Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Links!

I don't know what to write about today, so here are a few music-related links:

If you haven't yet, check out Huntronik, a frequent commenter on this blog and someone who writes about and performs music.

MIA's new video is getting a lot of attention. I haven't watched it yet, but you can find a link to her website in that article.

And if you do watch the video, head over here afterward (Explanation).

And finally, the New York Times has an excellent article about the National, and they're streaming their new album, High Violet.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Her Fearful Symmetry

Last week, I read Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, the long-awaited follow-up to The Time Traveler's Wife. What impresses me about Niffenegger's stories is their ability to successfully fuse genre and literary fiction; The Time Traveler's Wife was a love story wrapped in science fiction, and the new book is unabashedly a ghost story. It's true to what I think is a fundamental rule in good genre works: establish your rules and then see how your characters operate within them, but what brings the book into literary territory is how well her characters are developed, even the one who passes away in the first chapter to later return as a ghost.

Niffenegger widens her scope in this book, pulling a lot of characters and plots together really successfully. The bulk of the story follows Valentina and Julia Poole, who inherit an apartment in London from their Aunt Elspeth. The two are "mirror twins," seemingly identical but actually opposite--Valentina's heart is on the wrong side, for example. When they move to London, they eventually meet their upstairs neighbor, Martin, a crossword-puzzle maker suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder; and their downstairs neighbor, Robert, a PhD student writing his thesis on the nearby Highgate Cemetery. He was Elspeth's lover, and spends the first half of the book in a deep depression over losing her. Eventually, they realize that their apartment is haunted by Elspeth, who eventually manages to communicate with the twins and Robert.

The book, now that I think about it, is about being trapped. Each of these characters finds themselves stuck. Martin's disorder makes him unable to leave his apartment, even though he wants to go to Amsterdam to reconcile with his wife. Robert wants to move on and finish his thesis, but he is mixed up with the twins and Elspeth. Elspeth herself is stuck in the apartment as a ghost (there are other ways she is trapped, but one of those is a big twist at one point in the book.) Valentina wants to get away from Julia but can't.

It's also about twins, and what can sever the closeness between twins. The title is kind of a puzzle--it's borrowed from William Blake, and is a line from "The Tiger"--but I'm not sure who it refers to. Elspeth the ghost? She's a twin, but for most of the book she is not very fearful. But later, she is. And then there's the preceding line, "What immortal hand or eye," which leads me to think it does refer to Elspeth.

I'm not sure this novel had the emotional depth of The Time Traveler's Wife, but I did like to see what the author did with a wider cast of characters. I also enjoyed the geography of this book, where the apartment building was its own character, as was Highgate Cemetery. The characters' tours through the graveyard made me really want to visit, and the last scene in the graveyard (I won't spoil anything) inverted the ghost story formula really well, making the graveyard a place of tragic beauty. This might be Niffenegger's greatest strength as a writer, her ability to make a very tragic moment really beautiful. It's probably best exemplified by a scene early in the novel, when Martin's wife decides to leave him: she doesn't want to ruin any spot in the apartment by leaving a note there, so she suspends it from the ceiling, so that it will appear to be floating in the air when he finds it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Songs for Bees

I wasn't sure what I was going to post today--I actually thought about making up a playlist of songs about volcanoes to tie into what's going on over in Iceland, but my list came up short. And by "short," I mean I thought of two songs: Mount Eerie's "Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano" and "Volcanoes" by Islands. But this morning, I woke up thinking about bees, and songs about bees, and since I was already in a playlist kind of mindset, I started thinking of songs about bees. Plus, there's that new song by the National, "Bloodbuzz Ohio," which has the lyric "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees."

I'm including songs about hornets and wasps in this list, too, but mostly because "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades" by Sufjan Stevens is too good to keep off of here. So here are the tracks I've come up with so far:

1. Hornets! Hornets! by the Hold Steady
2. Muzzle of Bees by Wilco
3. Birds and the Bees by the Bird and the Bee
4. The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades by Sufjan Stevens
5. Pollen by Mirah
6. Honey Bee by Tom Petty
7. Another Set of Bees in the Museum by Olivia Tremor Control
8. Honey, Honey by Feist
9. Bloodbuzz Ohio by the National
10. Evil Bee by Menomena

Anything else? Send them along! And if you haven't done so yet, check out that National Song. It's the first single off of their new album "High Violet," due out May 11th. And while we're on that subject, check out the first song from that album, premiered on Jimmy Fallon's show:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fiction Mondays: It's That Time Again

I mentioned a few months ago that I was getting back to writing short stories, and last week I realized that even though I have a few polished stories sitting here at home, I don't have any out there, making the rounds to literary magazines. This is a problem--finished stories, or stories I feel are finished, aren't doing anything just hanging around the house. So this week, it's time to start mailing (or e-mailing) them out again. Any suggestions for new and interesting venues to send these stories out to?

