Wednesday, November 26, 2008


A couple of new posts today below -- a song and a new feature -- but I think I'll save some other things in the hopper for Monday. Until then, have a happy, safe Thanksgiving weekend.

The Two Readers Project, Ch. 1

“The Chain” by Tobias Wolff
From the collection The Night in Question

(For an explanation of the series, see here)

“The Chain” begins with Brian Gold at the top of a snowy hill. He has just sent his young daughter, Anna, sledding down the hill, and as she nears the bottom Brian sees a dog -- a “big black wolf-like animal” -- running toward her. “He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.” Brian gets to Anna well after the dog, and he fights to separate them, eventually biting the dog hard on the ear. Anna escapes the attack mostly unscathed.

It’s a startling, effective scene with which to begin a story, and it includes a terrific description, when Brian has his arms wrapped around the dog and feels “its heat and the profound rumble of its will.” I had a problem, though, with most of what followed, which I think typifies the danger of trying to fit too much plot or too large a statement in a short story.

Brian is understandably angry after the incident. The dog’s owners go unpunished on a technicality -- the dog was chained up, even though the chain was long enough to allow the animal well into the neighboring park. With no concern or regret at all shown by the owners (which seemed a bit unrealistic to me), Brian’s cousin Tom, who has “an exacting, irritable sense of justice,” convinces him the dog should be killed. Tom offers to do the deed while Brian is at work (for an alibi).

“The Chain” was already too schematic for my taste at this point, but it goes a few steps further. Tom himself ends up wanting revenge on someone before long, and Brian feels compelled to return the favor. Brian’s task is innocent enough, but in carrying it out he unwittingly sets in motion a truly tragic event.

I’m irritated whenever a work sets out to say something profound about randomness but undermines the point by getting there in an overdetermined way. (The movie Crash comes to mind.) In addition to doing this, “The Chain” also takes on themes -- like racial guilt and resentment, and the dangers of vigilante justice -- that are perhaps too large for its 17 pages. I already regret that last sentence, because I don’t mean to imply that brief work can’t contain profundity. I suppose I just found the profundity of “The Chain” to be of a superficial variety. Wolff is a good enough writer to keep the story from devolving into a schmaltzy argument along the lines of Pay it Forward (Don’t Pay it Back?), but he’s capable of more.

(Read Tim's take here. Next week, the series will continue with "Dealing," an essay by cultural critic Dave Hickey that appears in his collection Air Guitar.)

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A New Feature

My good friend Tim, who blogs at A New Career in a New Town, recently wrote to me with an idea. I’ll let him explain:
We will take turns picking a short story or other short selection of writing from our respective libraries. The story/selection will be picked totally at random; we will grab a book and point to a page. It will be a story we either a) have never read, or b) have not read in quite a while. It will not be a story with which we are on intimate terms. It will not be a favorite. Just a random viewing.

Then each of us will read the selection. (If we don't have the selection, we'll go to the library.) Each week, we will post about the new selection on our blog, and cross link to the other's. We will try to post simultaneously; the idea, in other words, is not to have a dialogue, but complementary views of the same object.
This sounded like a worthwhile idea, partly on its own merits and partly because it gives me an excuse to communicate more with Tim, who lives on the other side of the country. The fun will start this afternoon with my next post. For the first round, Tim chose “The Chain,” a short story by Tobias Wolff. He also made the good suggestion that we post what the next week’s reading will be, in case anyone wants to play along at home. So I'll be including that as well...

Days Without Number

For this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the lovely Sinéad O'Connor singing "Jeremiah (Something Beautiful)." Enjoy:


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Long Look at Life

As countless others have recently noted, Google has teamed up with Life to create a mammoth searchable archive of the magazine's photos, including lots of shots that never ran. I believe there are two million online now, with plans for ten million. This being Life, many of the shots are famous, even iconic, like this one of Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet in frustration:

But the true joys of the collection are found in lesser known shots, like this one of Mantle at home with his son, and this one of him attending to his legendarily battered knees.

I also like this, from a Texas murder trial in 1952:

Both shots shown in this post were taken by John Dominis. Head to the archive for more, but be prepared to lose a few hours.

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Monday, November 24, 2008


This here is the 2,000th post at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming...


The AMAs

I’ve blogged about awards shows before -- once in a way that was relatively normal, and once in a way that one commenter claimed was a sign of incipient nervous breakdown. Last night, I caught about half of the American Music Awards with two friends.

We were lucky to miss several performances, like those by Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and Leona Lewis, who no doubt took part in a competition to see who could shatter a chandelier fastest. Luck was limited, though. As the performance of the Jonas Brothers segued into a performance by The Pussycat Dolls -- a too-perfect pairing of the studied innocence and proud skankhood that currently define our popular culture -- one of the people on the couch next to me said, “We must enjoy pain.” (The Dolls are a favorite perennial target of mine.)

But there was the odd highlight or two. I enjoyed Natasha Bedingfield’s medley of hits. She’s got a naturally powerful voice, meaning she can sing live, for one thing, and she doesn’t have to screech like a maniac only to still painfully fall many, many yards short of attempted notes (hi, lead Pussycat Doll). She also looked beautiful, and in a relatively grown-up, untrashy way, which I feel compelled to attribute to her Britishness. (The naturally stunning Rihanna, by contrast, performed looking like a perfect combination of Fearless Leader from Rocky and Bullwinkle, an extra in one of Terry Gilliam’s futuristic fantasias, and a bondage freak. The Dolls appeared, per usual, dressed as close to stark naked as the FCC will allow.)

Best of all was Annie Lennox, who received a humanitarian award and sang the lovely “Why.” Her voice wasn’t in the finest form, but the confidence and theatricality with which she used it was even more moving after a parade of soulless performances by past and future strippers.

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He Will Swerve

I forget where I recently learned of this guy, but someone named Sparrow, identified as "a poet," ran for president this year for the fifth consecutive time. As his official web site states, "In 1996 he ran as a revolutionary communist within the structure of the Republican Party." That's quite a feat.

In this brief video clip, Sparrow explains his campaign slogan for this year. And in this clip, he explains, "People ask me -- 'Sparrow, will you accept massive donations from special interest groups?' And I say to them, unfortunately, no one has ever offered me anything -- even a jar of mayonnaise -- so I have no idea how corrupt I am." And finally, here, he explains the influence Buddhism will have on his level of concentration as president.

I don’t normally trust people with such unkempt beards, but I like the cut of Sparrow’s jib. For one thing, he urges people not to vote for him, which is something I look for in a fringe candidate. I eagerly await his 2012 campaign.

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The fact that there are people honestly praising the new, long-long-long-in-coming Guns N' Roses record -- even if those people work at the toothless Rolling Stone -- is amazing. Everything I've heard off the record is plain awful. . . . On the other side of the spectrum, Pitchfork celebrates a remastered version of the album that recently finished #13 on my never-ending list: "In 1983, R.E.M. sounded unique. No bands were combining these particular influences in this particular way, which made this debut sound not only new but even subversive: a sharp reimagining of rock tropes." . . . Maud Newton recommends the work of Theodora Keogh, granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt and obscure-but-talented writer, who led an interesting life. ("As a young girl Theodora wore boyish clothes, carried a knife and persuaded schoolfriends to swim nude with her." Persuasion being so much easier when one carries a knife.) . . . The 25 sexiest movies. There are some seriously suspect picks on this list. And what, no Carnosaur 3?? (Fun imdb tidbit for the day, this "revealing mistake" from Carnosaur 3: "When Rance throws the bomb into the Tyranosaur's mouth and detonates it a metal pole protruding from the puppets neck can be seen which previously connected the head to its body.")

