Games Without Frontiers

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So, when I’m not traveling to Iceland or reading lots of books or viewing lots of movies or listening to waaaaaay too much music, I teach.  I spend most of my time working with pre-service teachers, specifically those generous, patient, not-insignificantly-crazy souls who are studying to be high school English teachers.  As a former high school English teacher myself, and, importantly, one who was profoundly dissatisfied with the quality of his own pre-service education, my goal has always been to provide my current students with all the theory they need to create innovative lessons, but to ground that theory in practice by sharing the things I did in my own classroom and dissecting why they did or didn’t work.

My classes are, by necessity then, highly participatory.  I introduce an activity I conducted with my own high school students, my current students take part it in as the high school students did, and then we debrief (or, if it went poorly, conduct a post-mortem) to figure out why it went how it did.  These classes tend to be high energy, boisterous and free-wheeling, full of the noise made by passionate students who are excited to start seeing themselves as teachers.  Crucially, their energy keeps me engaged, too, and in the best moments I see the difference I’m making.  Last year one student told me candidly, “Help me teach the way you teach.”  I tell my students teaching isn’t a game to get into if you need instant gratification, but there are certainly moments that rival any applause I got in my days doing improvisational theater.

But this semester is a semester of tension.  I’m developing an online class, see, and the hardest part so far is rethinking how I teach, to somehow take these energetic lessons, full of lively conversation that cascades across the room like brightly-colored confetti, and translate that to a comparatively monochrome online setting.  How do I replicate these organically evolving discussions where the students and I don’t meet face to face?  How do I show them how activities can work in their own classroom if we can’t conduct them the way they would with their own students?

The short answer is: I can’t.  Even if I provide my current students with an activity I did with my high school students, all I can do is ask them to follow the instructions and then write about it later so I can see how it went.  The closest we can come to actually debriefing in the way that seems the most helpful is to try and arrange a Google Hangout, which still isn’t the same thing.  Because so much of pre-service teacher education relies on trial and error, on seeing what doesn’t work for you but does work for someone else, and on the opportunity for me to assist and guide in the moment, I worry about what I’m sacrificing in the translation to online teaching.

I don’t mean to imply it’s a total loss.  It’s a compromise.  In the six modules I’ve developed for the summer semester, I’ve tried to incorporate a mix of activities that will give the students a chance to interact online using text-based technology, as well as audio and video.  I think it works.  I think it’s good.  But it’s been an adjustment that’s pushed me to think about my practice in a way I haven’t in a while.

Here’s the upshot of all this: I’m still a beginner, which means there’s nowhere to go but up.

*****

Current listening:

Neon praxis

Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (2013)

You Only Disappear

Klosterman visibleLike the singer who decides to record a solo album or the marquee actor who wants to direct a vanity project, it always makes me a little nervous when an author primarily known for one genre decides to try something new.  This is doubly true of Chuck Klosterman, a fellow who belongs to that little coterie of unlucky authors and journalists with whom I identify to a probably unhealthy degree (see also: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Rob Sheffield).  He’s known primarily for penning pop culture-obsessed essays whose train of thought runs so closely parallel to my own that in rare moments of self-confidence I find myself thinking, “See, I could do that.”  His nonfiction collections, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto  and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, are clever and perceptive and often laugh-out-loud funny, and they’ve sort of served as a bellwether for my own thinking about music, media, and celebrity.  In his book Writing with Passion, Tom Romano talks about “distant teachers,” those people from whom we learn even when separated by geographical distance.  For a dozen years, Chuck Klosterman has been one of my distant teachers.

So I was a little nervous when, in 2008, he published his first novel, Downtown Owl.  I still haven’t read it.  If it sucked, if fiction was a poor fit for his talent, I wasn’t sure how it might tarnish my view of his other work.  Then he published The Visible Man in 2011, and it somehow ended up on my shelf, which meant I was obligated to read it as part of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project. (There’s a slash in blue magic marker along the bottom of the pages, which makes me think I must’ve picked it up in Barnes & Noble’s clearance bin, to be read at some distant point in the future when I was emotionally and intellectually prepared for disappointment.)

Here’s the verdict on The Visible Man: It’s delightful.  I use that word rarely, but it fits in this case.  It was blast from start to finish, a breezy (but at times deceptively sophisticated) treatise on identity, human nature, motivation, and The Beatles.  I devoured it in two 90-minute sittings.

Written in the form of a book draft written by therapist Victoria Vick and submitted to her editor, The Visible Man details her run-in and subsequent sessions with a patient who claims to have invented a suit that essentially renders him invisible (Klosterman describes the science, but I’m not sure I understand it, and even if I did it’s too complicated to relate here).  Victoria is understandably skeptical, and she treats their first several sessions (the synthesized transcripts of which make up the narrative) as the rantings of a delusional individual who’s suffered a break from reality.  Then Y__ (as he’s referred throughout the book) shows up at her office in the suit, and Victoria realizes he’s telling the truth.

As he explains it to her, Y__ is using this tremendous invention to conduct an experiment on humanity.  He simply sneaks into people’s homes (hoping to find that alone; multiple residents present too many logistical complications) and watches them.  He stays for several days, seeing how they act when they think no one else is watching.  This, he believes, will give him insight into the true nature of humanity, for it’s only when no one else is around that we’re truly being ourselves.

The Visible Man, at this point, shifts into what reads almost like a series of short stories, as Y__ tells Victoria several of his most memorable interactions with those he observes.  There’s Valerie, an obsessive-compulsive who works out with fanatical zeal only so she can spend her evenings smoking massive amounts of pot and eating ungodly amounts of junk food.  There’s Bruce, the Internet multitasker who’s mainly concerned with drafting the perfect email to a woman.  There’s “The Half-Mexican Ladies Man,” who somehow divines that Y__ is watching him.  And most disturbingly for Victoria, there’s the tale of the Heavy Dudes, an interaction that ends in death and incarceration.  All through these sessions, it becomes clear that the relationship between Victoria and Y__ is developing into something beyond therapist and patient, and the implications of that evolution push the book into his final suspenseful chapters.

Because this is a Chuck Klosterman book, there are passages that are undeniably funny, such as when Y__ describes one 74-day-long relationship as “like having sex with the Falkland Island War.”  And of course there are references to music throughout that are entertaining but read more like Klosterman inserting his voice into the story than growing organically from the characters.  At one point Victoria and Y__ have an argument about the ubiquity of The Beatles, and one of Y__’s first experiences watching another person centers on the band Rush.  This didn’t particularly bother me, but I could see narrative purists crying foul.

The most interesting thing, to which I alluded above, is how The Visible Man actually has some sophisticated things to say about human identity.  There’s Y__’s central thesis, which is the importance of viewing people unobserved when they’re alone, but there’s a section later in the book where Y__ talks about how at some point an individual’s identity is fixed, and that person will largely stay true to that personality, even if circumstances change.

The first time I realized I could enter someone’s home, there was this predictable rush of power.  There was an immediate recognition that I could do anything I wanted.  I could kill a man and never be captured.  I could rape a woman and she’d assume it was just a horrific nightmare . . . But the fact of the matter is that I’m not a rapist, and the fact that I suddenly had the means to become a world-class rapist wasn’t going to change that.  We always end up being ourselves, somehow.  I was who I was long before I consciously became the person I am.

And that’s really the question Klosterman is interested in exploring: Who are any of us, really?  The Visible Man is better than I expected and, even more importantly, better than I hoped, and it immediately marks Klosterman as not just a first-class essayist, but a first-class writer in any genre.

*****

Current listening:

Decemberists picaresque

The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)

An End Has a Start

Shift howeyIf you follow the world of e-publishing even a little bit you likely know the story of Hugh Howey.  He’s one of these rare self-publishing ultra-success stories, an aspiring writer who decided to start releasing his stuff through Amazon’s Kindle Direct store.  It caught on in a big way, and his most well-known book, the Wool omnibus, was selling 20,000-30,000 digital copies a month during its peak popularity in the summer of 2012.  He was offered a seven-figure deal to put the book in print, but he apparently settled for something in the low six figures to maintain e-publishing rights.  Now, if his social media is to believed, he mainly just sails around the world and posts photos to make the rest of us jealous.  So, as much as I hate to admit it, Wool – the story that started it all – lives up to the hype.

