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)

Games Without Frontiers

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 7.52.51 PM

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)