Wednesday, July 29, 2009

#20 - "Meanwhile, I Gotta Work Right Here"

Note: I have deliberately selected the live version of this song for the favorites list.

Chain Gang - Sam Cooke

Monday, July 27, 2009

Two More Book Reviews

Note: Both novels discussed herein have been adapted as films. I have not seen either.

Though he's never produced a truly great novel, Stephen King is one of most consistently entertaining contemporary American writers. I've read ten or so of his novels and have enjoyed each. The Shining is among his best. Its famous plot is quite simple - Jack Torrance a struggling writer takes a winter job as caretaker of a Colorado summer resort hotel, hoping that the ensuing seclusion will allow him to continue his recovery from alcoholism and mend relationships with his wife and precocious young son. As the winter progresses, snowstorms further isolate the family, Jack learns of the hotel's sordid past, and ghosts past guests and caretakers attempt to take possession of Jack's consciousness, and through him his son Danny, who displays precognitive ability.

What distinguishes King's novels from the legions of gruesome pap that passes as horror is that King seems to have taken the time to think about what actually frightens people. The Shining's setting provides a mounting sense of entrapment and the characters give voice to real fears: fear of disappointing one's loved ones, fear of the past, fear that one will be consumed by one's vices. King gives supernatural accents to ordinary monsters. Moreover, he gives us characters worth fearing for - the Torrances seem to be on the verge of a happy new life together, and the affection between them is genuine. At least in cinema, most horror films fail as anything but camp because they ignore these two concepts. The characters exist only to be victims for monsters that bear little resemblance to our everyday monsters. No matter how well paced and suspenseful, a Halloween or Friday the 13th film will never scare me because of the absurdity of their serial killers. The Shining, whose villainy and violence occupies a small fraction of its pages, will remain terrifying.


In "God Save the Queen", Johnny Rotten proclaimed "There is no future in England's dreaming and probably inspired P. D. James's speculative Children of Men, a novel that examines a world in which humankind suffers universal infertility. James's vision of the society that emerges is thorough and convincing. The state sponsors ceremonial mass suicides, criminals are permanently exiled, slaves are imported as England's aging population seeks to live its remaining years in quiet comfort and to cut them short if they are no longer comfortable. Perhaps the most interesting change is that citizens lose most interest in sex, so that the state must subsidize pornography to James effectively demonstrates the degree to which our lives, principles and work depend on belief in an ongoing future for humanity.

The novel's plot is unfortunately much less interesting than the setting. Oxford history professor, yes that's heavy-handed, Theodore Faron, cousin to England's dictatorial warden, encounters a group of political protestors whose name, "The Five Fishes", is among the novel's many Biblical allusions. Theodore is reluctant to join the group, but is eventually compelled when one of the members reveals that she bears the first human child in twenty-five years.

I remain ambivalent about the novel. James's intentions are admirable and clear. She is interested in the moral, political and spiritual implications of her concept, and not at all in its scientific mechanics. Her depiction of the new England that arises is thorough and thoughtful. Characters and plot are given short shrift. The members of the Five Fishes are mostly tokens: one seeks political power, one revenge, two are motivated by faith. There a few conversations concerning the existence of God that never get much beyond the "Theism is irrational/No it isn't" stage. The final developments in the plot happen too quickly to provide much suspense or development.

Besides the fullness of it world, the most admirable quality in Children of Men is its ability to suggest parallels to Biblical narrative while avoiding allegory. Broadly, the novel is an instance of a Biblical cycle in which the old humankind is done away with and a new humankind born from a single source. This is seen in the stories of Noah, Abraham and Christ. Like Christ, the newborn in the novel is not the child of the mother's husband, and there is a suggestion in the novel that its conception is supernatural. Like Christ, the newborn is hunted by an envious political authority. The imagery describing the infant's birth suggests the traditional Christian image of a stable. However, James does not attempt to create an isomorphism between the nativity story and her own, and so provides occasion for new meditation on the nativity without forcing an interpretation. It's unfortunate that James's own story is a bit lacking.


#22 - "I Went and Set the Thames on Fire"

Anywhere I Lay My Head - Tom Waits

Thursday, July 23, 2009

25 Favorite Song Countdown

For the next 25 days, the blog will count down my recently compiled list of 25 favorite popular songs of the rock era. Two basic rules informed the list: No more than one song per artist. Don't try to balance the list by decade of release, race of artist, obscurity of artist, obscurity of song relative to artist, subgenre, etc.

Like all such lists, this one is a product of the moment. The choices are fairly arbitrary, more so the rankings, but there is no question that each song on the list is very special to me. I last did this about a year and a half ago, and the lists have only 6 songs in common. Still, I look back at that list and still consider each song on it to be among my favorites. This list is much harder than favorite albums or favorite artists, simply because there are more songs than albums or artists and far more of high quality.

