Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Ten Years, Ten Albums

Well, the decade ends tomorrow, and I have to say, it's been a great decade for music. It was the decade of Napster, and of the iTunes store, and of the return of the working band, the kind that tours extensively between recording albums. The big labels have seen a decline, and the independent bands have figured out a way to thrive as the idea of the album declines. I thought I'd share my top album of each year of this decade, one per year, as a way of looking at the music that I've loved as my musical tastes have evolved and the industry has shifted. So, without further introduction...

2000: Modest Mouse, "The Moon and Antarctica." This record might still be my favorite Modest Mouse album. It has some of the band's strongest work, including "3rd Planet" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," as well as the band's biggest hit before "Float On," "Gravity Rides Everything." More than any other album of 2000, I feel that this record set the band's agenda for the decade. There is a lot of unhappiness and dire imagery through the lyrics, but there is also something strangely hopeful about the scenes the songs paint.

Runner-up: "Mass Romantic" by the New Pornographers

2001: Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Remember what I said about the shifts in the industry and the return of the working band? Well, if there's any one record that marks the moment this all began, it's this one. Wilco left their label and released this album themselves, encouraged illegal downloads, and have pretty much been touring ever since. They sell out every show they play, and it works for them. The album itself is fantastic, with some of the strongest songs Wilco have ever performed, and the use of "assassin" as a verb in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is incredible. Also, while this album wasn't technically released until 2002, I'm going to put it in this slot because that's when it was completed.

Runner-up: "Is This It" by the Strokes

2002: The Mountain Goats, "Tallahassee." This was a tough choice, as there were two classic Mountain Goats albums released in 2002, this one and "All Hail West Texas." While the latter has "The Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton," this one has a bunch of songs that edge it over the top, most notably "No Children," a song that never fails to simultaneously excite and depress everyone. Plus, I love an album that tells a story, and this one--about a couple that moves to Florida to escape their demons only to find that they never can--is one the band did a lot with.

Runner-up: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by the Flaming Lips.

2003: The Decemberists, "Her Majesty." Turns out 2003 was a pretty incredible year for music, with everyone from the White Stripes to the Shins to Outkast releasing great records. But "Her Majesty" is the one that influenced my taste most, so it gets the spot on this list. "Red Right Ankle" remains one of my favorite songs, and the stories Colin Meloy tells with the band are excellent and atmospheric and literary. It's a nerdy choice, but...well, I'm a nerd.

Runner-up: Outkast, "The Love Below."

2004: Arcade Fire, "Funeral." One of the biggest albums of the decade, and also one of the boldest. The first five tracks are kind of a mini-concept album, a post-apocalyptic look at a neighborhood buried under the snow. It took me a few listens to understand what the album is really about, but it's all about grief and loss (the title is a big hint), and growing older. The band immediately exploded, and for good reason: the tracks on this album are just incredible. "Wake Up," in particular, is amazing, and this album remains a perpetual favorite.

Runner-up: Elliott Smith, "From a Basement on the Hill."

2005: The Hold Steady, "Separation Sunday." There are albums, and then there are complete revelations, and when I first heard this album, it completely knocked me out. Another kind-of concept album about a hoodrat named Hallelujah who gets lost in the Twin Cities' party scene and ultimately redeemed. It's a very Catholic album, all about resurrection and the unexpected presence of Grace at the last possible moment. The last track, "How a Resurrection Really Feels," has become an Easter tradition for me, and every few months I listen to this album just to be reminded of how it's put together, how it works.

Runner-up: Sufjan Stevens, "Illinois"

2006: Sufjan Stevens, "The Avalanche." For a record of b-sides and extra tracks that didn't make "Illinois," this collection is fantastic. The title track, as well as "The Mistress Witch..." and "The Henney Buggy Blues Band" are all excellent songs, and there are a few that probably should have made the cut on "Illinois." I really like Sufjan's ability to make a great album out of what are essentially extra songs, and this collection really demonstrates his range as a songwriter and composer.

Runner-up: The Hold Steady, "Boys and Girls in America."

2007: Okkervil River, "The Stage Names." The opening track of this album, "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe," is probably one of my favorite songs of the decade, and the album continues at the same pace to the end. The album is like a series of high points, with "Unless it's Kicks," "Plus Ones," and one of the two best songs about John Berryman's death, "John Allyn Smith Sails." (The other one is on "Boys and Girls in America"). Okkervil River's previous albums are all great, but I think this one is the most cohesive, most grown-up record they've put out.

Runner-up: Iron and Wine, "The Shepherd's Dog."

2008: Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes." The first song I heard off of this album, "White Winter Hymn," is a beautiful, haunting round, and those adjectives describe the rest of this album really well. Fleet Foxes are probably one of my favorite newer bands, and this album is them at their best. "He Doesn't Know Why" and "Blue Ridge Mountains" are great starting points, and the music--this is strange for a band from Seattle--really reminds me of Appalachia and the woods I grew up in, mysterious and teeming with life.

Runner-up: The Silver Jews, "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea."

2009: Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone." Was there a better song this year than "This Tornado Loves You"? Well, maybe "People Got A Lot of Nerve." Neko Case has become like a legend, a force of nature like the ones she sings about in both of these songs. And the best part is that she knows it--over and over, this album returns to the theme of violent forces of nature and their inability to be understood, from "I'm an Animal" to "Magpie to the Morning." I felt that this year and this decade were both turbulent times, and I can't think of an album that does a better job of both encompassing and transcending that.

Runner-up: The Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You."

So that's my list. What's yours? Where are my glaring omissions? The albums that mattered more than these? Well, to me, these are the ones that were the most influential, the most formative. But I want to know what else everyone else listened to in the past ten years. What did your decade sound like?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Surprise Tuesday: Outside, Two Million Drunk Bostonians are Getting Ready to Sing "Auld Lang Syne."

I'm back! Well, not today, but tomorrow. I just wanted to let everyone know. The holidays and deadlines knocked me out of my blogging schedule leading up to Christmas, so I didn't get to write the posts I wanted to, about "Fairytale of New York," or how cranky George Bailey is in "It's a Wonderful Life," or anything else holiday-themed. Well, there's always next year.

But tomorrow: Musical Wednesdays returns! I was thinking about doing my top 10 albums of the year, but it's the end of a decade, and it seems appropriate to do something a bit wider-ranging--I'm thinking "My 10 Favorite Songs of the Decade." God, that sounds difficult just thinking about it. Maybe 10 favorite albums? Of the year?

Well, you'll have to check in tomorrow to see where I go with it. But for now, in anticipation of New Year's Eve, here is a video of the best song ever about New Year's eve. Get up on the stage and feel nostalgic, would you?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Ten Christmas Songs I Don't Completely Dread Hearing

There are some Christmas songs that I avoid more than any other music, songs that make me cringe and desperately change the station. If I can get through the Christmas season without hearing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" or "Wonderful Christmastime," I'm really glad. But there are some songs that I actually look forward to hearing...the ones that I actually like.

1. "Blue Christmas." This one is kind of a weird choice for me, as I'm not that big of an Elvis fan, but for some reason I like it. There's a great cover version by Bright Eyes that really amps up the sadness of the lyrics, and a lot of times the original gets suddenly, inexplicably stuck in my head.

2. "Baby, It's Cold Outside." This isn't really a Christmas song, I guess, but it's a song for Christmastime, so it's on here. I love the version featured in the movie "Elf," but there are a lot of versions that are pretty good. Others--there's a Ricardo Montalban version--not so much.

3. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." This wouldn't be a list of my favorite Christmas songs without Darlene Love, and this is my absolute favorite. This is another one that's been extensively covered, but the original is still the best.

4. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)." Well, at least the first half. The more you hear of Yoko, the worse this song gets, but the beginning is fantastic, the perfect combination of bitter and hopeful. The way Lennon sings, "So this is Christmas" is just fantastic.

5. "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth," David Bowie and Bing Crosby. This song has one of the strangest set-ups in the world, with these two chatting about Christmas before starting the song. It's from a Christmas special, the kind where celebrity guests just stopping by to chat was completely normal. The weirdest part of the whole thing? The song works.