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Dog Hits Controls, Drives Van Into Coffee House


I got home late last night, got into bed around 2:00, and soon thereafter had a fit of the hiccups. I get them more frequently than I'd like -- sometimes from laughing, but even more often from drinking something carbonated or just clearing my throat. They tend to feel very deep, and cause real chest pain. It's fun.

After a few minutes last night/this morning, I got up, realizing they weren't going to stop anytime soon. They finally did, around 3:30. That's pretty bad, but I have my fingers crossed that I never find myself with a truly epic case. It would be bad enough to be like this girl in Florida, who had the hiccups for three straight weeks. Whenever mine last for any real duration, my mind drifts to the character in The Simpsons who had them for 25 years. They cut to an interview with him, which just consists of him saying, "(Hiccup). Kill me. (Hiccup.) Kill me..."

But forget that. Turns out the real-life record is...68 years. It's held by Charles Osborne from Iowa, who started hiccuping in 1922, while about to slaughter a hog, and stopped hiccuping in February 1990.
During the first few decades, he hiccupped up to 40 times a minute, slowing to 20 a minute in later years.
That's once every three seconds in the good years. It's estimated that Osborne hiccuped 430 million times during this stretch ("this stretch" here being more or less equal to "his life"). Not only did he manage to avoid suicide, he married twice and had eight children. He died a year after the hiccups mysteriously stopped.

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Music to Thaw By

Tuesday, the second night in my concentrated weeklong attempt to take advantage of this city I call home, was a great success. The plan was to visit a neighborhood club, alone, to see one of my favorite bands, Centro-matic. I got there around 8, and realized that, with the band going on around 10:30, I was looking at two and a half hours of drinking or staring into space (or both) by myself, in a nearly empty bar. This being less than my idea of a good time, I walked 1.1 miles (I just Mapquested it) in the bitter cold to a Barnes & Noble to do some fruitless browsing. Why this is my idea of a good time is a riddle I will bypass for now.

Then I walked back the same 1.1 miles, by the end of which my skull was nearly iced. The relatively new club, which I'd never been to before, is on a deserted (at night, anyway), industrial street. I did pass one person, actually -- a woman with her dog outside an obedience school, yelling into her cell phone, "I'm standing out in the freezing cold, and you keep sending cars that won't take a dog! Please send a car that accepts a dog!" Her panicked tone enhanced my sense that if I didn't get inside soon, chilly death would surely come. Centro-matic is based in Texas, and lead singer Will Johnson said he hadn't packed clothes for the "brisk" weather. Brisk was one word for it. One inadequate word.

If you don't know the band, I would recommend catching them live. They put on a great show, and I knew from the start that this night's set list would be to my liking. You're always an underdog to hear your favorite few songs by them, especially earlier ones, because they're quite prolific and have a large catalog from which to choose. They opened and closed with two strong songs from their debut ("Post-It Notes From the State Hospital" and "Fidgeting Wildly," respectively), and played "Flashes & Cables," another one of their best. Johnson's got a lovely, lonely howl of a voice, which seems especially suited to a wintry night like Tuesday.

Here's a picture from his solo encore:

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From Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer’s account of the 1968 political conventions:
It is said that people born under Taurus and Capricorn are the most materialistic of us all. Take a sample of the residents in the census of Miami B(each) -- does Taurus predominate more than one-twelfth of its share? It must, or astrology is done, for the Republicans, Grand Old Party with a philosophy rather than a program, had chosen what must certainly be the materialistic capital of the world for their convention. Las Vegas might offer competition, but Las Vegas was materialism in the service of electricity -- fortunes could be lost in the spark of the dice. Miami was materialism baking in the sun, then stepping back to air-conditioned caverns where ice could nestle in the fur. It was the first of a hundred curiosities -- that in a year when the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us, the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness, hygiene, and balanced budget, should have set itself down on a sultan’s strip.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oh, Where Would She Get Such an Idea?

For Wednesday, the great George Jones singing the great "She Thinks I Still Care." The backup singer is George Riddle. I'd love if I could walk around in life with Riddle just off-frame, and if about to say something I really want to emphasize, he could magically appear and sing it in harmony with me.




At Pajiba, I review The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and reactions to a certain kind of movie about the Holocaust.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Family Ties

The sweet side of life in the Stone Age:
One particularly well-preserved grave holds what researchers say is the first known nuclear family, with an adult male and female cradling the bodies of their two sons.
The far from sweet side:
Says study coauthor Alistair Pike: "They were definitely murdered, there are big holes in their heads, fingers and wrists are broken." At least five of the individuals show the effects of a violent attack, one even had the tip of a stone weapon embedded in a vertebra. . . . Study coauthor Wolfgang Haak says that the presence of older adults and young children in the graves may indicate that only part of the community was killed in the attack, which may have been provoked by competition for fertile farmland.
I know resources are, even now, a widespread reason for human conflict. But I always wonder if we're not under-imagining the chaos and brutality of prehistoric life, so that articles like this one should read, "...which may have been provoked by competition for fertile farmland. Or by the fact that one group thought the other 'smelled wrong.'"

Environment Update

Number of just-let-out elementary schoolers madly squealing around the Starbucks in which I'm sitting: 14

Number of these kids I am willing to strangle with my own hands within seconds: Same

Monday Night with Chuck

From time to time, in my old age, I get an extra jolt of inspiration to take advantage of New York. The city is always taking advantage of me, so it’s only fair to level the playing field from time to time. In this spirit, I’ve devoted myself to doing something cultural or social or both every night this week. Tonight, that means going to see a band I like (they’re playing just a few blocks from my apartment, so it’s not a chore). Tomorrow night, it means catching a late-night movie/event, which I’ll write about more after I see it. Thursday and Friday, it means going to parties for political/literary magazines, which will be full of free drink (good), some people I’d like to see (good), and hordes of young, eager, status-seeking New Yorkers who will make me feel horribly splenetic and, at a bare minimum, 87 years old (bad).

Last night, the week started with a trip up to Columbia to see a lecture by Charles Taylor. Not this Charles Taylor. That would be scary. This one. Taylor is a Canadian philosopher, and the author of at least three lengthy books that I hope to read, probably in this order -- Hegel, Sources of the Self, and his most recent, A Secular Age.

There were about 200 people in attendance, on the 15th (and top) floor of a campus building, from which there’s an amazing view of Manhattan. (I took in the view in an anteroom; the window coverings in the lecture hall itself were pulled down, presumably to keep the glittering sight from upstaging the speaker.) I’m not sure more than four or five of us weren’t part of some graduate program or other (as student or faculty), but my fellow attendee and I felt disturbingly comfortable. Guess I should have continued studying, after all.

More than in the picture to the right, in person Taylor reminded me of actor Mike Farrell. He’s very tall and thin. He had an affable aspect, despite the fact that he had just flown in from Japan. His speech was about “disenchantment,” or the ways Westerners have moved past “magical thinking,” and ways the world might become re-enchanted (though not by a simple restitution of magical thinking). He’s a practicing Roman Catholic, and while his arguments are not always concerned explicitly with religion, they do stand generally opposed to the philosophy of Dawkins (who he engaged at one point during the talk) et al., in not believing that biological determinism is a sufficient provider of significance to humans. Most essentially, at least last night, Taylor was addressing how the way that we explain actions -- for instance, whether altruism is a Darwinistic advantage with payoffs or a balm to the ego or a social sacrifice of the ego -- has consequences for how we then value those actions.