It is, first and foremost, a brilliant and astonishing feat of world-building, a vibrant post-apocalyptic imagining where an unnamed catastrophe’s survivors live in a massive underground silo. Their society is rigidly stratified, with the bureaucrats and politicians on the upper levels and things getting decidedly more blue-collar as they descend the massive spiral staircase that is their society’s only mode of transport. You descend through the clinics and labs, through hydroponic chambers where their food is grown, through the IT department, through the Supply rooms, and down and down over a hundred floors until you reach Machinery, the guts of the silo where things are really kept running.  It’s a mystery and a conspiracy thriller, it’s got action and more than a few elements of science fiction.  Generally speaking, it’s a winner.  My only substantial criticism is that it’s too long.  Because it’s a collection of serialized novellas, they become a little unwieldy when consumed as a single work.  There were places when I wanted more momentum, when instead the story would circle back to something only tangentially related to the main narrative (which was so good I wanted Howey to stick with it).

And that brings me to the fundamental problem with Shift, the second omnibus that serves as a prequel to Wool.  Like the first collection, its introductory novella (titled “First Shift: Legacy”) starts off in strong fashion, telling us the story of how the silos came to be built and why people eventually needed to live in them.  It focuses on Donald, a U.S. Senator with architect training; Thurman, an older Senator who’s Donald’s mentor and who initiates the silo project; and Anna, Thurman’s daughter with whom Donald had a college relationship.  It’s tense stuff, especially as we come to realize that Thurman’s motives for creating the silos is sketchy at best.  This narrative is intercut with a second and equally important narrative (which I mention only to make the point that it’s decidedly not a subplot; it’s complementary to the other narrative thread) that takes place in one of the silos years in the future.  It’s here we meet Troy and learn about the shifts: six month periods when survivors are thawed out of a “deep freeze” lasting decades to do one of the jobs that keeps the silo running.  Troy slowly comes to realize that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Unlike the other residents of the silo, he seems to have memories of the world outside and, in the course of his investigation . . .

SPOILERS ABOUND FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.

IF YOU EVER INTEND TO READ THIS BOOK

YOU MIGHT JUST WANT TO SKIP TO THE FINAL PARAGRAPH

OR GO LOOK AT FUNNY CAT PICTURES INSTEAD.

. . . we come to realize, along with Troy, that he is, in fact, Donald, and the whole silo operates on the necessity of its residents not knowing anything about the world before.  “First Shift” ends with Troy/Donald trying to break free of the silo, only to be captured, given memory suppressing drugs, and cast back into the deep freeze by Thurman, who still runs things, Oz-like, from behind a metaphoric curtain.  It’s powerful, nail-biting stuff, so for the first 157 pages, I was fully on board.

But then some of the old Wool omnibus malaise sets in.  In the second installment, titled “Second Shift: Order,” Howey follows the pattern of the first, cutting back and forth between locations. We get more of Donald and his investigation into the true nature of the silo (which is complicated by the later fact that when he’s awoken from the deep freeze everyone thinks he’s Thurman because, you know, it’s been decades and everyone’s on memory suppressing drugs anyway), including why and how he got separated from his wife, whom he discovers made a life for herself in a different silo. It’s okay. But then we’re introduced to a second, not-so-complementary-this-time narrative about a character named Mission who in his own way is also trying to figure out how things came to be the way they are.

In the third installment (“Third Shift: Pact”) we get the Donald/Thurman thing, and intercut with that is the story of Jimmy, who later adopts the name of Solo when silo rebellion breaks out and he sequesters himself in a sort of panic room for years with only a cat named Shadow for company.  It picks up some steam toward the end when we realize that this is leading up to the events that make up the main plot of Wool, but it’s really too little too late.  I was heavily invested in the first installment, less in the second, and sort of bored with the whole thing by the third.  It’s all resolutely good, really totally fine, but over 600 pages it starts to drag in the same way the Wool omnibus started to drag.  I wanted momentum, but for the last hundred pages or so it was like, “Oh, I guess we have to go see what Donald is up to again.”

So, really, part of the issue might be the format.  Because Howey wrote these to be read in bite-sized pieces, maybe it’s a mistake to plow through all three parts as a single experience.  Maybe.  But I’m not entirely sold on that idea, either.  If it’s a satisfying story, everything should click together like a well-built Lego set, whether it’s a hundred pages or a thousand.  If I had read “Third Shift: Pact” on its own, weeks after reading the other two installments, I don’t think I would’ve cared any more about any of the characters.  The bigger issue might be that Howey just needs to streamline and know when enough is enough.  In my review of Wool I said I really liked it but wished it had been 100 pages shorter.  For Shift, my praise is less effusive and we can increase that number of expendable pages to at least 200.

*****

Current listening:

Yo popular

Yo la Tengo – Popular Songs (2009)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 6: Whale watching in Húsavík and a Trip to Ásbyrgi Canyon)

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Greetings, readers.  If you’re just joining me and planning to read this post, it might be helpful for you to catch up with the first five parts of the trip to Iceland my wife and I took in July 2015.  Here they are:

Part 1: Atlanta to the Blue Lagoon

Part 2: The Golden Circle

Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur

Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords

Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík, via Mývatn

And now, Part 6 . . .

Puffin may be a soporific, because I slept like a baby.  It’s also likely that by this point – five nights into the trip – I was finally acclimated to the fact that the night sky never got any darker than a mildly overcast afternoon.  Also, Amanda and I had grown adept at MacGyvering the blinds to maximize the gloom, so this convergence of factors meant we were both well-rested as we headed down to the Húsavík waterfront to catch an early boat.

DSC_0085Our whale-watching tour was set to take three hours on Skjálfandi Bay – supposedly one of the richest areas for spotting whales in all of Iceland – and we suited up in our cold-weather waterproof gear.  As you can see in the photo to the left, layers were key: T-shirt, Patagonia fleece, REI waterproof jacket, sexy waterproof jumpsuit, and eventually some sort of raincoat.  As we pushed out into the bay, our guide, the dashing Norwegian Aksel Bjarnason, filled us in on the geography and history of the area (Flatey Island, home of many, many puffins, was just outside the boundaries of our tour).  We were also told we’d likely see humpback and minke whales, and while there were blue whales in the bay, sightings were extremely rare.  So we tooled around in our boat, looking for the telltale spray and flocks of sea birds that meant whales were close.

It wasn’t too long before Aksel spotted our first whale.  As we had been promised, it was a humpback, the whale breaking the surface and then the stereotypical fin following it back underwater.  We cruised in circles for a bit, following the whale and trying to get close enough for photos.  Because tourists like annoying animals in their natural habit.  It was at this point, though, that near us, maybe 20 feet away and without warning, another whale surfaced just long enough for Aksel to exclaim that we were seeing what few people ever saw: a blue whale.

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Look: A photo, especially one taken by an untrained photographer with frozen fingers on a rocking boat, just isn’t going to do the moment justice.  But man.  There was something truly majestic and awe-inspiring and sort of overwhelming about seeing something so huge, so rare, right there next to us.  Part of me wanted to get closer, but part of me also wanted to just leave it alone so it could eat krill or flirt with other whales or whatever a blue whale does when it’s not dodging boats.  It finally took a dive and left us to circle for a while longer.  We saw a couple more humpbacks, but sorry humpbacks – once you’ve seen a blue whale, you’re a little anticlimactic.

For most of the tour I’d been feeling pretty smug.  Earlier I mentioned all my cool layers, and as I saw my fellow whale-watchers shiver in the wind and spray I couldn’t help but feel pretty cozy in my waterproof duds.  Even my shoes were waterproof.

However.

Waterproof shoes do you no good when frigid Icelandic water sloshes up over the top of and into your shoe.  So, with roughly an hour left before docking, both my feet started to feel distinctly like ice cubes.  By the time we returned to Húsavík, I couldn’t flex my toes.  We hobbled back to the guesthouse (well, I hobbled; Amanda walked because her feet were fine), and I stripped off my shoes and socks to see feet that had taken on a decidedly purple tint.  I’m not sure at what point frostbite sets in, but I had to’ve been close.  After soaking them for 20 minutes in warm water, I was finally ready to head back out.

We didn’t have much of an agenda for the rest of the day, so we decided on a detour west to Ásbyrgi canyon.  This is another one of those places that photos can’t accurately capture, especially because of the enormity of the location.  A huge, horsehoe-shaped depression with steep rock walls and a pond at its base, Ásbyrgi was formed, legend has it, when Odin’s horse rested one of its hooves there.  In reality, it was probably caused by glacial flooding, but it’s still pretty spectacular, Odin’s absence notwithstanding.