6. "River" by Joni Mitchell. Is this a Christmas song? It takes place at Christmas, and I always look forward to hearing it around now. It's...well, it's another sad Christmastime song, but I like it anyway.

7. "It's Christmas! Let's be glad!" by Sufjan Stevens. This one is on my iPod, so it's not one of those songs that suddenly comes on the radio--actually, I can't imagine this suddenly coming on the radio--but it's a song about being glad at Christmas, no matter how bad the year has been, and I think that's a notion I can get behind.

8. "Linus and Lucy," Vince Guaraldi Trio. Really, you can extend this to all of the songs in "Charlie Brown Christmas," but this is the one that instantly brings me to Christmas, to Snoopy dancing, to the kids waving their hands around a tree and magically saving it.

9. "Sleigh Ride." The Ronettes version is probably my favorite, with its "ring-a-lings" in the background and quick tempo, but the song in general really deserves its status as a classic. This is another one with a related "Saturday Night Live" sketch, featuring Molly Shannon.

10. "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," Bruce Springsteen. I didn't like this one much as a kid, but now I really do. I think having seen him play live, I feel like his banter in the song's introduction is really natural, and the way he throws all of his normal Springsteen swagger into such an upbeat pop song is really outstanding.

Well, those are mine. There's one more, but that's getting its own post on a different Wednesday coming up. What about you? What Christmas songs do you look forward to hearing?

Monday, December 7, 2009

(Non) Fiction Mondays: Zeitoun and Pictures at a Revolution

I've been on a nonfiction kick the past few weeks. Since I finished "Gravity's Rainbow," I've read two great nonfiction books, a genre that for some reason, I don't read much of. I'm not much of a memoir or biography fan, preferring to learn about people through the lens of fiction (even if they're historical figures, like Tesla in "The Invention of Everything Else").

The two books I've read are Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution" and Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun." They're both excellent, if extremely different, works of nonfiction, the former a big book about the 1968 Academy Awards and the five films nominated for Best Picture, and the latter a story about a man in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina who begins rescuing people in his canoe, only to be arrested and put into several prisons.

"Pictures at a Revolution" is definitely a film nerd book, about the end of the old studio system and the birth of the "second golden age," where filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese took the reins of the studios and made some of their most incredible movies. These filmmakers, often called the "film school brats" completely reinvented the movie business, bringing a European sensibility that they had picked up in college (for a great look at the era after this book, rent the movie "A Decade Under the Influence"). In my undergraduate film classes, we covered this era pretty briefly, but the main thing I remember is that the big musicals, trying to jump on the success of "The Sound of Music," really destroyed the studios: "Paint Your Wagon," "Camelot," and the one featured in this book, "Doctor Doolittle." These were movies with huge budgets that were completely out of touch with the realities of moviegoers, and they were completely destroyed by movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," both nominated for Best Picture. The stories of each individual movie (including the eventual winner, "In the Heat of the Night," and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") are incredibly researched and detailed, and the overall story, about the movie business blinding itself to the changing realities of their viewers, is really interesting.

"Zeitoun," about a contractor who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, is completely harrowing. Zeitoun gets arrested in a building he owns, and without due process, a phone call, or a hearing, he is sent to "Camp Greyhound," a prison set up outside of the city's bus terminal. Before his arrest, he sets out in a secondhand canoe to rescue anyone who needs help in the city, including animals and elderly neighbors. He is arrested on suspicion of looting, without being questioned or formally charged. The story is insane, mostly because you do not want to believe this happened in America. The fact that a major American city can come under martial law, the rights of citizens left in the care of hired mercenaries like Blackwater, is just unbelieveable. And all of this happening as people are dying without help from the government agencies they depend on. It's really shocking and frustrating, but the book somehow manages, at the end, to be really hopeful, a story about unshakeable faith in the promise of the country.

I really recommend both of these books. Like I said, I'm not really a nonfiction reader, but these stories were incredible. I think I'm going to jump back to fiction now, but I'm not sure what book I'm going to read. Any suggestions?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Films: "That Was Some Pure Wild Animal Craziness"

This week, I went to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book, and I am very glad to say it did not disappoint. My faith in Wes Anderson was shaken after "The Darjeeling Limited," and I was worried that the director would continue to make movies that amounted to little more than a collection of incredible details without the plot or character development to support the overall design (I'm talking to you, luggage in "Darjeeling Limited.") But this movie was, if I'm allowed to say it this way, a return to form. It was a reminder of why I loved Anderson's movies in the first place. There was still an obsession over the minute detail, but the characters and story that the details were nestled among (and not the other way around) were extremely likeable and actually fun.

The movie combined the best parts of "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," and "The Royal Tenenbaums," along with a few choices pieces of "The Life Aquatic" (There was one point where I couldn't help but think, "Let me tell you about my boat.") It's a caper, a family comedy-drama, and a movie about a flawed but endearing big dreamer all at once, and it works. Everyone in the cast, from Clooney as the title character to Bill Murray as Badger, his lawyer, was completely suited to the characters they were playing, and the puppets, with fur that always seemed to be in motion and impeccable suits, were really incredible bits of Anderson's detail that somehow came to life. I left the theater with a huge smile on my face, so glad that the director had returned to the kinds of characters and stories that I really loved. Jason Schwartzman's character, Ash, is especially hilarious, with a few lines that completely steal the scene with their understated humor. When his lab partner, a female fox, stares at his cousin, he says, "You're supposed to be my lab partner. You're disloyal," in a way that I don't think is present in any other director's work. It's a strange coupling of over-the-top design and understated voice acting that completely works.

Of course, since this is a Wes Anderson movie, there are countless quotable moments, references to other films, and, yes, a shot of a group of characters underwater. Mr. Fox, arriving at home, calls his family, "my darlings," a bit of Royal Tenenbaum that made me unbelievably glad. Toward the end of the movie, there's a great moment with a silhouette of a wolf: Mr. Fox, spying it in the distance, calls out, "Mr. Wolf! Canis Lupis!" and then asks, in French, if the wolf thinks it will be a rough winter. The wolf doesn't answer, but instead wanders off into the forest--it's a strange, weirdly funny moment, and it really stuck with me. Throughout the movie, the characters, animals in suits, talk about their wildness, with Mr. Fox complimenting his son by saying, "That was some pure wild animal craziness," but this wolf is different. It's truly wild, without any of the human influences of the rest of the animals, and it's clear, even in the puppets, that Mr. Fox views it with equal parts terror and deep respect.

I love it when an adaptation manages to both capture the spirit of the original material and the vision of the director, and I feel like "Fantastic Mr. Fox" does this incredibly well. I'm sure Dahl never imagined a sequence of Mr. Fox vs. the farmers to be set to the Rolling Stones' "Street Fightin' Man," but after seeing the movie, I can't imagine it being any other way.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: It's a Marshmallow World

Well, now that it's December, I'm going to kick off this edition of Musical Wednesdays with a song somewhat related to the time period of my NaNoWriMo project: Darlene Love's version of "Marshmallow World." Even though the song was recorded in 1950 by Bing Crosby, the Darlene Love version is probably the best-known. It appeared on the 1963 album "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" (Holiday Tip: don't open any box that says "from: Phil Spector." It's probably dangerous.) along with the Ronette's "Sleigh Ride," the Crystal's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," as well as many others that you'll hear if you're listening to the right radio stations this season (I'd suggest the Sirius/XM station "Little Stephen's Underground Garage).

The song itself is kind of...strange. It begins, "It's a marshmallow world in the winter, when the snow falls to cover the ground," and then completely loses its mind around the second verse: "And the sun is red like a pumpkin head"...I'm sorry, what? There are a lot of things that are, you know, actually red and actually associated with Christmas, rather than Halloween or the Headless Horseman. But still: it's a Phil Spector production, so it somehow works.

