The Smiths to modern-day nice guys Belle & Sebastian.  And, to be fair, Side 2 begins with a hell of a 1-2 punch in “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University.”  On the latter, especially, the band nearly breaks a sweat, abandoning the folk pretensions and relying solely on a churning electric guitar line.  But then, as if to say, “Hey gang!  We’ve still got some unplayed instruments in the closet!,” “Learn to Love” opens with a brass fanfare and turns into a none-more-Motown stomper, complete with wailing female backing vocals on the chorus.  I take back what I said earlier; this is the album’s best song.

(Of course you don’t get the brass or the backing vocals in the above video, but such is the paucity of Bluebells material on YouTube.)

It initially seems as though the album is ending on a subdued note, transitioning to a cover of Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot’s Game” (a flute is present and accounted for, if you’re keeping score at home), but the Falklands-referencing “South Atlantic Way” is a stirring protest anthem complete with martial drums and the kind of ringing guitars we’d expect to find on a U2 album.  The song escalates into a dervish of an outro – drums, guitar, and pounding piano combining to almost make us forget the album’s timid openers.

The high points on Sisters are so good that it makes me wish the weak spots were better.  It’s obviously not a bad album, but it feels in places like the band needed a better editor, someone to rein in some of their less successful impulses.  This was their only album, alas, so if anyone told them, “More ‘Learn to Love,’ less hoedown, please,” we never got to see how it played out.

Next up: Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon (2015)

Read the rules of the Discogs Challenge here.

A Girl Called Destruction

Lauren shining

Sometimes an excess of pop culture knowledge is a hindrance.  When I first heard that Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls dealt with a time traveling serial killer, there’s just no way I wasn’t immediately going to think of Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper in then-modern day (but really 1979) San Francisco.

It wasn’t exactly two strikes against the book, but the baggage didn’t help.  And that’s sort of a shame, going in with those preconceived notions, because The Shining Girls is all kinds of terrific.

Most notably, Beukes does some really fun stuff with narrative structure.  In some ways she’s telling parallel narratives.  In one of them we follow Harper, a killer who discovers a dilapidated house whose front door serves as a portal into other times.  In the other we’re following Kirby, the only one of Harper’s victims to survive his attack.  But rather than tell this is as a linear narrative – even one where the author alternates perspectives in each chapter – she skips around from character to character.  Where we might be with Harper in 1937 in one chapter, in the next we might be with Kirby in 1994, and then with another character entirely in the next.  It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds: Beukes helpfully titles each chapter by character and year, but because she’s drawn the characters so indelibly, they’re easy to track.

So we have this bit of structural ingenuity on one hand, and on the other we have a substantial degree of playfulness afforded by the time travel conceit.  When Harper discovers the house, he also discovers in an upstairs room a list of girls’ names written on the wall.  The names are – title alert! – literally shining, and beside them is a collection of artifacts: a lighter, a cassette tape, a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and so on.  Harper begins visiting these “shining girls” as children, talking to them or giving them one of these artifacts, and then returning to them as adults and killing them, as he believes he’s destined to do.

Cut to Kirby, one of Harper’s victims.  He first tracked her down in the 1970s, giving her a plastic pony to hold, and then returned to viciously attack her in the late 80s.  Now, in 1994, she’s a survivor and an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times.  Paired with Dan Velasquez, a grouchy sports writer who used to work the homicide beat, Kirby sets out to find out who attacked her.

Beukes skillfully skips back and forth between the characters, and we watch as Harper works his way through his list in a variety of time periods while Kirby conducts her investigation in the early 90s.  We know there will come a reckoning between the two of them – how could there not be? – especially because Harper doesn’t yet realize that Kirby survived his attack.

I’m not normally a time travel guy, but I really enjoyed The Shining Girls.  There’s an infectious sense of play to the proceedings, where even though we’re watching some exceptionally grisly crimes play out and are getting caught up in the suspense of Kirby’s sleuthing, we also can’t help but admire how thoroughly Beukes has created a range of worlds in which the characters travel.  Just as importantly, Kirby and Velasquez make for a compelling team, the former increasingly obsessed with finding her would-be killer and the latter basically along for the ride because he has the hots for Kirby.  Harper is a little trickier to get a handle on.  We never get a very satisfying reason for why he discovers the time traveling house – or why the house does what it is – but Beukes does so many entertainingly mind-bending things with loops in time that it seems a little churlish to pick at the details.

