Monday, August 31, 2009

Fiction Mondays: City of Thieves

My book-devouring streak continues! No, not literally devouring (although head over here for a strange look at edible books) but reading at an insane pace. I just read David Benioff's City of Thieves: A Novel this weekend. I stayed up late last night reading it because I couldn't put it down.

Benioff is the author of The 25th Hour, which takes place in one night. This one takes place over the course of a few days during the seige of Leningrad. He can really pace a book. The plot concerns the author's grandfather, who gets caught for looting from a dead German and is told they will let him live if he (with the help of a similarly-sentenced deserter) can procure a dozen eggs for a high-ranking Soviet colonel. He needs them to make a wedding cake for his daughter. The problem is, the whole city is on food rations and no one has seen an egg in six months. They end on a brutal trip through the city and across enemy lines, encountering cannibals, Nazis, and partisans. It's a really incredible book, with one of my favorite first sentences in awhile. Read it.

Meanwhile, I'm still putting my revisions into the manuscript. I added a chapter, took some things out, added some more. The problem with putting the changes in is that you always find some things that you missed. It's not a problem, really, just something that happens as you go. Soon, I will have a second draft.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Films: Chicken Dance Edition

I feel like a kid who hasn't done his homework. I didn't have a blog post prepared for today, and every one I started--one called "Coming Attractions" and another called "Why Does Tyler Perry Get to Keep Making Movies?"--fizzled out before I got to the second paragraph. This might have to do with the fact that I haven't been to the movies in a few weeks, or really even rented a movie in awhile. I could dive into my DVD collection and write a quick essay on something in there, but it feels like cheating. So instead, I will just leave you with this: let's get to the movies this weekend. It's rainy here on the East coast, and it looks like it will be for the next few days, so why not spend some time in a dark theater, watching something that will (hopefully) leave you thinking or at least talking for a little while after the credits?

Or--and this is likely for me--skip the theater, refuse to get dressed all day, and re-watch "Arrested Development" on DVD. Unless you're chicken.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: The Noisettes

"Here's a theory for you to disregard completely. Music, you know, true music, not just rock 'n' roll, it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones -- you know, with the vast, scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain."

-Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, "Almost Famous"

Sometimes you hear a song, and it's like you were meant to hear that song. Did anyone else watch "Pete and Pete" when they were younger? There's an episode where Little Pete discovers his favorite song and then sets out to recreate it. I felt like that the first time I heard the Noisettes' "Never Forget You." As I briefly mentioned on a previous Wednesday, I have an idea for a novel about a girl group that forms in the mid-1960s. This song is what they sound like. And as soon as I heard it, I sat in the car, thinking this is how the band sounds in my imagination. Retro, but somehow very contemporary.

Shingai Shoniwa (the Noisettes lead singer) is a former Burlesque performer, and she sounds like no one I've ever heard. She accelerates from this breathy, melodic voice to an awesome growl in no time. And look at that hair. And the dancing in the silhouettes. And the dancing barefoot.

There are a lot of great moments in this song, from the synth-sounding strings calling back to Phil Spector to the bridge, which wavers between this fragile, airy sound to confident soul in the space of twenty seconds. But my absolute favorite...and this is going to be a weird one, but I love these moments in Shingai Shoniwa's laugh in the verse after the bridge. It's like a physical break with the bridge, the song indicating that the quiet and contemplative part is over, and we're back to rock and roll, which is physical and fun and slightly maniacal. I just love this song. I meant to not go on for too long, but then I went and used that Lester Bangs quote and that went right out the window. So I'll wrap this up and say this: enjoy the video. Also enjoy it the second and third time you watch's that catchy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fiction Mondays: "Water for Elephants" and More

I just finished another book in two days.

Sometimes I feel guilty about doing this, like I should spend more time absorbing what's on the page, what the author put into it, but with Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, I just could not stop reading. There's a circus, love, betrayal, and murder. What more can you possibly want?

The most impressive part of the whole book, by far, is the big twist at the end. The impressive part is that it isn't really a twist at all, but a revisitation of an earlier scene through the lens of the rest of the book. When you first encounter the scene, the author is just withholding certain information from you, and the second time around, she reveals everything, which changes your whole perspective. After I read it, I went back and read it again, just to see how she pulled it off.

Reading this book as a writer, I was thinking a lot about information. It's really a challenge to know how to dole out what you know to a reader. It's a constant pull between giving too much and keeping too much hidden. Seeing how incredibly well the flow of vital information went in Water for Elephants definitely gave me some insight into how I might handle the revelations in my own work. Hopefully my story is half as captivating as Sara Gruen's.

