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

Fiction Mondays: Rainy September

Well, since I took Friday off, I think I'm required to post on this, a holiday. There's a lot to report in today's Fiction Monday, not the least of which is that I have finished a second draft of my novel! I tightened it where it needed to be tightened and added sentences and whole chapters where things were not as complete as I wanted them. It was messy, but I got it done, and now I'm excited for the next step.

I finished another book this week, Neil Gaiman's excellent Neverwhere: A Novel. It's about a young man, Richard Mayhew, who gets pulled into an alternate-London underneath the regular one. It's a city of danger and magic, and an enormous beast that stalks a labyrinth deep beneath the city. Highly recommended.

And today, I started another novel, and it's a big one:Gravity's Rainbow. This is part of the recent trend of starting reading groups to get through difficult books, like this summer's Infinite Summer. Thanks to Moonrat over at Editorial Ass for coming up with "Rainy September." This is a book I have tried (and failed) to get through before, so I'm excited to get through it with a group. This has also inspired me to start one for next spring: Augie March (The month it starts is built in to the title!) I liked what I read of Augie March, but it's one of those books that I couldn't get through because I started school. Let me know if you have any interest in joining me on that undertaking.

Well, I'm off to the book. I have a lot of rockets, psychics, and scientific experiments to get to. Enjoy your Labor Day, everyone!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Musical Wednesdays: "Our Noise"

Happy September, everyone! I hope you're all reading/listening to/watching something fantastic. I just found out that John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) is playing a show Pennsylvania in November on the tour for the new album, "The Life of the World to Come." You can check out an mp3 of one of the songs here, and I've heard the whole album has leaked if you know where to look. I will definitely be heading down to Philadelphia for this show, in the constant hope that I will hear "No Children" live once more in my life.

But now the real purpose of this post: a review! A few months ago, I won a book on Twitter from Algonquin Books and I've been waiting since July to post about it. The book is Our Noise, a history of Merge records by the founders and the bands involved. Merge is a fantastic record label, with bands as diverse as Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Magnetic Fields, and this book is an oral history of indie rock in the post-grunge era. My favorite part, by far, was the Neutral Milk Hotel section, which sheds some light on the mythical figure that Jeff Mangum became, following a circus and doing field recordings. There's also a short essay in that section by Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End, where he just raves about the album. It's a surprising moment, a well-known author letting his inner fanboy out, and I loved it.

The Spoon section of the book was really interesting because I had no idea how long it took them to really become a band. When I first heard "The Way We Get By," I had no idea they had been working for years, releasing lesser-know albums and shifting their line-up.

The Magnetic Fields section had one of my favorite explanations for what they sound like: pop music from the future, as imagined in 1960. There's a lot there about how insane you would have to be to release "69 Love Songs," and how Merge, in spite of that, released it anyway. It worked out well, with the album still popular.

The book as a whole is a celebration of the DIY aesthetic, and an exploration of how passion married with a business sense can make a small company into a major force. By treating their artists well--Merge does not require multiple-record contracts and shares profits with the bands--they have carved more than a niche for themselves. I don't know if you could say they've become a mainstream record company, but at the very least they're a small label that the big guys have noticed, the underdogs that Spoon, on their 2007 album "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga," predict will outlast the big players.

Final Note: Mountain Goats and Algonquin in one post? I have a feeling North Carolina is taking over. I, for one, welcome our new Appalachian overlords.