The best recommendation I can give is that the same afternoon I finished The Shining Girls, I went out and bought a couple of Beukes’ other books.  Color me impressed.

*****

Current listening:

XTC white

XTC – White Music (1978)

What More Can I Say

Jay blackAs ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s.  Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?).  It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in.  We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”

But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity.  In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect.  All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst.  And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone.  But I loved it, almost from the get-go.  True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off.  I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.

I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.*  In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul.  The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids.  (Which it kind of did.  Which is good.)

All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned.  I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine.  And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).

Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album.  I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went.  Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.

In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles.  The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability.  Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe.  Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music.   Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective.  But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.”  It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.

(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)

Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old.  There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.”  And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout.  The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.

Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.

 

* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true.  Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.

A Design for Life

IMG_0955A note from the management, primarily to establish the rules of a new game in its own post that I can link to later.

A couple days ago – here – I posted my musical canon, the records I own that have shaped the listener and, in many cases, the person I am today.  In that post I said I’d eventually be discussing these albums, one at a time.  That’s still true, but that discussion will now be subsumed under a larger project I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Here it is:

My record collection is inventoried in Discogs, a terrific site that music nerds like me can use to catalog our collections and buy and sell records from dealers and other collectors.  But it also has a nifty feature in the “Random Item” search button.  Click it, and Discogs pulls up a random album from your collection.  For instance, I just clicked it, and out of the 1,600 records in my collection, Discogs pulled up Jay-Z’s 1999 masterwork, The Black Album.

My plan is to use this feature to talk about music.  Rather than simply walk through my canon, where the narrative will probably get a little samey – “Gee whiz, this is an awesome album!” – using the “Random Item” feature will generate some different types of discussion and analysis.  Some records I own because I genuinely love them.  Some I own because I’m a completist, and while I feel warmly toward them, I own them mainly to fulfill a collector’s compulsion. And then there are also some that I know less well, impulse buys or records that I purchased after enjoying a cursory listen or two online.  The point being, my experience with The Black Album will be very different from my experience with U2’s The Joshua Tree or R.E.M.’s Greenand I think that difference will result in what I hope is an engaging snapshot of popular music post-1965 through the lens of my obsession.

So I’ll click the button, give the record my undivided attention, and then see what kind of writing it generates.  Look for this – thinking optimistically here – a few times a week, when I can find the time to put the effort into it.*

First up, to prove I’m not cheating and just clicking until I get one of the albums from my canon, I’ll tackle The Black Album, a record I admire more than love.

* but, true to form, I’ll probably do it a couple times, get bored, and quit.

Hounds of Love

AnsariOne thing immediately became clear to me as I read Aziz Ansari’s excellent treatise on modern romance (titled, conveniently, Modern Romance) and it’s this: I would have had more dating success as a young man if I had had the options afforded by today’s technology.  As a shy, awkward kid with – how to put this? – “a face that is not pleasant to look at,” I wasn’t super successful with the ladies.  I was (and still am, I think) fairly proficient with words.  If I had had access to text messaging instead of the painful “date request” phone call, if I could’ve charmed from a distance with my written wit, if I’d been able to make a good physical impression via the smoke and mirrors possible in Instagram, I might have been happier as a wee lad.  I’m generally useless in social situations, especially at first, but once I warm up I can hold my own.  If I could’ve warmed up to the girls I was interested in through technology (instead of stumbling haphazardly through a gauntlet of clumsy personal interactions) I think I would have fared better.

But as I reflect on this, I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself while also failing to mention what I found most fascinating about Ansari’s book.

Modern Romance is absolutely a humor book.  For those who know and enjoy Ansari’s humor (whether with his Human Giant sketch show, his standup, his indelible role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, or his fantastic Netflix show, Master of None), you’ll quickly hear his voice come through loud and clear:

To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era?  I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible.  Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.

But while it’s unquestionably a book where Ansari gets to be laugh-out-loud funny, it increases the comedy book stakes by also being an honest-to-goodness social science text.  Ansari and his research partner, New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, spent years conducting focus group interviews and analyzing interactions with volunteers on a subreddit forum to present an illuminating view of what it’s like to date in the 2010s (in the U.S. and in other countries), and how it differs from generations past.  We get chapters dealing with the “initial ask,” online dating, international trends, the implications of technology, and so on.  Each chapter is grounded in their research and shot through with Ansari’s unmistakable humor.