The revisions continue. I'm going to have to add a chapter, and I'm excited to write it now that I know (roughly) what happens. At first I was wary about adding a chapter, because I thought...I don't know what I thought, maybe just that it wouldn't fit in right, or it would feel to readers that this chapter was obviously added later. But I got over it. This week, I'll put it in, and it will fit.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Films: Mad Men Returns

I know it's not exactly a film, but since I don't have a day dedicated to television, I want to use this "Friday Films" to talk about the return of one of my favorite shows, AMC's Mad Men.

Maybe it was because of the insane amount of hype leading up to the premiere of the third season--every website, from Etsy to Fred Flare had some kind of tie-in going on--but I found the premiere to be kind of anticlimactic. It accomplished what I guess the goal is for a season premiere, to get a bunch of plot lines going and to establish the mood for the season, but overall it was not one of my favorite episodes.

The opening--Don imagining the events that surrounded his birth, and the strange way he got his original name--was really strange but well-done, and I did love the subplot between Joan and the new British (male) secretary. It left me wondering if she set him up for embarrassment on purpose, to show him that she was in charge. Don's discovery of Sal's secret--and the subtle way he let him know that he knew and would keep it quiet--was really awesome, and very typically Don Draper, and the Pete-Cosgrove rivalry will be a great plot for the season. But where was Peggy? And what happened to Duck?

That was probably my biggest compaint--there was a weird scene where they fired a random guy, presumably Duck's replacement, but it was kind of empty. We don't know this character, despite a lot of talk about his wife's cancer. Wouldn't it have been much more interesting and tragic to see Duck walking Spanish?

Maybe this will be one of those episodes that becomes better once we've seen the rest of the season. If the theme for the third season is instability and chaos, as hinted by this poster, we got a healthy dose of that in this episode. Because I have faith in this show and its writers, I'm interested and still exciting to see where they're going. It's 1963 in the show's world--are we heading toward one of the biggest moments of chaos and instability of that decade? I'd say there's a pretty good chance.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: "The Hazards of Love," Live

Last weekend, I got to see the Decemberists play live at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh. I've seen them play live a few times before, but this show was unreal. They've always been theatrical in their live performances--I once was eaten by a cardboard cut-out of a whale when I saw them from the front row--but this was unlike anything they have done before.

I think it's the nature of the new album. The Hazards of Love, that makes it ideally suited for live performance: it's a completely over-the-top story, featuring a shapeshifter, an evil queen, The Rake, and ghosts. It's a tragic love story, and the Decemberists really played it like it was an opera. Well, maybe an opera mixed with a wrestling match. Right before "The Rake's Song," lead singer "Colin Meloy" stepped back, took off his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves. The rest of the band didn't stop. When he came back to the microphone, he was a different character in a different costume. And Shara Worden, who voices the evil queen on "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid," was incredible. When she sang, she owned the stage. The crowd went insane. She came up and moved like she wanted to fight someone. You couldn't help but yell. She was awesome.

I really liked the album before this show, but now that I've seen it performed all the way through, I love it. There's something really admirable about doing an album like this--songs flow into one another, and the experience of listening to the whole thing is better than hearing individual songs--in the age of the iPod. I think performing the whole album on tour is a way for the band to say, "Yes, we wrote this so you'll listen all the way through. If you're shuffling, here is what you're missing." And then they rock your face off. And the best part was, after they played the album, they took a ten minute break and then did ANOTHER SET.

They did a lot of fantastic older songs, from "Billy Liar" to "The Shankill Butchers" (with the stage bathed in red light) as well as a new one called "Down by the Water," which featured a harmonica. A girl in the audience, when Colin Meloy put on his harmonica holder, made our whole state look stupid by shouting, "What is that?" He said he couldn't tell her, otherwise we'd all want one. He performed the worst song he's ever written, "Dracula's Daughter" (featuring the line, "You think you've got it bad? Try having Dracula for a dad."), a song I admit that I love.

And then, Shara Worden and Becky Stark (the other guest vocalist on the new album) came back onstage to do...Heart's "Crazy on You." It was like an increasingly loud, outlandish, amazing singing contest, with each woman hitting higher and higher notes. We all went crazy in the audience, because there's only so much riling up a performer can do before the crowd loses their mind. I think Shara Worden won, but it makes sense that she'd out-belt another singer, as she studied opera.