The second rule was liberating. I felt okay about excluding artists of great stature, even a few I consider among my favorites. I picked my true favorites over deeper cuts. Following the rule generated some interesting stats: 5 songs from the 60s, 10 from the 70s, 4 80s, 4 90s, 2 2000s. 9 by solo artists. 3 by black artists. 1 by a female artist. No hip-hop.

I've also made an editorial decision not to include any commentary on the songs as I post them. These songs are good enough that listeners should be able to appreciate them without my remarks.

Countdown begins tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bad Books

Which is worst, a bad song, a bad film or a bad book? Bad songs probably generate the most acute agony, but they last less than five minutes. Bad films last longer, but they tend not to be as persistently obnoxious and usually showcase an attractive female or two. Moreover, bad songs and bad films can become amusing in the right social setting. Bad books, however, provide hours of misery while reading, are an inherently solitary entertainment, and, given my felt obligation to finish any book of which I read more than 50 pages, nag and gnaw in between reading sessions. Bad books are the worst.

I read one this week, Jonathan Barnes's The Somnambulist, and it is surpassed only by Alice Walker's Meridian and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in the ranking of worst works read since graduating from high school. Unlike those atrocities, this novel opened with tremendous promise, presenting Edward Moon, a jaded magician in turn-of-the-century London, and his assistant, a mute, milk-binging giant called the Somnambulist, who together moonlight as detectives and investigate a series of bizarre murders. The cheeky tone set by the unidentified first person narrator effectively conveys Moon's growing ennui, and promises to relate even the most grotesque events with a bemused detachment. We meet a large and varied cast of characters, each of whom we expect to have a rich history and a crucial role to play in the unraveling of some grand conspiracy.

Sadly, it is not the conspiracy but the novel that quickly unravels, as Moon's investigations repeatedly reach dead ends and we learn nothing new about these characters. Eventually and almost by accident, Moon identifies the murdering culprits and learns that virtually every previous clue was a red herring. Most members of that fascinating cast of characters trail off with nothing interesting to do, and the final resolution rides on a series of coincidences. The titular character, whose sleeping habits are quite ordinary, remains a disposable curiosity with no significance in action or symbolism. In a story such as this, the reader expects the various threads to come together to form a precise tapestry - here the threads are cut short or haphazardly tangled.

About 4/5 of the way through the novel, we learn that the narrator is himself the head of the organization that carried out the murders, and therefore that much of what he has told us is unreliable. This is as cheap and insulting a gimmick as I can imagine, a cover for any inconsistencies that might arise and for the general formlessness of the thing. I suppose Barnes might think he's pulling some Pynchonian satire of the search for order and underlying forces, but he has none of Pynchon's good humor, and if this is his goal, comes off more as a con artist than a satirist. The Somnambulist was the Cincinnati Public Library's Book of the Month for July - I have no idea what possessed anyone to select this mess.


Thom Yorke Performs New Song

Like most acoustic solo performances, this one's instrumental part is underdeveloped, but there's promise here. The chord progression is unusual, it's by one of the most consistently brilliant artists of the past two decades, and oh my that voice.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Dragon Reborn

Completed Book 3 of Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series this week. This novel raises the question of why one would write a 15-volume saga when one is already borrowing from oneself at the 20% mark. To its credit, The Dragon Reborn moves at a remarkable clip, juggling three POVs and resolving a number of important questions from the previous installment. The Aes Sedai (female wizard) trainees hunt a rogue sect of their order, trickster Mat Cauthon is healed of his sinister enchantment by Aes Sedai and escapes their city, and a large party moves East in pursuit of Dragon Reborn Rand, who has stumbled into The Sword in the Stone.

Aside: The Once and Future King is a far better novel that The Dragon Reborn. Go read it.

By far the most compelling of these plotlines is the Aes Sedai hunt. Its cloistered danger reminded me a bit of Ecco's The Name of the Rose minus the theological instruction. Unfortunately, this line requires us to spend hundreds of pages with trainee and former village wisdom Nynaeve, perhaps the most unpleasant character I have encountered in many years of reading. Robert Jordan has been repeatedly accused of male chauvinism in his novels, of portraying all his female characters as harpies. To the contrary, I like many of the female characters in the novels so far, and would place Aes Sedai Moiraine among my three favorites, with blacksmith Perrin and traveling entertainer Thom Merrilin. Nynaeve is remarkable. She is indisputably brilliant and if her elders disagree with her on any point at all, well that clearly indicates their unfitness for their positions. She may be only a few years older than her companions, but in comparison, they are intellectual infants and require a particularly patronizing sort of nurture. Even when a fact is known to everyone in a room, it is important that she remind everyone of it. And she is easy to read - whenever she is a bit upset, she tugs her braid. The tug may be soft, the tug may be hard, but when she's pissed, nothing else will do.