While there’s certainly a wealth of information here, much of which I didn’t know (Japan is in the middle of a marriage crisis? A third of the people who got married in the first decade of the 21st Century met online?), the most striking issue the book reveals is the problem presented by having too many options.  Ansari sets this up early by discussing the interviews he conducted with older Americans, most of whom met their spouses in a very small radius.  Over 80% of those interviewed lived within 20 blocks of their future spouse, and many of them lived in the same apartment building or on the same street.  This is true of my parents, who lived four houses apart, met when they were 13, married in their early 20s, and stayed married until my mom’s death in 2011.  According to Ansari, this was a pattern repeated by many people in my parents’ generation (that is, meeting someone from your neighborhood and marrying young, not necessarily dying an early death from cancer), but it’s one that has largely disappeared.

Instead, thanks to the rise of online dating and apps like Tinder – as well as increased mobility and larger social circles brought about by social media networks – people today have dozens (and in large cities, literally hundreds) of possible mates a phone swipe away.  When you combine this with people’s increased need to find the best thing possible – Ansari very funnily recounts the tortuous process he uses just to find the best taco joint in town – it only makes sense that people are dating more and marrying less (or at least later).  Because we can now see just how many other attractive single people are out there in our vicinity, Ansari argues, people are increasingly less satisfied with their current situation in the hope that they can eventually find not just something better, but the best there is (be it taco joint, television, or spouse).

Most fascinating, Ansari reports that this isn’t really a thing in the other countries they researched.  People in those countries still largely fall in love as a result of meeting through friends or at work or in bars or clubs (although he also details the frankly horrifying verbal assaults women in Buenos Aires face on a daily basis).   This need to find the “best” seems to speak to a restlessness in the American psyche that I can’t help but think also speaks to our competitive, capitalist identity.  Doesn’t it make sense that when a country has as one of its bedrock principles the notion of upward social mobility, its people would find themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for second-best in all aspects of their lives?  We typically see this occurring in the context of economics, but in light of Ansari and Klinenberg’s work, it seems unavoidable to consider how this mindset has influenced other aspects of American culture, including dating.  Even though Ansari doesn’t make this connection himself, it’s to his book’s credit that it allows for this sort of speculation instead of merely settling for funny.

This is a rare book that’s able to mix laughs with research, and the few topics I’ve mentioned here are really just the tip of the qualitative iceberg.  Modern Romance is a fascinating read, not just as social science, but as a snapshot of America – and young Americans – at the dawn of the 21st Century.

*****

Current listening:

Dream days

The Dream Syndicate – The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)