The lecture became rambling and repetitive in the second half, but overall it was charming. Throughout the talk, when he would make a transition from one point to another, Taylor would purposefully lift his folded-up eyeglasses from the podium and set them down a few inches to the right or left, like he was physically marking off a completed section.

Monday down, four nights to go.

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Monday, November 17, 2008


This fake New York Times, dated July 4, 2009, got some attention last week. I'm not sure why. It's not funny. And it's painfully soft-liberal in the utopia it wishes to imagine. More bike lanes? Go for broke, guys. The transformation of Harvard University Business School into the Harvard University School of Integrity? Good lord. At least one person is pointing out some overlooking of facts in the service of point-making. Maybe best of all, it seems like the fake articles have attracted real comment wars. Fantastic. . . . Meanwhile, at the real Times, a post about The Simpsons and words removed from the dictionary. . . . A fellow blogger points the way to some beautiful photographs. . . . If you think your Monday brain can handle it, Deborah Solomon interviews Karl Rove. . . . Michael Lewis, a favorite of mine, writes about the end of the Wall Street boom for Portfolio. A piece: "I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud."

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Prince in His Natural Environment

In this week's issue of The New Yorker, perhaps the greatest Talk of the Town piece of all time . . . a visit to the home of Prince. The description of the place includes these two sentences, which are no less awesome for being unsurprising:
Candles scented the air, and New Age music played in the living room, where a TV screen showed images of bearded men playing flutes.

In the living room, he’d installed purple thrones on either side of a fireplace, and, nearby, along a hallway, he had hung photographs of himself, in a Moroccan villa, in various states of undress.
But even better: As a Jehovah's Witness, "(Prince) leaves his gated community from time to time to knock on doors and proselytize."

What?? Having Prince show up at my door to talk about Jehovah might be the only waking circumstance in which you could not possibly convince me I wasn't dreaming. Also, just imagine ignoring your doorbell because you know it's those Jehovah's Witnesses, and then someone tells you later, "Oh, by the way, that was Prince." How could you ever live that down?

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Friday, November 14, 2008


It's been a full week around here. If you don't feel like scrolling (some folks enjoy it), here are some links to posts about a disappointing movie, great letters written by Raymond Chandler, the career of a great caricaturist, the atrocious organ of opinion that is Rolling Stone, silly rabbits, the debut of The Humility Report, and coming a few steps closer to ending the long national nightmare of my favorite albums list. I trust you can find the post about Hunter Thompson, immediately below, without a link.

Happy weekend.

Fear. Loathing. Politics.

I’ve had very brief run-ins with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, but I’ve mostly avoided it. I convinced myself that his average sentence must have been an incomprehensible drug-fueled explosion that made other New Journalists look mannered by comparison. But as part of my continuing spree of political reading, I picked up Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. One hundred fifty pages in, I was thrilled. It was funny, smart, and -- give or take a moment here or there -- precise. At that point in my progress, last weekend, a friend had people over for dinner, and I told him I was reading it. He asked if I didn’t feel that Thompson’s legendarily toxic habits must have been an exaggeration, given the clarity of his work. I agreed.

Then I read the rest of the book.

About the last third is not really written by Thompson -- it’s just transcripts of conversations he had with other people. The book was originally serialized in Rolling Stone, and as the final deadlines approached, Thompson was in increasingly bad shape. So instead of getting some dramatic form and stylistic flair in the final chapters, we get the transcripts. One of them in particular is about complicated maneuvering on the floor of the Democratic Convention. It renders the maneuvering opaque and it’s excruciatingly boring to read.

Even though the book stumbles across the finish line, it's worth reading. When Thompson was clearheaded enough to write properly, it’s a fascinating, subjective, hilarious look at the Democratic party in the titular year. Thompson was a fan of George McGovern’s from the start, so the book focuses mostly on his campaign. He ended up with the nomination, of course, and lost every state but Massachusetts to Richard Nixon.

The story has more than a few parallels to the election just passed, including a couple of big ones: The Democrats wondering about how to appeal to certain “working class” (polite shorthand for “often racist”) voters who were attracted to the candidacy of George Wallace, and McGovern possibly dooming whatever small chance he had with the selection of a controversial vice president.

As expected, it’s Thompson’s cranky voice that makes the ride. William F. Buckley critically sniffed at Thompson’s “gift for vitriol,” and Christopher Hitchens admired the same trait, praising Thompson as “a highly polished hater.” In Campaign Trail, there’s plenty of vitriol for Nixon, but the most consistent, searing hatred is saved for Hubert Humphrey. I think these three passages, from various stages of the book, give you a good idea of how Thompson felt about the former VP and senator from Minnesota:
Hubert Humphrey is a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current. The idea of Humphrey running for President again makes a mockery out of things that it would take me too long to explain or even list here. And Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t understand what I was talking about anyway. He was a swine in ‘68 and he’s worse now. least half the reporters assigned to the Humphrey campaign are convinced that he’s senile. When he ran for President four years ago he was a hack and a fool, but at least he was consistent. Now he talks like an eighty-year-old woman who just discovered speed.

Any political party that can’t cough up anything better than a treacherous brain-damaged old vulture like Hubert Humphrey deserves every beating it gets.
He had only slightly less disgust for Ed Muskie, another Democratic contender, comparing those running his campaign to “a gang of junkies trying to send a rocket to the moon to check out rumors that the craters were full of smack.” And writing that:
Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine. Big Ed was an adequate senator . . . but it was stone madness from the start to ever think about exposing him to the kind of bloodthirsty thugs that Nixon and John Mitchell would sic on him. They would have him screeching on his knees by sundown on Labor Day.
But Thompson didn’t go much easier on his favored McGovern. About an article in the New York Times, which listed McGovern’s vice presidential possibilities, Thompson wrote, “...I had never seen so many bums and hacks listed in a single paragraph in any publication for any reason.”

It's not all disdain, though. Or at least, not all disdain for people. There's disdain for institutions, too, like journalism. At one point, Thompson (with an image I love) illuminates an opinion I share, and one not surprisingly held by someone remembered for helping to change journalism, for better or worse:
The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. . . . With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

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Um, Do-Over?

This is a pretty amazing montage of Peter Schiff being roasted on FOX by various blowhards (like Ben Stein) over the past couple of years. Shows the value of at least respecting dissenting opinions -- I'm not an expert, but it would be easier to accept the differing predictions, even in retrospect, if the anti-Schiff side weren't gleefully cackling about how wrong he is concerning Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, among others.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

The List Won't Live Forever: 10-5

Programming notes: Today’s installment covers six albums, not the usual five, to set up a slightly different approach to the landing strip. Number four will get its own post soon, since I’ve been meaning to write about the band anyway. Then, the top three will be tackled together. Also, an important mistake: Somehow, in my haste to present the world with this incredibly important list, I left off one of my favorite 25 records -- It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads. Just flat forgot it. So, if you’re sending this list to the Library of Congress (its rightful home), or maybe just putting together a bound, embossed edition for a Time-Life collection, please add that album -- #22, 23, or 24 sounds reasonable -- and move everything else accordingly. Thanks.


10. 10,000 Maniacs - Our Time in Eden (1992)

It’s true that I love Natalie Merchant’s voice, so much that at various points in my life I would have signed away everything I owned or would ever own (which, granted, hasn’t added up to much) if, in return, she would sing me to sleep every night. I almost had contracts drawn up, just in case I ever ran into her and needed to make an offer on the spot. But this album, this high, is still an anomaly. I tend to love her voice a lot more than her material.

