Monday, December 31, 2007

Year End, Best of Brouhaha

I figured I'd get myself in on some of this year-end, favorites action. Of course, this is all meaningless because I haven't made anything even close to a comprehensive examination in these topics. But, here goes:

Books: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan; The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon; Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

Albums: The Stage Names - Okkervil River; The Shepherd's Dog - Iron & Wine; Floratone - Floratone (see below); Reunion Tour - The Weakerthans

Movies: (the least comprehensive of categories because I'm usually about a year behind on releases) Ratatouille. 

When I checked the list of movies that have been released this year, I realized I had no right at all to be doing this category. The list of movies I want to see is far longer than the list of movies I've seen (No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, When the Wind Shakes the Barley, etc.). Ah well. Maybe I'll do my Favorite Movies of 2007 in 2008. And eventually, when the kids are older, I'll be able to see movies in the actual year they're released.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher

I finished this book about a month ago, but I've avoided writing about it because of my general sense of disappointment. I've loved the other Tom Perrotta books I've read, especially Little Children. With The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta was shooting for the same mark, but didn't quite get there. He certainly has suburban America down cold and he knows how to create sympathetic characters who might normally be difficult to like.

The big problem with The Abstinence Teacher was that both the situation and the characters felt contrived. With both the sex ed teacher who is forced to teach abstinence and the born again, recovering addict, the decisions they made felt more convenient to the story than authentic to the character. Top that off with an unsatisfying ending, and I'm left wondering if the movie version will be able to rescue this novel.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

S'up, Yid?

This fall is catch up on all of my favorite contemporary authors season and the first on the chopping block was Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I've been a fan of his since Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I haven't read his YA novel, Summerland or the Sherlock Holmes story The Final Solution. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon imagines a world that had post-World War II Jews settling in a chunk of Alaska lent to them by the U.S. government. Chabon uses the contemporary setting of Sitka, Alaska for a hard-boiled murder mystery complete with tough guy detectives in fedoras and plenty of Chandleresque diction.

I love the alternate world Chabon created here. Sitka has a history complete with neighborhoods and architecture and cultish religious sects. The hard-boiled language plucked my nerves a bit in the beginning, like he was trying too hard to fashion this realistic noir world in an alternate history. He mentions hot water tanks that are bound together by straps of steel "like comrades in a doomed adventure," and our hero, Meyer Landsman, "tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket" when working on a case. Either the noir-like metaphors were toned down as the novel wore on, or I just got used to them. Of course, Chabon knows his stuff, so many of the similes hit home like a dart piercing the smoke of an English pub and stiffening at the center of the board.

It comes down to the fact that Chabon weaves a good story, as usual. The artifice of the setting and the tough guy language are part of the fabric that make the whole suit real.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Latest Listening

I first got tuned in to Bill Frisell when he released the Gone, Just Like a Train album. I read a review somewhere, picked it up and I was hooked. I've taken in his live show three times now at the Ramshead in Annapolis, but had to miss his recent stop in Baltimore at An Die Musik with Greg Leisz and Jenny Scheinman. Floratone is his latest studio project, a collaboration with drummer Matt Chamberlain and producer/engineers Tucker Martine and Lee Townshend. It has that unmistakable Bill Frisell guitar tone, lots of bluesy grooves and looping that creates a swampy, futuristic sound.

They've put together a cool video about them getting together to make the album.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Weakerthans

I ventured to DC with a crew on Sunday night to check out the Weakerthans at the 930 club once again. I think this is the third time I've seen them and it's been an excellent show each time. They tend to stay close to the studio versions of their songs, but there is enough energy packed into those songs to keep the pace of the show tight. The highlights for me were "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute," "Watermark," and, as always, John Samson on the stage alone doing "One Great City!"