Connected to Life

recordsPrompted by a friend, I’ve spent part of today thinking about a personal musical canon. We all presumably know about – for lack of a better term – public canons, those works that are largely (if sometimes erroneously, which is a conversation for another time) considered to be the best works in a particular medium or genre.
But what about a personal canon when it comes to music? What are the albums that best represent me as a music fan? This morning I tried to figure that out.
The rules:
 –
1) I had to own it on 12″ vinyl. That immediately rules out certain albums that are out of print on vinyl or are otherwise prohibitively expensive. Guerrilla by Super Furry Animals or The Last Broadcast by Doves would’ve made the list if I owned them. But I don’t. Alas.
2) Only one album per artist. This is the only way I could make sure half my list wouldn’t consist of albums by R.E.M. and The Wedding Present. Certain musicians can show up more than once if they’re recording under different names or with different bands. For example, Bob Mould shows up with both Hüsker Dü and Sugar, and Kim Deal makes it onto the list twice with Pixies and The Breeders.
3) There had to be at least some effort at curation. I couldn’t just list any album that seemed to apply (see #4 below), although that might be what the list initially looks like. I started at 151 albums, then made a second pass to eliminate anything that wasn’t essential. I ended up with 130 records, and any cuts beyond that would mean getting rid of records that I consider vital to who I am as a music fan. Still, it really hurt to eliminate Rainer Maria’s Look Now, Look Again.
4) In order to be considered for the list, the album had to be one that I consider in some way formative or truly representing a specific point in my life. It can’t just be a record I like a lot or that has one or two really cool songs. It has to be a record that resonates with me on a deeper level, and whose songs have in some way become part of my DNA. This goes beyond “favorite albums.” I love the debut album by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but it isn’t transcendent in the way it would need to be to make this list.
5) I’m a nerd.
So here it is, my canon, as of August 8, 2016.
  1. Ryan Adams – Gold
  2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
  3. American Music Club – Mercury
  4. The Auteurs – Now I’m a Cowboy
  5. The B-52’s – Self-titled
  6. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  7. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
  8. The Beatles – Abbey Road
  9. Beck – Odelay
  10. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
  11. The Beta Band – The Three E.P.s (Champion Version, Patty Patty Sound, Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos EPs)
  12. Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix
  13. Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
  14. The Blue Airplanes – Swagger
  15. The Blue Nile – Hats
  16. Blur – Parklife
  17. The Boo Radleys – Wake Up!
  18. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  19. Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home
  20. The Breeders – Last Splash
  21. Built to Spill – Perfect from Now On
  22. Buzzcocks – A Different Kind of Tension
  23. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream
  24. The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories
  25. The Chills – Submarine Bells
  26. The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix
  27. The Clash – London Calling
  28. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
  29. Coldplay – Parachutes
  30. Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide
  31. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – This Year’s Model
  32. The Cure – Disintegration
  33. De la Soul – Three Feet High and Rising
  34. The Delgados – The Great Eastern
  35. Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
  36. Duran Duran – Rio
  37. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
  38. Echo & The Bunnymen – Ocean Rain
  39. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues
  40. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
  41. Electronic – Self-titled
  42. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
  43. The Fall – Extricate
  44. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
  45. Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker
  46. Peter Gabriel – So
  47. Gang of Four – Entertainment!
  48. The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane
  49. Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump
  50. Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand
  51. Happy Mondays – Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
  52. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians – Globe of Frogs
  53. The House of Love – Self-titled (1990)
  54. The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4
  55. Husker Dü – Warehouse: Songs and Stories
  56. Idlewild – The Remote Part
  57. Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights
  58. INXS – Kick
  59. Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
  60. The Jam – All Mod Cons
  61. James – Laid
  62. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
  63. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
  64. Kitchens of Distinction – Strange Free World
  65. The Long Winters – When I Pretend to Fall
  66. Love – Forever Changes
  67. Love and Rockets – Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven
  68. Lush – Gala
  69. Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go
  70. Marillion – Clutching at Straws
  71. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs
  72. Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust
  73. Moby – Everything Is Wrong
  74. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West
  75. Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People
  76. Morrissey – Vauxhall and I
  77. The Mountain Goats – We Shall All Be Healed
  78. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
  79. The National – Alligator
  80. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies
  81. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
  82. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
  83. The Ocean Blue – Cerulean
  84. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
  85. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
  86. Pixies – Doolittle
  87. The Pogues – Peace and Love
  88. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
  89. Public Image Ltd. – Second Edition
  90. Pulp – Different Class
  91. Radiohead – The Bends
  92. Ramones – Self-titled
  93. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
  94. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant
  95. The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me
  96. Ride – Going Blank Again
  97. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
  98. Sigur Ros – ( )
  99. Slowdive – Souvlaki
  100. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
  101. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
  102. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
  103. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
  104. Squeeze – Cool for Cats
  105. The Stone Roses – Self-titled
  106. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
  107. The Strokes – Is This It
  108. Suede – Self-titled
  109. Sugar – Copper Blue
  110. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
  111. Swans – White Light from the Mouth of Infinity
  112. Talking Heads – Fear of Music
  113. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque
  114. Television – Marquee Moon
  115. The The – Mind Bomb
  116. They Might Be Giants – Lincoln
  117. Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)
  118. The Trash Can Sinatras – Cake
  119. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
  120. Tricky – Maxinquaye
  121. The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
  122. U2 – Achtung Baby
  123. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
  124. The Verve – Urban Hymns
  125. Tom Waits – Bone Machine
  126. The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
  127. The Wedding Present – Seamonsters
  128. Wilco – Being There
  129. XTC – Black Sea
  130. Yo la Tengo – Painful

Soon to come in this space I’m going to walk my readership (all two of you) through as many of these as we have patience for, sharing memories and songs, and trying to explain why each one had the impact on me that it did.  Stay tuned.

*****

Current listening:

Wells watch

Wells Fargo – Watch Out!

First Day on a New Planet

StingerIf you’re writing genre fiction, it’s a gamble to swing for the fences.  In some ways it’s easier (and maybe more satisfying to some readers) to forgo things like character development and thematic resonance in favor of plot momentum.  Just strip it down and let it rip.  If, on the other hand, you want to go for longevity, you’ve got to give the reader more than just cheap thrills, and that’s where Robert R. McCammon’s almost successful Stinger (1988) ultimately fails.  Because if you’re going to take the time to dig a little deeper into character and story, you’d better be good at it.