The maniacs sound better than they ever did. This was the band’s swan song (with Merchant and her defining vocals, anyway; another singer came on board after she left). Earlier albums had been, if marred is too strong a word, at least lessened by tinnier, ‘80s-redolent production values. The sound on Eden is more lush ("lusher" is a word, but doesn't it sound weird?), more confident, and Merchant the writer finds a sweet spot between the overly earnest lyrics of her early days and the occasionally generic material from her later solo years.

9. Richard Buckner -- Since (1998)

At first, the songs here sound more like sketches for future songs -- the 16 tracks pass in less than 37 minutes. But closer listening proves them to be concise little gems. This album marked Buckner’s full shift to a more obscure, impressionistic sound, which he’s followed ever since. His next record would contain songs of similar length, with titles like “Grace-I'd-said-I'd-Known:” and “A Year Ahead)...& A Light.”

For Buckner, though, obscure doesn’t mean ineffective. Just the way he sings and holds the word “faith” in one chorus is enough to emotionally carry the song. The beautiful, finger-picked “Raze” and “Ariel Ramirez” are favorites of mine, and the latter undoubtedly brought him a lot of new listeners when it was used in a Volkswagen commercial a few years ago. Songs like “Jewelbomb” and “Goner w/ Souvenir” and “Hand @ the Hem” are on the more propulsive side of things, and ensure an alternating pace that makes the album pass even faster. Buckner’s a strange, terrific lyricist, but it’s difficult to divorce his frequently off-kilter word choice from his dusky baritone without diminishing their impact.

8. The Hold Steady -- Boys and Girls in America (2006)

An object lesson in overcoming one’s preconceptions. When I first heard The Hold Steady described -- as a hipster-pleasing band with a lead singer who talked more than he sang -- I was certain I would hate them. More than that, I wanted to hate them. More than that, I wanted to hate them without ever having to listen to them.

By chance one day, I listened. What I hadn’t been told was that the band didn’t follow any of the indie-rock musical templates that have reigned for my entire adulthood. In the midst of a manufactured, somewhat dreary parade of Strokes, Hives, Killers, and the rest, the hipsters had (I was sure unwittingly) let slip through the gates a band that borrowed from the E Street Band, Led Zeppelin, and Thin Lizzy -- guitar-happy, piano-fueled, riff-stuffed music that wasn’t going to take no for an answer. And I hadn’t been told that Craig Finn might not be a gifted singer (to say the least), but he’s infectiously energetic, and on a very short list of the all-time best rock lyricists. Given the nature of rock music, it’s hard to think of a more ambitious album title than Boys and Girls in America, but these lovingly detailed songs (sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) deliver a portrait of just that.

7. U2 -- The Joshua Tree (1987)

The record that topped my friend Dez’s list. From Bono’s opening cries of “I wanna run / I want to hide / I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside / I wanna reach out and touch the flame / where the streets have no name,” we’re in Earnest Rock territory, and it’s never sounded better or less ashamed. There’s an incredible energy -- both intimate and soaring -- that’s maintained over the album’s first three songs, which I think are untouchable as a consecutive trio. Despite what the next entry might suggest, it’s hard to argue that this represents anything but the band’s peak. They’ve made an admirable go of it since, of course, but this set the bar for an encore performance impossibly high. It’s why they didn’t even try, ranging out into more experimental, more cynical territory over the ensuing decade. In this century, they’ve been dutifully maintaining their superstar status by churning out pale copies of the Joshua Tree sound, but rock is a young man’s game, and the elder Bono’s seemingly heartfelt (however pompous) desire to reach out and heal the world is somehow no match, spiritually, for the young Bono’s scaling of city walls and running through fields, his beautifully captured inability to find what he was looking for.

6. U2 -- Achtung Baby (1991)

I decided to put these albums back to back because it’s nearly impossible for me to disentangle them. Given my criteria for this list, they are essentially, complexly tied. I think The Joshua Tree is almost perfectly produced, and that the pleasures of its best songs will last longer than the best songs here. At the same time, The Joshua Tree initially washed over my 13-year-old self as just a distant series of radio singles -- I was still mired in a phase of my music-listening development that would best be labeled The Horror (more on that very shortly), and I didn’t appreciate the album as a whole until years later -- while Achtung Baby and my 17-year-old self had a prolonged, affecting relationship. The first singles, “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways,” still sound remarkably fresh, and uber-hit “One” is that rare song that gets played approximately eight trillion times because it’s that good. But it’s the album’s consistency, the way every last song feels carefully attended to, which it has in common with The Joshua Tree, that puts it this high.

5. R.E.M. -- Out of Time (1991)

I’ll be the first to admit, this might not necessarily be about Out of Time, per se. I mean, I’ll defend every song on here, right down to “Shiny Happy People.” (Yes, “Shiny Happy People.”) But this is the album I’m least capable of judging objectively. As a 17-year-old marooned in a suburb of Dallas, who had spent his first 14 years on Long Island with a whole lot of Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe and just general Z100 going on, I was only a rung or so above Hopeless. And losing my grip. Luckily, girls are famous for maturing faster than boys, and my girlfriend introduced me, properly, to R.E.M. I knew of them, but had lacked serious exposure. I listened to Out of Time a lot, and then, in that male/High Fidelity/obsessive collector way, I bought and memorized all of their records. So this was my gateway drug, and thus hard to see (or hear) clearly. From the radio-friendly “Losing My Religion” to the classic mopers “Half a World Away” and “Country Feedback” to the lead vocals of Mike Mills on “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana,” I do think this is a great record, but it’s even more than that for me.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Man Arrives at Bar With Pet Alligator; Cops Called

The Humility Report

Consider this an unofficial, infrequent new feature, in which I attempt to catalog just a sliver of the world’s most hysterical displays of ego. To get started, let’s look at two examples from the past. I detailed the first on a defunct sports blog. It’s a quote from Gilbert Arenas, NBA star, after he had a terrific night against the Dallas Mavericks:
I'm an assassin with the ball. I rebounded, dished the ball, scored. Like a point guard -- like a Jason Kidd or Gary Payton -- I just helped the team win.
I posted about the second -- one that will be tough to beat -- last year. It comes from an interview with Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates fame). He said:
We are not an equal duo, and never have been. I'm 90% and he's 10%, and that's the way it is. . . . He is overshadowed by me because I'm such a strong vocal personality. . . . He's a really, really good guitar player. And he's a good singer. But you come up against me, and a good singer -- it's like, [makes squawking noise].
And now, here’s Miasha, author of the “street lit” novel Secret Society:
Secret Society is the book that I’m glad I wrote, and once people get the chance to read it, when you interview another author and ask them the question of, “Which book that is out there that you wish you wrote,” they will respond Secret Society.

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Hollywood, Abridged

This clip looks to date from 1996 or so, but it was new to me. Genius animator Don Hertzfeldt takes us through a tour of movie genres. There's about a minute or so of warm-up animation before the tour begins. Enjoy:

(Via Pajiba)

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Face Up and Sing

Don’t worry, I’m not being fooled into taking Rolling Stone seriously, but the magazine’s list of the best 100 singers -- compiled by asking luminaries like Scott Weiland (ugh), Carrie Underwood (double ugh), and James Blunt (triple-axel ugh) -- is grist for the blogger’s mill. They arguably get it right at the top, with Aretha at number one. And several others in the top 20 are of the “No, duh” variety: Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Freddie Mercury.