In contrast, the journey of the large party to the city of Tear includes many of my favorite characters, but almost no events of interest. The characters stay at inns. They are always attacked when they stay at inns. They defeat their enemies and move to the next inn. For variety's sake, they sometimes meet attackers between inns. This leads me to point out that three books into the series, no major characters have died. I don't especially enjoy reading about deaths, but in a long series with a villain hellbent on destruction and domination, major characters need to die or all tension is lost. Mat's subplot begins well, as he gambles for enough money to escape the Aes Sedai citadel, but the devolves into the same sort of inn and attack routine. The climactic battle is a veritable clone of the final battle from the previous two novels, with Rand engaging supervillain Ba'alzamon in single combat and presumably defeating him. The catch this time is that Ba'alzamon turns out to be the second most super villain.

So, given this mostly negative review, why will I continue to read the series? To being with, these books read very quickly - better than a page per minute, and I finished this volume easily in four days. This is not a huge investment of time. Furthermore, after reading many reviews, readers who sound like me, regard novels 4-6, sometimes 7, as the high point of the series. These novels promise substantial political intrigue and extended military conflict, both of which I enjoy. Finally, I enjoy aspects of the novels, especially Jordan's mastery of local color. This volume contained a few good scenes, particularly Perrin's work in a blacksmith shop in Tear, and the resulting longing for home. This is probably the most deeply felt scene so far in novels that are usually emotionally inert. I'm told that by Book 8, the series becomes unbearable, but I expect that I'll have invested too much to let them go at that point. We shall see.

Not Worthwhile

Also finished Homer's Odyssey this week. Might type a few notes later.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and Resisting the Urge to Make a Pun on the Title

Until this week, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of a new Harry Potter film. The timing of the release could hardly be worse. It's been two years since the release of the final novel in the series, long enough for interest in the franchise to wane, but not long enough for a new film to spark feelings of nostalgia. Moreover, the films have varied substantially in quality but even at their best have not rivaled their sources' imagination and whimsy.

I thus entered the theater showing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with low expectations, and was thrilled at the film's impressive opening sequence of a Death Eater destruction of London's Millennium Bridge. Lord Voldemort's malice against the Muggle world, public despair and dishonest governmental attempts to combat this despair are crucial to the sixth Harry Potter novel, and this sequence promised substantial treatment of these themes. A delightful visit to Fred and George Weasleys' joke shop, and Harry's now regular arrival at the Weasley home rounded out a strong opening.

At the Weasley home, Harry is reunited with his great friends Ron and Hermione, and something truly remarkable happens. Ron makes a joke, the three of them laugh, and the laughter seems natural. It has taken six films, but the actors have finally eased into their roles and give off a real sense of camaraderie. The Harry Potter novels are fantasy novels, but they are also boarding school novels, full of classes, homework, punishments, infatuations and rivalries. The novels owe much of their charm to the conflict between Harry's desire to lead any ordinary schoolboy's life, and his obligation to fight Voldemort. To this point, the films have neglected the former aspect, and here is the sixth film's greatest success. It delves into the trials of late-teenage romance, but with a light comic touch, and these scenes remind us that for the magnitude of his destiny, Harry is still an ordinary boy. This film also exceeds earlier installments in its lite-gothic visual style and it subtler use of special effects.

Sadly, the film's running time is its great demise. Despite the page count, this is not a long novel, but it is heavily plotted, and the film is simply not long enough to accommodate many important plot points. Most importantly, the search to uncover the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, crucial bits of Lord Voldemort's history, and the climactic battle at Hogwarts are absent, along with many other lesser incidents. As such, the film borders on incoherent. Those familiar with the novels can fill in the gaps on their own, but I can't imagine someone who had not read the novel making any sense of the proceedings.

There remains the problem of the film's casting. The three teenage leads have displayed manifold improvement over the course of the series, newcomer Jim Broadbent is brilliant as socialite potions teacher Horace Slughorn, and Helena Bonham Carter's few moments on screen are deliciously lurid. Robbie Coltrane continues to criminally underplay Hagrid, and Alan Rickman's Snape is still too cold, showing none of the calculating sadism of the novel. There is the small problem of Ginny Weasley. She's supposed to be hot. She's plain as can be. There is the much greater problem of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, who is gentle, grandfatherly and boring. He is a fundamentally different character from the Dumbledore of the novels, a wizard eccentric and brilliant, deeply loving but also a bit conceited. His death is remarkably lacking in impact, due in part to the decision to cut the final scene of the novel, his funeral.