We, We, We

Yesterday I finished the National Book Award-nominated Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. The gimmick here is that the novel is told from the first person plural. The novel opens with an excellent, hilarious section and I found myself wondering if he could keep that up for the duration. With the exception of a straightforward, third person section in the middle, he does. And he does it well. Ferris manages to allow certain characters that are part of the "we" to stand out and develop without losing the feel of the storytelling situation he has set up. It's quite a feat.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Making Amends to Laura Lippman

I had read numerous great reviews for Laura Lippman's work (and not just from hometown Baltimore writers) when I picked up one of her novels in a bookstore and read through the first couple of pages. It was one of the Tess Monaghan novels, possibly Baltimore Blues, her first, and I was completely disappointed. Typical genre stuff, I thought. I put it down and wrote her off. I even mentioned my disappointment to a couple of people when the subjects of books, authors, etc. came up. Still, I kept coming across praise for Lippman here and there and I just didn't get it.

A few months later, I was in a used book store right after an eye doctor's appointment--the store is in the same shopping center as my eye doctor's office--and, struggling with blurry vision from the eye drops, I wandered through the stacks with nothing jumping out at me. In fact, I had to get within centimeters of the spines to actually read the titles. Not needing any books and frustrated with my inability to see them anyway, I found myself in the Mystery section and found a mass market paperback copy of Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing. For $2.99, how could I lose?

It turned out to be a great deal. The writing was sharp and devoid of clich├ęs, the characters were interesting and well-formed, and the plot was tasty. Add to that the superficial thrill of familiarity with all of the locations and landmarks in the novel and I was completely hooked. At times it felt like I was watching a crime show, but it was a really good crime show. I highly recommend it and I'll be checking out some of her other non-Tess books as soon as I get through the stack of books next to my desk.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Anglo-centric Reading Lists

I read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch after finishing Line of Beauty and now reading Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. Not sure what has come over me, but everything I pick up to read these days seems to be from the British Isles. Kate Atkinson, Flann O'Brien were in the list recently. And I keep picking up The Power and the Glory--I haven't read it since high school and I remember almost nothing about it (it's really hot and there's a priest, right?). I realized it was getting to be a problem when I started getting cravings for tea and cookies around three each afternoon, except I mentally referred to the cookies as biscuits and quietly lamented the fact that we didn't have the equipment to make "proper" tea. Once I began attempting a North London accent, my wife decided she had to put an end to the nonsense and made me sit down with some football (American football!) videos until I snapped out of it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


The New York Times Book Review this Sunday featured a review of a new Thomas Hardy biography on the cover. Hardy is one of those big holes (yes, there are many) in my own personal coverage of the Western Canon. I have an old Bantam Classic Paperback copy of The Return of the Native that I bought as a teenager and never finished. I believe I picked it up because Holden Caulfield mentions it in Catcher in the Rye (or does he only mention Hardy? I can't remember) and the only memory I have of it is a damp, claustrophobic opening that I came to associate with all 19th Century English literature. Maybe it's time I give it another try.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Now reading . . .

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst -- I'm about midway through this 2004 Booker Prize winner (I'll catch up eventually) and thoroughly enjoying Hollinghurst’s way with sentences. He navigates the world of privileged Thatcherites with sinuous dexterity, weaving through the main character’s affairs with various men of the society. The gay sex scenes might put off some people I know, but they’re not the types I would recommend this book to anyway (I wouldn’t call the scenes graphic necessarily, but explicit).

Hollinghurst discusses Hogarth's aesthetic principles, particularly regarding the S-curve, the line of beauty of the title. I had to look it up (I'm not the art expert here). Hogarth felt that the beauty of the curved line should be used to represent objects that are alive and the straight line, whose variations are limited to length and thickness, should be used for dead objects.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Inaugural Mission

On second thought, maybe this isn't such a good idea. The thoughts of two underemployed, struggling creatives with too much time on their hands might not be as interesting as we think they are. Then again, that matters not much at all.

Art, literature, politics or anything that we deem interesting enough to fill this space--that's the plan.