But overall, the list looks like just another hodgepodge of the increasingly senile magazine’s deities. Bob Dylan seventh? Even allowing for a (rightly) unstuffy definition of “singer,” and even given that the pre-rock era doesn’t appear to count (no Frank Sinatra, no Billie Holliday, etc.) . . . seventh?? Ahead of Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Roy Orbison, and Etta James? And, Whitney Houston 18 places below Mick Jagger? And, Neil Young 39 places ahead of Steve Perry? Methinks we’re talking about more than singing here...

I won’t attempt any comprehensive list of my own, but here are a few mini-lists in reaction:

My five favorite ethereal female voices, a type of voice for which I have a notorious weakness: Natalie Merchant, Karen Peris (The Innocence Mission), Mimi Parker (Low), Lori Carson, Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl)

My three favorite falsettos: Maxwell, Barry Gibb, and Prince

Four singers who were on the Rolling Stone panel of voters who should have been on the list of singers: Sinead O’Connor, Daryl Hall, George Michael, and Sebastian Bach, a much better singer than Axl Rose, who represents metal screechers on the final list.

Pretty voices who were overlooked: Linda Ronstadt, Raul Malo (of The Mavericks and a solo career) and the perfect-pitched Alison Krauss

Young voices (among many) who were overlooked: Mark Kozelek, Neko Case, Amos Lee, and Ray LaMontagne

Six of my favorite voices who were overlooked, some more understandably than others: Tracy Chapman, Lyle Lovett, Michael Stipe, David Gray, Jay Farrar, and Neil Finn

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Brilliant Eye, Clouded

In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, David Margolick wrote about legendary caricaturist David Levine, whose iconic work has graced the pages of The New York Review of Books for decades. (At right is one of his takes on William James.) Levine has contributed to many other publications -- including covers for Time and Newsweek -- but he and the NYRB are inseparable in the minds of many readers. At 81, Levine's vision is deteriorating, and Margolick covers the parallel deterioration in not only the artist's skill but in his relationship with the publication he has helped to define. Along with a tinge of current sadness, the piece provides an entertaining overview of Levine's career:
However pejorative his caricatures of politicians were, he maintains that they were always designed to be constructive: by making the powerful funny-looking, he theorized, he might encourage some humility or self-awareness. (I asked him whether that had ever actually happened. He said it had not.) But Levine also knew when to stop. As he often cautions young illustrators, caricature fails when people are distorted beyond recognition. He allowed himself an exception with J. Edgar Hoover (he did him four times), whom he depicted once as an amoeba-like, cobwebbed blob. Then again, Hoover was the man who seized Levine’s passport.
You can read the whole thing here, and I recommend it. The magazine also posted a complementary slideshow of Levine's work, and the NYRB has many of his thousands of caricatures available in a wonderful, searchable gallery.

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A Wednesday Trio

To make up for the lack of a song last Wednesday, I give you three -- all versions of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil." For Lyle Lovett, click here. For Elvis Costello, click here. And for my favorite version, by Counting Crows, see below. Enjoy:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yours, Raymond

As letter-writing continues its inexorable march to the grave (or maybe it's already dead, and I just missed the funeral), it's equal parts joy and sadness to read great examples of the form. I own a few compilations of letters from literary figures, and my favorite might be the Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. (I wish bookstores had Correspondence sections, because good volumes can be hard to come across. If any of you have strong recommendations, please list them in the comments section. Thanks.)

Here is Chandler writing to his publisher about an author photo for his next book:
I am reaching the age where it takes an artistic touch to make anything of me. The fellows who have this want too much money, and I doubt the importance of the cause. While I am compelled by weight of opinion, some of it expert, some frankly prejudiced, to admit being one of the handsomest men of my generation, I also have to concede that this generation is now a little seedy, and I with it.
And this is the funny start to a letter to Charles Morton, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly. (The person Chandler identifies as "Inkstead" was actually John Engstead.)
A man named Inkstead took some pictures of me for Harper’s Bazaar a while ago (I never quite found out why) and one of me holding my secretary in my lap came out very well indeed. When I get the dozen I have ordered I’ll send you one. THe secretary, I should perhaps add, is a black Persian cat, 14 years old, and I call her that because she has been around me ever since I began to write, usually sitting on the paper I wanted to use or the copy I wanted to revise, sometimes leaning up against the typewriter and sometimes just quietly gazing out of the window from a corner of the desk, as much as to say, “The stuff you’re doing’s a waste of my time, bud.” Her name is Taki . . . and she has a memory like no elephant ever even tried to have. She is usually politely remote, but once in a while will get an argumentative spell and talk back for ten minutes at a time. I wish I knew what she is trying to say then, but I suspect it all adds up to a very sarcastic version of “You can do better.”

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It seems that the Palin-not-knowing-Africa-is-a-continent story was a hoax. This doesn't change my overall opinion of her, but it's only fair to note it. . . . I don't know the ramifications of this, but I have to assume they're terrifying. . . . Vanity Fair has taken to ranking the top 25 of various cultural objects, in honor of the magazine's 25th anniversary. The chosen book covers seem pretty random, some of them downright boring. They do list All the Pretty Horses, and I think all of McCarthy's border trilogy books were beautifully and thoughtfully designed. . . . Speaking of book covers, a woman on the 2 train the other night was nonchalantly reading (and clearly displaying) this beauty. Oh, to only not have shame. . . . Frank Wilson posts about global warming. He's certainly right about the Orwellian use of language in "stopping climate change." . . . The lovely food blog Homesick Texan presents three recipes for pinto beans. Yum.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Songs That Make You Go :(

Dan over at Slowly Going Bald is asking for the saddest songs you know. Here are a few of my choices. Feel free to share yours below (and at Dan's, of course).

"You Had Time" by Ani Difranco
"Hope There's Someone" by Antony & the Johnsons
"Ain't No Way" by Aretha Franklin
"I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt
"Pitseleh" by Elliott Smith
"July" by The Innocence Mission
"My Life" by Iris DeMent
"No Time to Cry" by Iris DeMent
Iris DeMent singing the phone book
"Sometimes I Forget" by Loudon Wainwright
"One Moment More" by Mindy Smith
"Sweetness Follows" by R.E.M.
"Ships Go Out" by Ron Sexsmith
"Avenues" by Whiskeytown

Synecdoche, New York

I was going to start this post by quoting E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein, and how experimentalism can be admirable even when doomed to failure, but this movie doesn't deserve that level of discussion. Writer (and here, first-time director) Charlie Kaufman is that tightrope walker, the artist known for his Stunning Imagination. This means that critics and audiences attend his movies with some expectation of being confronted with dazzling complexity (or at least superficial complexity, which might be a more accurate term for what Kaufman traffics in), and it also means that many will find that complexity, damn it. But even though a smattering of the people in the packed Brooklyn theater where I saw the movie clapped at the end, and several critics have praised it, I'm here to tell you it's a dud. And worse, it's devoid of imagination.

The first hour or so is average Kaufman, churning out just enough off-kilter humor and odd-universe details to keep you alert, but not approaching the unique plots or visuals of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the second half, as Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets lost in the massive, interminable play he's producing, the movie becomes an effective soporific. The conceit -- for those who don't know -- is that Cotard's play is based on his own life and experiences, and reality and fiction become increasingly entangled as the decades (yes, decades) pass. The two big problems: 1) A mind-bending premise like this -- alone -- is not that imaginative. It could be generated by anyone familiar with Borges, to name one mind-bending trailblazer, and Borges died 22 years ago. 2) That leaves it up to execution, and Kaufman uses the premise mostly to write -- in a way that alternates between flat and juvenile -- about the impossibility of love and the fear of mortality. Fine themes, but not if you approach them like you're the first to think of them.