I know I was trying to get a book review a week up, but this week the only thing I read was Ghosts by Paul Auster, which was pretty interesting, but was really more of a long short story. It's about a detective watching a man who might be watching him back, and the confusing situation they find themselves in. It had a lot of elements of City of Glass, in which a detective gets so deep into a case that he starts to lose his own identity and question his reality. It's written in a really odd way, as though it's someone years later who only heard about what happened, and it has a lot of nods to itself as a story, which is a big theme in Auster's work.

I have some books at home I'm really excited to read and talk about, including Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry. With any luck these will be reviewed here next week and the week after. And then there's my ongoing reading of Ulysses, which I really like, but probably won't get done by mid-June (unless I quit sleeping and working and just spend hours of every day with it). But who knows? Maybe I'll read two hundred pages of it next week.

For now, I'm off to work on other stories. I just got through the first edits of one called "Hey Mercury," which I first had an idea for a long time ago and has finally come together, and I'm working on a first draft (handwritten!) of another one that doesn't have a title just yet.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Films: An Education

My biggest problem with the film An Education was that there just wasn’t enough there. It was only an hour and a half long, which is fine if there seems to be a complete story told in those 90 minutes, but I felt like the movie was…I don’t know, inconsequential? I didn’t feel particularly invested in the characters, even though the film was well acted, and when it ended I found myself asking, “that’s it?” And it was a different kind of “that’s it?” than I experienced watching A Serious Man, which at least had some narrative shape.

The film follows Jenny, a young suburban British girl who begins a relationship with an older man who turns out to be a con artist. And then she finds out he’s married, but not before she quits school and gets engaged to him. That’s it. The film ends with a cheesy voice-over about how she moved on with her life and started acting her age. There didn't seem to be anything at stake, really, so I didn't feel at all engaged with the story or characters.

The screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, a writer I really admire, and I found myself wondering if there just wasn’t enough source material. The movie was adapted from an essay that appeared in Granta, and it seems to me there wasn’t enough to fill an entire movie. Maybe it would have made a great short film. Or it’s possible that Nick Hornby would have been better-utilized if the movie was taken in a different direction. What if the protagonist was the older, restless and philandering married man? That’s a Nick Hornby character, isn’t it?

Like I said earlier, the acting was very solid throughout. Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, really embodied that feeling of being young and afraid you’re missing out on everything fun going on elsewhere (even if she became a less sympathetic character as the movie went on), and Peter Sarsgaard was surprising as David, the man Jenny dates; it looked like he put on some weight to play this part, and he looked like a pale, doughy British man. And Alfred Molina was excellent as always, playing Jenny’s father. He had some of the best lines in the movie, even though the fact that his character would stand back and let his daughter go around with a man twice her age without any real protest seemed to strain believability for me.

Oh, and Olivia Williams, also known as Rosemary Cross from Rushmore, appeared in the movie as Jenny’s teacher. Which only served to remind me that I liked Rushmore a lot more than An Education.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Musical Wednesday: Craig Finn Preaches to the Converted

Last Friday, I went to a Hold Steady show in Jermyn, PA. They’re touring all summer to promote their new album, Heaven is Whenever, which comes out in a few weeks, but for this show, they mostly stuck to older songs because you can’t have a big sing-along when no one knows the new album’s songs yet. They did probably five or six songs off of the new record in their hour-and-a-half set, including the first single, “Hurricane J” and “We Can Get Together,” which I posted the live video of a few weeks ago; they also premiered a new one, “The Sweet Part of the City,” which was in the vein of “Certain Songs” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

I was really surprised by the crowd at this show. I only know three or four Hold Steady fans, and they’re all, well, geeks. English majors who go crazy over the literary allusions and overarching themes of redemption and temptation and all of the biblical insanity in Craig Finn’s lyrics. But the fans at this show were…different. They seemed to be a bunch of bro-dudes who severely missed the point of the songs. All they hear are the whoa’s and the guitar solos, and while those are things I also love about the Hold Steady, the real heart of the band for me are the lyrics and the stories. I actually overheard two of them talking about drinking a lot of whiskey and getting all fucked up, “just like Craig Finn would,” and I had to fight the urge to turn around and berate them for completely missing the point. These songs aren’t glorifying what the characters are doing—they’re about these characters hitting bottom and slowly crawling their way back.

Craig Finn performs like a Pentecostal preacher; he moves around the stage, eyes wide like he’s delivering the gospel or predictions of damnation. He gets the audience clapping, raising their hands like they’re testifying, chanting back at him. I love it; what other working band (other than the E Street Band) gets onstage and delivers anything close to a tent revival?