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After Ásbyrgi it was back to Húsavík for dinner at Naustid, a really good seafood restaurant on the waterfront.  Funnily enough, this was the restaurant where we had the best service on our trip – probably because our waitress was an expat from New Jersey.

A word or two about guesthouses, since I keep mentioning them.  Iceland only has two hotel chains – IcelandAir and Hotel Edda – both of which (and IcelandAir, especially) tend to be overpriced.  Most of the affordable lodging is in small guesthouses, basically bed and breakfast deals with maybe a dozen rooms at the most.  Here’s our Husavik guesthouse:

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And Egilsstaðir:

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And Höfn:

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They’re not extravagant, but when you’re mainly only using the room for sleeping, extravagance is secondary to a comfy bed.  And sometimes you get a cool sitting room right outside your bedroom, like we had in Húsavík.

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And, if you’re really lucky, the guesthouse owner will fix you a kick-ass blueberry Skyr tart for breakfast.  It ain’t Holiday Inn; it’s better.

Up next: Angus!

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*****

Current listening:

Promise nothing

The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good (1997)

End of Amnesia

Roddy paulaBecause I’ve never been an addict myself, or had to deal with anyone else’s addiction in any meaningful way, it’s always been sort of an abstract concept.  I’ve viewed addiction in much the same way I viewed cancer before my mom was diagnosed with it in 1995 – as a horrible problem that must be terrible to live with but whose various indignities and anxieties never seemed all that real.  But then someone you care about is diagnosed with it, and all the little details that you never had to think about previously (scheduling events as mundane as errands in the “good” window after chemotherapy appointments; adjusting to a bland diet; being embarrassed by and helping others not be embarrassed by wigs and head wraps) suddenly become all too real.  Addiction is, I imagine, much the same in this regard, and it’s to Roddy Doyle’s credit that Paula Spencer  helped me see that in a way I never have before. The book tackles both addiction and cancer (although much more the former than the latter), but it does it in a way that strikes a pretty even balance between humor and pathos, ensuring it’s not just a relentless slog through misery.

Part of that description, though, is a little disingenuous of me.  You hear “addiction story” and most likely think of Trainspotting or Less Than Zero or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or any number of memoirs written by personalities famous and not-famous alike, detailing the way they got hooked and (usually) eventually kicked their habit.  Paula Spencer, by contrast, is very much a victory narrative, albeit a halting, tentative one.  The title character is a 48-year-old recovering alcoholic, four months dry at the start of the book.  She’s also a survivor of spousal abuse (see this book’s predecessor, 1996’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doorsfor all the details), a housecleaner with four children whose husband Charlo was gunned down by the police after robbing a bank and taking a hostage.  At the beginning she’s barely hanging on, still counting the months since her last drink:

The drink is only part of it.  She’s coped well with the drink.  She wants a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She fights it.  She wins.  She’s proud of that.  She’s pleased.   She’ll keep going.  She knows she will.

Two of her children, Leanne (20) and Jack (16), live with her.  Jack is the good kid, quiet and awkward, whose biggest problem is getting suspended for calling a teacher “useless” on ratemyteachers.com; Leanne, she fears (probably rightfully), is joining her in alcoholism.  Her other two children, grown and with children of their own, are Nicola and John Paul.  The heart of the book is watching Paula negotiate her relationships with these four, especially the three oldest, all whom remember her at her worst.  And that’s one thing Doyle does remarkably well, something I’d never actually considered when it comes to addiction: How the recovering addict is essentially split in two to the people who care about him or her.  There’s the “new” person who is trying to set each foot right on the road to recovery, but there’s also the “old” person who was duplicitous or manipulative or cruel or, in Paula’s case, occasionally violent herself.  So while Paula’s family is happy to see her doing better, there’s also the memory of who she was, and the fear that she’ll return to that state.  It’s a constant state of living in two places – two different times, really – at once, which has to be one of the unsettling things to do.

Paula also has two sisters, neither of whom she has ever been close to: Denise, who’s married and having an affair with a married man, and Carmela, around whom the cancer subplot revolves.  The book captures a year in Paula’s life with these people as she struggles to get her life back on track.  It isn’t a story that deals in melodrama or huge, cathartic sequences.  Like life, Paula’s progress is charted hesitantly, in the way her relationship with her sisters improves, in an invitation to visit John Paul’s house, in her buying a stereo and the new U2 album.  In contrast to one of my recent reviews, where I wrote that a bunch of stuff happens and none of it matters, Paula Spencer is a book where not much happens but it’s all important.  And, crucially, sometimes it’s in the not happening that some of the biggest growth happens.  You likely know those moments: the not-so-awkward silences with someone you care about; a meaningful glance; a conversation about music or the weather that carries the subtext of an epic poem.

It’s really just a lovely little book.  It doesn’t have the impact of Doyle’s The Commitments or A Star Called Henry, but as a modest tale of a woman struggling to be good and make things right with the people she loves, Paula Spencer is as real, and as revelatory, as literature gets.

*****

Current listening:

Rocketship certain

Rocketship – A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness (1996)

Bad Love Is Easy to Do

Boyle womenConsidering how consistently, shockingly good he is, it always surprises me how few people have read T.C. Boyle.  Of his fifteen novels, at least four are stone-cold classics and one of them deserves to be canonized.  The most compelling thing about his work is the way he’s able to graft fairly weighty issues onto narrative engines that develop and maintain some serious momentum; they never get bogged down in their own importance at the expense of telling an entertaining tale.  He’s equally adept at writing purely fictional tales like The Tortilla Curtain (Mexican immigration), A Friend of the Earth (environmental collapse), and Talk Talk (identity theft and digital security) and historical fiction that mines the lives of real people for allegorical heft: World’s End (explorer Mungo Park); The Inner Circle (sex researcher Alfred Kinsey); and The Women (the wives – and loves – of architect Frank Lloyd Wright).  Underlying all these tales is a vague sense of creeping dread: Boyle’s novels rarely end well for any of his characters.  I don’t know how he does it, but his books never fail to make me deeply uncomfortable.  I realize that’s not for everyone.

fallingwater-2This is certainly true of The Women, a book which, I have to admit, seemed overly – and unusually – simplistic for much of its length before deepening and darkening in its final third.  By telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story (you know his work: Fallingwater, at right; the Guggenheim Museum; Robie House) through his interactions with four women, Boyle almost seems to be angling for an oddly crass subtext that goes something like this: “Bitches be crazy.”  I’ve always known Boyle to imbue his characters with a rich and complex inner life, so the way the characters, and one in particular (whom I’ll discuss in a moment), are drawn left me with some difficult questions.

Before getting to that shortcoming, though, it’s worth talking about the book’s structure, which is kind of brilliant.  Boyle’s novel focuses, as I said, on Wright’s relationships with four women, but it’s told in the form of a novel written by Tadashi Sato, a fictional apprentice of Wright’s at Taliesin (the architect’s Wisconsin compound), and translated by the equally fictional Seamus O’Flaherty.  So it’s Boyle telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story through the eyes of four women as related by a Japanese architect and translated by an Irish American author.  Oh, and the whole thing is told in reverse chronological order.  In addition to the narrative possibilities afforded by the unconventional structure, Boyle also has fun with the conceit in other ways, commenting on the occasional floridness of his prose by pawning it off on the translator.  At one point Boyle writes, ” . . . he could think of nothing but the excitement of the affair at hand, the old libidinous fires restoked . . .” and footnotes it with an aside from Sato: “One of those curious overheated phrases of O’Flaherty-San, which we will let stand.”  It’s fun watching an author of Boyle’s talent play. I eat this stuff up.

So the novel begins its first proper chapter (after a lengthy introduction where we meet Sato and Wright and are oriented to life at Taliesin) by telling the story of how Wright met third wife Olgivanna while still married to second wife Miriam; then it skips backward to show us how he met Miriam after the tragic (real-life) murder of his lover Mamah and her two children; then goes backward one step further to show us his introduction to Mamah while still married to first wife Kitty.  It’s not really a book about Wright, except in how we see him reflected in the eyes of Sato and the women who love him, so anyone wanting Wright’s biography will be disappointed (although I certainly learned more about Wright from The Women than I expected).