Sadly, the poor plotting and misinterpretations of the actors diminished what is one many stylistic points the best film in the Harry Potter series. Most fans have probably already seen it, but I recommend against it for anyone who has not read the novels.

Not Worthwhile

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Listen Carefully

Finished Season 1 of HBO's recently completed series The Wire this week. Anyone who has heard of the show has probably also heard critical assessments, which are usually along the lines of "Greatest Achievement in the History of Television". With four seasons left to watch (hooray!), I'm already sympathetic to these claims, though I think that The Sopranos may just edge it out. However, I've seen only one season of that program as well. The two primary aspects of The Wire's greatness are aesthetic and thematic.

The Wire diverges from traditional television narrative format in its episode divisions. The show's first season tells a single story - the Baltimore City Police Department's effort to bring down an enormous drug trafficking operation led by elusive kingpin Avon Barksdale. The season plays out as if a single script, with episode divisions marked every hour. Individual episodes may lack a beginning, middle and end, though the season as whole follows traditional narrative form, so that the show is much like a serialized novel. This allows for far greater plot complexity and more extensive exploration of minor characters than is typical in television or film. Time has always been a severe limitation of film as an art medium, in the two-and-a-half hour time limit is rarely passed, and I think that the Wire's approach is a vital step in the maturation of the artform.

Of course, narrative innovations are worthless if the story isn't worth telling, and The Wire tells a damn good story. It is the story of a police investigation, with wiretaps, chases, arrests, interrogations, and prosecution. It is the story of criminals undermining that organization, with drug sales, profits, cover-ups, beatings, deception and murders. But most importantly, it is the story of a city, and of the people who comprise it, depicting their duties, loyalties, virtues, vices, passions and betrayals. The show dedicates substantial time to both police and criminals, so that we come to hate and to pity characters on both sides of the law. We love and admire Kima Greggs, the most talented and capable detectives on the Baltimore police force and to revile deputy ops Ervin Burrell, who relentlessly pursues public standing over good policing. Similarly, we sympathize with teenage dealer Wallace, the son of an alcoholic mother, who tutors and cares for his siblings and cousins, and hate bloodthirsty Avon Barksdale and his calculating second-in-command Stringer Bell. About other characters we are more ambivalent. Protagonist Jimmy McNulty is a fine homicide detective with a feisty disregard for the foolish regulations, but also intellectually vain and a poor father. Mid-level dealer D'Angelo Barksdale seems capable of both brutality and kindness, and unwillingly trapped in his lifestyle. The show treats its finely acted characters with a rare compassion.

Critics have often praised the show's realism. I do not know if it is realistic or not as I have never lived in West Baltimore. The show does avoid television cliches, is reluctant to break its somber tone except with natural humor, and includes frequent and often breathtaking vulgarity. I would estimate that the show contains about two "f-words" per minute, and characters create highly original compound swear words. The show's use of music is also notable; excepting its theme music, only music playing within locations on the show is heard.

I argue that The Wire is a socially conservative show. The social conservatism of the moment seems to be an unhealthy preoccupation with other people's sexual behavior. The Wire is not socially conservative in this sense. There is a much deeper socially conservatism that says that the individual is basically bad, and that social structures and institutions are necessary to make the individual good or to channel the individual's bad impulses to a good end. This is The Wire's social conservatism. While the show goes to great lengths to portray police corruption and brutality, it shows the work of the police to be important and positive on the whole. Moreover, its highly flawed characters become better as a result of their participation in the institution. While many of the criminals are sympathetic, their work is shown to have horrific consequences, for themselves and for others. The show never suggests that the criminals are good people doing bad things, because it refuses to label characters as good or bad - morality instead consists in action. There is a slight libertarian undercurrent as well - the suggestion that the legalization of drugs would reduce crime, but it also depicts the terrible consequences of drug use. In fact, I have hardly come to the end of thinking about the show, and would guess that it is complex enough that people of many political persuasions would read their own philosophies into it. On the whole, I cannot give the show higher recommendation.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

"I'm Not a Discharge! I'm Not a Loss in Protein!"

I feel like drumming up some controversy, so here a my favorite Sex Pistols song, a vulgarity-drenched diatribe against abortion.

Bodies (Album Version) - Sex Pistols

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"I Say to Myself, 'I'm Such a Lucky Guy'"

I prefer the Stones version on Some Girls to the Temptations original, and this live version to that one. Frankly, the way the Stones have aged musically is an endorsement for cigarettes, heroin and loose women.

Just My Imagination - The Rolling Stones