The performances are uniformly good (especially Samantha Morton as one of Cotard's muses), but to make another short list: 1) Hoffman needs to seek out some fresh roles, stat. To paraphrase the person I saw it with, haven't we seen enough of him sitting forlornly on the edge of a bed in his boxer shorts? 2) I really like Catherine Keener, but I suspect her range is between 0 and 0.01. She could have been digitally dropped into this movie from others.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

The List is Really Dragging This Out: 15-11

15. Counting Crows -- August and Everything After (1993)

Loving this album (and liking this band, generally) is a bit like loving an early Quentin Tarantino movie. They both have clearly displayed influences, they both accomplish their goals remarkably well, and they are both made by people who probably shouldn’t open their mouths (or even appear) in public. Yes, Adam Duritz’s personality could use some work (at the very least, someone should have put scaffolding around him sometime in 1994 and only taken it down when he was ready for viewing again). But as a fan-critic -- ahem -- I try to judge cases on their merits, and August and Everything After is a plaintive, moving record, its occasional melodramatic excesses hardly alien to acclaimed rock music. Songs like “Round Here,” “Perfect Blue Buildings,” and “Raining in Baltimore” suffer from stretches of excessive mewling, but they all have redemptive qualities. The band (especially Duritz) leave themselves less open to criticism when they set a quicker pace -- “Mr. Jones,” “Rain King,” and “A Murder of One” are all terrific songs. “Sullivan Street” might best capture this album’s tone -- the nostalgic and heartsick lyrics, the pretty back-up vocals (by Maria McKee), and the shameless straining after something you can’t quite name. I’m not going to make claims for the band’s singularity -- their sound is just a successful knitting together of influences, but how many good rock bands are more than that? I do believe that Matchbox 20 and countless bands that followed miss some of the genuine existential feeling that makes Counting Crows’ worse qualities worth overlooking. Anyway, I think it’s just me and Greil Marcus who are still willing to loudly champion these guys, and I don’t know how I feel about that alliance.

14. Paul Simon -- Graceland (1986)

I’ll get the tangential criticism out of the way first. I’m sure this album is single-handedly responsible for any number of terrible pseudo-world-music compilations put together by such cutting-edge music distributors as Starbucks. That’s fine. It also opened the gates for some legitimately great global music to be heard widely in the U.S. for the first time. So on balance, it was a good thing.

According to Wikipedia, Simon has said the title track is the best song he’s written. I don’t know about that, but it’s very good even by his standards. I might give that honor to "Under African Skies," with its lovely additional vocals by Linda Ronstadt. Other favorites include “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” which both feature the stirring vocal work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The hit single, “You Can Call Me Al,” is as good as it is goofy.

13. R.E.M. -- Murmur (1983)

R.E.M.’s full-length debut remains a bizarrely timeless record. It certainly doesn’t sound like stereotypical ‘80s music. Even smart ‘80s music. In 1983, The Police and U2 released Synchronicity and War, respectively, and those (very good) records were forceful and even radio-friendly. The murkier, humbler production values of Murmur, which might be associated with a work not looking to draw attention to itself, ironically made it stand out. Rolling Stone named it the best album of that year, ahead of the two mega-bands previously mentioned and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

More than half the time, it’s hard to make out what the hell Michael Stipe is singing, which we’ve come to learn is not always a bad thing. Instead, his expressive voice acts more as an additional instrument. When certain cryptic phrases do emerge clearly from the mix, they have an inexplicable potency. Every part of this next sentence has been said a billion times by now, but let’s make it a billion and one: Murmur married the Byrds with an aural equivalent of Southern Gothic, and "alternative rock" was born (only to die sometime around the formation of Candlebox).

12. Son Volt -- Trace (1995)

Trace is full of terrific songs, written and sung by Jay Farrar, who, unlike Jeff Tweedy, didn’t move from Uncle Tupelo to universal hipster fame, for which reason I like him even more. I’ve always thought there was something more authentic about Farrar, even if Tweedy’s grab-bag approach has resulted in a lot of very good music. I’ve made fleeting mention of sub-lists before, as a way to describe things, and this one’s easy: If I were making a list of my Favorite Albums to Bring on a Highway Drive, Trace would be number one, and whatever is second would be a long way off in the distance. It starts with “Windfall,” a country-ish tune with a chorus of “may the wind take your troubles away / both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel / may the wind take your troubles away.” It also features these lyrics: “Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana / sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.” Other songs include lines like, “Southbound, you can taste the weather / it feels like home.” Basically, just typing the album’s lyrics, sitting in Park Slope without a car, is enough to drive a person mad. It really is.

Also, I’ve always believed that if I had a rock band, “Route” would be an ideal song to open a show with. (Oh, like you’ve never thought about stuff like that.)

11. David Gray -- A Century Ends (1993)

I’m a big fan of David Gray. And yes, I’m forced to be one of “those people” when it comes to his music -- I was listening to him six or seven years before his big breakout in the U.S, so I feel a bit territorial about him, and probably overly defensive about some of the criticism he's received since becoming a big star, since I don’t think there’s much to be defensive about. (Wait, is that defensive?)

Allegedly a punk rocker of sorts when he was younger, there’s more than a trace of that feeling left on his debut album, A Century Ends, released when he was in his mid-20s. It mostly features Gray and an acoustic guitar, but a consistent passion and occasional anger keep things from the more cloying end of the singer-songwriter spectrum. There’s a bit of Billy Bragg here, if that means anything to you, an alternating between English romanticism and political dissent. I don’t know whether he would still say this or not, but a good friend of mine (and someone with much less tolerance than I have for the mushy, I think he would agree) once said that Gray is among the very few who can sing the word “soul” without sounding cheesy.

The far more successful phase of Gray’s career has been marked by tasteful electronic accouterments and smoother vocals, and I think it’s a nice, warm sound for him, but because I discovered him when he was in a rawer mood, I think I prefer his songs that way. The opening “Shine” and the closing “It’s All Over” are regretful but forceful (especially the latter, which really builds a head of steam), and spaced almost evenly between them is “Gathering Dust,” a heartbreaking song about leaving a relationship without any real reason for it.

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A belated congratulations to my friend TK, who ran last weekend's New York City Marathon and finished it in 3:54 and change, shaving 42 minutes off her personal best. Amazing. She writes the lively running blog Pigtails Flying. . . . Speaking of my friends, Jon Fasman, oft-mentioned around here lately, wrote a terrific piece for the New York Times about Saul Bellow and Chicago. . . . A terrible loss for the world of letters with the passing of critic John Leonard. I saw him give an inspiring speech at an awards ceremony a couple of years back. The text can be found here. . . . The increasingly indispensable Quiz Law keeps us up to date on the insane, entertaining world of litigation. Here, we see the very practical execution of one divorce in Cambodia. . . . Lastly -- and let me apologize ahead of time -- my friends at Pajiba linked to yesterday's post about the snake-and-frog battle, and a reader in the comments one-upped me. I say this with all the earnestness I can muster: Do NOT click on this link if you have even a trace of arachnophobia. I mean, if you're one-thirty-second arachnophobic on your mom's side, for the love of all that's decent, don't click on this link. The article claims that the photo is real -- if it is, may God have mercy on our souls.