And that brings me to the problem I mentioned earlier.  The women, as related by Boyle through Sato and O’Flaherty, aren’t particularly likable.  I don’t see this as a problem by itself.  I don’t demand likable characters.  Flawed is good.  Flawed is real.  But Olgivanna, his third wife and thirty years his junior, is really the only one who comes off at all positively (although by the time Sato meets her at Taliesin she’s a stern taskmaster, worn down by life).  Kitty is more or less a non-entity, the spurned wife who won’t grant him a divorce.  Mamah is a pretentious, solipsistic Free Spirit™ who views her affair with Wright as a way of thumbing her nose at conventionality and the patriarchy.  And Miriam, an obsessive, drug-addicted Southern belle, takes up much of the narrative in troubling ways.  She’s given to flights of extreme melodrama, picking fights with Wright, leaving him at the drop of a hat, and eventually stalking him (and resorting to threats and vandalism) when he takes up with Olgivanna during one of their separations.

Maybe all this happened.  Maybe Boyle is playing it straight.  But it does trouble me that none of the women are here to defend themselves.  Miriam especially is painted as such a horrible shrew that I simultaneously felt bad for her and wanted Wright to push her in front of a streetcar.  And that’s kind of a shame, because the book really is otherwise excellent.  Wright (as a character) is certainly fascinating, even while it’s still a mystery to me why he was so popular with the ladies (charisma, I guess; some men have it.), and Boyle relates his various struggles (with money, with building Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, with – of course – women) in prose that is as evocative as ever.

And the final third is, as I mentioned at the top, painted in Boyle’s typical shades of black.  Ending with Mamah’s murder (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s alluded to throughout the book and it’s in the historical record, fer cryin’ out loud) seems in some ways to be an indictment of Wright’s relentless philandering.  Her death is what led to his calamitous relationship with Miriam (they met after she wrote to him upon reading of Mamah’s murder in the news), and it cast a pall over Taliesin for years.  I don’t know if it’s technically the moral of the story – keep it in your pants, boys! – but it’s no accident that Boyle ended The Women with one of their deaths.

The copy on the back of the book reads, “Is it easy to live with a genius?”  The definitive answer seems to be “no.”  But Boyle also makes it clear that it takes a particular kind of woman to want to live with a genius . . . and the result is never going to be good.

*****

Current listening:

Smiths louder

The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (1987)

Set the Tigers Free

Don savagesThere is, I think, a tendency to feel like good literature has to be hard work for the reader.  If you’re not struggling with complexity of plot or density of language or you’re not busily unraveling the complex web of characters the author has spun, it’s just not worth your time. Like medicine, if literature is to be good for you it can’t taste too sweet or be too easy to swallow.  It has to make you scowl and stick out your tongue.

This is the same kind of rule that largely defines the high school canon, where literature that students might actually be interested in reading is viewed as less weighty, less rigorous, less important, and so it’s jettisoned in favor of the old standbys, the books that conventional wisdom claims will turn students into better people at the expense of any interest they might have in ever picking up another book.  If you’re not a regular reader and what you’re given to read does nothing for you, why would you ever think it could be anything else?  Some authors have recently been pushing back on this notion.  Michael Chabon comes most readily to mind, but there are certainly others who have been dabbling in and endorsing genre fiction, elevating its status and reminding us that a conventional story well told has just as much value as whatever weighty tome the critics are currently lauding.  Put the best of Elmore Leonard against the best of Thomas Pynchon, and I can tell you which I’d prefer 100% of the time.

(Pssssst.  It’s Leonard.)

Don Winslow’s Savages is maybe the best recent example of Chabon’s argument I’ve encountered.  It’s genre fiction through and through, but it’s also a pure adrenaline rush with a knowing smirk, a hard-boiled thriller that borrows stylistic tools from Ellroy and a sense of humor from Vonnegut, if Vonnegut spiked his altruism with a bitter vein of nihilism.  It’s better written than any pitch-black revenge story has a right to be, Winslow’s hyper-kinetic prose shuttling the reader effortlessly between Laguna Beach and Mexico. It’s also a story of nuanced characters and complex motivations.  And, important in the context of my first two paragraphs, it’s an incredibly easy read; 300 pages that go down like a glass of lemonade on a sweaty summer day.

We know what we’re in for from the very beginning.  Here’s the sum total, the entire contents, of Chapter 1:

Fuck you.

From there, Winslow puts his foot to the pedal and doesn’t ease up until he reaches his destination.  It’s short chapters and bare bones, almost poetic, description, such as in a passage that sets up the primary difference between the two main characters.  Chon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ben, a quasi-hippie world traveler, are also heavy-duty pot dealers – a drugged-up Abbot and Costello, a THC-infused yin and yang – and Winslow establishes the difference in their worldview thusly:

“Don’t fuck with people at all”

Is a central tenet of Ben’s personal as well as business philosophy.

Ben is a self-described Baddhist, i.e., a “bad Buddhist,” because he sometimes eats meat, gets angry, rarely meditates, and definitely does consciousness-altering substances.  But the basics of Buddhism, Ben is down with –

Do no harm

Which Ben articulates as

Don’t fuck with people.

And he doesn’t think the Dalai Lama would argue with that.

***

Ben strives to be nonviolent and honest in a business that is violent and dishonest.

“But it doesn’t have to be,” Ben has argued.

“But it is,” Chon countered.

“But it shouldn’t be.”

“Okay, but so what?”

Well, so what is that Ben has taken 99 percent of the violence and dishonesty out of his business, but that other 1 percent is –

– where Chon comes in.

Ben doesn’t need to know what Ben doesn’t need to know.

“You’re the American public,” Chon tells him.

And Chon has ample experience with that.

The third corner of this triangle is O (short for Ophelia) a free spirit not too far removed from the manic pixie dream girl template – if that template can stretch to include a manic pixie dream girl who’s a shopping-obsessed, sexually voracious, drug-munching layabout.  She loves both Ben and Chon, and both of them love her, and, in a clever twist, there’s no romantic rivalry.  It’s an idyllic little situation they’ve got going for them, making money hand over fist and drifting from day to day in a haze that may or may not (but usually does) involve weed.  And the occasional threesome.

This is all well and good until the Baja Cartel contacts Ben and Chon and lets them know they’re taking over the duo’s trade.  When Ben and Chon tell them they just want out, full stop, the Cartel (in the form of Elena the matriarch and Lado her right-hand goon) kidnap O and tell Ben and Chon they’ll either work for the Cartel for three years (maintaining their current client base and profits) or they’ll kill O.  Ben finagles a deal where they can buy O’s freedom for $20 million (an estimate of what they’d make for the Cartel in three years), if they can come up with the scratch.

For Chon, it’s a simple equation:

Chon divides the world into two categories of people:

Him, Ben, and O

Everybody Else.

He’d do anything for Ben and O.

For Ben and O he’d do anything to Everybody Else.

With this in mind, and realizing that A) they can’t leave O with the Cartel for three years,  and B) they don’t have $20 million, Ben and Chon make the only reasonable choice: use Chon’s military expertise to start hitting the Cartel’s drop houses and stealing their money which they’ll then launder to buy O’s freedom.

(In Winslow’s hands, it makes perfect sense.)

What follows is a brutal, inexorable battle of wills and wits between Ben and Chon and the Cartel.  It doesn’t necessarily tread new ground – part of the conflict is watching the generally peaceful Ben descend into savagery (notice the title) – but Winslow renders it new through the sheer dexterity of his prose.

It does get a little too self-consciously nudge nudge wink wink at times – O befriends one of her Cartel captors, who asks her to friend him on Facebook when she’s released – but it generally fits the knowing smirk that Winslow brings to a story of human brutality that could easily sink into unrelenting bleakness.

The whole thing is, as dark as it gets, consistently fun and undeniably exhilarating.  I know there are some who would dismiss Savages on that basis alone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even though it’s only January, Savages will be one of the best books I read all year.

*****

Current listening:

Matt kill

Matt Berry – Kill the Wolf

 

The End Is Still Unclear

Sigler contagiousOne book ago I wrote about the problems facing the middle book in any trilogy.  First books get to do all the expositional heavy lifting, introducing characters and building worlds.  Third books move all the pieces into place for what will, with any luck, be a satisfying conclusion.  Second books are sort of in limbo.  They move the story along, but there isn’t necessarily a narrative expectation they need to fulfill that’s as clear-cut as a beginning or an ending.  For that reason, second books run the risk of standing in place, throwing a lot of obstacles at characters without necessarily accomplishing much.  This was a problem that hit the last book I read, Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City, especially hard.  As I wrote in that review, a lot of stuff happened and none of it mattered.  The characters traveled, some things happened to them, they overcame some challenges, and if the events of the last ten pages had been moved to the beginning of Book 3, nothing in Book 2 would have mattered at all.

