Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rabbit at Rest

From Rabbit, Run:

Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this little sidestreet is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and windowsills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. This illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

Goodbye, Mr. Updike . . .

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø's taut thriller about neo-Nazis and the link to Norwegians that fought for their German occupiers in World War II was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I don't read a great deal of crime fiction (the occasional George Pelecanos, Kate Atkinson) so when I come across a well-done crime novel, I get completely wrapped up in it. Nesbø's hero, Detective Harry Hole, finds himself enmeshed in a potential assassination plot, but doesn't know who, when or where the target is, only the type of rifle (a German Märklin) to be used.

Nesbø deftly mixes in a WWII plot from Norway's Eastern Front involving Norwegians that joined the Waffen SS and were later branded as traitors when the war ended. Some of the surviving members of the unit figure into the contemporary plot as Hole scrambles to discover the details of the assassination.

Despite a few overly used phrases (characters repeatedly "pull a face" to signify displeasure) that may or may not be the result of translation slip-ups, Nesbø's writing style is sleek and well-suited to a fast-paced thriller.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bill Frisell in the New Yorker

An article about Bill Frisell is in this week's New Yorker and the online edition has a video clip with a bit of an interview and some performance from the night before we saw him. Link to the video is here and a link to the article here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Frightened Rabbit at the Talking Head 1/20/09

Excellent show at the Talking Head last night for the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit. The Hutchison brothers, Scott and Grant, brought a furious energy to the room--Grant pounding the drums with a ferocious abandon and Scott delivering his emotionally taut, intelligent lyrics with passion and keeping time with a steady, pulsing guitar strum. They covered much of the material from their latest album, The Midnight Organ Fight, as well as a couple of songs from Sing the Greys, including "Behave!"

Scott Hutchison came out on his own after the first set to do an acoustic version of "Poke" sans amplification (it's a pretty small room), casually incorporating the rumbling of the heating unit that kicked on halfway through the song. His impressive guitar work and strong, lilting vocals were the highlight of the show.

Opening bands were Baby Aspirin, featuring strong female vocals and lead guitar work, and Arc in Round, a nice combination of layered guitar and keyboards backed by solid drumming.

(Apologies for the crappy cellphone photo.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Los Campesinos y Titus Andronicus @ the Ottobar 1/15/09

Opening act Titus Andronicus launched into a full-throttle set that seemed to die between songs, such as when lead man knocked over a tower of equipment (some of which belonged to Los Campesinos apparently) and they waited on help to restack and evaluate damage. The set was sprinkled with a couple of excellent songs that made full use of the band's Stones-y riffs and caterwauling vocals, culminating in a topnotch cover of the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." The caterwauling vocals grew tiresome in some of the songs, but with the right amount of energy for context, like in the their self-titled, final song, it works.

Los Campesinos responded with a similar energy level, but with a sound that's both more compelling and more innocent. The adrenaline level increased throughout the set (despite the absence of the violinist, who was too ill to make the trip from Wales on this first date of the US tour). The great, building intro to "You! Me! Dancing!" was one of those magical, can't-wipe-the-smile-off-your-face show moments that make it all worthwhile.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Ron Carter

We made a quick dash to New York last Saturday night to catch Bill Frisell's trio with Paul Motian and Ron Carter at the Blue Note. Though I prefer the more driving style of the Frisell trio manifestations I've seen with Ken Wollesen on drums, I liked Motian's ability to play give-and-take with Frisell and Carter, and Carter's bass playing was mesmerizing.

Frisell, as always, amazed me. That distinct sound and style that somehow stays taut and plays loose at the same time. He kept the loop effects to a minimum--I like the effects, but holding them in check did make them even more powerful.

A Sunday morning train ride got us back down to the Philly area to watch the Eagles' game at my parents' house--NFC Championship Game, here we come.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Realm of Perfection

In Steven Millhauser’s essay, “The Ambition of the Short Story,” he pits short story's David against the novel’s Goliath in a paean to the perfection of smallness. “Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection.” After reading his essay over and over again the week it appeared in the New York Times Book Review, I put his latest collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, on my to-be-read list.

Millhauser divides his collection into three sections (plus a cartoon!). The stories fit so perfectly into these groups, that it’s almost as if Millhauser planned his collection out before the stories were written. His repetition of themes and various visual motifs add to the notion. In the first section, Vanishing Acts, he conjures a number of shy, withdrawn young women, like the title character in “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” the sister who never leaves her darkened room in “The Room in the Attic,” and Clara Schuler, an unassuming, quiet girl who catches onto the fad of ecstatic laughter in the title story.

Millhauser also likes to contrast the sunny new ranch houses of a coastal New England town against the dark, multi-story homes in the established older neighborhoods across town. Everything on the new side, including the beach, seems to glisten with a technicolor shine, as if it just fell out of a David Lynch movie. In two different stories, Millhauser shows us a bright soda bottle tilted in the sand, it’s liquid appearing slanted against the glass as it seeks a new level. On the gloomy side of the town, the resemblance is closer to a Poe story. The brother and sister of “The Room in the Attic” could easily be stand-ins for the ill-fated brother and sister from “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Millhauser uses a stylized, miniature fly in the same manner in stories of the second and third sections. The miniaturist of “In the Reign of Harad IV” places a fly on the dollhouse-scaled model of an apple and becomes so enthralled with working at that scale that he begins making smaller and smaller creations until they are invisible to the naked eye. The notion of the inexhaustible attention to detail reflects Millhauser’s ability to pinpoint such precise details in his stories. Like the tactile descriptions of objects placed in the narrator’s hand in both “The Room in the Attic” and “The Wizard of West Orange.” Or this description from “The Other Town:”
the DeAngelo yard, say, with its flowered beach towels hanging over the back-porch rail and its coil of green hose next to the dented garbage cans, or the Altschuler yard with its tall sugar maple, its yellow Wiffle ball bat lying half in sun and half in shade, and its aluminum chaise lounge with strips of orange and white vinyl on which a blue eyeglass case is resting, or the Langley yard with its grass-stained soccer ball, its red-handled jump rope, its tin pie-dish for home plate, and its bags of peat moss and fertilizer leaning up against the side of the detached garage.

Several of the stories are, in fact, about details. In “The Other Town,” a small town maintains an identical, unoccupied, second town just beyond its limits in the woods. Every quotidian detail of the original town is duplicated by a team of “replicators.” In “Here at the Historical Society,” a New England town’s historical society begins to concentrate its efforts on documenting every aspect of the most recent past, with the understanding that “recent past” can refer to minutes ago.

As a fan of more realistic fiction, I found the lack of dialogue in some of Millhauser’s stories oddly disconcerting and the effect made them more memorable to me. Stories such as “A Change in Fashion” and “The Tower” and “The Dome” are presented more like tales, some strange fable from a Twilight Zone era.

Millhauser’s themes and interests of details and the vibrancy of all of the senses culminated in the final story of Dangerous Laughter, “The Wizard of West Orange.” A librarian in Thomas Edison’s West Orange Invention factory, finds himself involved in a secret experiment to test the haptograph, a machine that mimics the tactile impressions made on the body by stimulating the skin. The journal entries of the librarian’s obsession with the machine describe the experience with the devotion of a religious experience.

I found myself thinking about the stories in Dangerous Laughter days after I’d read them, wondering what part of my surroundings had triggered the connection, what detail I'd noticed that I hadn’t before. I have Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Martin Dressler on a shelf somewhere. It’s moving into the top of the to-be-read pile.