Egghead Hoop Junkies

Now that it's basketball season, you should really make regular visits to Free Darko, the most unique journal of sports out there. (And given the site's oddball style, by "out there," I mean all the way, as in "in the galaxy.") A recent post about coach Mike D'Antoni and the Knicks included these two sentences, which should give you an idea of FD's conversational/egghead tone:
...playing for D'Antoni, coming into his sphere of influence, brings out (the Knicks') potential to be both more exciting and less retarded. What's more, he transmutes the imperative of style; when the team's goal is to get up and down fast as possible, move the ball three steps ahead of the defense, and dribble only if you get a note from teach, you have to use your imagination.
Of course, none of this will matter if the Knicks can't shoot. They're undoubtedly more exciting this year -- and moving in the right direction -- but in a couple of blowout losses, they couldn't hit the side of a barn.

Free Darko also recently posted a great video of Obama speaking to (and shooting a hoop for) the troops.

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Poker and the Presidency

Anthony Holden, author of the classic poker memoir Big Deal, celebrates having a poker player in the White House again:
This moved Time magazine to reveal two months later that John McCain is, by contrast, a manic craps player. I was in Las Vegas at the time, for the 2008 World Series of Poker; reached by London’s Sunday Telegraph for comment, I ventured: "We poker players don't call poker gambling. It’s a game of skill. Craps is an absurd game of luck...only madmen play craps."
Hey, craps can be fun. But it's a good piece; read the whole thing. (I also learned through it that James McManus has a book out next year, The Story of Poker, that's currently being serialized in Card Player magazine. Good news.)

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P.R., Vol. 3

The third volume of the Paris Review interviews is just out, and I recommend it as strongly as I’ve recommended the first two. (First one here, second one here.)

I’ve barely even dipped into it, and I’ve already come across several things I like, including:

An interviewer asks Harold Pinter whether a character in one of his plays represents him, and Pinter says, “I had -- I have -- nothing to say about myself, directly. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Particularly since I often look at myself in the mirror and say, Who the hell’s that?”

John Cheever on southern California: “I’m very much concerned with trees . . . with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting.”

The interview with Evelyn Waugh was conducted, in part, while Waugh reclined in bed, wearing white pajamas and smoking a cigar. He found Faulkner “intolerably bad.” And then there’s this:
PR: Would you say, then, that Charles Ryder was the character about whom you gave the most information?

Waugh: No, Guy Crouchback. (A little restlessly) But look, I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.

PR: Does this mean that you continually refine and experiment?

Waugh: Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.

PR: I gather from what you said earlier that you don’t find the act of writing difficult.

Waugh: I don’t find it easy. You see, there are always words going round in my head: some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my inkpot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable.
And finally, the ever reliable Norman Mailer:
PR: It was suggested to me that a certain senior American novelist went to see another senior American novelist at the twilight of the latter’s life and said to him, Enough now, no more writing.

Mailer: He said to him don’t write anymore?

PR: Yes. It’s one of those stories you hear in New York. If it happened, one might think of it as an act of love. One great and elegant swordsman disarming another.

Mailer: No, I can’t believe it. I’ll tell you if anyone ever came to me with that, I’d say, kidding is kidding, but get your ass off my pillow.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pretty Look at Unpretty Nature

Photographer David Maitland captured this shot of a tree-frog and a cat-eyed tree-snake going at it (not in the good way) in the forests of Belize. The battle allegedly lasted for hours. For the pic, Maitland won a category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, winners chosen by BBC Wildlife and London’s Natural History Museum. More here. (Via VSL.)

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The Matador

Over at Pajiba, I review the new documentary about a Spanish bullfighting star:
In the arena, David is transformed. The Matador is worth seeing for the fight sequences alone. If you have the stomach for them.


There are at least two broad political issues I want to address in longer posts soon (probably not very soon), inspired by some of the post-election coverage, but for now let me just add a brief postscript to the ellipses below: There's obviously a lot of talk now about Obama's potential cabinet appointments, who they should be and who they shouldn't be. I'll say that John Kerry as secretary of state, which has been cited as a real possibility, strikes me as pretty uninspired.

At first blush, I like the idea of Brian Schweitzer as Secretary of Energy. In the brief exposure I've had, he strikes me as pragmatic, as well as folksy and smart (it would be nice to promote the idea that the two can be, you know, combined). He's worked in the Middle East, and he's fluent in Arabic. But I'll stop now, before I get in even further over my head and start recommending things like Maria from Sesame Street for Secretary of Education.

Election Ellipses

Sarah Palin did not know that Africa was a continent. This is from Republican sources. . . . Of course, some on the right continue to say, with a straight face, that she was “the most qualified” of the four candidates. . . . The county that Palin called “the real America” went to Obama. Awesome. . . . As always, The Onion knows the score. . . . And the Onion's network also captures an important post-election story. . . . Newsweek has a long, multi-part report about the campaigns. The magazine had access to information for the past year, under the agreement that it wouldn’t be revealed until after the election. The series is great, but it’s a bit depressing that reporters only get certain legitimate things to us after the fact. Ah, the press. So brave and useful. . . . Finally, a video to help ring in the Obama-inspired era of change.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Speeches

I was at a gathering of people where tears were shed when the election was called for Obama, but the only time I really misted up all night was during McCain’s speech. It was a real What Could Have Been moment. His reference to Booker T. Washington near the start was both smart and classy, and this also stood out, later on:
I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.
Between the almost explicit retraction in that last line, and his visibly halfhearted attempt to talk about Ayers in the final debate, I think time will show that McCain was even more handcuffed by his party than we already believe. I’ve already heard leaks that he stood against several commercials emphasizing things like Rev. Wright. This doesn’t excuse some of what did get through in his campaign, in his name, but it was heartening to see and hear the McCain I’ve long respected on the last night of this long process.

As for Obama, I thought his speech was mostly terrific as well. Eloquence is definitely not the only quality needed in a president, but man, we’ve got a lot of it now. The substance of the speech was the mixture of optimism and realism that I’ve appreciated since the first time I heard him speak. I’m hoping that he appoints at least one Republican to his cabinet. I found this moment in his speech not just refreshing, but almost stunning, given that he had already praised McCain and was basically speaking from atop the carcass of the current GOP:
Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."



I have a busy day, but I'll post a few thoughts on the election later tonight, including some (hopefully) entertaining pictures I took of the TV last night. In short, this blog has not shut down due to the election of Barack Obama. In fact, there's now a back-up of stuff waiting to be posted...

More soon.


Monday, November 03, 2008

A Final Word

(Above, Senator Barack Obama, having just thrown a snowball)

As a friend of mine just asked, “Is this post going to be for any undecided voters reading the blog?” I suppose it is a little self-indulgent and pointless to write another lengthy post on the eve of the election, but it’s just seemed like too long a road to not finish it off with a wrap-up of sorts. And I actually do think that there might be a handful of readers who are undecided. So, here goes:


I’ve always believed that political candidates deserve to be heard on their own terms, and not restricted to generalizations about their party. But I’ve never believed, nor do I believe now, that such initial open-mindedness must end in equivalency. As conservatives are fond of saying, even an equal playing field isn’t going to produce equal results, and that’s OK. McCain started this campaign not with a blank slate, but with a surplus. Liberals and independents, including myself, had long thought of him, with reason, as someone capable of honoring the other side, and sometimes even agreeing with it. And more than just honoring the opposition, he also showed real interest in keeping his own side honest, in not mistaking loyalty for blind worship. The press flat-out adored him. His experience in the war was a clear testament to his character. Some of the worst moments on the left this year have come from online commenters who denigrate that experience, or poke fun at McCain’s less stellar achievements in the military. He went through years of a hell that no one should have to experience for a single day. And no one would be blamed for returning from such an experience with a spirit irreparably broken. Instead, McCain has led a vigorous life, and he’s maintained a pretty great sense of humor -- this is still one of my all-time favorite moments on “Saturday Night Live.”