Scott Sigler’s Contagious, on the other hand, demonstrates what second books can do in the right hands.  Infected, the first book in his trilogy about a heretofore unknown disease, introduced the key players – CIA agent Dew Phillips; CDC doctor Margaret Montoya; Montoya’s CIA bodyguard, Clarence Otto; and “Scary” Perry Dawsey, a hulking ex-college football player who spent most of the first book dealing with his infection by employing various sharp objects on himself – and explored (often in gruesome detail) the truth about this new disease that first manifests itself in tiny blue triangles on victims’ skin before eventually hatching alien crawlers whose sole purpose is building a gateway that will welcome our alien overlords to the planet.  At the end of the book the first gate is destroyed, Dawsey is in Montoya’s custody for research purposes, and it seems as though disaster has been averted.

Fast-forward four months.  At the start of Contagious, Dawsey has escaped and is single-handedly executing anyone still infected with the disease.  Phillips is tracking him down because Dawsey, as a byproduct of his cured infection, has sort of an extraterrestrial homing device embedded in his brain that both leads him to other infected and clues him in to where other gates may be built.  This becomes especially important once the characters realize the intelligence behind the disease has figured out a way to mutate it in a crucial way that puts the entire planet at risk. (Before going any further, let me acknowledge how ridiculous this all sounds.  Trust me that it makes sense in the world Sigler builds; any preposterousness is due to my poor attempt to encapsulate a 400-page book in a single paragraph.)

So how does Contagious succeed as a second book where Hollow City failed?  First, and most important, it’s down to the characters.  Rather than just have Dawsey go on a rampage a second time, Sigler very cannily moves him from the antagonist column in Book 1 to the protagonist column in Book 2.  Phillips understands that Dawsey is more useful as an ally and guide, and the reluctant friendship that develops between the aging CIA agent and the headstrong former football player is one of the book’s high points.  Montoya develops, too, gradually shedding the idealism and altruism she wore as a badge of honor throughout Infected and in the beginning of Contagious as she slowly comes to realize the hard truth of what it will take to cure the disease.  Unlike Hollow City, where the characters seem to exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the various ordeals they endure, Contagious treats its characters as real people – and real people change in the face of adversity, often in unpleasant ways.

Another way Sigler has been smart with his second book is to take a page from cinema’s playbook.  Like second movies, where filmmakers often take the conflict of the first movie and both recast and amplify it (think Terminator 2; think The Dark Knight), Sigler develops his overarching storyline by extending the capability of the disease – it isn’t about more people discovering they have the disease, it’s about the disease mutating in reaction to what happened in the first book.  In Infected, the intelligence behind the disease placed all its money on Dawsey.  When that falls through, it goes to Plan B in Contagious, infecting a young girl named Chelsea, who responds to the mutated infection in potentially world-ending ways.  The story, then, becomes a race against time, as Phillips and his unexpected partner Dawsey attempt to track down Chelsea while the newly clear-eyed Montoya tries to work out a cure.  It’s a logical extension of the events of the first book, and it goes beyond just throwing more obstacles in the characters’ path, which is really all that Hollow City boils down to.  The movie influence comes across even more dramatically in the last fifty pages.  As the book rushes toward its conclusion, the chapters shorten to cut between the various characters.  The result is an almost palpable momentum, and it’s kind of exciting.

In Contagious, a lot happens and all of it matters.  It’s crucial for story and for character. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the events are vital for understanding the arc of the entire series, and also like that movie, the ending is so bleak it makes me wonder where the series will go next.  If Sigler’s writing is occasionally clunky – and it is, especially when his characters try to be clever and jokey; Elmore Leonard he isn’t – he compensates for it in mastery of plot and pacing.  Contagious manages to be both a self-contained story that stands on its own merits and a satisfying extension of the world Sigler created in Infected.

*****

Current listening:

Echobelly everyone

Echobelly – Everyone’s Got One (1994)

I’ve Got it and it’s Not Worth Having

HollowIn Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to his hugely popular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a lot happens and nothing happens.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say a lot happens and none of it matters.  It is, above all, a tale of high adventure, the titular odd kids fleeing across Wales to London, a fearsome posse of creatures called wights hot on their heels.  They encounter gypsies and talking dogs and survive Nazi bombs and kill many-tongued creepy-crawlies and it’s all irrelevant.  Because, see, this is the second book in a trilogy, and if there’s one thing that often marks second books, it’s that they’re placeholders.  The first book has to do a lot of heavy lifting what with all the exposition-establishing and character-introducing and world-building.  Miss Peregrine does this brilliantly, bringing us into the world of the peculiar through Jacob, a teenager who discovers time traveling “loops,” and in those loops he finds children with mysterious powers and teachers who shapeshift into birds.  There’s a Neil Gaiman-esque fairy tale quality to the first book, and the vintage photographs scattered throughout it help drag this story of the supernatural into the real world.  I think it’s kind of a stupendous feat.  Third books, by contrast, have purpose because they’re all about resolving conflicts and tying up loose ends.  They’re driving things home, so there’s usually a sense of momentum and intentionality.

But those second books.  They’re all about getting from Point A to Point C, which means Point B, in many ways, involves running in place.  That’s absolutely true of Hollow City.  It’s action-packed, but because the characters all end up more or less where they started – in crisis – there’s a weird stasis to the proceedings.  It’s action that mainly serves to maneuver the playing pieces where they need to be for the third book, so in some ways the plot of the second book doesn’t even matter.  The characters do some things and go some places and overcome some challenges, and, until the last twenty pages, none of it really amounts to anything.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining.  Quests, told well, will almost always be worth the read.  And the children certainly have a lot on their plate.  At the start of the book . . .

and these are spoilers, I guess, if you have yet to read the first book in the series

. . . Miss Peregrine, the headmistress and nominal matriarch for all these power-wielding children, has been rescued from the wights who kidnapped her, only she’s trapped in her bird form.  The children know they must find a way to help her regain her humanity, and that’s the quest the book is concerned with.  It takes them from Wales to London in 1940, and along the way they meet the talking dogs and gypsies and assorted other creatures – good and bad – that make up the spine of the book.  It’s never less than interesting, but I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Hollow City was just marking time.  Even though the wights and the creepy-crawlies (called hollowghasts) are a constant danger, it never really felt like anything was at stake, and because the challenges they faced were just hurdles to clear on their way to the book’s climax, nothing ever seemed particularly consequential.

Like I said, a lot of stuff happens, and none of it matters.

Until the end.  In the closing pages we get an important revelation about Miss Peregrine and, more importantly, Jacob discovers something about the nature of his own powers that promises exciting things for the third book.  But in a lot of ways it’s a case of too little too late.  I can’t complain that much about a book that was generally pretty entertaining, but it’s also sort of a bummer to feel like I just spent 400 pages on the literary equivalent of a treadmill.

*****

Current listening:

Underworld second

Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)

Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Percy redWerewolves are kind of a snooze, right?  I mean, as far as monsters go, they’re not super exciting.  What are the great werewolf movies?  Lon Chaney’s eponymous Wolf Man got things started.  There’s The Howling, obviously, and Wolfen.  An American Werewolf in London (but not in Paris). Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves is stylish fun, and Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is the best recent example. After that?  Do I dare mention Teen Wolf?  100 years of cinema, and the wolf man can manage only a measly six quality films.

I think this is because there’s not much to do with the wolf man story.  Unlike zombies,vampires, and ghosts, which, in skilled hands, can do a lot of allegorical heavy lifting, the werewolf is sort of trapped in the “innocent man struggles with the beast within” paradigm.  This is why movies like Wolf and Joe Johnston’s recent Benicio del Toro-starring The Wolfman are such inert belly flops.  It’s just a repackaged story told over and over again in largely similar ways.  I s’pose I could add Ginger Snaps to my first list for using the werewolf story as a metaphor for a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality (a phrase which I personally find more horrifying than any werewolf), but it’s otherwise tricky to break out of the established mold.

And are there any classic werewolf books?  I guess Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf comes close.  Beyond that, I’ve got nothing, although Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon comes close.  It’s a werewolf epic, in case you were wondering if such a thing were possible, spanning a period of several years in the lives of a deep cast of characters and, contradicting what I just wrote, actually doing something different with ye olde wolf man story.