But the strange, amazingly produced song isn't the only reason I wanted to post about Darlene Love and holiday music. I also wanted to share one of my all-time favorite SNL Christmas moments (related: does anyone know if they're showing the "Christmas Past" episode this year? I really hope so.). This sketch was part of "TV Funhouse," which has done a bunch of great Christmas sketches, but this one cracks me up every time. It's "Christmas Time for the Jews," a Darlene Love-sounding songs about the one night of the year that Jewish people can play for the Lakers, see movies without waiting in line, and beat up Quakers without any Gentiles bothering them:

What better way to kick off the season?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fiction Mondays: NaNoWriMo Is Done!

Well, today is the last day of National Novel Writing Month, and I'm DONE! Well, by "done," I mean I have 50,000 words, and the beginning (probably the first half or so) of a novel draft. It might be closer to 2/3 of the novel, depending on how quickly the ending happens, but we'll see. I'm going to keep working on this draft, because I really feel like I've gotten to know the characters, and I'm excited to see how it pans out. Massive rewrites will happen eventually, but today I'm going to just bask in the accomplishment of getting so much done in a month. November has been long and difficult. I'm looking forward to December.

I'm currently reading "Pictures at a Revolution," which I will write more about soon. But for now: go read this book. If you're into film history, it's an essential read, full of stories about classic Hollywood and the changes that brought the "Film School Brats" to such prominence in the 1970s. Think of it as a kind of prequel to "A Decade Under the Influence."

And now, I'm off to Christmas shop for Cyber Monday!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Home for the Holiday

Thanks to Dan Lehr, another Rainy September participant I follow on Twitter, I found out about the band Home, an early 90s band that I would probably classify as lo-fi if I was trying to say what they sound like. Their first eight albums, released on cassette tapes and not widely distributed, have now been released as the Home Box Set (also available on iTunes and Amazon), and you should definitely go out and buy it. It's only 15.95, and contains 95 songs, so it's a great value and a really excellent collection.

The first time I heard their songs, my main thought was that it was really familiar, for a band I had never even heard of, and I think it's because a lot of my favorite bands adopted a similar sound, as well as the incorporation of random clips of other sounds into their music (I'm thinking of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Mountain Goats specifically). I think that the band's name is really apt, because listening to the collected tapes is a really welcoming experience, songs you can put on and kind of disappear into.

The tapes also feature some awesome and unexpected covers--Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"--that show a really fun side of the band, and to me they seem like songs that might have just been run through in rehearsals to such success that they made the album. The lo-fi version of "Thunderstruck" is especially strange (and I mean that in a good way), because I have to confess I really love AC/DC, and it's awesome to see them get some attention from indie rock.

And, unlike some other early 1990s lo-fi bands, Home is still around. Still playing shows, in fact. No ten-year hiatus for them. Over on Dan's blog, he has a lot of clips of live shows that I really recommend checking out. They have a ton of albums in addition to the Box Set, and they maintain a very funny blog. So check them out. And if you've got a long drive or flight ahead of you for Thanksgiving, the Box Set will make a great soundtrack for that trip.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! No post on Friday, but I'll see you all again on Monday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Full-Circle

Well, I've done it. I got through Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," my sanity intact. The ending was crazy, very fast paced (but he still had time for allusions to Isaac and Abraham and the Tarot, as well as Kabbala) and it ended in a very similar way to how it started, with a screaming coming across the sky. I still haven't one-hundred percent cycled through my thoughts about it, but I am glad I read it and I'm glad to move on. In comparison to reading Pynchon, anything else is easy. Well, almost anything else. I'm reading "Pictures at a Revolution," which I'm getting through really quickly. Expect a post on that soon, but not too soon (December will be focused on holidays, I'm thinking).

In writing news: the onslaught that is November will be over soon. My big projects are coming to a close (both NaNoWriMo and real-world projects), and I'm looking forward to the clearing out that will occur on December 2nd. It feels strange to have so many things wrapping up at once--graduate school applications included--and it will be a very welcome break. What will I do with my time, besides returning to a sane daily pace and blogging before 6pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Well, like I mentioned earlier, Chanterelles will not be done, not in my opinion, by the end of the month, so I'll probably wrap up a draft of that. Everything has its trajectory set (I need to get out of rocket-thinking soon. I blame Pynchon.) and the ending will be interesting. But in a short amount of time, I've grown attached to these characters. I'll be sad to see this draft end. But it's never over, is it?

What else? Editing my previous manuscript, maybe returning to work on my Zeppelin story. I'm trying to decide on a title for that one. How about "To Be a Rock, and Not to Roll"? Or "Houses of the Holy"? I also got a very strange idea for a story--I don't know how I'd categorize it, because right now it's literally a sentence and a line of dialogue in my notebook, but maybe I'd call it a fable. Or it might be some kind of horror story. I really don't know. I won't reveal too much, but the idea is really calling out to me and I'm excited to see where it goes.

Well, I'll see you all on Wednesday. I think the post might be about the band Home, who I started listening to recently.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday, but not Films

Just a quick post today.

If you're looking to see some great art, head over to the brand new website of Allison Mosher and check out her work! The painting above is a quick preview, a work called "Gemini" that hangs above my bed. Head on over, take a look!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Halfway?

Well, November is halfway over, which means that so is National Novel Writing Month. I'm right at my word count goal, over 25,000 with half of the month left to go, and I can come to a conclusion I arrived at before this thing even started: 50,000 words is nowhere near long enough to constitute a fully-formed novel, at least the way I write. Now, that is not to say I think the month (so far) has been a bust in any way--the opposite, in fact--it tells me that my idea, "Chanterelles," needs more room to breathe than 50,000 will allow. Here's the thing: the story is about forming a band, recording and album, and heading out on tour. That's the first part, and the second part is the unraveling of that band (not in the usual ways bands tend to fall apart, bickering and bloated, in that kind of story, just so you know).

But here's the problem: in the first 25,000 words, a band has formed. It took a lot of people figuring out how this was going to work, making deals and poaching members of other bands, to form the thing in the first place. And while that's coming along, the protagonist has his own things going on, plus there needs to be enough that the lead singer is not just the lead singer, but a three-dimensional character. She needs to write a song (she has), but she also needs to understand the nature of the business--and of the current trends in music that she's up against (see my earlier post, re: the schizophrenia of pop music in 1966). So this is all happening before they step into the studio.

So here is what I'm saying: unless I gloss over huge sections, there is no way this thing is going to fit into 50,000 words. When I'm working on a longer piece, I am a hybrid of the type of writer who plans things and the type who wings it. I love setting up a lot of pieces in the beginning to see how they are going to play out in the second half. That discovery, that moment where I understand how things from that first half are going to fit together or come apart in the end, is one of my favorite parts of writing. I know roughly what happens in the second half--very roughly--but it's the discovery of why that might happen, or the way it does, that excites me.

Here is how I see the rest of the month playing out: I'm going to get to 50,000 words, but I do not expect the last two to be "The End." I will just keep writing, keep on setting things up so that at the moment things turn, I know exactly how the characters are going to react. There is a very good chance that the 50,000 word mark will be right in the middle of that section, where everything makes sense and I can begin to see the final parts, but no, my 50,000 words will not be anything but a beginning. And I think that's okay: if the goal of this enterprise is to force you to just get that draft out, I will be on the path to doing that, and too wrapped up in it to slow down. To me, that will mean it's been a successful month.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Films: I Want to See "Up in the Air"

George Clooney is a very busy guy this fall--between "The Men Who Stare at Goats," "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," and "Up in the Air," he is possibly the most-employed person in Hollywood right now. I want to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox"--I can see the stop-motion model, which requires excessive attention to detail, being a really good fit for Wes Anderson, whose attention to detail is sometimes detracts from the rest of the movie ("Darjeeling Limited"? Great design and a terrible script.), but last weekend, during the "Mad Men" season finale, they showed the preview for "Up in the Air," and that one has moved to the top of my list.