But for the past few years -- and I’m sure it was a strategy on his part, so it’s hard to feel bad for him if it backfires; that’s part of the risk, no? -- McCain has time and again changed his opinion and policy recommendations on issues. As The Economist puts it in its endorsement of Obama:
Ironically, given that he first won over so many independents by speaking his mind, the case for Mr McCain comes down to a piece of artifice: vote for him on the assumption that he does not believe a word of what he has been saying.
Palin and Tone

From the start, Obama has given me something/someone to argue for, rather than just argue against. That’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing quite as much about politics as I did during the primary season. It would have brought me no pleasure to consistently write against John McCain, who I think is stuck inside a strongly divided and often rancid party, and who I’d rather remember for better moments. The fact is that McCain won over a lot of independents and Democrats in 2000 by, in part, simply standing up to the slimiest of modern political tactics. And this year, he sent out fliers with the word “terrorists” spelled in cut-out magazine letters, like you’d see on a horror-movie ransom note, and it folded out to show -- (cue the theme from Psycho) -- Barack Obama.

In what I think was the first post I wrote in support of Obama, I said that he represented a potential “elevation of the country’s political discourse from the ad hominem pit in which it currently resides to some plateau of logical, grown-up engagement.”

The pit and the plateau are obviously linked. After the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain jumped into the pit (or at the very least, allowed her to jump into the pit) with what could be mistaken for glee. Several prominent Republicans have noted this, ruefully, and it’s one of the signs of the party’s current torpor that people like Colin Powell and George Will and Peggy Noonan, whether they go so far as to endorse Obama or not, see him so much differently than the “base” does. Ronald Reagan famously attracted “Reagan Democrats,” and I think it’s clear that Obama has attracted “Obama Republicans.” From the GOP Convention on, the party showed no interest in swaying any undecided independents, and it didn't sound all that concerned about many Republicans either.

Over the past two months, the country has seemed less divided by party or ideology than by one person; divided between those who find Palin an embarrassing figure and those who don’t. It’s easy to poke fun at her practiced aw-shucks demeanor in the same way it’s easy to poke fun at John Kerry windsurfing or Michael Dukakis poking his head out of a tank. But the easy laughs are not the problem. Her lack of substance is. She reduces politics to the purest form of Us vs. Them, and completes the strange reversal of traditional conservative elitism. Many notable conservatives in this country have endorsed Obama, but I’m sure that Palin would tell you those people don’t matter, no matter how long their conservative records, because they’re pointy-headed elitists. The devaluing of intellect under George W. Bush didn’t have to continue with McCain’s campaign -- McCain’s not the brightest bulb in the track lighting (and he gets a lot of mileage out of admitting it), but until the proudly dumb convention that nominated him, he never seemed anti-intellectual. Palin does.

Intellect is not nearly a final litmus test for someone’s capacity or character. I’ve met people five times smarter than I am who I wouldn’t trust to buy my groceries. I’ve met people ten times smarter than me who can’t do their dishes, much less run a country. Still, I can’t believe that intellect has to be actively degraded in order to respect every corner of the country. Palin’s pandering talk of the “real America” is not just offensive, but counterproductive. There are absolutely differences in America. I wouldn’t say there are “two Americas,” as many people do -- there are probably more like 75 or a hundred. And only one candidate has at least attempted to talk to all of them as if they might be able to sit down around the same table and get along, respect each other. And isn’t that the point of being a united country, in both spirit and name -- not a false sense of sameness, but an agreement to approach problems together despite differences?

Only Palin has brought out real anger in me this election cycle, and there's a reason for it. I've never argued that George Bush is the devil incarnate, or that everything that's wrong in the world can be laid at his feet. But he has done things -- and allowed things to be done -- that I consider shameful, and that I think don't represent the best parts of this country. Not by a long shot. And Palin is the kind of leader who has already implied on the stump that I'm not allowed to be ashamed of my country. Sorry. I reserve the right to be ashamed of anything I please, even of things and people I love.


What confounds me most is the insistent drumbeat from both detractors and some reluctant supporters that Obama is extremely liberal. Why, then, did he promote conservative editors to power at the Harvard Law Review? Why does he plausibly claim to value the counsel of Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar? Why is it easy to imagine him appointing Republicans to his cabinet? Obama’s conservatism, such as it is, is one of the reasons I support him. I’m not alone.

The Economist, a conservative magazine (but in a way that doesn’t scan easily in a country accustomed to thinking of Sean Hannity’s boiling face as “conservative”), endorsed Obama. So did The Houston Chronicle, which hadn’t endorsed a Democrat since 1964. Other Republican-leaning papers, like The Denver Post and The Salt Lake Tribune, both of which endorsed Bush in 2004, have also recommended Obama.

Common Sense

It’s amazing to read an observation that strikes me as fresh and true after, what, 48 years of this campaign season? But I did the other day. In the New York Review of Books (a publication I mostly value for things other than its politics, which are too often predictable), David Bromwich wrote that “Obama runs against (Bush’s) policies in a tone of injured common sense.” What a perfect phrase, and I don’t think it applies only -- or even most effectively -- to Obama’s tone about an opponent’s policies. Where others have often focused (adoringly or critically) on the soaring elements of his oratory and appeal, I’ve remained most impressed and motivated by that tone of injured common sense. It's accompanied by a human scale that comes through, among other times, when he occasionally suggests his approach to a given issue “might not work.” We’re so used to politicians adopting the braggadocio of marketing slogans -- “Gets Rid of Tough Stains!!” -- that I might have voted for Obama just because of the fact that he doesn’t. His capitalized slogans -- Hope, Change, etc. -- are abstract, aimed more at inspiring the electorate than describing Obama. He is, from almost all I can tell, and despite attempts to brand him as a self-anointed messiah, a natural, strong mixture of inner- and outer-directed.


In any major election, candidates are saddled with their baggage. McCain was always going to get the votes of racists, and that alone is not his fault. He’s a white dude running against a black man. That makes him the racists’ candidate. What is his fault is the manner in which his campaign, especially after the choice of Sarah Palin, has sometimes played to the worst suspicions in people, trying to capitalize on Obama’s "otherness" in a way that I think even McCain himself must find troubling. It was alarming when Hillary Clinton openly said that “white Americans” were not supporting Obama, and I don’t see why it’s any less alarming for the GOP to play that card.

Would I vote for Al Sharpton to be president just to smite racists? Of course not. But given that I’m a strong supporter of Obama to begin with (have you caught on yet?), is it a bonus that voting for him is at least in part a vote against troglodytes like this? Of course that’s a bonus! Is it a bonus that a vote for Obama is a vote against people who believe that God is watching this election, and that a vote for this accomplished, eloquent, widely admired person is somehow a vote from Hell? Hell, yes, that’s a bonus.

Bottom Line

The biggest bonus is having the opportunity to vote for someone I actively respect, in a way that goes beyond agreeing or disagreeing about every last policy. I don’t agree with Obama on everything. But isn’t that the point of leadership? Don’t leaders persuade? And if we’re lucky, they do it with respect for their dignity and ours, with respect for their own intellect and ours. If Obama is elected tomorrow, he and we will still need luck -- he’ll be the most powerful person in the world, with all the disappointments and temptations and pitfalls that the position brings. And the country is still going to be in a mess, on several fronts. But given the way he’s campaigned, with smarts, class, and unflappable determination, his leadership seems like a chance well worth taking.

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