The band played two songs in their encore, and one was another new song called "Summer Comes to Springville." It was a really beautiful song, and very reminiscent of older Decemberists stuff, but with the addition of a harmonica. No one asked what the harmonica holder was. Halfway through the last song, "A Cautionary Tale," members of the band performed a short interpretive dramatic piece on the capture of Fort Pitt. By "interpretive," I of course mean, "Bearing absolutely no resemblance to fact." They did this in the audience. Standing on seats. Chris Funk, playing Napoleon, rode an audience member, playing a horse.

All in all, an amazing show. I will keep seeing this band whenever they're nearby. I don't know what comes next, whether it's another concept album or something more like their earlier albums, but I will listen to it, and chances are, I'll drive to another show and leave completely impressed and in awe.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Pittsburgh Stories

This weekend, I visited Pittsburgh for the first time. I really enjoyed the city and got to see the Warhol Museum, the Strip District, and the South Side. It's a very Midwestern city, for being in Pennsylvania...they say "pop"! What is that? I thought for today's Fiction Monday, I would share some great Pittsburgh literature.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel
by Michael Chabon. This is one of two Pittsburgh books by Chabon, and despite what looked like a really crappy movie adaptation (did anyone see it? I did not) it's a really cool book about being young and in love, and having a gangster for a father.

Wonder Boys
by Michael Chabon. This one actually had a great movie adaptation. An old, jaded writer and a young, slighly fanatical one have an adventurous and absurd weekend in Pittsburgh. They try to deal with a dead dog, a divorce, and a stolen piece of clothing that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe.

by August Wilson. Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays, including this one and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Nine of them took place in Pittsburgh, and this is one of my favorites. If you haven't read him, check it out. I don't know if it's available online, but the version starring James Earl Jones is really excellent.

You may notice that clicking on these links brings you to my Amazon Associates page. Everything you buy through that page supports this blog, so keep it in mind whenever you shop on Amazon!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Films: What Movies Do You Always Go Back To?

Today is my birthday. I'm twenty-four. I'm spending the weekend in Pittsburgh, where I'm going to a Decemberists concert and seeing the city. I've never been there before, so I'm really excited.

Today's Friday films is going to be brief, but it's important: I want to talk about movies you go back to, which ones you seek refuge in when things are overwhelming or not going well. These are the movies that you will sit and watch almost any time, but in tough times, they become even more. I hope I'm not the only one who has movies like this. In the spirit of High Fidelity, here are my top five:

1. The Royal Tenenbaums: This movie just gets better and better every time I watch it. The scene where the camera pans across the wreckage of the wedding and ends with Chas saying to Royal, "I've had a really bad year, Dad," and Royal saying, "I know" just completely kills me every time. There are so many amazing moments in this movie, but I think this one is my favorite.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A relationship in reverse, from its dissolution to the hopeful beginnings, this is one of the most audacious takes on the romantic comedy ever made. I think this is a movie I keep going back to because it's hopeful, despite the theme of a relationship that doesn't work out: they find each other again.

3. Annie Hall: I've mentioned this movie in a previous post, but I have to talk about it again because it's so good. Infinitely quotable, tragic but hilarious, and Woody Allen at his best. Unlike Eternal Sunshine, this one doesn't end on a hopeful note, but the resolution, in which Alvy directs a play where he gets back together with Annie, is a really interesting comment on the power of art to give us the ending we wanted.

4. Almost Famous: A fifteen-year-old journalist travels with a rock band, possibly based on the Allman Brothers Band, as they gain fame and fall apart. I've loved this movie since high school. There's an exchange that I love, in the middle of the scene where the band and its groupies (sorry, band-aids) sing Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" on the bus:

"William Miller:
I have to go home.
Penny Lane:
You are home."

5. High Fidelity: I know, I mentioned it getting ready to write this top five, but still: it's a great rock and roll movie. It's about obsession, nursing past wounds, and being ready to grow up versus wanting to maintain the rebellion of your youth. It's kind of the perfect movie to go back to, because some days I feel bad for Rob, and some days I feel like Rob. Some days it's both.