It's a new movie by Jason Reitman, who directed "Juno" and "Thank You For Smoking," and it seems to be in the same spirit as the latter: a miserable bastard of a character finding redemption. Or not. The movie is about Clooney's character, who flies around the country firing people. And Zach Galifianakis is in it. And Jason Bateman. Here's the long preview:

I have a good feeling about this movie. It's a great concept with a really strong writer and director, lead actor, and supporting actors. I like everyone involved with it. Both previews I've seen so far use a bit of a speech Clooney delivers about the weight of a life, and it struck me as a really interesting idea (some research tells me that the movie is based on a novel by Walter Kirn, who I have not read. Should I?). I hope this plays in East Stroudsburg (I'm talking to you, Pocono Community Theater) soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Dewey Decimal and the System

I'm taking this Musical Wednesday as an opportunity to plug a friend's band: Dewey Decimal and the System. A few reasons you should check this band out:

1. Their name. Go libraries!

2. Their album name: "O Pioneers!" is a Walt Whitman reference.

3. Their sound: when I heard them for the first time, I was reminded of the Band--they have a really great sound that I can't quite categorize, but they identify themselves as "Americana/Rockabilly/Country." I'd say that's a good start. They cover a great old Hank Williams song, "I Saw the Light," on their album, and the rest are really solid originals.

4. Their album design: the full Whitman quote ("Follow well in order, get your weapons ready/Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?/Pioneers! O pioneers!") is hidden behind the CD, which has the image of a pistol printed on it. It's extremely cool, and I just love the way it all works together, along with the photos of the whole band.

5. And finally, a little story:
A few weeks ago, the Pocono Community Theater, run by a member of the band, hosted an event called "Silent Films Set to Loud Music." The band played last, standing in front of the film "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Since it was Halloween, a group of very drunk, very slutty girls showed up. Two of them wandered onstage and proceeded to stay, for the entire set. Now, I have been drunk before, but I have never been wander-onto-the-stage-uninvited drunk. One, dressed as a slutty cop, tried to frisk every band member. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable for the audience, but the band just played their music. Two of them, the keyboardist and bass player, avoided these girls like they were plague-bearing (or, more likely, herpes-bearing) rats. I think if you can play "I Saw the Light" while morons invade your stage, it's a testament to your band.

So check them out.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Button Classic

How is everyone doing? I’m very busy today, just a lot of things in the air. But the increasingly-misnamed Rainy September is winding down, and NaNoWriMo is chugging along (15,000-ish words. And some good ones in there!), and most importantly, graduate applications are coming together. So I’m going to go ahead and apologize for this post being short, but…well, it’s a busy day. They’re all busy days until Thanksgiving, I think. But stay tuned, because December will be appropriately holiday-themed. That's right, you can expect Musical Wednesdays about "Fairytale of New York" and Fiction Mondays about--well, that's a tough one. What are some great books that take place around the holidays?

But that doesn’t mean a reduction in posts (ignore the one I missed on Friday—I hadn’t seen any movies recently), it just means that the Short List is going to be right-sizing. Sorry, I had to use that one…my favorite corporate neologism of the day.

The article that links to seems like a joke from 30 Rock--not the article itself, just the way the CEO talks: "reduce our overall rent expense and lease-adjusted leverage and generate cash flow through sales and working capital reductions" sounds an awful lot like "Consuming Lunch and Simple Socializing" from the "Retreat to Move Forward."

"I don't know, I liked the old button."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Soundtrack for a Novel, Take Two

Okay, day four of NaNoWriMo and I am going strong. I am writing about pop music in the 1960s, and since starting, I've learned that pop music in that decade was, more than anything else, totally schizophrenic. You'd go from the Supremes to "Good Vibrations" to Johnny Rivers (of "Secret Agent Man" fame) in just over a month. The longest time anything spent at the top of the charts in 1966 was a four-week period where Frank and Nancy Sinatra had a duet in the number-one slot. So history gives one of my main characters, a record executive, a crisis. How do you sign the next big act if you have no idea what people are going to want in a week?

So in the spirit of the insane music of the 1960s, I'm expanding my playlist:

1. The Ronettes - Be My Baby
2. The Supremes - You Keep Me Hanging On
3. The Marvelettes - Twistin' Postman
4. The Crystals - He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)
5. 13th Floor Elevators - You're Gonna Miss Me
6. The Animals - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
7. The Beatles - Penny Lane
8. Beach Boys - Good Vibrations
9. Otis Redding - Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay
10. Janis Joplin - Piece of My Heart
11. Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walking
12. Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone
13. Pete Seeger - We Shall Overcome

This playlist will be expanded and revised as I go, but right now, this is the music that is acting as the soundtrack to writing right at this moment. I'm sure there are a million songs that capture the tumult and the sea changes going on in popular music and culture at the moment, so feel free to leave any suggestions!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fiction Mondays: NaNoWriMo

If you're a regular here, you may have noticed the new picture to the right. That's right: "Participant." This month, I'm really doing it. I am going to tackle the one-month novel. I've thought about doing it before, but this month I'm not chickening out. I've written a first draft of a first novel, and I am not afraid of writing another. I have an idea that I really love--the 60s girl group I mentioned a few months ago--and a really vague idea of where it's heading. I know my two main characters and (kind of) the plot trajectory--a band that disappears into America. A desperate attempt to beat Motown in the Billboard Charts. The idealism of the Monterey Pop festival and the impending doom of the end of the decade. I can do this.

Now, I know I have enough on my plate, with work and graduate school applications, and if I was to pick a month to force myself to write 50,000 words, I would probably not pick this one. But I think I need it. Other than the short story I've been working on, my writing output has not been great the past few weeks. It's time for an emergency injection of month-long writing insanity. To quote Buster Bluth, "This might be just the shot in the arm our relationship needs!" And to further quote Buster, "Unlimited juice? This party is going to be off the hook!" I just threw that one in there because it amuses me.

So here we go. When this posts, I will have been working for one day, and will hopefully have some messy, ill-thought-out words on the page. But for now, I'm assembling a writing soundtrack. More on this Wednesday, but it contains:

1. The Ronettes - Be My Baby
2. The Supremes - You Keep Me Hanging On
3. The Marvelettes - Twistin' Postman
4. Paul McCartney & Wings - Band on the Run (yes, Wings. I know. But I like the story of a vanishing band, and it has ties to my plot.)

More on Wednesday. Happy Writing!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Films: Where the Wild Things Are

After waiting for a really long time for it to come out--there was some delay because apparently the monsters were testing as too scary for little kids--I was really excited to finally see Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book. I actually started getting really impatient a week or two before it was released, because the commercials would get me so excited that I wanted to go out and see it immediately. I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed. I absolutely loved it. It was dark, and complex, and everything seemed real, especially the danger. When Max was being chased (it happens twice in the movie, but I won't spoil any more), I actually felt my heart beating. It was a movie that was going for real emotional connection, and I loved that about it.

It was also a beautiful movie--it looks surreal because it uses a lot of natural light to convey a strange world. It looks like either the beginning or the end of the day for a lot of it, with the sun a certain kind of orange-yellow coming in through the trees. The scene changes from forest to desert to mountains without any kind of transition, exactly the way a young kid would imagine his own world. And then there were, of course, the monsters.

They looked like nothing else I've seen, some perfect combination of the monsters from the book and Henson Creature Shop productions (which they were). At first it was distracting to have one with Tony Soprano's voice, but for some reason it fit. I think because Tony Soprano was a complex monster anyway.

I don't want to go on and on, but I will say this--it isn't a kids' movie. It's dark, and has some scary parts, (little kids in the theater were terrified), and it doesn't fit into anything remotely resembling a neat package or moral. Instead, it's a movie about being a kid--about imagination and the loneliness of being young and misunderstood--and it really resonated with me because of that.

Most movies aimed at kids are pandering (honestly, the previews were terrible, and not only because The Rock is trying to become Dwayne Johnson) and rely on making jokes about pop culture, instead of actually being a movie, and the fact that Where the Wild Things Are did not do this at all was what really made it, for me, not a kids' movie. But it's a bold statement of what a kids' movie can be, and what a young audience can handle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Pavement, Ten Years Later

I was driving home the other night, and Pavement's "Range Life" came on the radio. It's a great song, one of my favorites, but then the line, "Stone Temple Pilots are elegant bachelors" came on, and I thought, "Wow, this song just really dated itself." The Stone Temple Pilots broke up in 2003, which was four years after Pavement's last album. There's also a reference to a Walkman in that same song, which is of course, a device that played cassette tapes, which were...oh, you get where I'm going with this. Pavement has some reunion shows coming up, and what I'm wondering is: will they still be relevant?