The first thing I’ll say about it is I think Percy does a commendable job of world-building.  Red Moon‘s world is our world, with references to Rodney King and Wilco and Che Guevara and Star Wars, only werewolves – lycans, as they’re called in the book – are common knowledge.  Some live among us (the latest census lists the lycan population at 5.2%), taking Volpexx to prevent their transformation from human to wolf; others live in the Lupine Republic: the werewolf homeland, established in 1948, that lies between Russia and Finland.  Recently, despite this relatively peaceful coexistence, tensions between humans and lycans have risen, caused partially by politicians like Chase Marshall, a presidential candidate who exploits anti-lycan sentiment to his own gain (he wants to create a lycan registry – remind you of anyone?), and partially by the Resistance, a group of lycan rebels not afraid of resorting to violence to achieve parity for their race.  The U.S. military, in charge of keeping the peace in the Republic, doesn’t help things with its presence.

It’s pretty fun to see how Percy so effortlessly establishes this world and then sets it spinning.  I don’t use the word epic lightly.  The cast of major characters is extensive:

  • Patrick, a teenage boy (whose father is stationed in the Republic) who is the lone survivor of the lycan attack that sets the “official” lycan rebellion in motion
  • Claire, a teenage lycan on the run from a shadowy government office seeking to wipe out the lycan rebellion
  • Max, leader of an anti-lycan militia called The Americans
  • Miriam, ex-wife of a prominent figure in the lycan rebellion and Claire’s aunt
  • Jeremy, Miriam’s ex-husband
  • Chase, the previously mentioned presidential candidate with a secret of his own
  • Augustus, Chase’s aide-de-camp
  • Neal, a doctor seeking a vaccine for lobos, the prion disease that turns people into lycans

And on and on.  The book also takes place over the course of several years, so in the case of Patrick and Claire, especially, we watch them grow and adapt to the worsening tension between humans and lycans, which eventually takes on potentially world-ending characteristics.  It’s a werewolf story told on a large canvas, and, as I mentioned above, Percy doesn’t shy away from the metaphoric possibilities of his story.  There’s the anti-lycan politicians (which, in 2013, manage to predict Trump and Cruz and their anti-Muslim grandstanding) and the anti-lycan militia; the “closeted” lycans dealing with a stigmatizing disease that can be managed through regular medication; the U.S. military occupation of a foreign land; and the violent lycan minority that believes violence is the only way to achieve equality.  Rather than tread the well-worn path of other werewolf stories, Percy chooses not to focus on an individual but instead adopts the Robert Altman strategy and examines how different lives serve as individual threads of a much larger tapestry.

Most impressively of all, Percy brings a painterly touch to this epic, investing the action with moments of real beauty.  It’s a world where “soot-black clouds occasionally puls[e] with gold-wire lightning” and feet “make chewed-ice sounds along the shoulder,” where a girl is so pale it looks as though “she had been soaking for years in a bath of moonlight” and, in a moment of rare quiet, a tractor “trundl[es] along with a gray scarf of exhaust trailing behind it.”  Rather than just rush from set piece to set piece, Percy takes the time to let his story breathe.  It’s more well-written than it has any right to be.

I said above that Red Moon “comes close” to being  a classic book.  Like many books of its size, scope, and ambition, some plot threads remain unraveled.  It’s probably unfair of me to want satisfactory endings for every character, but at least one key figure’s story just sort of drops off the map, which seems particularly egregious considering the trials he puts her through earlier in the book.  And some conflicts are resolved too easily.  You can’t set up a pursuit between two characters spanning years and much of a continent and end it so anti-climactically, nor can you have one of the characters passing as one of the book’s antagonists wrap up his arc in flashback, offstage.  And yeah, while the resolution is admirably bleak (I do like me a downer of an ending), it’s so open-ended I can’t decide if Percy didn’t know how to wrap things up or if he’s planning a sequel.  I wanted more finality, which may be more a reflection of my selfishness than a true weakness of the book.

Red Moon is, minor complaints aside, an impressive achievement: an exceptionally well-written page-turner that has more on its mind than just giving the reader a good scare.

*****

Current listening:

Four rounds

Four Tet – Rounds (2003)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík via Mývatn)

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If you’re going to book a 10-day trip to Iceland and you’ve never been there before, how do you decide where to stay?  I wish I had some great insight to share, but my grand strategy was basically to confine each day’s driving to about three hours.  This would give us plenty of time for our scheduled stops but also allow us the flexibility to explore – which is really the only reason we were able to have happy accidents like Fjaðrárgljúfur.  My highly scientific method, then, was simply to book rooms in decent-sized towns (remembering this is Iceland and what passes for “decent-sized” is much smaller than what passes for “decent-sized” in the States) roughly three hours apart.  This worked most of the time, with only two exceptions.  Egilsstaðir – probably the most underwhelming town we visited – was the first.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  It’s perfectly fine for what it is: a picturesque town without much to do.  But it certainly didn’t have the dramatic vistas and geographic features of Vik or the road to Höfn.  (Actually, its main claim to fame is the Lagarfljót Worm, a mythical serpent that supposedly lives in the Lagarfljót River that runs through Egilsstaðir.  If the Worm is real, we didn’t see it.)  The town is, however, within driving distance of Seyðisfjörður, an isolated fishing community that’s supposedly one of the most beautiful spots in the Easfjords.  After a brief intermission to check in at our guest house, we hopped back in the trusty Auris and headed off the Ring Road to Seyðisfjörður.  We made a quick stop-off at Fardagafoss, one of those gorgeous spots just hanging out by the side of the road that Iceland might as well claim as its national speciality.

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What we didn’t realize – because why do research? – is that to get to Seyðisfjörður we had to drive over the Fjarðarheiði mountain pass, which, even in July, is snow-swept and foggy.  The higher we drove, the worse the visibility, until we were poking along behind one other car into an impenetrable scrim of mist.

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After white-knuckling my way over the pass for 45 minutes, we descended into Seyðisfjörður, which, as advertised, was certainly beautiful . . .

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. . . but ultimately no more lively than Egilsstaðir.  Back in the car then and over the mountain to the guest house and an early night in.

IMG_0347In the morning, however, we were immediately ready to forgive Egilsstaðir when we discovered a tiny bakery tucked away toward the back of an auto mechanic’s.  It was nothing flashy – coffee and pastries – but I can safely say that all future pastry will be judged in comparison to what I ate that morning and undoubtedly be found wanting.  I remember discovering pain au chocolat on my first trip to France and thinking that was as good as it got.  This pastry makes the best pain au chocolat look like the last stale donut sitting in a gas station display case.  If heaven exists, it probably smells a lot like that bakery.

Fortified with sugar and caffeine we headed northwest – ultimately heading for Húsavík, our first two-night stop of the trip – with a few key sights to see.  The first was Dettifoss and Selfoss, two waterfalls located a short ten-minute walk apart but with very different personalities.  If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, you’ve seen Dettifoss.  Its reputation is that it’s the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and I didn’t see anything to dispute that claim.  It’s so impressive that a photo tends to minimize its impact, so here’s a short video that does it more justice.  Stay tuned for my dopey reaction at the end.

Afterward, we wound our way through lava formations to Selfoss, another in Iceland’s long line of “Well, shit, that’s really unbelievable” vistas.

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It’s pretty cool from a distance, but even more striking close up.

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The one thing that we heard repeatedly about Iceland before the trip is that it had an abundance of waterfalls.  I remember thinking at one point, “Waterfalls?  Big deal.  At some point once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”  As it turns out, I’m a big dope.  We saw a dozen or more during our time in Iceland and they were always beautiful, always fascinating, and, most importantly, always different.  I used the word personalities above because it’s apt.  Whether they were well-marked tourist stops or just unnamed falls we stumbled across as we drove from place to place, it was pretty remarkable just how distinctive each one was.  Selfoss, for the record, is probably my second favorite, right behind Seljandsfoss, which we saw on Day 3.  You’ll be quizzed about this later.

After Dettifoss and Selfoss, it was time to head toward Lake Mývatn, with a quick stop at Krafla Crater on the way.

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The geothermal activity in Iceland is everywhere, and the area around Mývatn is especially known for it.  There are baths (not unlike the Blue Lagoon from Day 1) at the lake itself, and on the drive up to Krafla you pass a massive geothermal power plant.  There are also the mud pots at Hefrir.  It can be easy to forget just how volcanic Iceland is.  Until you’re there.  Then it’s inescapable.

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Evidence of a different sort could be found in the lava fields at Dimmuborgir.  We sampled only a very small part of this area; there were miles of trails winding through the formations, but with an hour or more to Húsavík, we very selectively hiked one of the smaller loops.

