Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction Mondays: American Gods

I recently finished the first book on my summer reading list, Neil Gaiman's epic American Gods.  And when I say "epic," I mean it: the story involves a man tangling with gods, going to the afterlife, and making a long journey to several "sacred" places in America.  I loved this book for its story, its characters and the weird sense of humor Gaiman brings to creating characters out of larger-than-life beings.   He's an author who really creates a universe with his writing, and it's a universe I like to visit.

The novel revolves around Shadow, who is recruited by a man named Wednesday to protect him while he's on a mysterious mission.  That mission turns out to be recruiting other gods, from every imaginable pantheon, to take a stand against the "new gods" who are taking root in America.  There's a war coming, Wednesday tells Shadow, between the gods the immigrants brought over and the new gods, like the Internet and Media.  They travel to recruit Easter, Anansi, Czernobog and a large contingent of obscure and half-forgotten gods and legends.  There's a brief meeting with Wisakedjac, the Algonquin trickster-god, and Johnny Appleseed.  With every god introduced, I was more and more impressed with the breadth of research that must have gone into this novel, the amount of knowledge just barely hinted at throughout the story.

One of my favorite moments in the book seems like something of an easter egg, there specifically for readers of Gaiman's Sandman series.  Shadow walks by a seemingly-homeless woman with multi-colored hair and a dog, and he gives her a dollar.  She looks confused by the money.  She's Delirium, one of Gaiman's "Endless," and the dog is the guardian she inherited from her brother, Destruction.  I love a book where an author's other stories can wander in without fanfare or distraction from the plot, and Delirium's presence almost seemed like a reminder that the story of the Endless went on, even if the comics ended.

Gaiman also handles his plots really well in this novel: there's an extended subplot involving an idyllic town and disappearing children, and it reminded me very much of Stephen King.  I won't spoil anything by talking about it, but the way it wraps up was one of my favorite twists in this very twisty book.  And it of course has everything to do with the story of the gods that makes up the main story.

There is a theme, repeated through the book, that "this is a bad land for gods," and I think one of the ideas behind this book is that it's not necessarily true.  For the gods that populate the novel, the greatest fear is being forgotten, and I think this book is an exercise in reminding readers that they still exist somewhere, and there is a wealth of information out there keeping them alive.  Maybe they're not actively worshiped anymore, but they are not forgotten.  America might be fickle, and might not know where to put our faith at times, but there is a curiosity and an imagination that might mean these gods can continue to live among us. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Films: City Island

The theater I work for recently started showing City Island, a new comedy starring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, and Emily Mortimer (also Alan Arkin).  It's a hit, as far as small, limited-release independent films go, and despite the very small ad campaign--I've seen one commercial and one print ad--people are coming from miles away to see it based on recommendations from friends and family.  I saw it a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed it; it's a short, light comedy with a lot of exaggerated yelling between family members and Andy Garcia playing a type that I don't think he gets to play much, the working-class family man.  In its first weekend here, it made more money on Saturday night than "Sex and the City 2." 

The plot revolves around a corrections officer who is secretly taking an acting class; he tells his wife that he goes to a poker game every week, and she thinks he's having an affair.  He brings home a prisoner for a month as part of an acting exercise, to tell your deepest secret.  The prisoner is his son, who he has never met.  Things start to escalate towards the ridiculous as the film progresses, and the end of the movie culminates in all of the plot points coming together right as Garcia's character lands his first acting gig, in a Scorcese film. 

It's just over an hour and a half long, and I think the script is incredibly efficient at fitting a lot into this running time.  At times it borders on too much, and I think I could have done without the character of Andy Garcia's youngest son (not the prisoner) and it would not have changed the movie all that much.  The kid himself is really annoying, and his plot has no relation to the rest of the narrative.  It's almost like the director realized this, too, because during the climactic scene he is set apart from the action and doesn't participate.  The rest of the plots wrap up in a scene that occurs in the family's house on City Island and just outside of it, which is the funniest point in the movie. 