I'd love them to be (although I didn't manage to get tickets to any of the four shows in Central Park), but still, I have to wonder: what generation will Malkmus, at 43 years old, be fighting? And is a leisure suit still nothing to be proud of in this early century? I don't mean to make fun of these songs--I really love "Harness Your Hopes" and "Cut Your Hair" and "Summer Babe"--but it is weird to think of a reunion after a ten-year hiatus.

But it's been done before, and it's not like the members of the band have been silent since Pavement broke up. Reissues, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, the Silver Jews--they've still been in the music business. I'm interested to hear how this reunion is, and whether they'll change any of the very-90s references in some of the song.

On the other hand, the Stone Temple Pilots apparently had a reunion tour this summer. I wonder if they're still elegant bachelors..

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fiction Mondays: I Don't Want an E-Book Reader

So last week, Barnes and Noble released the Nook, their new e-reader, to compete with Amazon's Kindle, the Que, and the Alex. I have to say that despite some good ideas (particularly the ability to "lend" an e-book to someone else's e-reader), I'm still not sold on these things. Not in the slightest. Of course, some publishing people think that these are the hope of the industry, but I'm not really clear on who wants these. Students? That would make sense, to keep all of your textbooks on one...But what about book people? You know, like constant readers (and book buyers)?

I love the feel of a book, and the design that goes into it, and the discovery of something from the shelf. But none of that matters on an e-book reader. The user experience is limited--no matter what book you're reading, it looks like a PDF. I also have some problems with the bells and whistles on these things. Do you need two screens on a dedicated e-reader? Doesn't that make it even less of a book than it already was?

Maybe I'm just becoming a cranky old man, but I'd much rather see someone do something really interesting or innovative or high-quality with print. Something like...this, maybe?

Of course, the man behind the San Francisco Panorama is also the man who said this:

"Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong."

And that's the corner I'm standing in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: To Be a Rock, and Not to Roll

I guess this week's Monday and Wednesday posts are kind of interchangeable, as they both revolve around the story I mentioned Monday. I've gotten back into the story, and I feel like there's a lot of crisis in this disc jockey's life--the fear of being replaced by Clear Channel's machines, wondering whether a station format change will make him obsolete--and I think the real trick is going to be why being forced to play Led Zeppelin becomes the crisis that embodies all of this.

But here's the thing: to make it work, I need to find a Led Zeppelin song (or songs) that a guy whose taste tends toward the Modern Lovers and Velvet Underground would actually like. Nothing too well-known, I don't think--I mean, I'm running through songs in my head, and I might go with the ones I kind of like, "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Houses of the Holy." Maybe "Going to California"? What I'm saying is this: my knowledge of Zeppelin is pretty limited, and I would love to hear some suggestions.

Some quick Wikipedia-ing has turned up some interesting facts about Led Zeppelin, and I feel like my character in this story would love the fact that they wanted their fourth album to stand alone, without any indication that it's a Zeppelin album. This kind of belief in the strength of the music is something that the DJ character in this story would find really admirable. Maybe my answer is in there. I also decided, as I started writing this story, that the character is 32 years old, only to find out later that John Bonham was 32 when he died. Not something I'm planning on using in the story, but an interesting side-note.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fiction Mondays: I'm in Love With the Radio On

Remember last week, when I said I wasn't spending enough time with my fiction because of graduate applications and work? Well, I kept thinking about it, and I realized that I didn't have any new ideas for short stories. I had old ideas that never really took off--they're all over my hard drive, a collection of titles that I have to remember what they were supposed to be. But there was nothing rattling around half-formed, waiting for me to put it down on paper. And then, since it's almost Halloween, one of those stories lying dead on my computer suddenly came back to life.

Here is what happened: I was driving yesterday, listening to Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour," and the theme was radio. I don't know if you listen to that program, but it's pretty much an hour of Bob Dylan playing whatever he wants, loosely assembled around a theme. The themes can range from gambling to colors to musical instruments. And Bob Dylan has a hell of a record collection. So last night, one of the songs Bob Dylan played was Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner. And I remembered a story idea I had a long time ago, about a radio DJ who hates Led Zeppelin.

It was strange, but while that song was playing, I started imagining a disc jockey starting his set with that--it would be appropriate, wouldn't it? With lyrics like, "I'm in love with the radio," it would be a great anthem to start the set. And I imagined all of the people the song would go out to, the people starting their cars to go to work, the people listening in the kitchen while they're eating their breakfast, the people in the office turning it up (or down) as this new DJ starts his show. And then I started thinking about how that form of DJ is dying out (except on satellite and online), the guy who, as Tom Petty says, "plays whatever he wants to play." Now it's all Clear Channel and preprogrammed stuff. And I'd imagine if you got into radio because you really loved music, that would be a terrible, tragic thing, and you'd be really worried about what your future looks like. So now I'm ready to return to that story, because I think I can now do it right.

I wasn't looking for inspiration (I mean, I was, but not in an active kind of way), but suddenly seeing the story outside of the story, what's at stake, really pushed me to want to write. By not looking for inspiration, but always leaving myself open to it, I've discovered the heart of a story that I thought I'd never touch again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Films: Now You, Too, Can Ruin Classic Movies

Tired of Directv's stupid ads having the monopoly on ruining classic movie scenes?

Well, have I got a product for you.

Thanks to Yoostar, anyone with $170 dollars to spend on absolutely useless shit can ruin classic scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sabrina, and the Blues Brothers. Just hook it up, film yourself, and insert yourself into any of these movies (and more!). Just like the directors intended, I'm sure, when they made these films. Haven't you thought, so many times, "Well, Oscar-winner Tom Hanks was pretty good in Forrest Gump, but I could do better"? Now is your chance to prove it.

I actually came across an ad for this product at the Onion, so I really hoped it was a joke. I still really hope it's a joke. I hope it's some elaborate, misguided anti-piracy campaign. Like those commercials you sometimes see before a movie with a cell phone ruining a scene. Anything but this being a real product, aimed at some target audience that ostensibly likes movies (enough to buy a product that will let them be an a movie scene).

My biggest question is this: who the hell is responsible for this? I mean the whole thing, soup-to-nuts. Who is accountable? I want to know who the investors were who thought this was a product the market needs, the studio execs who signed off on the clips...everyone who had a hand in this. I know there's a ton of completely useless garbage out there, but come on...this one does terrible things to movies. Is nothing sacred?*

Now, if you're still holding that $170 dollars, wondering what you can do with it, here's a suggestion: send it to me. Believe me, you'll feel a lot better about feeding a writer for a month than you will about wasting it on Yoostar. And you won't be hurting movies. Hey, you know what? For $170, I'll even quote all of these scenes with you!**

*"Is nothing sacred" is a line from a scene in "Rushmore" that you will be able to insert yourself into using Yoostar. No, I'm just kidding. I think Wes Anderson has more integrity than that.

**Some restrictions may apply.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: New Daniel Johnston!

I don't know how I missed this, but...

New Daniel Johnston!

But that's not all: it's a new, polished and produced Daniel Johnston--an album where the production values match the grandeur in his mind. And speaking of his mind: one of my favorite old Daniel Johnston songs gets a new life on this album--"I Had Lost My Mind"!

I've only heard one track so far, "Freedom," and I'm happy to report that Daniel Johnston doesn't lose any of his best qualities by recording a clean, well-produced album. The song is still catchy, there's still a hint of mania in the voice, and I can't imagine that anything has been autotuned.

Hm, has anyone tried autotuning Daniel Johnston? That would be terrible.