The only problem with this, though, is that it felt a lot like preaching to the converted. If the goal of constant tours is partially to drum up new listeners, then how does a band that puts on a show that is really for the die-hard fans draw in new people? Maybe a newcomer to the band sees the fervor and the familiarity and can’t help but dive in; but maybe some other newcomers feel that the fan base is a closed system because the conversation between the performers and the audience is so intimate. Just something to wonder about; I mean, I am already firmly in the camp of Hold Steady fans.

There were some songs they didn’t do that I really would have liked to hear, and a few they played that aren’t among my favorites. Even though Separation Sunday is one of my favorite albums, the song “Hornets! Hornets!” just doesn’t do it for me, and that was the second-to-last song. I still haven’t heard “How a Resurrection Really Feels” live, but I bet if I keep going to their shows, they’ll eventually play it. And where’s the fun in a resurrection if you don’t have to wait for it?

And as promised, I want to let everyone know that Record Store Day is this Saturday! Go support your local record store! The Hold Steady (see, this is related) will have an extremely limited edition of the new record available at some stores. Hope I get one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fiction Mondays: How "Catching Fire" is like "The Empire Strikes Back"

First off, an announcement: I have a bunch of really exciting posts lined up this week, including a review of a Hold Steady concert (and a bit about Record Store Day) on Wednesday and a belated review of “An Education” on Friday. Be sure to check in to read these upcoming posts.

Today is also exciting, mostly because I get to really stretch out my geek brain while I talk about Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. The book is slower-paced than the first, with less emphasis on the games themselves, but I think it accomplishes what middle books in trilogies should really excel at: it continues the themes and ideas started in the first, action-packed book, and sets up the excitement to come at the end of the series.

Don’t read on if you don’t want the book spoiled. Instead, go read the first two books and come back to see if you agree with me.

While I was reading Catching Fire, I had a sudden moment of realization: the book worked so well as the middle of a trilogy because it seemed full of references to and themes from the mother of all second chapters in trilogies: The Empire Strikes Back. So instead of a full review, I’m going to look at some of the similarities.

Rebel Defeat: In Empire, the rebels get slaughtered. From the battle of Hoth through the end of the movie, it is clear that the Empire is better-funded, better-informed, and more dangerous than the rebels had originally thought. In Catching Fire, the protagonist Katniss Everdeen realizes very early in the book that the Capitol’s leaders know more than she does and are capable of destroying anyone who might stand up to them.

Training: In Empire, Luke goes to Dagobah, meets Yoda, and starts training to become the hero he needs to be. Katniss begins training once she realizes she must take part in the Hunger Games for a second time, but the training is for more than just the games: it’s to make her into the leader the revolution needs. Her trainer isn’t quite the sage figure that Yoda is; he’s a surly drunk named Haymitch who is the only prior champion from her District. But like Yoda, he knows more than he lets on.

The Reversal: When Luke leaves Dagobah, he races off to Cloud City to rescue his friends, only to find a mess that finds some very strange Allies. Not a direct parallel, but when Katniss gets to the games, she finds that the situation is more complex than she knew, and survival will require her to cooperate with someone she isn’t sure she can trust (Lando Calrissian?). But there’s an even bigger twist at the end that sets up the next book.

The Ending: Catching Fire ends with one of the two heroes, Peeta, kidnapped by the Capitol, and Katniss having her left arm tended to in the sick bay of a large vessel. Which is pretty much exactly how Empire ends: Han Solo missing, Luke being repaired, the hope of a rebel resurgence on the horizon. It’s not quite hopeful: there’s a lot in both of these stories that still needs to be done, and you can’t help but wonder at the end of Catching Fire how the residents of District 13 will react to the arrival of the rebels.

So if Catching Fire is The Empire Strikes Back, then will Mockingjay, the third book, share DNA with Return of the Jedi? I’ll bet on it, but a slightly modified sequence of events. The rebels will work with the natives of District 13 (Ewoks), Katniss will travel to the Capitol to rescue Peeta before the rebels destroy the city (Luke goes to the Death Star), and at the end, everyone will dance the yub-nub. That’s just my prediction, anyway.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Films: When the Truth is Found to Be Lies

I finally saw the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, and I have to say: right after I watched it, I hated the ending. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read ahead—I can’t talk about the movie without spoiling the ending. As disappointed as I initially was with how the movie ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the more I did, the more I understood what they were trying to accomplish with it; but more on that later.

The movie follows Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor going through a “rough patch,” which I would say is an understatement. His wife wants a divorce, someone has written letters that threaten to keep him from receiving tenure, his kids are awful, and people around him keep dying. Larry is facing a crisis, so he begins to visit with his rabbis to try to get some kind of explanation.