Because it's a small movie, it's going to be on DVD in August, and for some reason I find that a little disappointing.  It just seems too soon, and I think that this could have been one of those small movies that continues to grow its audience over a longer run.  If a theater near you has it, go check it out while it's still there. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Sufjan and the National!

After reading this interview, I was a little worried about Sufjan Stevens' future.  It seems like he was going through a bit of a crisis, in which expectations are so high after you've released a masterpiece that it scares you out of doing anything else (see also: Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger).  I thought maybe he'd vanish, Jeff Mangum style, and become one of those legends who plays at someone else's show every six years or so.  Maybe his BQE project was the equivalent of Mangum's field recordings of a Romanian circus.

For me, Illinois was one of those records that I wanted to live inside of, with songs that haunted me long after I'd heard them.  The song Chicago was so definitive, so descriptive of my understanding of faith in America, that it was almost a hymn.  It stirs me the way Leaves of Grass does, or the way the Band's music does.  And music that has that effect on a lot of people can terrify its creator--so I can understand why Sufjan has acted like something of a hermit for the past few years.  But that interview, like I said, made me worry that he was going to go away.

But there's hope yet!  Sufjan is recording a new album, and he's working with the National!  There's not much more to say yet, but the fact that it's being recorded makes me happy.  And maybe since the National started out in Ohio, that state will be Sufjan's next subject.  Even if it's not an album inspired by one of the states, I am excited to see what Stevens will produce next.   

Monday, June 14, 2010

(Non) Fiction Mondays: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don't know about runners; long-distance runners, I mean.  I know there's a British "kitchen sink" movie called the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and I've known the occasional marathoner, but as a group, I have to admit that I'm wary of them.  Maybe it's because the ones in my neighborhood are so unpleasant, acting like the sidewalk was specifically made for them and they're just temporarily allowing you to walk there (and god forbid you walk a dog there).  So it was with this bias that I started reading Haruki Murakami's memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

I guess the book is almost more of an essay collection, Murakami's thoughts as he trained for the New York City Marathon.  But I can see where calling it a memoir is accurate: Murakami's life as a runner began with his life as a writer, and so this book acts as an examination of where and how those aspects of his life intertwine and affect one another.  It contains my favorite Murakami legend, the one about how he became a writer: he saw a batter hit a home run and suddenly knew he could write a novel, so he did. 

For a writer who tends to keep his history and personal life kind of guarded, these glimpses into Murakami becoming a writer were really interesting for me.  I mean, there is the Murakami I know from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, but on a level of where he comes from and what aspects of his life led to his becoming a writer, he can be kind of a mystery.  Here, he talks about owning a jazz club, the way his life was before he became a novelist.  In his non-fiction, you can kind of see which parts of him have entered into characters and how his mind works.

I liked this book for the thoughts on writing much more than the thoughts on running, and I can see why Murakami chose to use one as a metaphor for the other.  Writing is a solitary activity that requires more endurance than talent: it's a frustrating occupation, and you need to practice every day if you don't want to burn out quickly.  I agree with him when he says there are writing muscles, that you can work to strengthen these day after day.

I'm still on the fence about runners; after all, I didn't expect Murakami to change my mind about the entire sport.  But I do feel that this book gave me a deeper look at Murakami the runner, and Murakami the writer, who were the same person all along.  And it made me want to start an exercise regimen, because I could use that kind of structure and working out daily would be good for my overall health.

But it won't be running.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Films: RIP Dennis Hopper

I meant to post this last week, so it's not exactly timely, but this video, from the DVD quarterly Wholphin, is how I'd like to remember Dennis Hopper. Sure, Easy Rider is an American classic and Apocalypse Now is a work of art...but this video, filmed in 1983, is Dennis Hopper strapping himself to the "Russian Suicide Chair" and igniting it. Here's a description by Hopper himself.