But to return to my previous point: if anything, Daniel Johnston recording an album with an actual producer makes his music sound like it can finally match his ambitions. It's kind of strange to wonder what his earlier albums, recorded on cassette tape, would have sounded like. It's equally strange, given Johnston's life story and subject matter, to see that on the various music blogs reporting the new album, he's regarded as something of an elder statesman in independent music, a singer-songwriter who has passed through shifts in popular taste with his sound mostly unchanged.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiction Monday: Application Conundrum

As you may know, I'm currently applying for graduate school. I want to go for my MFA in Creative Writing, but I've noticed something strange about working on applications. I notice it every year, but this year I want to post about it. I was going to feature it as a line graph, but instead I'll just say it:

Between statements of purpose, online applications, and "biographical sketches," my time spent working on actual pieces of fiction has disappeared.

I'm sure this isn't a revelation, but it is frustrating. The way forward, toward a degree in writing fiction, is keeping me from doing any writing.

I think there's only one way to end this post, and here it is:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
'That's some catch, that catch-22,' he observed.
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Films: Movie Title Screens

I came across this really awesome website yesterday, featuring the title (and sometimes end-title) screen captures of movies from 1920-today. Some of them are just incredible, and are enough to make me want to see the movie. The one above is for an early film noir that I haven't seen, and a quick search tells me it's about a wrongfully-accused man searching for the real murderer. Of course, the classic opening title shots are all accounted for, including Citizen Kane and, well, everything Hitchcock ever made, but it's the ones I've never seen or heard of that are the biggest surprises.

It takes some really nerdy devotion to movies to assemble a collection like this website, and I love it. Title screens are very often the forgotten parts of movies, and it's good to see such a well-designed website attempting to collect and display them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Two Sufjans

At the end of the month, Sufjan Stevens will release his latest album, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, although "album" might not be the right word for it. It's a multimedia package, incorporating a super-8 video Sufjan shot, as well as his instrumental composition. Now, God knows I love Sufjan--I waited outside, overnight, in February to get tickets to his concert with the National Symphony Orchestra--but the new stuff he's tending to play lately makes me miss the incredible songs of his "Illinois," "Seven Swans," "Avalanche," and "Michigan" albums. So many of the tracks on those albums are insanely beautiful, tragic songs, but a lot of his recent stuff is kind of detached from that. It's...well, "glitchy" sounds wrong, but it does sound less expansive, and more influenced by his early electronic stuff. Which is just not my thing.

But I haven't heard the "Brooklyn-Queens Expressway" yet. I intend to listen to it, to give it as much of a chance as I give everything he does, but this review of the live performance does not make me feel hopeful. I wish the Sufjan of the breathtakingly beautiful "Majesty, Snowbird," a song I only heard once, at that show I waited all night for, would return. That would be something to get excited about.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Assembling My Portfolio

Happy October! The fall means it's time for MFA applications, which means it's portfolio time. I am going through my stories, attempting to figure out which ones convey my skills and my narrative concerns (and strength of plot, character, and dialogue), and will fit into a 25 page limit (the number for about half of my applications, while the other half ask for 30). It's a long and tiring process, but it's still easier than the statement of purpose (maybe it's just me, but I find them really daunting to write).

No Rainy September update this week, because my brain is tired and I got waaay ahead of schedule this week. I'm sure this will correct itself in the very long third section of the book, but for now I'm just going to keep on going. But what's everyone else out there reading? I got my copy of Dave Eggers' "The Wild Things," and I'm really looking forward to diving in. Maybe I'll read it concurrently with "Gravity's Rainbow," so that my brain has a way to rest.

It's going to be a busy fall, but I will try my best to keep up with posting here. The updates might be a little shorter than usual, but will continue to be on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tune in this Wednesday for a post on the cancellation of the Kanye West/Lady Gaga tour.

No, I'm just kidding. It will probably be an open letter to the Hold Steady to tour the East Coast, or something about Sufjan Stevens' weird Brooklyn-Queens Expressway album.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Two Songs With Premonitions

I always find it weird when a song is written and then a line in it becomes weirdly predictive of something that happens later. I can't imagine it's too common, but two songs come to mind.

The first one is a few years old, a Hold Steady song off of Separation Sunday. It's a great album that I could write about for weeks if I had nothing else to do (or if, you know, the 33 and 1/3 people hired me to write about it) but one of my favorite songs is called "Don't Let Me Explode." There's a bit about Saint Barbara in there (patron saint of munition-men and other hazardous occupations), but the bulk of the song is this narrative about finding a home in America. It's a theme the band covered well in "Killer Parties" from their first album, but this song is different:

"Yeah, we didn't go to Dallas,
'Cause Jackie O'Nassis said
that it ain't safe for Catholics yet.
Think about what they pulled on Kennedy,
and then think about his security.
Then think about what they might try to pull on you and me."

It's more about a spiritual yearning than a catalog of places the narrator has partied through, and there's a line that has always, always struck me as odd.

"Yeah, and he said, 'What about New Orleans?'
She said, 'I don't think you understand what that means.'"

This album came out in May of 2005. And then two months later, the meaning of "New Orleans" changed. It's a strange bit of prophecy in a very Catholic band, and even though I know they weren't talking about what New Orleans came to mean, it still kind of haunts me.

The second one is a bit lighter: it's in the song "So Far Around the Bend" by the National, off of the Dark Was the Night compilation. It's about a lost and listless woman that the singer just can't seem to connect with (even as he describes her actions) and ends with a repeated line, "Now there's no leaving New York," which makes the song (for me) about a failure to connect in a city of millions. But the line that I noticed this weekend was this one: "Praying for Pavement to get back together." This compilation only came out a few months ago, and now? Prayer answered.

Are there any other songs that strangely predict the future? Let me know if you think of any.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Brief Rainy September Update

I went away this weekend, so this post is going to be a little shorter than usual. First, my thoughts on pages 71-140 of Gravity's Rainbow (these thoughts are not very organized, but bear with me):

  • The whole section about Katje and Gottfriend in the cabin in the woods was way too long. The guy who keeps them trapped (was it Blicero?) was far too unpleasant a character to be stuck with for so many pages.
  • I really loved the whole scene with Roger Mexico and Jessica at the Advent Mass, and the whole world of associations it brings out as they consider Christmas at wartime.
  • Was the story behind "the White Visitation" (the Angel seen in the sky) revealed in this section or early in the next one? Either way: I think it's interesting that we know, in reality, that Hitler was interested in the occult, but the general belief seems to be that he was interested in the dark side of the pseudosciences and psychic abilities. So what Pynchon does with the Angel and the White Visitation is set up a binary relationship--which comes up throughout the entire first section of the novel.
And now, onto other things:

I went down to the National Book Festival this weekend, where I met Junot Diaz. He signed my copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and said I had a cool name. He was incredibly friendly and great to all of his readers--he signed for an hour longer than he was supposed to, just so everyone in line could get their book signed, and made sure as many people as possible got under his signing tent when it started to rain.

Since the novel I have been working on takes place in and around DC, I got to revisit some of the significant places from the story, including Whistler's Peacock Room, one of my all-time favorite places in the city. What was strange was that I felt this weird nostalgia for things that never actually happened. I remembered moment from my book like they were real life.

I know there was something on HTMLGiant last week about how we still need a word for this feeling--nostalgia for things we never actually experienced. After sitting in the Peacock Room, thinking about the scenes that take place there, I completely agree.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Films: 500 Days of Summer

Last night, I finally got to see "500 Days of Summer." I really hoped to see this movie before the first day of Autumn, but I live in a small town with three screens for independent films, so sometimes we have to wait. But I'm really happy to say it was worth the wait. It was really well made, great acting and writing and directing.

I think it got a lot right about being a geek and falling madly in love--from the tendency to take every little thing as a sign, to the crushing defeat of being "just friends"--but it got even more right about the way a relationship falls apart. A lot of the movie serves as a kind of autopsy for the relationship, with Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) trying to figure out where things went wrong with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and trying to figure out how he might get her back. Moments are visited and revisited, looking for the first sign of trouble, where things really ended. Depending on the context, the same moment might be an embrace between two people in love or the same couple desperately holding on to something that can't be saved.