The first rabbi, actually a junior rabbi, suggests that Larry has forgotten the presence of God in everything around him. “Look at the parking lot,” he says, “as if you’ve never seen it before.” The second rabbi relates the story of a Jewish dentist who saw words written in Hebrew on the back of a goyim patient’s teeth and almost drove himself crazy trying to understand the meaning. The third rabbi won’t even see Larry—he’s busy contemplating the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”

The movie ends abruptly, with Larry’s doctor calling him about something they found in an x-ray early in the movie and a looming tornado. That’s it. Like I said, at first I hated it, and then the entire next day, I was thinking about how the whole movie seemed like a riff on the book of Job. And then I realized: it’s not just based on the book of Job, it’s adapted from it. The three rabbis are Job’s friends, the kids being awful and out-of-touch stand in for Job’s kids being taken from him, denying Larry tenure is the equivalent of taking away his livestock. The Coens took the book and transplanted it to the Midwest in the 1960s, and by looking at it this way the ending makes perfect sense. Toward the end of Job, God appears as a whirlwind and pretty much chastises everyone for thinking they can actually understand his reasons. Only here, we don't see the ending in which Job gets everything back.

On the whole, this was a much better movie than No Country for Old Men, which I didn't even care for after a full day of puzzling over it. The Coen brothers are really talented filmmakers, and their attention to detail in recreating a suburb in the 1960s was really impressive. I had never considered the idea of Job being a black comedy, but I think it worked. My only question--and I guess the part that I'm kind of unsatisfied about--is the opening of the movie. Does anyone have an explanation for the part with the old man and the dybbuk?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Baseball Edition

"I ain't ever had a job, I just always played baseball."
-Satchel Paige

Well, it's that time of year again. The weather is getting warmer, the afternoons longer, the Bruce Springsteen songs more relevant. That's right, my friends: baseball season. So today's post is two of my favorite songs about the sport. One of them is a classic performed by the Hold Steady, and the other is a love song for baseball sung by a Scottish band.

First up: "Piazza, New York Catcher" by Belle & Sebastian

And "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," as performed by the Hold Steady. There used to be a video of the band recording this one, but it appears to have disappeared, which is a shame because there's a great moment after the song ends when Craig Finn takes a swig of beer. It's like his way of saying, "Play Ball." Since the video is gone, I think it falls to all of us here to have a cold beer to kick off the season.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Short Novels

Even though I’m reading Ulysses, I want to keep up with my book-a-week schedule, so my solution? Short novels! Maybe even novellas, eventually. It’s a real change of pace for me, but I am really interested to see how these shorter books work. Who knows? It might even inspire me to someday write a shorter novel of my own.

Last week, I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which is about the murder of a young, idealistic man in Vietnam in the 1950s and the potential for a supposed innocent to cause untold destruction and suffering. The story follows Fowler, a jaded and cynical reporter, as he deals with the fallout of the murder of Pyle, the American of the novel’s title. But things are not so simple: Pyle stole Fowler’s girlfriend. And before he died, he had started to channel money to a “Third Force,” which he believed would defeat the communists and secure American allies in the region.

What really surprised me in this book is the certainty that Greene had, even in 1955, that America could not win in Vietnam. Over and over, he dismisses (through Fowler) the notion that the United States could come to the region and spread democracy. He believes that Pyle is foolish for believing this will be the outcome, for thinking that channeling money to a rebel force will cause anything but more bloodshed. It’s strange to read it after the war was fought, and in the middle of another war to spread democracy. I wonder what people thought of his predictions in the 1950s.

I thought the book was structured really well; it jumps really smoothly between Fowler’s memories of Pyle and the aftermath of his death, leading to the moment of overlap that you know will occur at the end. I don’t know if the characters were strong enough for me—at times they seemed more like archetypes than actual people. You had Fowler, the old man who was a little world-weary and seemed to have just given up, and the Pyle, the enthusiastic but ultimately na├»ve young man who thinks he’s going to save the world but ends up causing more trouble than he anticipated. They seemed to embody ideas about containment versus isolation during the Cold War era, and at times I found that this really detracted from the story.

This is the second Graham Greene novel I’ve read, and I definitely preferred the other one, Brighton Rock, to this one. I think the biggest difference for me was that the character in that book, while deranged and evil, was so compelling that you couldn’t help but be dragged along on his criminal escapades, and The Quiet American was the complete opposite. Without a really interesting plot, these characters would have been unbearable stand-ins for different philosophies. The plot alone moves you along, which I think is fine for certain genre novels, but there has to be something more. I mean, Greene also wrote The Third Man, which has a really engaging plot as well, but what makes that movie memorable is the mysterious character of Harry Lime and the way he is presented to the audience. He’s a compelling character within a strong genre plot, which is more memorable.

Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania....

Just a small update on my own writing: a few short stories are coming along really well, and it's looking like I'm going to be heading off to graduate school in the fall. More details to follow when I've made a final decision.