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Lake Mývatn itself is, surprisingly, not very photogenic (or at least we didn’t make it to the photogenic part because, again, no advance research), but the drive to Húsavík more than made up for it.  This part of the trip took us off the paved Ring Road and onto an unpaved secondary road, where the landscape opened wide in front of us, granting spectacular views of the mountains to the west.

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Húsavík itself was my favorite stop of the trip.  It had a different character from the fishing villages of the Eastfjords, due maybe in part to its reputation as a prime whale watching spot.  So in addition to its quaintly beautiful scenery . . .

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. . . there was also a surprisingly high-quality whale museum (describing all things Cetacea, including whale physiology and the Icelandic whaling industry), a museum devoted to Iceland’s history of exploration (including when the U.S. space program conducted training missions there in the mid 1960s), and several restaurants and pubs that did booming business in the evening.

puffinIt was at one of these, Salka, that I guiltily indulged my culinary interest in trying puffin.  I know, I know.  They’re arguably one of the cutest birds in the world.  Only someone without a moral compass would feast on something so adorable.  Does it help for you to know puffin are as common in Iceland as chickens are in the States?  No?  Well, then, I recommend you stop reading now, because you’re surely not going to like what comes next.

How is puffin prepared?  Like this.

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What does it look like when someone is eating puffin?  Like this.

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I wish I could tell you it was horrible, that I was karmically repaid with a sour aftertaste and an evening of gastrointestinal distress.  I wish I could tell you that.  But it was actually delicious.  It was smoked (and accompanied by a horseradish purée), and it tasted like a heavier pastrami – surprisingly more like beef or venison than chicken or duck.  If it makes you feel any better, I also ate horse in Paris and kangaroo in Sydney, so at least I’m an equal-opportunity eater of cute things.

With the prospect of an early-morning whale-watching trip greeting us the next day, it was back to our guest house to rest up and prepare to head to the high seas.

Up next: Blue whale to starboard!

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*****

Current listening:

Feelies here

The Feelies Here Before (2011)

Listening Post (Lullaby for the Working Class Edition)

Lullaby i

I have distinct memories of autumn in Ohio. The smell of woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Desiccated cornstalks ground into the soil beneath tractor tires. Early-morning grass rimed with frost. Crows lining a telephone wire against a gunmetal sky. I haven’t lived there for years, but Lullaby for the Working Class’ second album, I Never Even Asked for Light, is the sound of that time. Even though I was 24 and living in California when it was released in 1997, my very first listen distinctly took me back to my youth, a 12-year-old kid waiting for the bus on a November morning, breath pluming from his mouth in the chill. It’s playing in the background as I write this, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.

The album also clearly induces pretentiousness in those susceptible to it.

LFTWC has a foot in a couple different camps. Band member Mike Mogis is a co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, so on the one hand they’re part of the Nebraska scene that also gave us (among others) Bright Eyes and Cursive. Musically, there are some superficial similarities with the mid-90’s alt-country movement (hey, guys! banjos!), so it’s reasonable to lump them in with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and Son Volt and early Wilco), the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also compare them to chamber pop acts like Tindersticks and Lambchop). For whatever reason, I Never Even Asked for Light hit me harder than most anything recorded by any of those other bands. Even after Wilco started cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, this album works for me on an emotional level that I can’t really explain.

It starts out with an inauspicious untitled track – just guitar, Ted Stevens’ tenor, and the sound of wind in the trees and chirping birds. As the song fades, the sound of birds suddenly gives way to the joyful mandolin of “Show Me How the Robots Dance.”

One lyric in this song stands out as a theme for the album: “I doubt there’s a body of water/Big enough to quench our thirst.” From the mourners “holding [their] drinks like wrecked statues” in the beautiful, brass-laced “Irish Wake” to the shipwrecked son in “Hypnotist” to the rafting narrator in the trilogy “The Man Vs. the Tide,” lyricist Stevens uses a recurring motif of water and thirst throughout many of the songs. It’s an album that seems to be about dissatisfaction, about wanting more than we can ever have, and as a result, it’s an album that’s decidedly mournful.

Mournful, but never bleak. The lush tapestry of instruments (banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, glockenspiel, organ, among others) makes even a song like “In Honor of My Stumbling” feel hopeful, despite its central metaphor: “Faith is a candle in direct sunlight.” And where this kind of Americana often begins to feel a little samey to me, LFTWC dodge that particular bullet by experimenting with different tempos, from the slow and stately “Bread Crumbs” to the pulsing, insistent “Hypnotist.” The centerpiece, though, is “The Man Vs. the Tide,” the three-part song that closes the album. Its sparse instrumentation – horns giving way to strings giving way to just Stevens’ voice and guitar – blends fluidly with the gentle crash of waves and the distant roar of an airplane as Stevens gently sings, “Will I ever attain/This blue sky?” The ambient sounds that bookend the album underscore its autumnal beauty and resonate even after the song ends.

Next steps: Three albums, and the band was done. I also really like their debut, Blanket Warm, but I never found their last release, Song, particularly compelling. Mogis of course went on to do all kinds of stuff with Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, and singer Ted Stevens is still a member of Cursive.

When the Sun Hits

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIs there any child actor in recent memory who’s so completely lived up to her potential as Saoirse Ronan? Ever since her arrival at age 13 in 2007’s Atonement, she’s been never less than fantastic in every movie in which she’s appeared, lifting even pedestrian hooey like the Stephanie Meyer adaptation The Host into the realm of the watchable. Most importantly, though, she’s had an unerring eye for quality projects, appearing in prestige films (The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Lovely Bones), small movies from well-respected directors (Peter Weir’s The Way Back; Neil Jordan’s Byzantium), and entertaining experiments (Hanna; Violet & Daisy). Brooklyn is just the latest in her line of successes, and it’s easily one of the best movies of 2015.

The weird thing about Brooklyn, though, is that it’s one of those movies that works really well even though I’m hard-pressed to explain why. On paper, the story – young girl from rural Ireland emigrates to the U.S. and falls in love with an Italian guy despite the pull of home – isn’t particularly compelling, Nick Hornby’s dialogue isn’t especially showy, and John Crowley directs with sensitivity but with no more bells and whistles than the story requires (which is to say none at all). So most of the things that usually draw me to a movie were absent from Brooklyn.

brooklyn stillWhat it comes down to, really, is the appeal of Ronan’s Eilis, who’s sweet and kind even when suffering with an eminently relatable bout of homesickness, and her Italian beau, Tony, who falls juuuussssst on the tolerable side of “aw shucks” sappiness. They’re a couple that’s easy to root for, especially when Eilis is called back to Ireland and finds herself struggling with a variety of pressures that threaten to keep her away from Tony, and America, forever. Eilis’ ache is palpable, knowing what she’s left behind in America but feeling the inexorable pull that the easy comfort of home usually has. It’s to Ronan’s credit that this is a real dilemma – we buy into the push/pull she feels even though by this point we’re fully on board with her new life in the big city. It’s a sophisticated, nuanced performance that never takes the easy way out, and it confirms that Ronan will be worth watching for decades.

Add in a vibrant cast of supporting characters (the tenants and owner of Eilis’ New York boarding house; Tony’s family; a friendly Irish priest played by the reliably excellent Jim Broadbent) and Brooklyn is a huge smothering bear hug of a movie, the cinematic equivalent of slipping into a warm bath or sipping a mug of cocoa while snow gently drifts from the sky. It’s a movie to make you feel good – nothing fancy, just a simple story well told by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

*****

Current listening:

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The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)

Listening Post (Marillion Edition)

Marillion misplaced

I think any good music fan has one band that they love but that they’re vaguely embarrassed of. So it is with Marillion. They’re one of the most ridiculous bands ever, yet I have an enduring affection for them that’s lasted almost 25 years. I was given a cassette copy of their debut, Script for a Jester’s Tear, by an older friend when I was a freshman in high school. If I had been familiar with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, I would have immediately recognized whose style and sound the band was biting, but because the only Genesis I knew at the time was the one that sang “Invisible Touch,” Marillion seemed revolutionary. Those keyboards! Those guitar solos! That facepaint! Their music was all capes and 20-minute songs about Beowulf‘s Grendel, but to a 15-year-old kid in rural Ohio who hadn’t yet grown out of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, it was a doorway to a strange new pretentious world. And the fact that I was sponging this up in 1988, at the exact same time I was discovering Hüsker Dü and the Pixies and the Replacements and R.E.M. via new albums is a testament to how weirdly exciting it was to be a fledgling music fan in the late 80’s.