The novel is almost begging for the first approach I described above.  A benevolent alien, escaping from an intergalactic prison, crashes its craft near Inferno, a remote Texas town, and takes over the body of a six-year-old girl until it can find a way to escape.  Meanwhile, one of the creatures maintaining the prison traces the escapee to Inferno, activates a skygrid around the town that imprisons everyone inside it (like Stephen King’s dome, only written 25 years earlier), and proceeds to hunt it down, wreaking havoc in its wake.

When McCammon gets there – when Stinger, as its called, crash lands in the center of Inferno and begins its violent search – the book is a narrative steamroller.  It’s creepy and thrilling and does all the things you want a pulpy horror novel with literary aspirations to accomplish.  The problem, however, is that it literally takes over 200 pages to get there.  Here we are, on page 203 of 539:

The fireball – almost two hundred feet across – roared down and crashed into Mack Cade’s autoyard, throwing sheets of dust and pieces of cars into the air.  Its shock wave heaved the earth, sent cracks scurrying along the streets of Inferno and Bordertown, blew out windows, and flung Cody Lockett off his feet . . .

As fun as Stinger ultimately gets, what precedes that passage is 200 pages of deathly tedious world-building and attempts at developing characters we care about.  We’re treated to these various plot threads:

• Tension between the white residents of Inferno and the Mexican-American residents of Bordertown, which usually manifests itself in gang violence between high school students (and some frankly atrocious racist language and attitudes, which I think is meant to be critical of the white townspeople, but because it’s handled so clumsily just comes off as garden-variety racism).

• The activities of the Hammond family – parents Tom (high school teacher)  and Jessie (veterinary doctor) and their children Ray and Stevie – which include Ray’s creepy obsessing over his female classmates and Tom’s attempts at motivating two students, Cody and Rick, who are – surprise, surprise – key members in the two opposing gangs.

• A World War II vet who takes care of an imaginary dog.

• The arrival in town of Rick’s hot sister Miranda, who exists for no reason other than to create more tension between the gangs because Cody, natch, thinks she’s “a smash fox” (a dumb phrase McCammon overuses the first time it appears).

•  A whole lot of clichéd father-son tension between Cody and his neglectful alcoholic father Curt.

• The arrival of two Air Force men – Barnes and Gunniston – on the search for the crashed spacecraft.

It goes on and on in that vein for almost half the book, just a lot of generic prefab family drama that might as well have come out of a kit.  I know why it’s there: McCammon’s trying to ultimately show how different groups of people who don’t particularly get along can band together against a common enemy.  But the payoff isn’t satisfying because the setup is so hokey.

And again, that’s kind of a shame, because from the moment Stinger lands, the book gets a whole lot more interesting.  As Stinger tracks down Daufin – the name the escapee gives itself after taking over Stevie’s body – it does so by killing Inferno’s residents and reanimating their bodies in variously creepy ways: human form but with needle teeth and claws; a man with half a dog growing out of his chest; a horse with a scorpion tail.  In this way it removes any threats from the town while in its different human forms it tries to blend in in ways not totally dissimilar from John Carpenter’s adaptation of The Thing.  It ultimately becomes a race against time for the town’s survivors to help Daufin escape before Stinger brings its entire army to Earth for colonization.

I first read Stinger in high school (McCammon was one of the authors I discovered around the same time as Stephen King) but remembered very little about it.  What I really need to do now is revisit some of his other books because I actually have very warm memories about them.  I’m not sure if Stinger is a weak spot in his bibliography, or if I just hadn’t developed the critical faculties to help me see how disastrously ordinary the first half is.  If McCammon had cut out most of the ancillary world-building and structured the first half to focus on the discovery of Daufin’s pod, the takeover of Stevie’s body, and the arrival of Barnes and Gunniston, and then skipped straight to Stinger’s arrival and the town’s imprisonment, the book would have been a lean, balls-to-the-wall thriller.  Right now, though, it’s just needlessly flabby: a 530-page novel flailing about for importance when it could have been a hugely satisfying 300-page book that just wanted to scare the bejsus out of the reader.

*****

Current listening:

Lou new

Lou Reed – New York (1989)