The movie is structured out-of-order--first we see the last scene, and then we jump back to the day of the breakup, and then back to the first day Tom and Summer meet. It jumps forward and backward, eventually revealing how their relationship starts. This is really effective in a lot of scenes: in one, Tom walks to work after he sleeps with Summer for the first time, and there's a big dance number to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" (at one point in this scene, Tom catches his reflection and sees Harrison Ford as Han Solo looking back at him). It jumps to a few days after the break-up, Tom going to work again, now miserable. It works really well and gives Joseph Gordon Levitt a chance to show a really wide range. At another point, Tom and Summer are in Ikea toward the end of their relationship and Tom struggles to amuse Summer, but the fact that what he's doing is a reference to an earlier date isn't revealed until the next scene.

There are a lot of really fun touches throughout--I know some reviews weren't crazy about the voice-over narration, but I liked it. It gives details that wouldn't be there otherwise, whether it's the explanation that Tom's believe in soul mates stems from "an early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie 'The Graduate'," or the details of how when Summer quoted Belle and Sebastian's "The Boy With the Arab Strap" in her high school yearbook, sales of the album in her hometown skyrocketed. I liked these details, and who else would have provided them?

I was reminded, watching this movie, of two of my favorite "romantic comedies," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Annie Hall." It makes sense--both of these movies are presented out of chronological order, and each are about, in their own way, the dissolution of a relationship and how the relationship looks when you're thinking back on it. There were a lot of scenes that were heavily reminiscent of "Annie Hall," in a good way: an awkward embrace outside of the movie theater, the meeting shortly after the breakup where the protagonist thinks there might still be a chance, and throughout, a love and awareness of the movies that influenced this one. You can almost imagine Joseph Gordon-Levitt turning to the camera and saying, "After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go. But it was great seeing Summer again. I realized what a terrific person she was, and how much fun it was just knowing her."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Beatles Rock Band Edition

Now that I've had some time to play "The Beatles: Rock Band," I'm just going to say this: it's awesome. That's an overall, blanket kind of statement on it, but really, taking the whole game, it's fantastic. The trajectory from little band in the clubs to rock gods is really amazing, and the final song, "The End," in which an entire world springs into being from the Beatles' song is really fitting for some reason.

That said, it does have its flaws. There are tons of songs missing (I know these will be available for purchase in the Beatles: Rock Band store, but I want to play "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" now. And the last concert has a lot of songs that are...well, not the best. "Dig a Pony" and "I've Got a Feeling" are not the resonant kind of Beatles songs a game should go out on, although "Don't Let Me Down" and "Get Back" are fun.

The best part of the game, by far, are the Abbey Road "Dreamscapes," in which the scene transforms from the Abbey Road studios to...well, anything. The "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is played in a gazebo which proceeds to transform into a hot air balloon for "With a Little Help From My Friends," and "Dear Prudence" has a black-and-white world transform with color as the song goes along.

And I know I made a Ringo joke when I first posted about it, but drumming is really fun. Especially leading up to the chorus of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

So this is all just to say: everyone is invited over to play. Because it's more fun with more people. And there are little Beatles jokes scattered throughout, as you unlock "Accomplishments" (one, for unlocking a certain number of photographs, is called "In Penny Lane there is a Barber). When you beat the game, there's one that borrows the joke from the end of "Get Back," John Lennon summing up the band's career by saying, "I'd like to thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Rainy September Check-In

Today marks the first check-in date for Rainy September, and I am currently ahead of schedule! So I thought today, I would post some thoughts on the first 70 pages (or so) of the novel. So if you don't want to hear my thoughts on Gravity's Rainbow, skip on ahead. But if you do...

There's a really interesting scene in these pages, toward the end of these pages, in which Pointsman, the Pavlovian doctor, worries that Roger Mexico, the statistician, and the rest of his generation will live outside of cause and effect after the war. This is severely terrifying to a Pavlovian, to whom cause and effect are essential:

"Will Postwar be nothing but "events," newly created one moment to the next?"

And the answer, according to the plot and structure of the novel, is yes. We jump from event to event, character to character, often with no link between. The mystery of Tyrone Slothrop (every place he has sex, a rocket hits) is picked apart by a group of pseudo-scientists and psychics trying to understand the reason, and the question they cannot answer is which is the cause and which is the effect. I really love how Pynchon mirrors this confusion in the structure of the book, for instance: Slothrop's extended hallucination (toward the end of these pages) is not explained until the next section. We are left flailing, hoping that the cause of this hallucination will be explained.

As far as the difficulty of this section, these pages were pretty tame. We had characters being developed, plots being set in motion. But the next one is not so easy. One section took my several days because the characters in it are so unsavory, and when it switches back to Pirate Prentice, it dives into what is (I think) another extended daydream he's looking into.

***End of Gravity's Rainbow section***

In other news, I have sent out my novel to my next readers. I was terrified to do it, but I'm excited to see what they say. I had no idea it would be so scary to send it out to people I know, but it makes sense--it's a lot easier to put the book in the hands of someone I have never met than to get feedback from people I know very well. But I think it's a strong draft. Not perfect, but strong. I think it's reached a point where I need other people to read it. I've spent so much time with it that I know it backwards and forward, and this familiarity can make me miss things.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Films: A Flawed Maker Fairy Tale

Last Friday, I saw 9, the new animated film produced by Tim Burton and directed by Shane Acker. A few years ago, I saw the ten-minute short film it was based on and I really liked it, but I found the full-length movie kind of lacking.

Visually, it was really amazing and terrifying, with machines incorporating animal skulls and doll heads chasing the protagonists, and a post-apocalyptic landscape that seemed to imagine what would have happened if the world ended shortly after World War II. I don't know if anyone else got the sense that "the Machine" was this alternate-reality's version of "the Bomb," but that's what I thought every time they showed the blasted landscape.

This feeling of a post-apocalyptic past continued into the design of the characters, a group of little burlap robots, each with a painted number) who wake up as humanity ends. They're pretty old-fashioned, as far as robots go, made of watch parts and zippers and cloth (#6 is made of mattress ticking), and they seem more like Da Vinci-imagined automatons brought to life by some occult magic. Which is kind of true.

The movie is kind of a flawed steampunk maker/DIY fairy tale, in that the creator of the Burlap 9 is also the creator of the evil, humanity-destroying Machine, which is in turn a maker (of other, also evil, machines). Everybody is assembling something, whether it's a hat made of a candle, or a stick with a lightbulb, or a grappling hook made of a bunch of old fishhooks. This was something I actually liked about it, because the images of these little cobbled-together characters cobbling together their own inventions was a really great contrast to the efficient, evil machine, with its flawless assembly and glowing red eye. The last line of dialogue is kind of a testament to the promise of creation, as 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) says that the world is what they make of it.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn't make any sense. It devolves into a bunch of weird, not-exactly explained black magic, another chase with the Machine, and an ending that left me asking what the point was. Are these burlap characters supposed to spend the rest of eternity hanging out, waiting to rust? At least in the short film, 9 went off on his own, bound for something. Or is there more to it, that last line as a comment on the whole movie being about making?

Still, it's hard to end on a hopeful note when all of humanity is wiped out. At least Wall-E had humans still alive, even if they were enormous, lazy, and stupid, so there was more to go on than a hopeful Elijah Wood Burlap-Bot stating that the desolate world is "whatever we make of it." What is the value of that line when it's already a wasteland?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Bands I Think I Might Like

There are a few bands that have been popping up on my radar (more specifically, on the Sirius/XM-U channel on satellite radio) that I really don't know if I like just yet. I think it's the fact that I've only heard one or two songs by each of these bands, and I'm not quite sold.

The first band is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose new single, "Home" is on a loop in my brain. It's kind of genre-defying, but I guess you could say it falls on the hippie end of the folk spectrum. It's a really upbeat call-and-response love song, with one of the most unabashedly joyful choruses I've heard in a long time. It's about falling in love, and it really sounds like it. They had another song in rotation, "Janglin" that wasn't bad, but after watching some videos of the band performing and the official music video for home, I'm kind of on the fence. I get the sense that they're trying too hard, with the lead singer in a white robe in one performance video and the music video filmed through a surreal, strange lens that distorts the light and the figures:

I like the song, and I want to like the band, but I can't shake the feeling that there's something strange about it, like this group is playing at it. But maybe that's just what being a performer comes down to.