So now I'm turning it over to you. What are yours? You don't have to say why (but you're more than welcome to), but what are the movies you keep going back to and that you will keep going back to? What movies feel like home?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: "Blood Bank" and the Iceberg Theory

I was recently reading about Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory," which is about subtext, as exemplified by "Hills Like White Elephants," which never uses the word "abortion" but leaves very little question, at least in my mind, that it's the subject of the story. Here's the exact quote:

"If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

What does this have to do with music? Well, the other night, I was driving home and Bon Iver's Blood Bank came on the radio. I'd heard the song before, but always as sound in the background and never for what it was saying. But I realized, listening to it alone, that it makes use of the iceberg--under the surface, there is an entire story, a secret. It mentions that there is something kept from the audience, but never what it is. I don't know if it's a true example of the Iceberg Theory, because it's not completely obvious (to me at least) what the subject is. But it is a beautiful song.

I met you at the blood bank
We were looking at the bags
Wondering if any of the colors
Matched any of the names we knew on the tags

And you said, "See, look that's yours,
stacked on top of your brother's.
See how they resemble one another,
Even in their plastic little covers."

And I said, "I know it well."

It's that secret that you know
But you don't know how to tell,
And it fucks with your honor,
And it teases your head
But you know that it's good, girl
'Cause it's running you red

Then the snow started falling
We were stuck out in your car
You were rubbing both my hands
Chewing on a candy bar

And you said, "Ain't this just like the present
To be showing up like this?
As a moon waned to crescent,
We started to kiss.

As I'm typing this out, I'm thinking of the Iceberg Theory (I hadn't thought about the fact that the song talks about being stuck in the snow) and I think I understand what the song is about, or at least what I interpret it to be about. I think she's pregnant, unexpectedly, and they're trying to figure out their next step, sharing the news--"fucks with your honor" reminds me of "ruining your reputation." I like the image of being at the blood bank to donate blood and finding out you're pregnant. But that's my interpretation.

Let me know what you think if you've heard it, and if you haven't, go listen to this song. It's fantastic and haunting.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Links!

So this week, I begin the process of entering all of my changes on the computer. I got through the first read-through on Friday, and took the weekend off. I caught up on Mad Men in anticipation of the third season premiere, this Sunday. I don't feel very recharged, but I think that has more to do with being up late last night doing laundry. So this morning, as I start to take the red pen and convert it into words on the page, here are some links!

  • Thanks to Pimp My Novel for pointing out this criminal investigation waiting to happen: the Twilight Online Roleplaying Game. What can you say, besides, "Really, guys? You want a bunch of lovesick teen 'vampires' running around online trying to meet strangers?"
  • Apparently some parents took issue with Harry Potter being obviously drunk in the last movie. I don't know, I found it funny. But that might be because drunk Harry Potter was one fist-pumping singalong away from being drunk me.
  • There was a really funny bit on NPR's "Wait...Wait...Don't Tell Me" this weekend where they were asking Judd Apatow about conspiracy theorists. One theory was about alien shape-shifting lizards running the world. A quick Google search found this list of similarly insane theories. I am interested in this because I have this vague idea for a story about the man who built the set for the supposedly fake moon landing, and how strange that job would be.
And finally, no morning would be complete without a Thomas Pynchon book trailer. I don't know who made this or who is doing the voice-over, but I like to imagine Thomas Pynchon, Simpsons-style, walking around filming this and reading his own book out loud. It reminds me a lot of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, especially the bit at the end. "That used to be like, three weeks of groceries, man."

**UPDATE (8/11/09): The Wall Street Journal confirmed that the voice in this trailer is actually Pynchon!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Films: RIP John Hughes

As you probably know, filmmaker John Hughes passed away yesterday, at the age of 59. His movies really shaped my youth--even though most the movies he directed came out when I was very young, or even before I was born, I still remember growing up watching "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles," and probably my personal favorite, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." And this says nothing of the things he wrote, including the "Vacation" movies amd "Pretty in Pink.: So today, as a "Short List" tribute, I present my top five moments in John Hughes' filmography:

1. Duckie dancing to Otis Rediing, "Pretty in Pink"

2. Clark Griswold Loses It, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"

3. John Bender's Impressions, "The Breakfast Club"

Sorry, no embedded video on this one--but here is a clip. It's the scene where Bender compares his family to Andrew's (Emilio Estevez).

4. John Candy Gets Grilled, "Uncle Buck"

5. Opening of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"

Ferris Bueller is a hard one to pick a favorite scene. It's just a progression of great scenes, on after another. This clip contains a few of them, including some deep thoughts on the Beatles.

John Hughes' movies defined the 1980s--the terrible style, the music that was present as such a large part in every film, the smart-ass way the young people moved through life--but I think there's such empathy for the characters, such obvious warmth and intelligence about kids on the fringe, from Cameron to John Bender, that it's no surprise they still find an audience generation after generation.