"You sit inside a circle of 20 sticks of dynamite. The explosion creates a vacuum, like the eye of a hurricane, inside. Dynamite won't blow in on itself. But if three in a row don't go off, you'll be sucked out and killed. Also, you can't raise your head above a certain level or it will be blown off. I asked a stunt daredevil named Ollie Anderson to set up my experience. I got into the middle and hoped like hell it worked. I had to hold my ears. I felt a little disoriented afterwards, but besides that I felt fine. I was alive."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Ugly Casanova

Today I'm sending you over to Oh Young Lions, where Corey Beasley has a review of the new Ugly Casanova song.  You can also hear the song there; if you haven't heard Ugly Casanova, they're a side-project of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, and to borrow from Mr. Beasley:

"This is Brock living his toothless woodsman dream, something from which he usually restrains himself in Modest Mouse, at least slightly."
If that doesn't get you over there to hear the song, I just don't know what will.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Summer Reading

I'm about two hundred pages into Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which is kind of an ideal summer book: epic, but not too heavy, it's a road trip into an America where the old gods are just trying to scrape by in the face of new forms of worship.

I spent last week trying to figure out what I'm reading this summer, and this book has sort of kicked off the season for me. So today, I present my summer reading list (constantly under construction). One quick note: a lot of these are paperbacks, because sometimes a hardcover is just too much to lug around in the summer.

1. Neil Gaiman, American Gods
2. Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil
3. A.M. Holmes, This Book will Save Your Life
4. Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City
5. Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children
6. Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood

So that's a pretty good list, I think. What else should be on there? Leave recommendations if you'd like!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Films: Why Not a Black Spider-Man?

I saw something on Twitter this week about the campaign for Donald Glover (Troy on NBC's "Community") to play Spider-Man, and I have to say: I really hope he gets to audition. The whole discussion started out with this post on io9, and ignoring the Twitter and Facebook campaign for a minute, I think the article raises some great points about adaptation and long-running characters shifting to reflect their eras and cultural values.

I mean, the last forty years in comic books is a story of reinvention and revision to remain relevant about society, from the X-Men commenting on racial prejudice to the movie The Dark Knight being, at its core, about terrorism and the potential for a "protector" to overstep boundaries in pursuit of justice. There have been plot lines in comics dealing with AIDS, with civil liberties. And those are just the superhero comics.

The version of the Green Lantern on the television show "Justice League of America" is black; the part of Kingpin, depicted in the comics as a fat white guy, was played by Michael Clarke Duncan in the movie Daredevil. And then there's Nick Fury, a character played by Samuel L. Jackson in the recent Iron Man movies. He isn't an African-American character in the comic books, but he is a badass, and that's Samuel L. Jackson's brand. The casting is determined by what would best represent the character's personality, rather than hewing too close to what's on the page.

So what I'm saying is, this switch would not be unprecedented, and it might actually be a way to enliven the franchise. And honestly, I think Donald Glover would emphasize the characteristics that make the Peter Parker of the comics so memorable: funny, self-depreciating, trying to navigate both real life and the powers that he has been given. And more than anything, I think these aspects of the character (yes, along with the spider powers) are what make him an enduring and popular hero several decades after his creation, and they define him much more than his race.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: High Violet

If you haven't heard the National's new album, High Violet, yet, you need to find it and listen to it. I would tell you exactly why, but it's hard to say exactly. It's just a beautiful album, with some of the smartest songs the band has ever recorded.

It's kind of melancholy, with song titles like "Sorrow" and "Afraid of Everyone," but at the same time it's an album you can listen to over and over without getting sick of. I think it might be because of lead singer Matt Berninger's voice--it's this really sonorous bass that takes lyrics like "I gave my heart to the Army, the only sentimental thing I could think of," and seems to stretch out every vowel even as the line clips past. And the emotions they're expressing seem real, and the band seems like a serious rock band rather than a trendy pop act that will disappear within a few months.

"I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe," is one of my favorite lyrics on the album, from one of my favorite songs, "Bloodbuzz Ohio." There's a recurring use of water imagery on the album, and in lines like this one, it seems that the whole record is about trying not to sink. From the first track, "Terrible Love," there's water as a barrier, as a comfort, as a threat, and I love that thematic line that goes through most of the songs.

This is easily one of my favorite albums of the year, and it's really interesting to see the band mature with each album. I hope they keep improving with every record. "High Violet" is available as an mp3 on Amazon for only $5.99, and on vinyl.