The second band is Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele (is there a trend here with these band names?), and the first song I heard, "Meet Me in the Garden," got insanely overplayed really quickly. It's weird and lounge-inspired. I heard another one a few nights ago, and I liked it a lot more, but I can't for the life of me remember the name. Here's the video for the first single:

So here I'm again wondering if I want to like this band. I mean, I already have a clever and talented ukulele player (ukulelist?) in my musical roster, and I really prefer Beirut because I think Zach Condon is a much better songwriter. He creates a more richly-imagined world in his albums, and he doesn't seem removed from the music, as the Dent May video does. I prefer beauty in music more than cleverness--I'm much more likely to be affected by a song like "Elephant Gun" or "Postcards from Italy" because I think the sentiments they contain are worth writing songs about.

So what do you think? Has anyone heard other songs by these bands? Are they worth my time?

I also want to take this opportunity to promote a friend of mine from college, Julian Lynch. He just came out with an album of 4-track recordings, and what I've heard so far is really dreamy and psychedelic. There are a lot of things I remember about hanging out with him, especially during my freshman year, but one of my favorites was a time my friend Paul and I found him in his room, recording on his computer, using anything he had nearby for percussion. He played back one of the songs for us, and during a quiet part, he turned to us and said, "This is where the chorus of Mexicans comes in." Hearing his record, it suddenly makes sense.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fiction Mondays: In Defense of Plot

Since Rainy September has been delayed a week, I will wait until next Monday to start throwing around Gravity's Rainbow thoughts. This week, I'd like to talk about an essay by Lev Grossman from the Wall Street Journal, asking why novels must be hard (the short answers is the modernists). What the essay is, to me at least, is a defense of plot, of narrative unobscured by knowingly difficult literary tricks (yes, completely opposite of Gravity's Rainbow). I like this essay, especially the bits about YA. I just ordered The Hunger Games, and there are a lot of YA books I've read in the past few years which have really great stories, and yes, really great characters. And in the best of them, there are bold stylistic moves, from The Invention of Hugo Cabret and its frame-by-frame animation over the course of several pages, to Feed, which mauls vocabulary and language to make a point about the intellect of the narrator.

I found out about this essay through Alexander Chee's Koreanish blog. He makes a lot of really interesting points there about connecting with excitement, and I feel like his advice--develop the character by telling the story--is totally valid, and does point to a problem within certain literary circles. In my undergraduate creative writing classes, I read a lot of stories that were so concerned with developing characters at the expense of plot that I don't remember them at all. Strangely enough, I do remember the ones that were maybe not as good, but that had interesting stories behind them. They seemed to at least be written with heart and excitement. I feel like I'd rather read ten stories that love telling stories than one concerned with showing off its cleverness.

I am unabashedly the same reader who could remember every detail from Treasure Island after I read it in second grade--a little smarter, and a little more capable of criticism--and that reader loves plot. I watched Star Wars only a few weeks ago because I missed it. It's pure plot. But I don't think anyone would say that we don't know everything we need to know about Han Solo as the movie progresses: when he comes back to save Luke's ass, we are thrilled, but we always knew he would.

The "literary" books that have a foot in genre know that people love plot, and I think it's something that is, like Grossman argues, changing the face of literature. Since there are a ton of books coming out in the next few weeks, there's a pretty large sample group to back this up:

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry: Ghost Story
Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City: Sci-Fi
Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood: Sci-Fi
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice: Detective

I think it's fair to say that 21st-century literature is going to be about plot, about borrowing from genres to change what "literary fiction" means. I mean, the idea of cobbling together existing genres to form a new form is not new: when I think of taking two disparate genres and successfully joining them to create a whole better than the sum of its parts, my mind always goes to Blade Runner. And I don't really believe, considering most of the authors I read, that genre and literary fiction are so incompatible.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Films: On Network Short-Sightedness

Since this will be another "Friday Films" about television, I'm just going to announce that "Films," for the purpose of these posts, might also include TV shows. I guess this is also timely, as the new season of most television shows is currently getting started.

As you might know, one of the shows that is not returning is ABC's Pushing Daisies. I watched the first and second season DVDs this summer, and I think the network really made a mistake in pulling the plug on the show. Of course, it has all the marks of a show that would fail early and be missed: clever and quick dialogue, well-developed characters, no laugh track, and more nerdy allusions than even I can pick up on. The show centers around a piemaker who can bring people and objects back to life for one minute--any longer, and something nearby has to die--who brings his childhood sweetheart back to life and decides not to send her back. They work with a detective, Emerson Cod, solving murders--an easy task if you can temporarily bring back the dead and ask who killed them.

The biggest problem it ran into was, surprisingly, not its strangeness or its originality--those traits actually gained it a lot of viewers--but the writer's strike. The first season was cut short, to nine episodes, and the second season was allowed to die quietly over the course of thirteen episodes. That's roughly one full season. Toward the end, it was subject to the network shuffle, the fastest way to shake off those few viewers who were still hanging on, and the producer was forced to come up with an ending to somehow wrap things up. Every plot thread they laced through the seasons was abruptly cut off.

Somehow I ended up watching the second-to-last episode on a Saturday night (I didn't find out that it was the second-to-last episode until later) and I was lost, but completely hooked. The episode had a ton of Chinatown references, and a plot like an episode of CSI put through a blender with a fairy tale. I wanted to find out the rest of the story. And I did, and then I, too, was disappointed that this show was taken away.

Which brings me to my point: if I saw one episode and was hooked, enough to seek out the rest of the show and catch up on what was going on, I'm willing to bet that many other people who see just one episode will want to see more. And then, if the network actually, I don't know, keeps it in the same time slot for more than a week at a time, those viewers who saw that one episode would watch more. And then the show would build a following. It seems to me to be a problem of short-sightedness and chasing after fast profit. Now, look at a show like HBO's True Blood: HBO partnered with Blockbuster to rent out the first episode, for free, the week before the premiere. One episode, enough to get people coming back. Now, it's a huge hit. And it's been allowed to build and grow and gain an audience without its time slot being switched without notice.

I think the only network who seems to have any idea of the value of doing this is Fox--although their previous sins against Arrested Development make it difficult to forgive them--by premiering Glee after American Idol several months ago, they created anticipation and buzz. I'm not sure what the ratings were last night, but I'd imagine they were pretty great. And it's a weird show, an hour-long scripted musical in the middle of primetime, and I think it's a smart idea to help it along. Because there is an audience. But the network needs to put some work into it. And they need to leave its time slot alone.

Okay, so rant about short-sighted networks over. Go watch "Pushing Daisies" and make ABC wish they had kept it going. We would have been its audience. Instead, they give us "Crash Course" and "Dating in the Dark." But wouldn't you much rather have this?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: What I'm Listening to Now

Sometimes I like to imagine mix tapes, for days, for themes, for seasons. Sometimes I assemble them into playlists, but more often the collection of songs only exists in my head. Last winter, I started a "White Winter Mix," and as the temperatures start to drop, I'm coming up with an Autumn mix. I don't think the songs necessarily have to be about fall, only about the feelings associated with the season. I really love fall, but you can't have an all-out happy fall mix because you have to consider that winter is coming. So here's what I have so far:

1. The Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You"
2. The Decemberists, "Annan Water"
3. The Mountain Goats, "Psalms 40:2"
4. Monsters of Folk, "Say Please"

As you can see, I need some suggestions for what else should go on the playlist. I'm sure something by the Beatles, since...

Today is the big day, 9/9/09--the day the Beatles' entire catalog is reissued, and the day Beatles Rock Band drops into my lap. I'm sure I'll have more on this for next week, when I've had a chance to start playing it (and by the way, everyone is invited to come by and play. I won't even force anyone to play as Ringo), but for now, I'd like to share with you all the opening: it is psychedelic, beautiful, and...well, just watch:

Enjoy, and (even though I don't really like the song):

Number 9

Number 9

Number 9