Anyway.

What is there to say about this album, their third? I feel like if I write too much about it it’s going to topple under the weight of its own preposterousness. I mean, just look at that cover, for starters. I guess I’ll say this: it’s the best starting point to the band because it’s the one where singer and lyricist Fish (what seems like a dopey pseudonym until you realize his real name is Derek Dick) started to reign in some of his more over-the-top sensibilities. Their first two albums (the aforementioned Script… and 1984’s Fugazi) consist of seriously unhinged (and stupidly great) prog-rock goofiness. You know what I mean: songs that regularly clock in at the 7- and 8-minute mark, endless widdly guitar solos, KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS, and pretentious lyrics about garden parties and the Irish Republican Army.

But there’s something to it. Misplaced Childhood, released in 1985, is an impenetrable song cycle about – I think – delayed maturity, lost love, and regret. And child soldiers? Whatever the case, the album had their first proper hit, the lovely “Kayleigh” and the even lovelier piano-led “Lavender,” and there’s three or four other songs on the album that could have been hits, especially “Childhood’s End?,” which features guitarist Steve Rothery’s soaring, quasi-U2 lead. The band always had an unerring sense for melody (even when it was buried in a seemingly unending epic), and it was on this album that they simplified things enough so that those melodies could breathe. “Simplified” is a relative term in Marillion Land, of course, because the album itself, in true song cycle fashion, is one unbroken piece of music, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Even so, the individual tracks are some of the strongest, catchiest things in the band’s career.

Fish’s lyrics, too, are exceptionally vivid. I’ve poked fun at his more outré tendencies, but the guy has an undeniable gift for language. “Kayleigh” gives us lines like “chalk hearts melting on a playground wall,” and “Lavender” opens with the resonant image of sprinklers on summer lawns and children “running through the rainbows.” Then again, the album’s first song drifts in on a Spïnal Tap-worthy keyboard line and the first words we hear are, “Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono /Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding,” so what do I know?

But despite the inescapable silliness of some of this, Misplaced Childhood still stands up for me as a quality collection of songs. There’s the tribal drumming and spy-movie tendencies of “Waterhole,” the chiming shards of guitar (guitarist Rothery is sort of a marvel) that sparkle throughout closer “White Feather” (an ode to self-determination, with Fish singing, “I will swear I have no nation/But I’m proud to own my heart”), and even the 9-minute, multi-part “Blind Curve” doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to the hummable melodies that serve as its foundation. This clearly isn’t for everyone, and you have to enter into it with the understanding that it’s going to be a little … grandiose. But after all these years I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is better than I think it is.

Next steps: I can’t in good conscience recommend their first two albums. I like them, but they’re definitely an acquired taste. If Misplaced Childhood turns out to be your thing, you’d do well to listen to its follow-up, 1987’s Clutching at Straws, which I almost selected for this edition of the Listening Post. It’s another confident set, with some of Fish’s best lyrics. He would leave after that album, though, embarking on a mildly successful (in Europe, at least) solo career. The band continued with new vocalist Steve Hogarth, and they’re still soldiering on to this day. I don’t like the Hogarth stuff nearly as well, but his first album with the band, 1989’s Season’s End, is quite good and worth your time (especially if you have a thing for beer commercial guitars).  1998’s Radiation is probably my favorite of this second iteration of the band, and it features “A Few Words for the Dead,” a song that builds to a euphoric chorus that never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.  I think the video is worth a watch because I love the song so much, but if you click it you can either sit through the first two minutes of widdly-widdly noodling or else skip straight to 2:20 when the song actually begins.

Harmony Around My Table

Rollins

One of the weird things about being a music fan – not a casual fan, but a “this is how I make sense of my life” fan – is that certain artists will always be present across the years, even though you’re not necessarily a huge fan of their work.  They flit in and out, you occasionally listen to an album, it registers when they release something new (although you probably won’t buy it), and when their latest tour comes to town, you at least check ticket prices in case it’s happening on a night when nothing good is on TV.

Henry Rollins is that guy for me.

Rollins 2I definitely don’t dislike his work (and he’d probably punch me if I said I did), but it’s just never quite clicked with me.  At the dawn of my voracious music phase (a phase that’s now lasted 27 years), where I was crazily tracking down influences of influences of influences of that week’s new favorite band, I discovered Black Flag’s Damaged album.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I was mopey, but not angry.  I appreciated humor, but couldn’t figure out how to interpret “TV Party” against the backdrop of Rollins’ supposed straightedge lifestyle.  I liked stuff with an edge, but didn’t exactly connect with the sludgy aggression of what I was told was a landmark album.

So I just sort of let it slide on past on my way to Echo & The Bunnymen or whatever.  I revisited his work a few years later when he had a minor college radio hit as frontman of The Rollins Band with “Low Self Opinion.”  I certainly connected with the song lyrically, and musically it was a little more melodic than Black Flag, but it was hard to escape the fact that it was unseemly for a grown man to be singing about such things – what I imagine David Cross would call “15-year-old white girl lyrics.”

For a while, Rollins and I didn’t see much of each other.  I read his work when it appeared in various publications, and I was intrigued by his transition away from music and into spoken-word performance, but even as my musical palate expanded, there was never a point where I thought, “It’s time to immerse myself once again in the Black Flag oeuvre.”

Rollins CoachellaBut I never wrote him off, even though his music never quite did it for me.  His spoken-word material was too smart, too funny, and too relatable for me to discount him.  This was reinforced by his 2009 performance at Coachella.  If I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it except that it was sharp, clever, and much better than I was expecting.  What I do remember is that he made a point of emphasizing that all the people at Coachella, whether they were at his set or not, were part of the same tribe.  By virtue of traveling to the desert to immerse ourselves in good music, we had more in common with each other than we realized.  I don’t think that’s true of Coachella anymore – the target audience has sadly shifted away from the music fan to the L.A. teenybopper douchebag who wants only to be seen at the party – but Rollins’ sentiment resonated.  As one of only a handful of people at my high school seriously into independent music, I understood the value of finding like-minded friends.  And I especially appreciated Rollins’ Coachella set because it was at this point that I recognized him for what he really was: a fan.  No more, no less.

This was reinforced by an article he wrote last week for LA Weekly.  I encourage anyone who’s trying to understand the music obsessive in his or her life to read this article.  It’s a little rambling and discursive, but at one point Rollins articulates simply and truthfully why I think many of us listen to – and buy – as much music as we do.

I buy records because I medicate with music. It makes the day-to-day horror show of existence endurable . . . I am less an audiophile than I am a vinyl cat lady. You can never have too many records – aren’t they all just so wonderful?

I think I’m often viewed by friends and acquaintances as simply a collector, the Crazy Music Guy™ who has a lot of records.  But I can’t stress this enough: music saved my life.  I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school.  I was struggling to come to grips with who I was.  I felt unpopular and unattractive.  I know I’m not unique in these feelings – I probably just described everyone who’s ever been a teenager – but music is the way I survived.  I knew when I was feeling down I could listen to The Smiths and take solace in the fact that Morrissey felt the same way I did.  I could listen to R.E.M. and be comforted by the arty weirdos from exotic Athens, GA, or put on The Joshua Tree and think about how I could help U2 save the world.  Was I self-destructive?  I don’t know.  I’ve got almost 30 years in the rearview mirror, which makes it a little hard to say, but, yeah – my parents probably should have been concerned.  The point, though, just like Rollins says, is that music was my medication, my therapy.  I owe it a debt I can never repay.

And, while the circumstances are different, I still use it to medicate.  My feelings of inadequacy linger, they’re just different now: I’m crap at my job, I should be a kinder person, I need to write more, I’m not being all I should be for my students, and on and on.  At home, in my car, at the office, right now – music is playing nearly all the time, and it helps me get through the day.  I enjoy the music on an aesthetic level, of course – that is, after all, my primary concern – but there’s undoubtedly a therapeutic value to it, too.  It isn’t just a tune to whistle as I idle away the time.

Music matters.

At a time when vinyl records have become just another hipster affectation, it’s important for those of us who depend on music to make sense of the world to periodically remind people that, at its best, music transcends entertainment.  Henry Rollins, vinyl cat lady proclivities notwithstanding, makes a convincing case for that.  And in doing so, he reminds me that some musicians will always be there for us, whether we ask them to be or not.

*****

Current listening:

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Fugazi – End Hits (1998)