Many of these movies have become cultural icons, and I think that's a mark of a director, writer, and producer who really understood people--people want to root for Ferris Bueller, or Clark Griswold, because they see themselves in these characters. We've all hated school and wished we could take a perfect day off, or had our best-laid plans fall apart. In John Hughes' world, it worked out--maybe not how you'd expect, but somehow.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: Mixtape for a Novel

As you may know, I've been working on my first novel. I started thinking today about the music that I began to associate, over the course of writing the first draft, with the characters and story.

I kept coming back to Paul Simon, because his song "Graceland" became the anthem of the last third of the book. I think the combination of hearing that song and reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor shaped the idea that (I hope) the last act of the book lives up to: these characters are moving toward grace, in the spiritual sense.

Like Paul Simon's song, this is a voyage that brings them south (not to Memphis, but I don't think Paul Simon's Graceland is necessarily the one in Tennessee--I think it's more of a place where redemption is found). The more I listened to the words of the song, the more resonance it had to the story arc:

"She comes back to tell me she's gone,

As if I didn't know that

As if I didn't know my own bed,

As if I'd never noticed,

The way she brushed her hair from her forehead,

And she said losing love

Is like a window in your heart,

Everybody sees you're blown apart,

Everybody sees the wind blow,

I'm going to Graceland,

Memphis Tennessee

I'm going to Graceland,

Poorboys and Pilgrims with families

And we are going to Graceland,

And my traveling companions

Are ghosts and empty sockets

I'm looking at ghosts and empties,

But I've reason to believe

We all will be received

In Graceland

Here were my characters, making their separate ways to where they hope to find salvation, guided by a woman who is gone, who continues to touch their lives. I originally called the last chapter "We All Will Be Received," but I don't think I'm going to title my chapters. We'll have to see.

This song--really, the whole album--has a big place in my memory. I remember my mom giving me this album, and how I didn't really know most of the music on it, and I remember falling in love with it. It will always be a memory of her that I treasure, and I'm glad that all of these years later, a connection that we had pops up in this novel of all places.

I originally intended to post other songs that I've started to associate with the characters and story in this novel, a kind of set list of songs that I've played or thought of while I've worked on it. But I think for today, I'll just leave it at "Graceland."

"I'm going to Graceland,
For reasons I cannot explain

There's some part of me wants to see

And I may be obliged to defend

Every love, every ending

Or maybe there's no obligations now,

Maybe I've a reason to believe

We all will be received

In Graceland

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fiction Mondays: Revisions and Links

During revisions, one of my undergraduate professors, Tayari Jones, posted a twitter update about her own revisions. She compared the process of revising to tucking an octopus into bed: "Every time you get one arm tucked in, two more pop out." I really understand, now a little more than halfway through my first revision. In addition to red pen on every single page--whether it is red pen for minor edits or scenes that need to be reworked--there are all of these post-it notes throughout the manuscript pointing to other things in the book, places where I might need to correct a timeline or fix something earlier because of something that's not revealed until later. It's a constant process, requiring constant notes to make sure it's consistent and makes sense. I love doing it, though.

Since revision is taking up a lot of my time and focus, I'm not working on a lot of other things, and my own reading has slowed down. I've been slowly working through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsen, which is a crime novel from Sweden and kind of odd. I like it enough, though some of the writing seems kind of clunky, like it could have done with another revision. I guess that might come from the author dying just after the manuscripts were submitted and someone else, who might worry about sacrificing the author's voice by revising too much, taking over the editing.

For this Fiction Monday, I've got some links:

  • Vanity Fair ran a web-only piece editing Sarah Palin's amazingly ridiculous resignation speech. The fifth and sixth paragraphs are my favorites from the original because of how little sense they make.
  • I've become hooked on "Pushing Daisies." It's the best forensics-type show on television, because it's about a guy who can (temporarily) bring back the dead. It is, of course, already cancelled. But DC comics ordered a 12-issue run of comics based on the show! Fair Warning: this show will want to make you eat pie.
  • Will Ben & Jerry's make library-themed ice cream? God, I hope so. "Gooey Decimal System" sounds awesome.
  • Finally, for those of you still in DC, check out the new Foggy Bottom Blog! And speaking of canceled TV shows, the name of this blog reminded me very much of Scott Baio's "Arrested Development" character, Bob Loblaw.